Rarely is gender and violence against women considered when the plight of people of African descent are addressed. The Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is inherently a transnational initiative with a diasporic analysis and international implications for full achievement of recognition, justice and development, which are the objectives of the International Decade of People of African Descent.
From April 28-May 2, 2016 women of African descent and their allies gathered for the Black Women's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (BWTRC) in New York City to hear the testimonies of survivors of sexual assault, speak to the UN and attend a symbolic tribunal which would name those who done harm. Launched by Black Women’s Blueprint in 2010, the BWTRC is an independent body led by and comprised of civil society, which examines the history, context, causes, chronology, and consequence of rape/sexual assault on women of African descent. It has focused on women of African descent with legacies linked to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and enslavement in the Americas and the Caribbean.
The BWTRC initially evolved from grassroots organizing by survivors of sexual violence. It began with women and girls of African descent currently living in the United States, many of whom have been systematically denied access to assistance and justice over entire lifetimes, who began to organize with the knowledge that their own and collective transformation could not happen without public recognition and acknowledgment of the injustices and harms they had experienced. Further, these early motivators behind the BWTRC became acutely aware of the shared legacies among various groups of women of African Descent of generational trauma induced by sexual violence and its economic and overall development impacts throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. Though these survivors had done lifelong work to heal, they sought forums to hold state and non-state perpetrators of violence accountable, and the creation of space in which to build transnational power for survivors of state-based and intra-community violence. It was out of such discussions that the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault was born.
The Rapes of Black Women in the African Diaspora
Women of African descent in the Americas, including South and Central America, and the Caribbean (used here interchangeably with “Black” as an identity marker) face a peculiar form of rape-based torture and reproductive exploitation that has its origins in colonization, slavery and state apparatuses. Practices of forced reproduction and/or sterilization of Black women’s bodies initially evolved to protect the interest of the economic elites, the racially privileged, and public officials. An analysis of the systematic rape of Black women’s bodies under slavery for the purpose of profit, and its ensuing trauma, should neither be bifurcated by national borders (the United States versus the Central or South America and the Caribbean) or by a false conception of time-space (the egregious conditions of the colonial past versus a seemingly utopic post-colonial or post-racial future).
The legacy of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its infamous triangular route of forced migration for Black bodies not only binds these women by their phenotype, blood lines, or cultural heritage. The legacy of the slave trade as it pertains to Black women’s reproductive freedom and health is even more insidious: it has become codified in state policy and ingrained in social stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality which threaten Black women’s safety, protection from disease, mental health, and mobility. Long-held stereotypes under slavery which figured Black women’s and girls’ bodies as sexually deviant; always and forever violable--unrapeable by virtue of their assumed exploitability; and requiring containment for the purposes of control and moderation; still hold sway in global policing practices and the prevalence of police sexual abuse. The historic construction of black women as four discrete types: mammy, jezebel, sapphire and mule have also created and fed into widely-held notions about the role Black women play in interpersonal or familial relationships: as “matriarchs,” emasculating,” “unable to be raped,” “sexually promiscuous ”or “hypersexual.” Not enough work has been done to unpack how these views have not only been internalized by both men and women and contribute to the rate of violence in our communities, but also the ways in which they shape Black women’s contact with state agents.
The legacy of slavery also lives on in how Black women are compelled to navigate the disjuncture between their disparate geographic locations, and their attempts to transnationally organize against a shared social location of strife, vulnerability, neglect, and abuse inflicted by state and private market actors alike. The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination’s asserts in its General Comment No. 25 that it is important to consider how issues of gender are interlinked with race to “only or primarily affect women, affect women in a different ways, or to a different degree.” Black Women’s Blueprint accepts and extends this point by contending that the intertwined experiences of gendered and racialized inequity and exploitation experienced by Black women in the United States are not to a different degree or simply mirror the experiences of Black women in Central and South America and the Caribbean, but that these experiences are in fact mutually constitutive of one another. BWB acknowledges that the diaspora has produced a multiplicity of Black identities and experiences mediated within and by national contexts. However, we urge all BWTRC supporters and sponsors to understand that distinguishing between the United States and the rest of the “global” community is neither factually accurate nor politically expedient when it comes to stemming the time of sexual violence against Black women and gender-fluid people specifically.
Instead, the BWTRC represents an effort by Black women in the diaspora to mobilize together, countering four centuries of enforced (and embodied interpolation) nationalist ideologies of “divide and conquer” designed to prevent meaningful resistance by Black collectivities on plantations during and after the slave trade.
The Pursuit of Truth, Justice and Healing for Rape Survivors of African Descent has been the ultimate goal of the BWTRC and as Farah Tanis, Executive Director of Black Women's Blueprint and Chair of the BWTRC initiated the four day process, no truer words were ever spoken: "Some of us have been holding our breath for almost 400 years".