Ed. note: This post featuring black women’s voices on sexual violence, rape, race, and solidarity, was organized by Brothers Writing to Live in response to a November 2013 essay that’s recently resurfaced, containing pernicious if not new ideas concerning sex, rape and black women. Here is a good description of the initial article and subsequent fallout. This post is re-published here with permission.
I’m the education director of a community center in a tough neighborhood in North Philadelphia. One day, I was speaking with a 9 year Puerto Rican boy in my office about his phone. When I asked him who he texted, two other young men in their 20’s joked, “He texts his girlfriend.” The boy laughed and agreed. When I asked him why did he like his girlfriend, he said that she had a big butt. I looked at him squarely and probed, “Is your girlfriend a body part or a human being?” He laughed and said, “A body part.” The older youth joined in his banter.
That is what misogyny sounds like on a 9 year old boy. And as long as men continue to think that that is funny or not that big of a deal, then they will have a hard time seeing how that kind of thinking has unhealthy effects on how young boys and men build genuine relationships with girls and women. That kind of thinking keeps boys and men from seeing how they become violent with women in small and profound ways. I’m not speaking of brutal acts of violence that are privileged in media. That is a naïve and basic way to think about how sexual violence occurs in reality. I mean the everyday violence that is seen as “not that serious”: harassing a girl in the street because of what she is wearing, bullying a girl in school because she doesn’t like you, only being courteous to feminine presenting women or women you think are pretty, only engaging with women to have your needs fulfilled, and the list goes on. Men can end sexual violence by broadening their minds about what that violence looks like and being honest about how they might engage in that. They can stop it by letting their younger brothers know that such violence is far from something to joke about, but a sore wound that we all need healing from.
“We are of the same blood, you and I.” -Rudyard Kipling
Vengeful. “That woman”. Leg-opener. Diseased. “Stripper/jump off/random woman.” Child-support thief. Life-ruiner. “FLAT-OUT-CRAZY.” Temptress. Deceitful. “A wolf in freaks clothing.” Punitive. Greedy.
These are just a few of the characterizations of black women perpetuated in an effort to make the case for black men to “be careful about their sexual choices” and presumably avoid fates such as unwanted fatherhood, STIs, or unjust detention.
I wish I were more surprised. I wish I could feign outrage or even ignorance. But the truth is, I’ve become accustomed to this line of thinking, one in which uplifting blacks is a zero-sum game requiring sacrifice in the name of solidarity above all — which just happens to fall neatly across gender lines. In this line of thinking, rather than tackling systemic injustices by fighting said systems and the correlating powers-at-be, we can simply demonize and deride black women, and particularly their sexuality, to solve a problem like mass incarceration.
I understand the pain goes deep, and black men are looking for solutions to a problem they didn’t invent, that shouldn’t exist. But our pain goes deep, too. The rates of sexual violence — including intimate partner violence and sexual assault — against black women are alarming. Hateful stereotypes and mischaracterizations compound this unprecedented epidemic in ways both concrete and immeasurable.
This is hardly a battle of the sexes; for community solutions to a wide range of issues, black men need look no further than the very “jump offs” and “wolves” they so joyously berates. Rather than trumped up stereotypes of mythical female demons, black women are community leaders; activists; organizers; advocates; journalists; and so much more. We are in the streets fighting against unfair drug laws and “stop & frisk” policies, and for reproductive health access in our communities. We may make for an easy scapegoat, but women of color are not the obstacle standing in the way of black men’s emancipation. We must be each other’s saviors, not demons. We are of the same blood.
There is a way to encourage men to make healthy and informed decisions about their sexual partners without painting this picture of women being gold-diggers, conniving, and armed with an agenda of entrapment. What is to be gained from this narrative? Where is the self-accountability? At the end of the day, the key to saving Black men should never be the demise of Black women. We are not your enemy.
Moreover, we often speak of rape with a lightness that completely dismisses the trans-historic and everlasting trauma that is a result of rape and rape culture. As a Black woman who is also a survivor of sexual assault conversations centered on rape are honestly triggering for me. I vividly remember sitting in the court room on the same pew as my assailant’s family. I remember feeling shamed when his mother looked at me and then shouted out to her son “it’s going to be okay baby,” as if to let me know that she “knew” her son was innocent. I remember her glares. I remember the sadness I felt as I looked at his toddler son. I was putting another Black father in jail. I was responsible for another Black boy growing up without his father. But these internalized pressures are far from the truth. I was not responsible for any of that. No matter how hard it must be for that mother to realize that her son sexually assaulted me, it is the truth. I did not “put” him in jail; his actions and the punitive system that we live by are responsible for that.
Instead of centering the bodies and experiences of Black women in a conversation amongst men about “how to not be accused of rape” I would like to see men having a healthy dialog about consent. What does it mean to gain consent from your partner? How do you start that conversation? What is the difference between “yes” and “not no?” Is there a difference between the two? What are healthy sexual boundaries? Who determines these sexual boundaries in our society, men or women? How do we honor the trans-historic realities as it pertains to Black bodies (of all genders)?
Feminist organizers responding to the murders of black women in Boston in 1979 marched in the streets in protest carrying a banner with a line from a poem by civil rights organizer Barbara Deming which read: “WE CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT OUR LIVES.” In 2014, the assaults against Black women are unrelenting. We continue to be disproportionately beaten, stalked, raped, imprisoned, disappeared, and murdered. We are fighting for our lives. We need solidarity rather than vitriol and violence from black men.
In his seminal 1970 essay about rape, Kalamu ya Salaam wrote: “The rape of African-American women is not seen as a major problem precisely because the victim is both Black and female in a racist and sexist society.” We desperately need black men to see anti gender-based violence as a primary site of their activism and organizing. I can only ask ‘what’s taking so long?’ We desperately need each other if we are to live fully and ultimately be free. Black women cannot live without our lives.
The idea that being falsely accused of rape is as harmful as the actual rape of a black woman’s body is rather mind-blowing. The same line of thinking informs the popular claim that being called a racist is somehow as harmful as enduring the actual violence of white supremacy. This is the ingenuity of dehumanization – attempting to level the playing field between the oppressor and the oppressed so that the two become indistinguishable and justice itself becomes elusive. If the conversation is, in fact, about justice (and it should be), then surely there is a way to lay out the harms of false accusations of rape and their contributions to the epidemic of mass incarceration without doing so at the expense of our sisters. Historically, subjugating black women in the service of black men’s liberation is a strategy that has not served the black freedom struggle well.
We too, are human and deserving of safety and agency. Black women don’t need protection — we need recognition, respect, love and the forging of transformative spaces in partnership with Black men.
Recently, some have attempted to shed light on a taboo and allegedly serious (but undocumented) problem of black women’s complicity in black male incarceration, claiming this as a radical act of antiracism. Some might believe that trafficking in powerful and wholly American stereotypes of black female sexual treachery is an effective strategy to make the academy more relevant to black communal interests. By this logic exposing a hidden pattern of women’s sexual revenge (erroneous rape allegations) that purportedly leads to black male incarceration is a public service. This strategy is…regrettable. Critics of this approach have been accused of espousing Democratic liberalism, which is ironic because it is the notion that black women are to blame for black men’s carceral downfall that constitutes the mainstay of mainstream bipartisan law and order politics; such stereotypes of black female moral and sexual pathology contribute to the criminalization of black women to be sure, subjecting them in disproportionate numbers to the terror of incarceration each and every day. But they also fortify assumptions about the thorough and unredeemable inferiority and criminality of black communities writ large. For such morally bereft and lascivious black women are believed to inculcate and socialize (if not biologically propagate) moral deviance, endowing their daughters and sons with such depraved and criminal characteristics and reproducing a culture (tangle) of pathology. This condemnation of blackness that scholars have so eloquently exposed ensnares both black women and men in extraordinarily violent regimes of exclusion and captivity. It is an inadvisable approach to refute presumptions of black male guilt by imposing such presumptions upon black women. Of course there are other ways of thinking about gender, violence, and imprisonment. Black women and men in and beyond the academy have advocated prison abolition, one of the most radical and expansive critiques of white supremacy and the prison industrial complex. This abolitionist theorizing and organizing emerged from a deep and thorough recognition of the magnitude of harm that imprisonment wreaks upon poor, LGBT, Black, and Brown communities, women and men. It comes from the recognition that carceral terror relies upon late capitalist surpluses and stereotypes of black male threat, as well as notions of black female deviance, black women’s perceived irrationality, unscrupulousness, and hypersexuality. Dismantling will prove far more effective than redeploying the ideological brick and mortar of mass incarceration.
Excusing rape by blaming black women for our “wild ways” is not only disturbing but an incredibly dangerous act. The number of men that have been wrongly accused of sexual assault pales in comparison to the number of women that are scarred both emotionally and physically by having their bodies violated against their will. We need to have honest conversations about rape and rape culture within the black community that don’t pin men against women and vice versa. We need to create a culture of respect and compassion for black women, not degrade them as objects of sexual desire or perpetuate the idea that black women are just trying to “trap a man” and are mischievous and not to be trusted. Instead of enlightening the “brothers” using old tropes to that allow black men to escape responsibility from ending rape and rape culture. We need responsible policy and engagement not rhetoric.
Just over a year ago, in March 2013, my colleagues and I published short video responses to Rick Ross’ “U.O.E.N.O.” lyrics in which he raps about giving a woman drugs and having sex with her without her knowledge. While we did receive a lot of support for speaking out against rape culture, we also received many heinous and violent threats. One viewer commented that the women in our videos should actually be raped. For these reasons and others, it was, and still is, important that our brothers, including Darnell L. Moore and Mark Anthony Neal of Brothers Writing to Live, participated in the videos. These Black men were able to stand strong beside (not in front of) Black women, because they know, as we all should, that 1 in 3 women will be raped in their lifetime and that most sexual assaults are committed by perpetrators of the same race as their victims. These Black men were able to stand strong beside (not in front of) Black women, because they know, as we all should, that most Black women victims of sexual assault remain silent due to the shame and violence they fear they will face if they speak out. Almost 40 years ago in “A Black Feminist Statement,” the Combahee River Collective wrote, “We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” The same year, Audre Lorde reminded us, during a panel at the MLA, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” How long will it take for us to learn that we must work together to fight a persistent and dominant rape culture that tells Black women that we aren’t worth the love and loyalty that we need? How long will it take? How long?
Every day I work with young Black women and girls who have been emotionally and mentally battered by the constant cultural propaganda that their sexuality is dirty, pathological and destructive. As “protectors” and “defenders” of Black masculinity, black girls are taught early on that unquestioned allegiance to Black boys and men should supersede their allegiance to themselves. They learn early on that there will be no “My Sister’s Keeper” initiatives to “save” them, nor national attention given to the epidemic rates of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, HIV/AIDS contraction and Black female criminalization that jeopardizes all Black lives, families, and communities. They are repeatedly shown in white supremacist corporate mass media, popular culture and the Black community that violence and systematized terrorism against Black women and girls is acceptable, normal and “just the way shit is”. Despite the long history of radical Black feminist resistance, violence against Black women and girls has never been regarded as an urgent civil or human rights issue in Black liberation struggles. Due to this history, it is imperative that more Black men and boys stand with Black women and girls against the structures of patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia which normalize and institutionalize violence against women of color. For starters, Black men and boys can begin having the difficult conversation about how toxic, naturalized images of hypersexual Black women and women of color shape their everyday practice, relationships, sexuality and gendered perceptions. They can actively support the intersectional activism of black cis, lesbian, bi and trans women around intimate partner violence, HIV/AIDS and STI education, sexual assault and criminalization. Instead of venerating the usual charismatic male civil rights heroes they can lift up the lives of lesser known figures in movement struggle like Ida B. Wells, Claudette Colvin and Recy Taylor; women whose forerunning activism linked Black women’s resistance to sexual assault and sexual harassment with civil rights struggle. Through the holocaust of slavery and racial apartheid, Black men have never been told by Black women that their dehumanization was normal, natural and “just the way shit is”. Yet, even when it was at their expense, Black women have always been expected to uncritically support Black men’s self-determination. This double standard endangers Black lives.
I wonder what kind of naivete persists in this conversation among men in our community that would continue propagate a narrative of rampant mistrust of women that could ultimately lead to sexual misconduct, assault and rape. I wonder what’s at stake for masculinity when we teach men not to rape. What is it about no that we fail to understand? How is possible that we do harm to people we claim to love? What kind of world do we believe must be protected to teach young men to embrace this ideology?
This argument is intellectually dishonest and reductive. One vague anecdote of a sexual assault case does not a rule make. While I’m not ignorant the legacy of false claims of rape by white women in a racist society, that boondoggle has now become a cloak and crutch for our community to engage in serious discussions about sexual assault and violence within our communities. The gospel of respectability mired in dated tropes of feminine and masculine identities have barred us, in many instances, from reckoning with the realities of sexual assault and misconduct and acts of violence against women on HBCUs.
We know better and we can do better to address it.
FBI statistics state that less than 2% of reported rapes are false charges. Another way of looking at this is that 98% of reported rape charges are true. There are many more rapists who lie about raping women then there are women who lie about having been raped. Black men need to ask themselves why it’s so much easier to focus on the very small percentage of false accusations than it is to focus on focus on the pervasiveness of rape? I believe Black men have a non-negotiable responsibility to focus on addressing and ending rape in our communities.
In the last stanza of his riveting poem, “To Some Supposed Brothers,” the late, award-winning Black Gay Poet Essex Hemphill wrote,
But we so-called men,
we so-called brothers
wonder why it’s so hard
to love ‘our’ women
when we’re about loving them
the way america
As a community we have an acute collective awareness about the horrific impact of racism in our communities, especially as it relates to Black men and boys. Unfortunately, however, we tend to close our eyes and ears when it’s time to raise awareness and talk about the horrific impact of intra-racial rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence perpetuated against Black women in our communities. We spend so much time blaming women and girls for the violence that they experience at the hands of men and boys in ways in which we do not tolerate (without protesting) the blaming of Black men and boys for the violence that they experience at the hands of white supremacist state sanctioned violence.
We must remember that single-issue politics will never be our community’s salvation. If we do not address gender-based violence while we simultaneously address white supremacist violence, over half of our community will be vulnerable to all types of unspeakable violence, which will render our communities unsafe and not heard.
Mari Morales-Williams was born in East Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Mari Morales-Williams is an educator, community-based healer, and activist. She is the education director at The Lenfest Center in North Philadelphia. She holds a Masters and Ph.D in Urban Education and organizes around sexual violence, rape culture, and Black liberation. She is apart of FAANMail and BYP100 and believes in transformative justice.
Lori Adelman is an Executive Director at Feministing and a global health advocate specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health.
Je-Shawna Wholley is a Community Activist and Program Manager for the National Black Justice Coalition.
Mariame Kaba is a Chicago-based organizer and educator who runs Project NIA, a grassroots anti-prison organization and is also the founder of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Women and Girls.
Brittany Carter is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at New York University.
Charlene A. Carruthers is a Chicago-based Black feminist queer organizer and national coordinator of the BYP100.
Sarah Haley is an assistant professor of gender studies and African American Studies at UCLA. Her research fields are: U.S. Women’s and Gender History, African American History 1865-Present, Critical Prison Studies, Social Movements, Labor & Working Class Studies.
Danielle Moodie-Mills is the creator and co-host of Politini, a talk show serving politics and pop culture up with a twist. She is also an advisor on racial justice and LGBT policy at the Center for American Progress.
Heidi R. Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Feminist & Gender Studies at Colorado College, and is also an Associate Editor for The Feminist Wire.
Syreeta McFadden is a freelance writer and photographer who lives, reads, shoots, and writes in Brooklyn, New York.