When I read Bill Fletcher’s BC article last
month on the rape of his friend, it was like déjà
vu. “My Friend was Raped” underscored an all-too familiar
response to sexual victimization of Black women by Black men,
that of silent suffering.
I had just heard an eerily similar story chronicled
in “NO! The Rape Documentary”. The women’s section
of the Organization for Black Struggle has featured Aishah Simmon’s
poignant and award-winning film at our 17th annual women’s
history month program. Aishah’s work explores the historical
reality of rape and other forms of sexual assault through survivor
stories, scholarship, spirituality and activism.
The showing of NO! was on the heels of a screening
of Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Another young independent
filmmaker, Byron Hurt, made a powerful contribution to the ongoing
discussion on masculinity, sexism, violence and homophobia in
today’s hip-hop culture.
I thought I was experiencing a panic attack during
one part of Hurt’s film, where scantily-clothed young women
were being sexually harassed and taunted by young men. Some were
holding video cams under short dresses, hoping to score with a
pantiless victim. Others were squeezing the butts of women. I
guess my maternal instincts kicked in because I just wanted to
beat one of those brothas down—and not with any damn rhymes.
I did a lot of deep breathing during that screening.
Then the nation received the news that the charges
against the Duke Lacrosse players, accused of rape, would be dropped.
Reade Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty readily admitted
that their parents’ money—referred to as “financial
successes”—was a contributing factor in their ability
to prove their prosecutions false.
A host of other factors were cast aside, including
the initial physical examination of the rape victim, that showed
signs of sexual assault. Disregarded as well, was the acknowledgment
by Duke University’s own president Richard Brodhead that
there was a "history of boorish behavior and underage drinking"
among lacrosse players.
The Women’s Commission of the Black Workers
for Justice recently issued a statement condemning Attorney General
Roy Cooper for his dismissal of the case. The Commission believes
that the decision to dismiss charges is a continuation of “the
historic legacy of an unbridled white racist power structure arrayed
against the powerless and oppressed Black female and Black community
who cannot protect and defend themselves under an unjust political
and legal system where they have no control.”
The statement was also signed by the Human Justice
Coalition, Down East/Wilson Labor Council, Coalition Against Racism
and the Southern Anti-Racism Network. Many other organizations
have issued statements with similar concerns. Given the number
of Black men falsely accused of intra-racial rape, with less evidence
than that produced in the Duke Lacrosse rape, we can use this
as an opportunity for a national discussion about rape as well
as the limitations of the American judicial system. Enter convicted
rapist Jerry Miller, the 200th DNA exonerated person in this country.
All of this brought me back to NO! The Rape Documentary.
Although the rape stats say that one out of every
three women in the US will be sexually assaulted, those stats
are higher in the African-American community where we have allowed
a rope of silence to choke the voices of anger, outrage and healing
that need to be expressed.
The general consensus is that 9 out of 10 rapes
go unreported. The National Victim Center has called rape "the
most underreported violent crime in America.” The National
Black Women’s Health Project affirms that approximately
40% of Black women report coercive contact, of a sexual nature,
by age 18.
Johnnetta Cole, former president of Bennett College
and one of the riveting voices featured in NO!, rhetorically demanded
to know why we are silent on “one of the most barbaric,
intensively painful and ultimately destructive acts” that
a community can endure. My work with young women often takes me
into the world in which they live. For poor, Black girls, it is
criminal—literally. Our growing tolerance for the sexual
objectification and exploitation of our youngest is a clear and
I have hundreds of examples from which to to draw,
whether it be a teen making extra money by giving her mother’s
boyfriend blow jobs (her mother’s suggestion) to adolescent
girls baring their breasts in order to get discounts for hair
products at a local convenience store. (The incidents were caught
on the store’s own surveillance camera.) It is both frustrating
and overwhelming to deal with the many individual symptoms of
a diseased system. We must get to the place where we put sexual
and domestic violence on the front burner, as Bill Fletcher suggests,
but it won’t be easy.
It means launching a multi-faceted struggle when
and where we can. This calls for an overhaul of the justice system,
because one of the main reasons Black women don’t report
rape is to keep that Black man out of a racist criminal system.
We have done so in the hopes of community justice that hardly
ever seems to materialize. It means confronting, filtering and
eliminating the misogynist and sexist toxins that have crept into
our political, social and cultural environments. This means starting
in our homes, honoring and valuing girls and women, teaching equality
to all sexes so that we all become change agents in some way.
It means developing and strengthening the support
systems for victims of sexual violence so that they are not re-victimized
and silenced, but get the spiritual, emotional and psychological
support they so desperately need.
It means struggling with our brothers, especially
those in the progressive movement, to take up seriously, this
issue with themselves and their peers. One of the stories in NO!
involved “an avowed pro-feminist” rapist brother whose
hurtful actions spoke more forcefully than his empty radical rhetoric.
It means moving past the view that erroneously
pits racial oppression against women’s oppression. It’s
the old let’s-fight-together-to-eliminate-racism-first,
then-we’ll-deal-with-sexism argument that has plagued the
Black Liberation Movement for years. Homophobia, another oppression
needing to be dealt with by the Black community, is rarely even
on the radar screen.
Our movements and our communities must seek a
humane, yet determined, approach to the consequences of unchecked
patriarchy and unbridled violence on our individual and collective
psyche and being. Each time we say “NO!” to a form
of sexual oppression, we are saying “NO!” to a capitalist
system that utilizes oppression to continue its dominance and
exploitation. It is most successful when it gets us to take an
active part in propping up that system.
Organized activities, events and campaigns must
be multiplied, hopefully with leadership by men with a genuine
understanding of their role in gender oppression. Even critiquing
the trivialization of women’s violence, by the Walk a Mile
in Her Shoes, has its place in this important debate.
On April 28th, one such event will take place
in Durham, North Carolina. It is the "National Day of Truth-Telling”
to speak out against sexual violence but also to address its root
causes. It has been the hotbed of confusion, resentment and anger
since the rape occurred at a Duke Lacrosse team party. An organized
effort emerged to untangle the web and educate the community towards
a place of healing and empowerment.
I fervently believe that we can create a critical
mass of people who will bring a sense of urgency and justice to
this issue that will ultimately transform our society. Further,
I need to be able to look into that young girl’s eyes and
assure her that a more humane world for women is coming.
BC Editorial Board member
Jamala Rogers is the leader of the Organization
for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black
Radical Congress National Organizer. Click
here to contact Ms. Rogers.