Black feminist scholars highlight sexual violence

Three prominent Black feminist scholars came together at Mount Holyoke in April to discuss gender-based violence, sexual violence and racial violence. The forum took place during the twenty-second annual national Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Content warning: gender-based violence, rape, sexual violence and racial violence

Three prominent Black feminist scholars came together at Mount Holyoke College on April 24 to discuss gender-based violence, sexual violence and racial violence. This forum took place during the twenty-second annual national Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The theme this year recognized that sexual violence won’t abate without the end of racism.

Mount Holyoke College Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Kijua Sanders-McMurtry moderated the conversation between Smith College professor emerita Paula Giddings, Spelman College social justice fellows program director Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Spelman College associate professor of sociology Cynthia Spence.

The event, titled “Ending the Silence: Black Feminists Speak on Racial Terror and Gender-Based Violence,” followed a screening of the film “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” The film centers on Taylor, a 24-year-old Black woman and sharecropper, who, in 1944, identified her six rapists during the Jim Crow era. Sanders-McMurtry asked each panelist for their reflections on the film and Taylor.

Giddings was struck by Taylor’s courage to speak out during a time of extreme racial violence, when most Black women understandably stayed silent to preserve their lives.

“My goodness, can you imagine testifying about what had happened to her [Taylor] in a place like Abbeville, Alabama, full well knowing the consequences?” said Giddings. “We saw in the film that she’s threatened, her house is burned down … ”

The film also highlights Rosa Parks. Most know Parks as a woman who bravely resisted racism when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, which inspired the Montgomery bus boycott. But her history as a sexual-assault investigator with the NAACP is largely hidden, as is her role in investigating Taylor’s gang rape. This happened a decade before Parks’ famous bus protest.

Sanders-McMurtry emphasized the very existence of the job Parks held: “The fact that the NAACP actually chose to have a position, special investigator for rape crimes, is really powerful.”

Besides Taylor and Parks, panelists also acknowledged the investigative reporter and titan of her time — Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Wells-Barnett investigated the lynchings of Black men and, at great risk to her own safety, wrote about them.

“Ida B. Wells begins really the nation’s first anti-lynching movement in 1892, which she launches from Memphis, Tennessee. She’s not the first one to talk about lynching … but she’s the first one to create a movement and a discourse around lynching,” said Giddings. “One of the things that makes Ida Wells so controversial is at the center of this discourse are ideas around interracial rape.”

The excuse, Giddings reminded the audience, for many lynchings of Black men was that they raped white women. However, Wells-Barnett uncovered that men were falsely accused of rape to cover up consensual relationships between Black men and white women.

“What Wells said in her discourse about lynching is that while Black men are being accused of rape falsely, Black women are actually being raped,” Giddings said. “She understood that rape and lynching are both means of racial control.”

The false stereotype of all Black men being hypersexual and predatory still permeates culture today. But there is another, thornier side of this conversation, given the backdrop of Black men who were killed over false rape accusations during the Jim Crow era. Even today, Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault than white people, according to a 2017 report.

Another difficulty some Black women struggle with is not wanting to call themselves “victims.” Giddings said this happens partly, but not always, because this term is associated with white women.

“What they’ve thrown out with that is also many important feminist ideas, particularly around patriarchy,” Giddings said. “Black people haven’t had a sexual revolution … there is a sense that Black men are going to save us.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Sanders-McMurtry asked each woman what gives them hope. All three spoke of the good entangled with the bad.

Spence brought up the backlash against critical race theory (CRT), intersectionality and The 1619 Project. While the rejection and outright banning of these ideas and content frustrates Spence, hope is embedded in these challenges.

“[Censors] know that young people are really embracing these theoretical frameworks. They’re asking more questions, and they are questioning the structures that continue to marginalize,” Spence said.

Sanders-McMurtry hopes that students will integrate Black feminism into their social justice leanings too.

“Black feminism is a call for all of us to be liberated, all of us to find ways to fight oppressive systems,” Sanders-McMurtry said.

Similarly, feminist friendships, especially with Black women, also invigorate the panelists and help them in their continued fight against sexual and racial violence.

“Feminist friendships are extremely important and also fun,” said Guy-Sheftall.

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