The Rape of Recy Taylor

*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 RichieScheherazade Tillet, and Natalie Bennett. I also finally watched the documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor.”

by-september-1944-the-24-year-old-was-married-to-willie-guy-taylor-and-had-a-baby-daughter-joyce-lee.jpg
Ms. Taylor in 2011

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.

“The Rape of Recy Taylor” is a hard film to watch, but necessary. The foundation of rape culture comes out of this country’s sanctioned abuse of Black women’s bodies.

 

 

 

 

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Sexual Violence and Black Women/Girls #1

Well, leave it to Erykah Badu to force my hand. She has a knack for keeping things off kilter.

I had planned to start my series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) which is in April…next week. But Badu’s recent comments regarding sexuality and young girls has left me shaking my head.

“Badu, who had a child with Andres 3000 in 1997, said that teenage girls should wear knee length skirts to protect them from the “natural” desires of men.“There was an article ruling that high school girls lower their skirts so male teachers are not distracted. I agreed because…” she began on Twitter.“I am aware that we live in a sex l-driven society. It is everyone’s, male and female’s, responsibility to protect young ladies…” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/erykah-badu-accused-of-victim-blaming-after-saying-girls-should-wear-knee-length-skirts-to-stop-a6980721.html

Badu’s views are alarming, particularly when thinking about how vulnerable young black girls are to sexual violence/abuse, especially from older men. Black girls are already marginalized/stereotyped in educational settings. Are we now going to shrug our collective shoulders when a male teacher is behaving inappropriately because they are of “childbearing age” and wearing short skirts?

“Sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of black men before reaching the age of 18, according to an ongoing study conducted by Black Women’s Blueprint.” http://newsone.com/1680915/half-of-black-girls-sexually-assaulted/

Perhaps Badu should speak with some of her fellow black women celebrities. Vanessa Williams, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliot, and Tisha Campbell have all shared about being victims of sexual abuse as young girls. Folks might argue that they were children, so it’s different. But there have been cases where girls as young as five years old have been blamed for their rapes. For appearing “sexually mature” for their age. That’s why Badu’s words are disturbing, because it then becomes a slippery slope of putting the onus of male self control on girls, no matter what their age is.

“Childhood sexual abuse has been correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual problems and relationship problems” (Hall & Hall, 2011 p.2).  http://www.apa.org/pi/about/newsletter/2014/11/child-sexual-abuse.aspx

Campbell recently made a video about the abuser who hurt her. Campbell, who is 47 years old, struggles to talk about the assault until this day. Sexual violence haunts black girls for the rest of their lives. We owe them more than telling them to wear longer skirts.

SAAM #2: NO! The Rape Documentary

Rape is one of the most evil acts one can commit on another. What makes it more alarming is that it tends to be perpetuated by folks we know. Yet, even in 2014, rape is still depicted as a stranger hiding in bushes. The fact is survivors tend to know their assailants. These people tend to be relatives, friends, ex-partners, co-workers, casual acquaintances, etc.

The rapist isn’t a masked man

  • Approximately 66% of rape victims know their assailant. (2000 NCVS)
  • Approximately 48% of victims are raped by a friend or acquaintance; 30% by a stranger; 16% by an intimate; 2% by another relative; and in 4% of cases the relationship is unknown. (2000 NCVS)

http://www.sarsonline.org/resources-stats/reports-laws-statics

In communities of color, especially the black community, sexual violence is even more complex. Black women not only have to accept the fact that they know their rapists, but grapple with what will be their next step. Despite being more prone to sexual violence, Black women/women of color tend to be very racially loyal.

A lot of it has to do with Black women worrying about feeding into stereotypes about Black men or not wanting to “lock another brother up.” This fierce community protection comes at the expense of Black women’s physical and mental health:

“Historically, law enforcement has been used to control African-American communities through brutality and racial profiling. It may be difficult for a Black woman to seek help if she feels it could be at the expense of African-American men or her community. The history of racial injustice (particularly the stereotype of the Black male as a sexual predator) and the need to protect her community from further attack might persuade a survivor to remain silent.”

http://www.forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2012/04/25/black-women-sexual-assault-and-the-art-of-resistance/

In her film, NO! The Rape Documentary, Aishah Shahidah Simmons does a great job of deconstructing the myths about rape and how sexual violence affects the lives of Black women.  She shows how the intersectionality of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism,  etc., prevent Black women from reporting their assaults.  She also shows the healing process of the survivors in the film.

I met Aishah a few years ago, when she did a screening of NO! in my city. I was extremely moved by the film, and was so glad that someone was speaking out on this issue.It took her over 13 years to make the documentary. She was committed to making the film because she thought it was important that this issue was discussed in the Black community. Much respect for that!

I have shown the NO! documentary as a way to support Black women’s voices during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). I encourage other folks to do so as well. It can be a great way to start a conversation on how this issue is unique to Black women. And the ways Black men can be our allies.  If my group had a bigger budget, we would’ve also brought Aishah to speak about her film. If your school or organization has the funds, not only show the film, invite Aishah!  She’s an amazing woman who we should support.

The NO! Rape Documentary is a powerful act of resistance against the oppression of Black women’s voices/bodies.

SAAM #1: Rape Culture

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).  This week I will be dedicating the blog to this important issue…

“The month of April has been designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the United States. The goal of SAAM is to raise public awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence. By working together and pooling our resources during the month of April, we can highlight sexual violence as a major public health, human rights and social justice issue and reinforce the need for prevention efforts.” —http://www.nsvrc.org/saam/what-is-saam

In order  to successfully prevent sexual violence in our communities, we  have to acknowledge that we live in a Rape Culture. It’s noted that “in feminism, rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society,[1] and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape.” For example, when Rick Ross made a casual reference to date rape in his song “U.O.E.N.O” (Put molly all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it.) He was rightfully clowned and called out for using this lyric.

Of course, it isn’t just rappers/entertainers who normalize rape in our culture.  It also isn’t a new phenomenon. It can be argued that rape culture has its roots in slavery.   In order to justify the rapes/sexual assaults on black women’s bodies (to keep the slave trade business intact), black women were horribly stereotyped:

“The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel.1 ” http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel.htm

The young slave woman who has come to symbolize the normalization of abuse on black women’s bodies is Saartjie Baartman. Baartman is often known by the racist term “Hottentot Venus:” 

“Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman was born in 1789* at the Gamtoos river in what is now known as the Eastern Cape. She belonged to the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi. Sara grew up on a colonial farm where her family most probably worked as servants. Her mother died when she was aged two and her father, who was a cattle driver, died when she reached adolescence. Sara married a Khoikhoi man who was a drummer and they had one child together who died shortly after birth. Due to colonial expansion, the Dutch came into conflict with the Khoikhoi. As a result people were gradually absorbed into the labour system. When she was sixteen years old Sara’s fiancé was murdered by Dutch colonists. Soon after, she was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time that she was given the name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara.”http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman

I had the misfortune of watching the film “Black Venus.” It’s supposed to be based on the life of Baartman. I felt the film was really a white man’s story, not Baartman’s. She barely has any lines in the film. I also felt ill at ease that the black actress in the film was really being mistreated. However, I did think the film gave some insight into the horrifying ways Baartman was treated on a daily basis. It is a thin line of trying to show the reality of her life, but not being exploitative about it. The director failed. Hopefully, someday the fullness of  Saartjie Baartman‘s life will be told.

While I also had some of the same issues with  “12 Years a Slave,” I thought the film did at least show the hatefulness of white supremacy and the beginnings of rape culture:

“Although the kidnapped freedman Northup is the main character, the film also does an excellent job of exposing the gendered sexual violence at the very foundation of enslavement. Patsy isn’t the only victim of rape culture, either. In their brief scenes Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye)—both objects of the affection of their masters—intimate a complex interplay between sexual coersion and agency in a corrupt system that gives them zero options. “The Accused,”* the 1988 Jodie Foster film, dramatized victim-blaming in gang rape. “12 Years a Slave” crystalizes in images and in sound what it is to be owned and exploited.” http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/10/i_saw_12_years_a.html

Recently, a friend told me that true liberation can not come about until black women are allowed to give voice to the sexual violence they have experienced in their lives. I agree. Anti-rape activists need to acknowledge that this country was built/continues to be built off the abuse/ sexual assaults on black girls/women, in order to truly dismantle rape culture.

Photo from: http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/10/i_saw_12_years_a.html
Photo from: http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/10/i_saw_12_years_a.html