We, the undersigned women of African descent across ethnicities including anti-violence advocates, survivors, activists, scholars, organizational, and spiritual leaders who convened the first Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Violence in 2016, wish to address the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.
Dear Mr. President,
“I just want him to know who I am.” This is what 96 year old Recy Taylor, a civil rights leader who worked with Rosa Parks to address rape in the Jim Crow South and a survivor of sexual violence herself, said after a visit to the White House and being asked what she wished she could say to you, given the chance Mr. President.
Recy Taylor’s 1944 rape case is well-documented in books and various online sources. She is an African-American woman from Abbeville in Henry County, Alabama. On September 3, 1944, Taylor, was leaving church when she was kidnapped and brutally gang-raped by six white men. Even though the men admitted the rape to authorities, two all-white grand juries declined to indict Taylor's assailants. Taylor's rape and the subsequent court cases were among the first instances of nationwide protest and activism among the African-American community and ended up providing an early organizational spark for the Civil Rights movement with Rosa Parks at the helm of the anti-rape movement.
In 2011, after decades of advocacy efforts put forth by her brother Robert Corbitt, the Alabama House of Representatives apologized on behalf of the state "for its failure to prosecute Recy Taylor’s attackers."
The failure to dispense justice in the 1944 case of Recy Taylor is not surprising, but symptomatic of the larger failing of a society where the intersection of racism and sexism has failed Black women and girls for over 400 years.
For example, “We Charge Genocide,” a petition submitted to the United Nations by the Civil Rights Congress in 1951, documented thousands of incidents of violence against African-Americans. While the modern Black civil rights movement if the 1960’s ushered in a formal end to Jim Crow era segregation and violence, it has taken decades to gain a modicum of mainstream acknowledgement of the multiple and covert ways that racial apartheid functions in the United States. It is still not widely accepted or acknowledged.
When examined through a gendered lens, it becomes clear how Black women’s unique experiences with violence are often seen as afterthoughts when addressed at all. A number of scholars and advocates, for example, have documented the ways in which the criminal justice system still functions as a form of a new Jim Crow. Yet, for all the acknowledgement of this new-era racial apartheid and pervasive abuse by law enforcement officials, it has mainly focused on the torture and killing of Black men. The result is that violence against Black women and girls, especially sexual violence, often remains invisible and this non-recognition serves to perpetuate the harm being done.
But, Mr. President, whether by police or non-state actors, the rape and sexual torture of Black women and the justification of this torture still continue.
The injustice suffered by Recy Taylor, the utter disregard for her humanity, the attempted erasure of her story, is not an isolated incident. We see the past replicated today. This was clear with the case of white Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Ken Holtzclaw who was convicted earlier this year of sexually assaulting, raping, stalking, fondling, and exposing himself to at least eight Black women between the ages of 17 and 57 during traffic stops while on duty.
We see the continued abuse in the Black Women’s Blueprint study (2014) showing that 60 percent of Black girls experience sexual assault before the age of 18 and when Black women are raped on their college campuses. We see it in the 64,000 missing Black girls across the country. We feel it walking down the street and entering spaces of worship and supposed sanctuary.
And we ask, Mr. President, do you see it, too?
As Farah Tanis, executive director of Black Women’s Blueprint reminds us, “the U.S. is one of the few places in the world where rapes have occurred systematically against an entire race of people, especially the Black women among these people, and there has been no outcry, no processes for justice, and still little to no acknowledgement of such violations officially and its impact on Black women and girls today.”
We, the undersigned, ask you, Mr. President, to do what no other president before you has done -- acknowledge the history of sexual violence against Black women and girls during slavery and the sexual violence that has been maintained through the enforcement of Slave Codes, Black Codes, and Jim Crow segregation laws, forming the basis of de jure and de facto discrimination. We ask you to acknowledge the rapes which continue to occur, whose motivations are rooted in the structural racism and sexism of today.
In an era when human rights are being championed by courageous leaders worldwide, we have witnessed countries fulfilling their obligation of the duty of memory to the most systematically marginalized members of their societies. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recently issued a statement acknowledging the human rights abuses that the indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of colonialism and imperialism, and Germany recently formally acknowledged their role in the Herero genocide in Namibia.
As the nation that is looked upon as a beacon and model for human rights, we in the United States have also witnessed you, Mr. President, acknowledge Black women and girls’ plight during your 2015 remarks at the 45th Annual Congressional Black Caucus Phoenix Award Dinner. We have also read about your position on feminism in Glamour Magazine with a declaration that “this is what a feminist looks like.” We know that never before has a president of the United States been such a champion of women’s human rights. No other president has come so close to the much needed recognition and national apology for the systematic sexual humiliation and dehumanization of Black women and girls in the United States.
To make a public statement means to acknowledge that the violence needs to stop. If we as a nation refuse to talk about it, if we as a nation continue to be silent, we as a nation cannot move forward. For you see, Mr. President, one of the horrors of rape is the silence of victims and survivors. Another is the silence of bystanders and loved ones. However, one of the most deafening horrors is the silence of a nation and its leaders. Silence only serves to support the ones who cause harm.
First Lady Michelle Obama has already broken one silence, inspiring us during the Democratic National Convention when she said that “every morning, I wake up in a house that was built by slaves.” Everyday Black women and girls wake up, exist, live, survive and thrive in a nation built by our enslaved ancestors’ hands and birthed by their wombs.
We as Black women have begun to break the silence ourselves, through the convening of the first U.S. Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (BWTRC) in April 2016. The BWTRC propelled the issue of Black women’s sexual and reproductive violence to center stage as an outcry against racism and the erasure of Black women’s histories and contributions. The call for survivor testimonies yielded over 600 responses, highlighting the intense desire and need that Black women nationwide have to share their stories and to have their stories known.
During the four days of the BWTRC, witnesses not only listened to, but held space for multi-generations of sexual assault survivors who gave their testimonies in public spaces, including Riverside Church, the United Nations, and New York City sidewalks. Testimonies detailed not just the violent act or acts, but the lived realities that Black women and girls deal with daily.
Everyday Black women and girls walk in the world, get up every morning, go to school, and work believing that their truth is too ugly, too shameful, too painful to be acknowledged. Imagine believing that your pain has cut lines too deep into your soul for you to be considered beautiful or valued. Imagine being told that your trauma negates your ability to love or to be loved, your ability to comfort and be comforted, to see others and be seen. As one testifier wrote “I was so scared that [my truth] was too ugly and too shameful to talk about.”
Mr. President, that is what too many rape survivors carry—that pain, the silence, and an erasure of their humanity.
However, the pain and trauma of rape was not the only thing witnessed and shared during those four days. Attendees and participants witnessed transformation and experienced the power of survivors reclaiming their humanity, standing in their truth and, having that truth recognized. Testifiers reclaimed bodily autonomy, declaring that “my body has power, strength, and resilience that runs hundreds of generations deep. My body is light, my life is resistance. I am not giving up.” Testifiers reclaimed identity and purpose, as stated by one woman who said “I realized that my life had a divine purpose. My new narrative for my life is to repurpose, redefine, and realign my life. I turned my pain into purpose. I redefined my identity.” Finally, testifiers reclaimed their humanity, stating “I am here,” and lifted up the humanity in others, declaring to the audience “you are beautiful. You are beautiful. You are beautiful.”
We the undersigned, understand that recognition does not equate with justice, and for many of the testifiers, and survivors more broadly, justice in the form of of the legal system will never be adjudicated. However, recognition does facilitate healing, both personally, as stated by a testifier that who shared that “once I broke through that invisible barrier of denial, I was ready to acknowledge the transition from victim to survivor,” and collectively as a nation.
We the undersigned are committed to ensuring that not another year passes without formal, official recognition by the office of The President of this history of sexual violence and its impact on Black women and girls across a variety of identities.
Like Recy Taylor, we, too, just want you to know who we are Mr. President.
Mr. President, let 2016 be the year where Black women and girls across the nation, not just those in the White House, hear our President say: “Black women survivors of America’s past and those living today, I hear you. I see you, and you are recognized.”
Please sign our petition here to add your voice and energy to this historic moment.