*Trigger warning-sexual violence/rape*
As April comes to a close, it means the final days of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Of course, resisting sexual violence is a year-long concern for women’s organizations. However, it is important there is one month dedicated to examining the pervasiveness of rape culture in this country.
My group, PDX Black Feminism, hosted a meetup to discuss the issue of Black women and sexual violence. To prepare for the gathering, I read a little more on Tarana Burke and her #metoo movement. I also watched a great panel discussion on sexual harassment featuring brilliant Black women activists: Beth Richie, Scheherazade Tillet, and Natalie Bennett. I also finally watched the documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor.”
I’d been avoiding it because the subject matter was too much to bear. The Rape of Recy Taylor was released in fall of last year. The film details the horrific rape of Taylor, at the time, a 24-year-old married mother/sharecropper. Taylor was walking home from church one evening, when she was forced by gun point into a car with seven white men. She was brutally raped for over five hours.
The story of Ms. Taylor is unique, in that, she was willing to name her assailants. It was rare for Black women to do this in the Jim Crow South. The assault on Taylor, caught the attention of Rose Parks. Parks, was a sexual investigator with the NAACP, before she became known as ROSA PARKS.
In the film, Recy’s siblings shared when Parks came to the house to speak with Taylor. The news quickly spread around town about an “outside agitator.” The sheriff drove by the house to intimidate Parks. At one point, he barged into the family’s home and physically tossed Parks off the porch. Parks went away for a few weeks, then came back. She would not be dissuaded.
Eventually, Taylor’s rapists were arrested (it wasn’t too hard to find them, they lounged around town confident in their whiteness). Despite the determination of Taylor and Parks (co-founders of The Committee for Equal Justice), two grand juries failed to charge the men. Unfortunately, gang rapes of Black women were not uncommon in the south, so it wasn’t long before Parks moved on to other cases. This left Taylor and her family to deal with the aftermath of her speaking up.
Life was never the same for Taylor after her rape. I am haunted by the black and white photo that tends to pop up, when researching her case. She is standing stoic. Clothes slightly disheveled. The sadness spread across her face. There are other photos which include her husband and child. She seems distant from them, wrapped up in her own pain. The rape tore apart her family.
Taylor and her husband separated. Amazingly, Taylor stayed in her town, despite all that happened to her. She moved in with her father and went on to live a quiet life. Years later, her daughter was killed in a car accident. Taylor was never able to have more children. As her sister stated in the film, the rapists had “played up in her body.” I can only imagine the violence perpetuated against Taylor’s body for over five hours.
The most startling revelation that came out of the documentary, is when relatives of the rapists, were interviewed. All the men are deceased. I believe one of the men was already in the military, when the rape took place. Later, some of the other men also joined the military. I was alarmed as the camera panned the burial sites of the men. The words “hero,” “courageous,” and “brave” were etched on the headstones. The American flag was displayed proudly on the graves.
I was disturbed by the family members boasting about the rapists military accomplishments. I couldn’t help but think about the controversy of NFL players refusing to stand for the flag. A protest started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016. The argument made by those pro-flag, is that it’s honoring veterans/those in the military. The story of Taylor, made me realize that the uplifting of this flag, means we are praising white men who terrorized Black women. It has cemented for me why Black people should not stand for the flag. The American flag represents the history of sexual violence perpetuated against Black women. It was condoned and awarded with medals.
Taylor went on to live until age 97. Long past, her rapists. She never received justice for the suffering she endured from her sexual assault, so I’m sure those years lived were with some unease. In 2011, the Alabama Legislature issued her an apology. Of course, way too little and much too late, but at least Ms. Taylor was alive to receive it.