“My son, my only child, turned out to be a nobody,” Zina Banks reveals. “He’s out in California, and he’s 33 years old, trying to be a rapper, which I’ve told him ever since he was 15, that ‘you don’t have it!’ Rapping about all these bitches and witches… you know. I said, ‘If you’re going to rap, rap about me. How your mother worked and struggled.’”
Zina Banks is nobody. She is a poor, uneducated woman of color suffering from years of sexual abuse. Ms. Banks is an example of what happens to the working-class black woman, whom no one listens to or wants to know about. “The future of feminism,” Instagram poet Cleo Wade writes, “is only as powerful as the future of anti-racism.” Let us not forget that the hashtag #MeToo was coined over a decade ago as part of a campaign to empower black, sexually abused women through empathy. Social change for women has gained astronomical momentum since the #MeToo moment started. Women like Ms. Banks, however, exist outside the media’s spotlight and have never been part of the discussion. Without empathy and the patience to sit down and listen to their stories, and without questioning who we are excluding and what we can do so that these women, too, can live a life without fear and shame, no real progress will be made. Real progress requires including our nation’s weakest members –women like Ms. Banks.
On a Friday, I met with Zina Banks in the Bronx, one of New York’s poorest boroughs, and invited her to brunch at a café near the shelter where she lives. She is a petite woman in her late 50s, with a salt-and-pepper afro, dressed in a royal blue hoodie too big for her. For about 15 months she has been living in the shelter with the teenage boy she is raising. Becoming homeless, she says, was a choice she made after having lived in the same place for over 20 years. One of her sons was shot, and after three months in the intensive care unit the medical bills caused her to fall behind in rent. She finally moved into a homeless shelter.
Ms. Banks: I have a cold [blows her nose]. Sorry.
Betinna: That’s alright. Is it okay with you if I record our conversation?
Ms. Banks: No problem. I’m with you here.
Betinna: Let me hear some more about your son.
Ms. Banks: I call him son, he calls me mom. He knows his biological mom. I don’t talk him against her, but … right now he’s struggling. He’s struggling hard. I can deal with it because I’m over 50. I’ve been through the storm and now I’m coming in on a wave, you know. By the grace of God, I’m here. He was a good child, never missed a day of school. He was blessed to have me in his life. I feel like I was more blessed to have him ‘cause he was the second child I was supposed to have but I didn’t, you know, ‘cause I had an abortion at the age of 14. That’s the beauty of my life; I’ve been through a lot, but I never turned to drugs or prostitution. I always strived to do good in life. I’ve been working since I was 15 and I retired at 39. That’s when I was first told that I was ill. I was doing what I was doing to survive and trying to prove to the whites that blacks are better than what they portray us to be. There wasn’t a job in New York State that I didn’t have.
Waitress: Would you like something to drink?
Betinna: I’d like some coffee, thanks.
Ms. Banks: I’d like some coffee, too. White.
Waitress: Okay. There’s milk and sugar there.
Betinna: Thank you.
Ms. Banks: I had a lot of losses and a lot of gains, and I’d still say that I’m standing. A lot of people, they use their situation in life to say, “Oh, I did this because this happened to me.” I never, you know, I could have been an abuser, but I turned out to be a protector instead. That’s why I took that child from his mother, trying to keep him safe from the sexual abuse. I try to tell him to talk to somebody, you know, a psychiatrist [starts to cry]. I think he won’t disclose what happened because it took me until I was 25 to talk about my abuse and everything. The kid got shot twice and he had surgery, but the surgery, it did more damage ‘cause he started blowing up like a balloon. I don’t know what was going on ‘cause I was totally high, out of my mind. I just sat there with my bible and prayed for his life. I had never questioned God. All I could say is, “God, he’s in your hands.” He was 15 and I already had a previous child that I went through this gun thing with in the school right here. He brought a gun to school, thinking it was a joke, but he could have paralyzed a kid, you know. But they let him walk ‘cause I was a working mother. I was doing everything right, but the kid is coming out, you know, I don’t get it.
Betinna: Tell me a little more about the shooting. How did it happen?
Ms. Banks: It happened on the same day that Whitney Houston got buried. It was the 18th. I was suffering from depression because of my mom, and then Whitney Houston, which is a great loss, you know. I was dealing with that, and then the kid came into the shower, and he asked me if he could go back out. I said, “Yeah, go ahead,” and he asked me for a dollar. I gave him the dollar so he could go to the Chinese restaurant up the hill. We’re at the bottom of that hill and that’s where the shooting is taking place. There was a gun shootout and he got hit twice. He ran into a building where he was discovered as he lay there bleeding to death. They said the bullet was in his main arteries and his intestines. I mean, he went through trauma. This kid, I had invested in him, you know, since he was eight years old. He always had to be color guard, so I had to borrow to give him his shoes and everything. I’m like, “Come on” – his name is Keith, but I call him Juan – “ask somebody else to be color guard and carry the flag,” you know. He went with me to work every day. I took him from his mother ‘cause she was leaving him in the house and giving him no food. I called ACS [Administration for Children’s Services]. They made me give him back, so he went back and forth till I got temporary custody. They’d say, “Give him back to the mom,” so I had to give her child back [laughs]. But that same day, at ten o’clock in the evening, I had a detective knocking on my door, saying, “Miss Teresa has been arrested for possession of crack.” Juan was six months at the time. She had not only locked him up in that one bedroom, but she had a padlock on the door. The only person who could get in there was the fire department, so if a fire or something had broken out, we had no access to get in that room. So, after five years of battling with her in court, I gained custody. The court system took too long, I started losing myself, ‘cause here I am, working seven days a week, trying to keep her child safe and taking him with me to work, which my boss allows, up until two days before. He’s like, “Whose child is that?” I gave him the keys and told him, “Listen, you take this and you shove it up your ass. I’m not gonna let you talk to me like that in front of my child.” And that hurt ‘cause then I had to give up my kids on the West Side that I’d been driving for four years, you know, that’s how long I’d been working with him. And for those four years, that boy, he went with me to work every day. I can’t get him out of the bed now, but I had trained him to get up at 4:30 in the morning ‘cause we were outta the house by 5:30, driving the school bus. Now he goes to school at 10 o’clock and some days he ain’t going at all, you know. He’s got diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and now he’s in a situation where he’s about to lose his SSI [Supplemental Security Income]. I’m trying to tell him, he needs to fight for this, “you’re entitled,” and I can’t believe they would even cut him off ‘cause he’s got a learning disability. He’s been in ninth grade for four years, you know, ‘cause he’s been through eight surgeries. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and it’s like society is holding it against him. After he got shot, he was still open – the intestines and everything were not put back together – and he had a colostomy bag. The lady who got his two sisters in foster care let him spend every Thanksgiving with his sisters. I’m putting him in a cab, and the next day I’m getting a phone call that he is locked up. I had allowed him to go out like that, you know, everyone knows how those polices are, they’re not easy. I remember telling him, “You stop and raise your shirt. Ask for permission to raise your shirt, so they can see that they can’t be throwing you down or anything like that.” And now I’m trying to be patient and gentle with him, but he is making me the enemy and I’m not the enemy. He had dropped outta school, but he went back to school ‘cause I said, “If you ain’t going to school, you ain’t staying here with me.” He doesn’t want me to go to his school. I don’t know if he’s ashamed of my appearance because I’m not like all the other moms who wanna put on nails and hair. I don’t do that, that’s not me. I’m a truck driver [laughs]. You know, I’m tired, I’m so tired. It’s too much of a struggle that I’m going through and you just end up in the same place and with nothing. And I’m trying. A lot of parents don’t give a damn about their kids.
Waitress: Are you ready to order?
Betinna: Yes, I think I’ll have a ham and cheese omelet.
Ms. Banks: I’m not really a big eater and I don’t want to spend money, you know.
Betinna: No, no, I’m paying.
Ms. Banks: But I don’t want to spend your money, honey.
Betinna: You should get exactly what you want.
Ms. Banks: I don’t want anything, I’m wonderful.
Waitress: You sure? I could bring you a salad?
Betinna: You should have something. I insist.
Ms. Banks: Okay. I take a salad. A regular salad.
Waitress: Do you want the romaine salad, the mixed salad, the iceberg lettuce, the…
Ms. Banks: What? All that green, salad is salad.
Waitress: Okay. What kind of meat would you like?
Ms. Banks: Tuna.
Ms. Banks: Yeah, that’s what we call a tuna salad. But I don’t want nothing raw.
Betinna: You told me earlier that you have two sons.
Ms. Banks: Yeah, well, my biological son is kinda retarded, that’s what I’m saying. There’s a lot of mental things in my family where people, they don’t see it or acknowledge it. Even my sister, I tell her that her kid has got ADHD, but she denies it. It’s her baby. She had him after she was 40 [laughs]. You’re taking a chance, you know. Yes. Do you have kids? Don’t wait too long [laughs]. Those kids come out special. They’ll be on Ritalin. Both my kids did bad things. I don’t understand. My son, my only child, turned out to be a nobody. He’s out in California, and he’s 33 years old, trying to be a rapper, which I’ve told him ever since he was 15, that “you don’t have it!” Rapping about all these bitches and witches and … you know. I said, “If you’re going to rap, rap about me. How your mother worked and struggled. Rap about something that’s going on.” But they wanna call the girls sluts – that’s not rapping. His life should have been much different. He’s not one to say, “Oh, my mom was a crackhead and that’s why I turned out the way I did.” I can say my mom was an alcoholic and I was abused. I became an alcoholic. I started to drink. It’s just Budweiser, but I love my Budweiser, you know, I wake up and go to bed with a beer.
Betinna: What about your biological son’s father, did you…
Ms. Banks: No, no, I’ve been with one man for 30 years. His name was Willy Stanley and he’s 72 years old. I met him when I was 18 and he was 42. He’s not the father of any of my kids, but he raised both. My son’s father, who was in the Marines at the time, when I told him that I was pregnant, this man told me it wasn’t his, ‘cause, you know, back in those days we were teenagers. I’d be with him this weekend and then break up and be with somebody else. It wasn’t that simple. It was like two months and I’d call him my boyfriend, but he wouldn’t call me his girlfriend, you know. And I’ve come to find out that he raped my cousin. I don’t know how true it is.
Betinna: And what about the relationship with your own father, did he leave your mother when you were young?
Ms. Banks: My father, he passed before my mom. None of them are living. My mother died at 68, in 2010. Eight years now. My dad never owned me until I was 18 years old with child. That’s when he decided to claim me. And I look just like the man. But I always loved him. He was in jail. Crackhead. I tried really hard not to become like them. And my grandmother, bless her soul, always told me, “Zina worked,” she said, “you work and if anything happens to you, you’re gonna get a check for the rest of your life.” But I had to go through a lot to get that check. My grandmother, she worked but she never was entitled to Social Security ‘cause she always worked off the books, you know. I got an inheritance of 35 dollars and 57 cents [laughs]. It’s a strange thing with my mom, she always pushed me aside. She never raised me [starts crying]. I’m sorry.
Betinna: That’s alright. These things are hard to talk about.
Ms. Banks: But she was my mom, and I didn’t get the chance to say how I feel before she died. She didn’t see my pain, she didn’t see my struggle. My heart has been broken so many times. When I was at the hospital four months ago [for heart surgery], I feel like I was given a new heart. I just stayed isolated and I said to myself, “I’m going to protect my heart, and I’m not going to get angry.” I don’t wanna be disappointed no more in life. No one ever said, “You did good.” I’m no Michelle Obama or nothing like that, but I could have turned out to be as bad as everybody else. But I chose not to become a product of my environment, you know. I wasn’t no fly girl, these girls who were doing cocaine. I never touched none of it ‘cause I was scared if I get caught, my ass is gonna get whipped real good, so it kept me from doing it. That’s why whipping your kids ain’t bad – it keeps them from doing bad, lets them think twice.
Betinna: All this pain, do you do anything to make it go away?
Ms. Banks: I smoke weed ‘cause it keeps me knocked out, so that I don’t have to feel. That’s why I drink the beers, smoke the marihuana – it keeps me from feeling lonely. I am so lonely [starts crying again]. I don’t have anybody. Music used to give me comfort, but then someone stole my music, all these oldies. It was like a stab in my heart, you know. I just never got back into it. I try, I turn on my radio, but I can’t listen to it. Something like this [refers to the song playing], it makes me think of my mom.
Betinna: Tell me about your mom.
Ms. Banks: I didn’t go to her funeral. She cherished all material things in life and looked down on people, but at the end of the day, when she died, she died with nothing. Her man, that’s who killed her. I wanted to kill him. I’d sit down and I’d contemplate, how could I kill this man, you know. But it won’t give me no comfort, I know it won’t, and that’s what keeps me from doing it. My mother wasn’t a good mother to me ‘cause she neglected me. She was the reason why I got molested ‘cause she knew, you know, her boyfriends. My grandmother is so right, a man has no right or reasons to be washing a female at any age, ‘cause you don’t know what’s up here [taps a finger on her forehead]. I don’t trust no man. So, to protect my mens in my household and to protect the womens, I slept on the floor with my female cousins to make sure that nobody got touched or even accused, ‘cause some kids do lie. I had this poor young man commit suicide just because of the accusations, which weren’t true, you know. The lies are easy to tell.
Betinna: Did you ever tell a lie?
Ms. Banks: I’ve said a similar lie, but I’ve asked God to forgive me. When I was in public school, I was playing with these older girls and they put me up to it. They said this man was jerking off, and that we should call the cops. We said I was the one he tried to rape. We made up the story. The detectives, they went along with the lie ‘cause they said I bit the man and I didn’t have no contact with that man. I had just picked out a car, license plates, you know, and called the police and made the lie. They took him to court and everything. I believe this man, he got time.
Betinna: You said that you asked God to forgive you. Have you always believed in God?
Ms. Banks: A lot of us have been molested by uncles. It’s no new story, but I would like people to know that after all that you’ve been through, there’s still a God. It might not be what you’d like it to be but you can be content. People say, “What are you so cheerful about?” I say, “I can’t cry no more.” I wanted to break down in front of God but when I do, he’s wrapping his arms around me, you know, letting me know that “I see you and I hear you and I know your pain.” God is within me. The church is where I stand, and I talk to my God even when my baby got shot. I never questioned, I never doubted. Some people say, “Oh God, why?” Or they turn against God. I said, “God just saved me.” I grew up in church. My grandmother and me, we were in church seven days a week, day in day out, and then later when I was going through a lot in life, I seeked out different churches, trying to find me a church home, you know. But it didn’t work out, and then I became a bus driver and I stopped going to church because I was in training. But I had joined the church and they called, wondering what happened to me, so I went back. I had a Toyota Camry and I had just enough money for gas to make it to 124th Street on Morningside and back to 138th Street in the Bronx. I had two dollars in my pockets and I would buy me a cup of coffee and give that other dollar to the church. Nobody ever questioned, “Why is that young girl coming in here,” you know, but people go to church for a reason, and I went there to ask for forgiveness.
Betinna: So, your grandmother was the one who took you to church. Was she also the one taking care of you when you were a child?
Ms. Banks: Yes, she took me from my mother, you know, brought me to New York from Virginia. ‘Cause I was getting raped from the age of six to the age of eight by my mother’s boyfriend. And I had stated having my period at the age of ten, gettin’ breasts and stuff. My father’s mother, she didn’t want me ‘cause I had asked her, “Can I come live with you?” She didn’t take me. Nobody was paying attention to me. The thing that hurts the most is that my mother caught me. She caught the man in the bed with me.
Betinna: Her boyfriend?
Ms. Banks: Her boyfriend. And she did nothing. My grandmother finally moved me to Brooklyn, and my mother had the nerve to move with the man that did all this to me across the street from my grandmother. This is in the 80s. My sisters, they were trying to convince me, ‘cause they know what he did to me, to get money out of him, and I say, “No. I don’t want anything from this man.” This is how greedy they are. And that’s when I hit the jackpot, and then suddenly I’m rich. Literally. It just turned my world really upside-down, ‘cause I was just happy going to work every day. I was driving the school bus and I had it all decorated. I was calling it the magic school bus [laughs]. I’d pull up and the kids, they just loved to see me all dressed up and with hula hoops, you know. I think every child should have the childhood that I never had, so I would do stuff like that. I’d get permission to take them to the Jewish candy store down on 72nd and Broadway, you know. I just gave to whoever. Someone asked me for 50 cents, I’d give them 50 dollars. Someone asked me for a dollar, I’d give them a hundred dollars. I just gave it all away ‘cause it didn’t bring me happiness, you know, it had people fighting and stealing. I’d love to go back to work, but I can’t, you know, ‘cause they gave me permanent disability. I think about that airplane pilot [the Germanwings pilot who purposely crashed the plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board], who I believe was suffering from some kind of mental illness or depression. And I know I have issues ‘cause there have been times where I have been driving, and I just wanted to take the vehicle and drive off the damn mountain, you know. That’s why I’m saying, it’s not good that I’m going back to work. There have been times where I thought about running people over.
Betinna: That pilot, maybe he had a depression, I don’t know, but he didn’t just kill himself…
Ms. Banks: He killed everybody! I know who I wanna hurt.
Betinna: You want to hurt the people who hurt you?
Ms. Banks: Yeah, exactly. Those are the people that I want to physically hurt. I don’t want to hurt innocent people because they can be angels, you know. They should have had that pilot locked up, spend some time at the mental ward. Yeah, they locked me up for six hours and that was too long [laughs].
Betinna: What happened?
Ms. Banks: I was acting out, hurting people, and the security guard said, “Ms. Banks, if you don’t calm down,” and I don’t like medication, “they’re going to inject you with something and you’re going to be here for the next 72 hours.” Hell no [laughs]. ‘Cause I had that little boy, you know. I can’t spend 72 hours here.
Betinna: Why did you end up there to begin with?
Ms. Banks: I wanted to kill my sister. And then I was applying for public assistance and they just don’t wanna support you. So, I threatened the judge. I said, “They denied me three times; deny me one more time and I’m gonna drive the school bus, you know.” I told him, “You want me driving your kids to school?” [laughs]. I was the nut behind the wheel, a time bomb ticking. I hate to threaten the judge, but you have no choice. You don’t wanna be left out with no income, walking the streets, you know. Society doesn’t wanna hear me, but I made them hear me.
Betinna: Did you go to the police to file a report, or to somehow document the abuse you talked about earlier?
Ms. Banks: I didn’tt really open up. I mean, all of my family members knew what was going on, and it happened within the family. My mother’s brother, after my grandmother took me, he did it as well. I just told his daughter and his daughter’s mom and they asked, “Why did you say this?” People who’ve been abused, they’re not quick to tell because they have been threatened: “If you tell, I will do this.” So, you become isolated [cries while talking]. I had cousins, uncles – the people who should have protected me, were the ones to rape and molest me. As I said, I was pregnant when I was 14, and I don’t know if it was one of my uncles’ baby or the little boyfriend I had, you know. Did I go to the police, no. If I can get my uncle to go to jail, or press charges, or sue him for what he did, I don’t wanna do that, I want an apology. I want an acknowledgment, you know, from him.
Betinna: Of course. You mentioned your sisters before. What is your relationship with your sisters like?
Ms. Banks: [Laughs] Jesus. I don’t respect women who cater to men. She went to college, yet she depends on her husband and he abuses their child. My sister’s husband abuses my nephew. That’s why I say they’re my mother’s kids for real. My sister can’t do anything without her husband’s approval. I’d just gotten my Social Security and I had sent my sister a thousand dollars to leave him. I said, “Don’t tell him nothing about it.” I came to visit and when I pulled over, this man told me, “Thank you for the gift, sis.” I was like, goddamn dumbass girl. I’ve always taken care of myself. I was working at 15, I’ve had my own apartment since I was 17. This is the first time I have ever been homeless.
Betinna: What is it like living in the shelter?
Ms. Banks: No privacy.
Betinna: What about the people living in the shelter, do you get along with them?
Ms. Banks: No, I don’t talk to them. They all live a certain lifestyle and I’m not trying to get into any confrontations. There’s a lot of unintelligent, ignorant people in the shelter system. And there are problems, you know. I had this girl banging on my door because I was smoking. She said, “Oh, you’re smoking in your room and my kid got asthma.” I turned around and said, “Hey, wait a minute, the kid didn’t have to go to the hospital with an asthma attack because of me.” She smokes, you know.
Waitress: Are you alright? Can I bring you anything else?
Betinna: Just the check, please.
Ms. Banks: Yeah, and if you can wrap this thing up?
Ms. Banks: That salad is cold. It’s gonna be good.
Ms. Banks: I think I got heart disease by holding a lot in, you know, and I feel a lot of relief now. Sitting here talking to you is very good therapy. I’m going to feel good today because I’ve rambled all over and gotten all that stuff out of me, you know. I got to drop a tear here and there. It’s good. You can get through the day once you’ve got a compassionate person that will open ears and heart and sit down and just listen to you.
Betinna: Thank you so much, Ms. Banks. It was a pleasure meeting you.
Ms. Banks: After the surgery, when my kid got well enough to move, I actually moved back to Virginia. Back to my hometown. This is when I was told for the second time that I needed a heart surgery, and I just couldn’t have it there. There was no transportation, only one ambulance to the county. I wanted back to New York, where I know they’ve got the experts and the travelling is much more convenient. And I’m used to it here, this is my life. Down there they still have like a slave mentality, and I don’t. I’m a New Yorker. Here you can be green, yellow, purple, you know. Up here we’re free. I’m a very devoted person, I give my all. Seeking approval, I believe that was my biggest thing. I had to learn to approve of myself. I think that’s what defines me. I did my best and I came a long way, you know, without education and all. It’s a lot to pick up a book and get those licenses that I got. Grandma taught me well.