"If You Do Not Do Right By Black Women, This Nation Is Doomed to Fail.”
Some women made it to the end without faltering. Others weren’t so lucky. As I watched, one woman looked like she was walking a tightrope, up there, behind the pulpit, her voice never wavering as she spoke calmly of the many times she was raped by her ex-husband. Another woman seemed to sway under the weight of the memories of an abusive mother who had tried to pimp out her young body and stomp out her innocent joy.
The key word is “tried.”
“I’m a people person and I love people,” her husky voice resonated throughout the chapel. “They tried to take that from me, but it never worked.”
On the first day of the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in New York, the women gathered at Harlem’s historic Riverside Church hadn’t come to mourn but to testify. They had come to break 400 years of generational silence surrounding sexual abuse in the black community.
The event, which spanned four days in late April, was part of a larger initiative called the Black Women's Blueprint. The program seeks to address social justice issues affecting black women, which are often overlooked in discussions about racial justice in America. The first step in that process? Speaking out.
“My mother didn’t talk about it, but I’m going to talk to everybody,” Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told the crowd. She didn’t mince words.
“I want to start by talking about what this nation owes black women: everything,” she said, speaking of the historical roots of systematic sexual exploitation of black women in the United States—first by slave owners who used black women’s bodies for pleasure and labor, and now by a system that profits from black women’s work but refuses to protect them from brutality or pay them a living wage. Garza invoked the number 64. Today black women make 64 cents to every dollar earned by white men. There are also 64,000 black women missing in America, she intoned.
Church is also a place for prophecy. Garza spoke this one over the United States:
“If you do not do right by black women, this nation is doomed to fail.” she warned.
Even with a black president in the White House, doing right by African-American women often seems to be an afterthought. For instance, in 2014, the Obama Administration’s unveiling of My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative that would focus solely on black men and boys, was bittersweet for African-American women who felt they had been left behind.
In a New York Times op-ed, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw wrote, “My Brother’s Keeper highlights one of the most significant contradictions of [Obama’s] efforts to remain a friend to women while navigating the tricky terrain of race. It also amounts to an abandonment of women of color, who have been among his most loyal supporters.”
Farah Tanis and Christine Jaus, co-founders of the Black Women’s Blueprint, say they saw the writing on the wall during the 2008 elections, when both senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were courting black female voters but not speaking specifically to their needs.
“I said to Christine, here’s this black man talking about his blueprint and here’s this white woman talking about her blueprint. Where’s our blueprint?” Tanis said.
Along with any realizations that may have arisen during the elections, Tanis says she was also forced to face the truth about abuse within her own community when the reality hit close to home. In the space of a year, Tanis learned that her mother, as well as Christine Jaus (who is also her wife), were both rape survivors. No place in Tanis’ inner circle had not been touched by sexual abuse. Tanis, who was also sexually abused at the age of 5, says she was devastated but also inspired by the two most important women in her life.
“Forgiveness has been something that they both have taught me,” Tanis said.
Forgiveness and reconciliation were key themes of the commission, which was inspired by commissions held in post-apartheid South Africa and Haiti that were focused on uncovering truth about abuses that had occurred. This includes reconciliation between black men and women—a process that continued at a Brooklyn barbershop over the weekend.
The coed (and surprisingly candid) group discussion focused on the complex role of black men as both defenders and potential perpetrators.
Quentin Walcott, co-executive director of CONNECT, a nonprofit that helps prevent domestic violence, expressed a need for black men to be less conditional about when they stand up for black women.
“Women are dropping everything to protect brothers from state violence, but we [men] might get down. We might not,“ he said.
“The men, they’re talking about King and [Malcolm] X, but they're not alive right now," said Walcott. "They’re not leading our movement. Women are.“
Guest speaker Robert Corbitt, a self-described lifelong anti-rape activist, also stressed the importance of being diligent in the fight for justice. Corbitt, now 78, was just 6 when his big sister, Recy Taylor, was raped by seven white men in Alabama. Her ordeal, and the ensuing legal battle, became a symbol of Jim Crow-era oppression and catalyzed the early civil rights movement.
"People say put it in God's hands," he began quietly. "But God gave me strength, and if there's a spot here on the floor, God's not going to show up with a mop bucket to clean it."
After 67 Years, Taylor finally received an apology from the state of Alabama. By then, her assailants were all dead.
The week of the commission, organizers of the Black Women’s Blueprint led their movement all the way to the United Nations. A larger room had to be allocated after attendance greatly exceeded expectations.
As some unlucky attendees waited to get inside, panelist and transgender activist Janet Mock spoke of the painful exclusion transgender people often feel.
“Trans black women live at the intersection of what I like to call pass-her-by and pay-her-no-mind,” she said, gently but assertively indicting civil rights, feminist, and LGBT activists for allowing trans people to fall into the gaps between their movements.
Mock also took aim at respectability politics, which often keep trans women and women of color confined to the fringes:
“When folks say that they're fighting … for protections for women, they're usually speaking about a very specific girl. She’s usually not trans. She’s usually presumed to be straight. She has a certain level of respectability. She hasn’t engaged in sex work. She is white or as close to whiteness as possible. And we recreate those hierarchies in our own communities.”
Feminist activist Loretta Ross put it more simply:
“I ain’t respectable. Wasn’t nothin’ respectable that happened to me,” she said.
Throughout the week of intense workshops, sharing, and counseling, the culminating event was a tribunal held in a plaza outside the United Nations, where survivors triumphantly spoke the names of their abusers and pronounced them guilty. But closure can come in many forms.
On that first day, back at the Riverside Church, a young woman testified that she hadn’t played the violin since she was raped by a longtime friend and fellow violinist. She and her girlfriend had been guests at his home that night. When she was finished, she announced the end of five years of bondage, and then, while we all wept, in the sight of God and man, she took up her violin and set herself free.
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