This letter is an open letter response to an email sent to us by a long-time, well-known Black feminist-identified organizer in our community who made a choice to side with a man, also a well-known organizer she knew, who harmed one of our collective members. We received her email–both belittling and insensitive–shortly after the woman who was harmed met with her and shared her story, openly, for the first time. Her response was a painful, illuminating moment for us in our community accountability organizing, and it was also one we commonly encounter. This letter is a call for clarity in our interventions to end sexual violence in our communities.
“I have all the guns and all the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within. Am I right, comrade?”
–Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power, 1993
I would like to share a story with you about rape and home.
It is an attempt to make sense of your choice—as a Black woman, a community activist, and mother– to stand by a Black man who has harmed a woman he once loved and shares children with. It is an attempt to lessen the fracturing pain of facing another Black woman’s back when sexual violence is spoken.
My father was not the first man to break my heart. He actually came much later, some years after Ari Bailey.
Ari was not a lover at all.
He was my brother with a loud and wild laugh, so sharp and sure, it could overcome all empty space in a room. A few months ago, I told Yan, his best friend, that I can still hear Yan’s laugh—certain, puncturing all stillness, just like Ari’s—when I think of our time together in the spring of 1993.
I was 20 years old when we met.
Ari grew up Harlem, where his girlfriend, Shani—my closest girlfriend–had also grown up. Shani had grown up in Schomburg Plaza on 5th and 110th her entire life and her mama for 20 years before, before departing NYC for the elite Tabor Academy on a scholarship at 14. We all ended up at Howard University in 1993, in the Tower Apartments, just facing campus. Ari had moved in with Shani after completing his B.A. in Education at Morgan State University in neighboring Baltimore, MD. He came to Howard to get his masters and work with Black children, he said, because Black children never see Black men facing them in classrooms. I remember, particularly, the abundant laughter between us, encircling us when we were together. I remember the easy way he was loved by his friends, the way he was trusted immediately when he entered a room. I remember the way he loved my girlfriend, Shani—the way he called her name, softly, in moments of both need and desire. The way he referred to her as his “Earth,” his “Black Queen,” his wife. Like so many of us, he had shaped a world of excellence without his father in it, and in substitution, grew long locks and an air of Black Nationalism that bespoke his love for Black children.
I remember, with a deep sorrow now, the way his mother loved him more than anything else in the world. Well before the birth of my own three children, I witnessed the devastating kind of intractable dignity single Black mothers wear next to their male children who, after an adolescence survived and surmounted, find themselves latched onto the criminal justice system forever. On December 23, 1993, in the late morning, Ari walked a few flights upstairs in the Towers while Shani was downstairs packing for their trip home for the Christmas break. There, he strangled and raped a woman, twice, that he knew. (His case is here: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/dc-court-of-appeals/1256144.html)
This is Ari’s 22nd year in prison. He was convicted, quickly and with little deliberation, by his jury. A second claim of rape—committed two months before the December 23 rape– surfaced from Morgan State University during Ari’s trial. I can’t recall between 1993 and 1997, his conviction year, when I stopped showing up to court. During the initial stages of his arrest, I, Shani, and Ya showed up to court to listen to the charges leveled against him. We wore yellow, purple, white, green to court—colors symbolically denoting our love for him, as well as reflecting Shani’s Yoruba beliefs. I loved Ari because I had witnessed his love for my Shani. I had trusted him when he said “consensual sex” because he had always been good and clear and honorable next to my body.
I do remember the very first moment I was shown the photos by Shani, those later admitted into evidence, showing clear, flesh colored abrasions from strangulation on the victim’s right neck side and chest taken at the police station just hours after Ari raped her. I looked at her clear and beautiful brown face–her streaked cheeks, lips, nose, the tired curve of her eyes–, and demanded, angrily, why the police officer had captured her entire face, rather than just her wounds, and so, had betrayed her anonymity in the photos. It was my first moment of shifting belief, the first time my heart turned towards this woman’s face, and I wanted to hear her words.
I would hear her words two and a half years later when I co-organized with a small group of other Black women in protest of a gang rape that had been committed on the Yard during a clear spring day. A number of students had witnessed the assault committed by some fraternity members, and the campus police department refused to do more than a cursory investigation. After our rally, I sat down alone on some concrete stairs and soon, met the wide shadow of another woman, rotund and blocking the sun before me. Her first words were, “Thank you so much for doing this.” She sat next to me, I turned to face her, and I recognized her from the police photos.
Meeting this woman that day on the steps in front of Douglass Hall was neither an ending nor a beginning for me in my understanding of sexual violence and Black women. It served, however, as a transformative moment on a timeline of familial and interpersonal sexual violence. After she thanked me that day, she began to explain that she, too, had been raped on campus two years prior and had had a hard time convincing her friends, her family, and other women that she had been raped by Ari in the Towers two days before Christmas. With quick words, she explained the difficulty of her choice to remain at Howard, her unyielding depression, and a body carrying 40 additional pounds for the first time in her life. I listened and studied her eyes. When she paused, I shared my proximity to her story and could feel the moments shrinking between us, could see the desire to shift back to anonymity in her eyes. “I believe you…everything you said to me. Every word,” I told her as she rose from the stairs to walk away from me.
In that moment, I knew that I would not easily doubt another Black woman ever again. I had been given two proximate examples in my youth, two well-detailed profiles of rapists in Black men that I had loved as my template for understanding what a rapist may be. My father is brilliant. He is handsome and deeply charismatic and passionate and educated. I have known him, parallel, in his brutality. Loving two men in my lifetime who also rape, has done a number of things. With its real proximity—the first man I have known, a man who loved my best friend–, this kind of love has shifted my emotional understanding of kinship and friendship permanently. It has taught me that inside of my most tightly enclosed boundaries—the spaces where I practice a love of easy and unrigorous trust–, I know men who have raped other women. In the space of a heart that has been steady and open to men who have raped, I have had to face a profound spiritual shift because I need my heart to retain its elasticity in my life’s most important work—that is, in raising three Black children who will never know their grandfather. They—4, 6, and 8—have already asked me “why” a number of times. And, in them, I have faced the challenge of explaining in non-adolescent terms, how we sometimes love and desire people who make deep hurts and scars on our body. This kind of love is not an oxymoron, I try to explain.
Trusting and loving two men who have raped has taught me that, in kinship–both familial and extended–, lie the spaces where I must believe I will find violence. My good girlfriend from college, Nathalie, articulates this point even more bluntly: “All men are rapists….potentially,” she says. She warns me anecdotally, hands akimbo, mouth pressed to one side: “Girl, never trust a man who calls you his ‘Black Queen.’” In her statement, lies a particular kind of cut-eyed knowledge Black women, who come of age in self-designated Black-centered/Afrocentric/Black nationalist spaces, carry as we reckon with an unshakable love of Blackness stabbed through with specific, historic contradictions time and time and time again. Therein lies gendered and sexual violence, homophobia, and a heteronormativity particular to Black communities, as well as a conception of “Blackness” that cloaks traditions of violence against Black women beneath an imagined “excellent Black man” or “unified Black community.”
Trusting and loving two men who have raped has also shifted my naive, polarized reductionism of “rape” blindly away from the fact of normative violence heaped upon Black women’s bodies forever by our communities and the outside world. The arc of my life has shown me that most Black women in it have been touched too soon by fathers, cousins, male family members; have been called dark and ugly and have had to self-resurrect in that Black body time and time again; have been left behind by Black men intentionally or by mental illness to do the great weight of rearing Black children solo; and have sometimes lost a mind, but have found a way back to it. This point about Black women’s normative violence and my choice to see it, to name it, is especially important to me, because I love Black women so. There can be no greater violence committed by another Black woman, I now believe, than shunning a Black women who dares to open her mouth and tell her story.
I have thought continuously since our meeting about the costs of non-believing—of your choice to believe an aggressor who is, like the woman who was harmed, an important member of our community. As part of the process, I want to begin with naming the act of disbelief, itself, as a form of violence. Believing a rapist versus a woman who has been raped is a concrete and demarcating position. While arriving to a place of certainty may take time, the destination is either 1) belief in a woman who was raped or 2) belief in a man who says he never did. To tell a woman that you both believe an aggressor and “do not deny the experience” of a woman who has been raped, is like that age-old adage of being “a little bit pregnant”– swollen with impossibility and so, truly oxymoronic. At the very least, it carries the weight of speaking with a forked tongue and is necessarily painful to a woman who has experienced sexual violence.
How do we lean into a story of rape spoken by a Black woman to hear its truth, particularly when it involves a Black man we know and care deeply for? How do we separate ourselves out from a personal narrative of rape, so that we can hear the woman who is telling the story? What are the consequences, both personal and communal, in denying the veracity of her story?
In December of 2013, I listened to a woman who I had known casually for six years, explain her history of violence and rape with a man who had been a mentor and friend for three years prior to me. At the time she told me about her experience of sexual violence with _______ , I was closer in friendship to him. I had spent time with him at my kitchen table, both alone and with his children. I had witnessed his sharp brilliance. Why, on that December day, did I choose to believe her story and prepare to stand by her in the face of a denial that I knew would likely come? There are a number of reasons, many intertwined and non-linear. These reasons, I hope, can become talking points in our community and used more widely, when we need to face sexual violence again.
- We owe Black women everything. If we claim to stand for Black communities, then we owe Black women the space and due diligence to be heard and believed. When we are split open with pain because who we know a Black man to be, does not—within any rationality– match the act he committed, we still owe Black women a heart space to listen, ask questions, and then, figure out where to root ourselves. We owe Black women a willingness to listen to a timeline of events before and after a sexual assault. When we are faced with “good Black men” in our community who have harmed, we owe Black women an important analysis: What does she have to lose by lying and then, what does he have to lose by asserting the truth? If a Black woman —a mother, a community worker, a daughter, a sister—has invested in her healing, bears herself raw to tell her story, and has her whole life to lose with an untruth, we owe her, most minimally, our heart of support, a heart that believes.
- Separating ourselves out, emotionally and spiritually, affords an opportunity to check in with our own personal histories of violence. If we are shook to our core with disbelief, then we have not done our homework with respect to what rape—historically, patternistically—looks like in Black communities and by extension, in North America. We do not yet accept that rape culture is entrenched, too, within our spaces of excellence. And, within Black diasporic communities, often such disbelief means we have not “cleaned house”—meaning, we have not faced our personal and familial histories as sexual abuse survivors. As my lifelong girlfriend, whose family is Trinidadian, recently explained to me, our communities carry the psychic violence of our aunties, mothers, and grandmothers who survived, sealed their mouths shut through generations, and admonished us to “just get over it.” “It truly is an, ‘If-I-survived-it, so-can-you’ response,” my girlfriend explains. “And it was the same with her mama and her mama’s mama, too.”
- We need Black women to be community historians of our own Black Power stories. And so, we need other Black women to hear our stories, believe that they contain truths, and document them both within memorial and scripted archives. Our histories of violence have been cemented over inside of community actions. Within our Black intellectual and radical traditions, our stories of sexual and physical violence have seldom been spoken and if so, come at a cost of community and cultural alienation. We must be brave enough to ask ourselves why so few Black women who survived the late sixties and seventies, speak about the intra-community violence they experienced and witnessed as “whitey” was being named as the ill of Black communities. We must talk about why these same Black women–four and five decades removed– continue to remain silent about the sexual violence they experienced at the hands of Black movement men so long ago? And we must ask ourselves this: What are the spiritual and kinship costs of dragging the deadness of this legacy forward? Why can we so readily offer a Trouillot-like critique of the oppression of our wider historical narratives, yet cannot shape the same sharp critique regarding our personal, intra-community histories of sexual violence? Our histories of Black movement politics and Black nationalism have constructed an imaginary of community that both cloaks the realities of Black women and chastises Black women as lacking integrity and failing to stand for the whole of community, when we do name “good Black men” as those who have done us wrong. We must begin to face, fully, the tradition and weight of silencing sexual and intimate partner violence in our communities and name this history as a harmful, reactionary response to the “broken Black family” narrative.
- Finally, this. We must conceptualize our survival as one that combines our personal healing and growth, as well as our “work.” What does it take to walk through the world in a way that ensures our heart speech matches up with what spills from our mouth? What does it mean to commit a life’s work to community activism and receive, with open arms, the violence that comes home to us in the form of loved ones, lovers, and kin? This last question, I believe, is urgent. Our activist work fills up the most vulnerable of spaces, because so often, we come to one another already fractured. We are all personal works in progress—called to the work we do because we have, at one time or another, suffered in it. In other words, we are survivors/victims/resistors, and our work necessarily bleeds into us because we bled first. Somatics calls us forward with the understanding that what we do and what we are, are coterminous. If we proceed with personal detachment, we risk everything—our organizational strength, the efficacy of our work, our integrity, and our mental health. We risk failing to believe and stand next to a Black woman who is telling the truth. I believe that we must proceed in our work facing the bright white violence of our past, committing equally to our pathway of healing before we dive, fully, into a ruptured activism. We must believe that our personal growth and healing project runs parallel to our work.
Written by Rachel Zellars