When the Silence Shatters: Post-Black Women's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Reflections f
“The fact that we are here and that [we] speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken” – Audre Lorde
Photo by Maybelline McCoy
The time between mid-July till mid-September is rough for me. July 11th and September 13th bookend my summer as the dates of two of my sexual assaults. Some people name the date the “anniversary” of their rape, but that to me sounds too celebratory, too cheerful for the pain, trauma and destruction that an afternoon and evening on two separate days, caused in my life.
In the past, I have spent September 13th having a flashback and subsequent panic attack in a foreign country, drinking a bottle of wine and watching Grey’s Anatomy reruns alone in my bed, going to therapy and going camping with then strangers turned friends at graduate school, among other non-memorable activities. I do not know how I will spend this September 13th; I do not know if I will cry or scream or feel numb. If I will go to work, or stay in bed. What I do know, is that whatever I do, however I show up on that day, I will not be silent.
My silence about my rapes unequivocally ended on April 28th 2016. On that day, I became a testifier at the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on sexual assault organized by Black Women’s Blueprint. On April 28th, and throughout that weekend, I learned that speaking out is revolutionary and necessary, not only to heal oneself, but to heal a country, and a people who have been systematically denied humanity for centuries due to a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society. Over that weekend I embraced my woman-ness, my Blackness, my Black woman-ness and the power, strength and potential that is bound up in all of the intersecting aspects of my identity.
I had spoken about my assaults before but always in a piecemeal and/or cryptic fashion. My decision to fully discuss the details of all three sexual assaults at the TRC, along with how the intersections of physical trauma affected my life, was a choice about what I needed to say rather than what I wanted other people to hear.
My previous silence was born out of shame and embarrassment, and the necessity to keep myself small. I believed that in keeping myself small, in taking up as little space as possible, I would keep myself safe. My silence was born out of centuries of society telling Black women that their pain is not valid, that their bodies are not their own, that when they speak out and resist, the consequences can be deadly.
The evening before the TRC, as testifiers many of us came together at a hotel and had a “dress rehearsal.” Gathering in the hotel lobby, greeting each other and putting faces to the names, voices and stories we had interacted with for weeks previously, we filled the space with our laughter, our love, and lots and lots of candy. A few of us volunteered to read through our testimonies, right there, in the lobby café. We took up space. As powerful Black women. In a society that always wants to silence us and hide us away we took up space. At first I was admittedly uncomfortable talking in such an open space. But I realized that my desire to be in a more private space was rooted in shame and in the mistaken belief that rape is something that is not to be discussed in public spaces. But here’s the thing, rape, and the effects of rape absolutely must be discussed in public spheres, absolutely must be discussed loudly, and absolutely must be discussed unapologetically. That night, even before the TRC, I learned that as Black women, taking up public space, talking about our experiences with rape and assault, was revolutionary and transformational.
But still, reading my testimony in a hotel lobby, in front of women whom I had grown to know and cherish over a matter of weeks was different than speaking in front of a live audience in Riverside Church and a live streamed virtual world. For a moment, everything seemed too big, too ugly, too much. The girl in me who cherished smallness, who found safety in silence was screaming. The woman inside of me spoke from a place that I had never spoken from before. It was clear and intentional, slow and connected, passionate and compassionate.
In my testimony I declared that I wasn’t supposed to be here. I, like so many of my sisters, were never met to survive. Furthermore, we were never meant to thrive. We were never meant to heal. And standing on that stage in Riverside Church, affirmed our survivorship, our healing and our humanity.
I stood there and I spoke every detail that I was terrified to say. Every detail that I was so deeply ashamed of. In response I was told that I am beautiful, that I am loved, and that I (in that moment) was safe.
The TRC gave voice to survivors’ stories, and illustrated what it means to show up for Black women. Black women held space for each other, witnessed each other and lifted our collective humanity.
The TRC brought me closer to an ancestral truth and an ancestral tradition of resistance through being. Resistance through refusing to be defined by those who do not know your struggle, who do not care to see your truth. I am driven to discover and reclaim the truths, memories and stories of the Black women in my family, my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, my Aunts and great-Aunts whose lives without which I would not be here. To learn the lessons that they learned, and tap into the strength that carried them through.
The TRC also left some questions unanswered. What does justice really look like in a society that systematically prevents Black women and girls from avenues of redress? How do we hold harm-doers accountable in a transformative way instead of a punitive way? What does reconciliation mean as a survivor? And as Sevonna Brown asked in her piece “Post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The Sacred-Political Lives of Black Women Survivors of Rape,” how do we as Black women continue living, surviving and thriving in the same world that we were raped in, and the same world that is hell bent on keeping us silent?
I do not know the answers yet, but I do know that I refuse to be silent anymore to protect the feelings of others. I refuse to be silent when silence does not protect me. Silence maintains the status quo, and the status quo in the United States, in 2016, is leaving too many Black women and girls raped, beaten, murdered, disenfranchised, homeless, and dehumanized. The status quo cannot and will not be allowed to continue.
To everyone who came to bear witness at the TRC, I see you.
To everyone who participated in the TRC by sharing their stories, I honor you.
To all the Black girls and women who are struggling with finding their voice, who feel like their stories render them ugly, undeserving of love, of comfort, of joy. I love you.
Keep speaking your truth, in whatever way you can. In anonymous blogs and online posts, to yourself in the mirror late at night, writing in your journal. Remember that your very survival is a testament to your strength and remember that your story, your experience and your life has extraordinary value.
In the words of Audre Lorde, [you] are not only a casualty, [you] are also a warrior.