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By Rachel Broadwater
On March 10, 2011 activist Quannell X spearheaded a rally in connection to the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old Latina girl that occurred over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. The attack tore apart the predominantly African American community of Cleveland, Texas. Most in attendance at the rally were solidly working class and the expressions across the crowd captured by the Houston news channel Fox 26 belied a range of sentiments and feelings: rage, frustration and doubt. As Quannell X spoke, the audience seemed to come alive, as if experiencing the cathartic effect of a church service. The men and women nodded their heads and clapped their hands and when Mr. X drove a point home, hands were extended towards the sky in appreciation and agreement. Many in the audience were women: mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, around the way women who are sick and tired of racist police, the media not asking the right questions, and most of all being in the spotlight. They were not there, however, in support of the girl. They instead were standing firm with the males ages 14-27 who stood accused of this horrific crime.
Quanell X Stages Rally in Cleveland: MyFoxHOUSTON.com
If the depraved acts that have so far implicated 19 boys and men in this town have riled the nation, the responses of the grown women whether expressed at the rally or in response to journalists’ questions have incited rage. Listening to women say that “she” knew what she was doing, watching them clap enthusiastically as Quannell X spoke with authority that the accused could not have been the only ones to have had “sex” with the victim or as the relatives stood before the crowd holding hands, being told to stand by their children and make sure that they did not accept any “trumped up charges” has been a complete out of body experience for many across the nation. Certainly these opinions are not unheard of in private spaces, but the readiness to express them to whoever will listen is not a little shocking.
In an effort to stand apart from the residents of Cleveland, Texas, African Americans, especially women, have been vocal in their defense of this child in various parts of the blogosphere. After all, the age of the victim makes the alleged crimes particularly heinous. A child cannot consent to sex, nor is she responsible for the behavior of her abusers, nor is it credible to suggest that she had the power or know-how to actively seduce and manipulate grown men, nor to then turn around and manipulate the justice system to her own ends. But, still, I cannot agree with the critics who have gone so far as to write off the women of Cleveland, Texas as degenerates, lower than the low, a product of a toxic brew that has been boiling in the community for a long time. I can understand these sentiments, but, I cannot agree. Sadly, what I saw in the women at the Quannell X rally was the result of centuries of black female minds and bodies being considered unworthy of protection and care, not just by our country but also by the larger African American community. What I saw were women whose collective trauma had been mishandled, misappropriated, misunderstood, and largely ignored by those closest to them. This does not excuse them for their position in any way. But surely what these women do not deserve is more mistreatment, more denigration, more disrespect. Rather their response requires that we look inward, asking how and why this has happened and continues to happen. And it should make us ask what we need to do to stop it.
Some would say that the genesis of this destructive mindset is the moment when hip hop began to direct its rage toward black women rather than the intersection of racism, poverty and police brutality. But, music is simply a vehicle for sentiment and if it were not hip hop expressing these emotions, than another medium would have taken on this role. A more honest reckoning would admit that this displacement of black women and girls predates the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. In the former we were considered the well dressed accessories to the men’s dark shades and sharp seams, while in the latter, we were the smiling silent ones handing out the fish sandwiches and cool lemonade while the men did the marching and the talking.
Our accomplishments and contributions to both movements have been diluted to the point of near invisibility, and the all too frequent sexual violence endured during those times by black women and girls at the hands of white men and boys has barley been acknowledged. In fact, I’d venture to say that many in our community are wholly ignorant of these atrocities. Only now has 91-year-old Recy Taylor received anything close to closure for the vicious gang rape she suffered over 50 years ago. The then 24 year old sharecropper was kidnapped at gunpoint by seven white men. Marvin White, the lawyer representing the accused, offered a settlement of $600 to Mrs. Taylor’s husband, Willie. The only reason her case has re-emerged recently is because of Danielle McGuire’s book At the Dark End of the Street which details not only the attack but also the pivotal role that Civil Rights hero Rosa Parks played in gaining national and global interest in the case.
No the true beginning was not hip hop, nor was it the Civil Rights or Black Power movements. No, the true beginning was when the first African was captured and sold in what would be a hell that would last for well over 200 years. And after that hell ended, a different sort of bondage took its place: the bondage of respectability. Respectability repudiated the myth that we were ignorant, lazy, immoral, sexual savages, and given to every vice that the white mind could conjure up. We had to be clean, industrious, upright, upstanding, Christian and educated. And our sisters had to be especially respectable. The struggle for equality, dignity and respect was centered on the black male, and thus, the duty for black women was not to bring any disgrace to the cause, to shield our men folk from harm. Our value was to appear spotless, and to transfer that spotlessness to our men. In order to dispel the potentially deadly impression that black men wanted nothing more than to rape white women, we stood by our men loudly proclaiming their innocence and piety. There was no room in all of this spotlessness, in all this fighting against the oppressive racism that permeated every facet of black life, for black women to give voice to the abuse many had suffered at the hands of our brothers. So we kept it quiet for the cause, so as not to trouble the waters or bring shame on our own families. This displacement of black female suffering has been an unfortunate birthright we have been passing down from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter, aunt to niece for generation after generation.
Olivia Harris in her piece “Silence” describes various sorts of silences and omission as “lacunae.” Families, other groups, and society at large, she says, teaches “individuals these lacunae by keeping certain things from the public sphere.” For black women, lacunae are not only enforced from outside, but also from within. We silence ourselves and risk erasing a part of ourselves in our collective narrative. And it is not only that we are reticent to report crimes perpetrated against us but that we refuse to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. For many black women, tears are not an option. This is because many of us were told by our mother figures that no one would be swayed by our tears or frankly care about our tears since we were not viewed as females in the first place.
Whatever the origins of the silence that engulfs the oppression of black girls and women, it must end. We cannot continue on this trajectory, which affects our sisters across socioeconomic, marital, sexual orientation and religious boundaries. If we and those who profess to be our allies do not come together to combat this, we will continue to have the sentiments of those in Cleveland, Texas. These are some important first steps to take to start a long and difficult healing.
1. We must dispose of the trope of: black woman = superwoman. When we equate ourselves with superwomen, we become bodies that cannot be raped, cannot be mutilated, cannot be abused and dehumanized. When we equate ourselves with superwomen people feel that they can put up billboards stating as a fact that the most dangerous place for a black baby is in a black woman’s womb. Yes, we are strong. Yes, we are resilient. However, we are not invincible or impervious to pain and suffering. We bleed, we hurt, we cry and we must give ourselves permission to grieve and to mourn and then reconstruct ourselves in the best way we see fit.
2. We must get serious about mental health. For too many, mental health care is a luxury, a white woman’s thing or something that somehow diminishes our faith. None of these are true. To be able to inhabit a space all our own to lay down your burdens, to be able to examine all of the threads that make us, to disentangle those that are damaging to our spirits and bodies with a trained professional who will be our ally in our healing is something every single black woman deserves without apology. To seek out a professional is not a sign that one is not a believer. This insulting attitude that conveniently applies only to mental health care than health care in general, makes black woman’s quest for peace of mind a zero sum game. There is absolutely no reason for this to be. Sexual abuse affects among other things, one’s ability to bond with others, our friends, our loved ones and, most especially, our children. When trauma is not dealt with, it takes away from a person the ability to empathize, to be emotionally available, which is to the detriment of everyone with whom we are close. It may be most tragic for the mothers among us, who cannot be emotionally available to their children.
3. Black women and girls must demand more from our spiritual spaces. For many black women and girls, spiritual spaces are not the affirming, enlightening, encouraging and engaging environments they should be. Too many clergy still rely on the same tired and intellectually lazy viewpoint that black girls and women are responsible for the sad state of the black community at large. Besides ignoring the painful nuances of our lives, this way of looking at the world puts women at fault for all of our troubles and all of everyone else’s. It fosters silence, shame, despair and unnecessary suffering for these women and their families. Many ministers will acknowledge the difficulties of their daughters in ministry, when addressed one-on-one; however this sensitivity often does not show itself on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The womanist centered theology, inspired by the author Alice Walker’s term “womanist” and set forth by such pioneers as Jacqueline Grant and Delores Williams, argued that the black liberation theology founded by James Cone that was crucial to both Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement left out the important and unique position of black women as existing at the intersections of racism, classism, and sexism. Integrating womanist theologies serves two very important functions. It not only brings black women but other marginalized bodies to the front and center and in addition to drawing from scripture, it also acknowledges the importance of poetry, literature, art, dance and other artistic forms of resistance as being central to the healing of the body and soul. For the rest of the spiritual body especially men and children, it offers tools besides patriarchy, white supremacy, and misogyny to deal with the world around them.
4. We must re-examine how we raise our children. There is a saying that black mothers raise their daughters and love their sons. While this mindset in not exclusive to the African American community this is especially dangerous to black girls. When you raise something you expect it to conform to a preset idea. When you love something you want it to be the very best, to achieve, to dream and to wonder. You are tender and empathetic. You are not quick with your actions. Our children need to be loved. Period.
This is in no way meant to be a definitive list. There are many things that can be added and should be. But this does offer a starting point, giving black women and girls as good a chance as any to not only survive but thrive.
Rachel L Broadwater is a freelance writer who is currently finishing up her first play Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.
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