The number of Black war-rape survivors is unknown. Significant efforts towards supporting the healing resources and process for Black women and girls after sexual assault is abysmally limited at best. It is obvious that Black women from Africa have been targeted, especially during war activities such as internal conflicts. In Congo, approximately forty-seven women/girls are raped each hour.
Are the numbers from Congo that far removed from those of the U.S.? There have not been any war activities on U.S. soil since the Civil War. But, let us define the meaning of war. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, war is a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between a state or nation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines war as any situation in which there is strong competition between opposite sides or a great fight against something harmful.
Every rape is a war against the rights of women. The battlefield where this war is waged in the bodies of young girls and women. Rape is strategically implemented like a weapon of war. It is used to destroy the most essential foundation of a nation, families. Rape is a physical, mental, and emotional Blitzkrieg that not only undermines its victims’ sense of security and well-being, but it is also a criminal act where society blames, guilts, and shames the victims, defending the perpetrators.
War comes in varying forms. In Civil Wars like in Congo, where citizens have been fighting opposition groups, who are also citizens, for decades. There is genocide, such as that in Rwanda, where once neighbors and relatives became murderers and war criminals. The Rwandan Genocide lasted approximately three months, but it’s carnage will be felt for successive generations. Over one million Rwandans were murdered. Over half a million girls and women were subjected to sexual torture and rape. War rages in the United States in differing forms, however. Sexism and rape culture are two of the longest war theaters, along with institutionalized racism, that have been waged in the U.S. These criminal acts have directly and indirectly shaped women’s opinions of the world, themselves and their safety.
For women, physical and emotional safety is paramount. Women are expected to be solely responsible for ensuring their own safety. This expectation comes with tremendous pressure and limited support within our communities. This pressure is the weight of carrying unrealistic social, psychological, and cultural expectations, which should be noted was created by men with the privilege to deny their personal accountability with regards to their actions.
Since the arrival of first slave ship to the colony of Jamestown in 1619, another chapter of the war has been written. What does mean to be a Black Woman in the U.S.? The easiest and most effective way to answer this question is by listening to the responses given by Black women. To facilitate this learning experience, we the people and our institutions, need to provide the space and resources essential for Black women to share their experiences, free of blame, shaming, and punishment.
As I dig deeper into American history, I discover countless traumatic experiences related to Black women’s bodies. One of many powerful stories is that of war-rape survivor Recy Taylor. Recy Taylor was a 24-year-old Black woman from Abbeville, Alabama. On September 3, 1944, Ms. Taylor was walking home from church with her friends when she accosted by her perpetrators. She was abducted and gang-raped by six White men. The consequences of this brutal and barbaric crime were traumatic and longstanding for not only Recy but for her family, friends, and community as well. Recy was never able to have children following her rape. Her husband would eventually leave her and her daughter would pass away. This war against Ms. Taylor’s body destroyed her sense of safety and her family.
Recy Taylor was able to find her voice and overcome institutionalized sexism and racism to create awareness regarding sexual assault, racism, and sexism. Recy received support from the NAACP and many civil rights activists. Rosa Parks was a reverent supporter of Recy when she reported her case and she was fighting for justice.
During the Jim Crown era, Recy’s case against her six White perpetrators never went to trial. In 2011, Recy received from the Alabama Legislature official apology which called the failure to prosecute her attackers, “Morally abhorrent and repugnant.”
Recy Taylor’s story is the narrative of Black women from the Deep South who were brave enough to name what really happened, knowing that they would be vilified and shamed as their perpetrators are protected. This wasn’t the first time a Black woman stood up against white supremacy, but just like other examples it was significant. Recy was a fighter, she was prone to self-isolation, keeping her real mental and emotional pain involving her rape to herself. Ms. Taylor received support publicly as another testament to Black voices fighting racism. But as a sexual violence survivor, she with her pain and shame alone.
What does one feel as a survivor of rape? You feel shocked. You feel helpless. You feel dirty. You feel shame and overwhelming guilt. You feel split. On one hand, you know that sexual assault is a crime and the perpetrators need to be held accountable and punished. On the other hand, you as a survivor are wrestling with a million questions like, Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong? Will anyone believe me? Will I ever feel safe again? A majority of survivors believe there is some personal element of fault and blame for them being a victim of rape. This is how wars against women’s bodies works. Subconsciously, you are identifying with messages from your perpetrators and cultural institutions such as law enforcement, the medical community, even one’s own family and friends.
Recy Taylor was strong enough to fight for the justice she was owed as an American citizen, as a human being. She was determined to not remain as a victim of rape but to grow as a survivor of rape. She received support for her public efforts to hold accountable her perpetrators who were protected by racism and sexism.
I was fortunate to present a movie screening of, “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” on November 9, 2019, in New York City. With tremendous support from my beloved Women’s Therapy Institute Center and special guest panelists from Rwanda Jeanne Celestine Lakin and Consolee Nishimwe, both of whom are genocide survivors and rape survivors. That afternoon we became acquainted with our sister, Recy Taylor, and her narrative. For nearly four hours, we followed the stories of the survivors, like Ms. Taylor. Survivors such as my Grandma, herself a Holocaust-rape survivor, Jeanne and Consolle, and of course Recy who survived rape implemented as the waged war on her Black body.
Recy Taylor’s narrative and those of the survivors who were guest speakers are connected to the meanings of trauma and consequences of rape. Another extremely powerful element is how Recy’s story and the panelists’ experiences connected with the audience. The power that rape holds is related to many variables. One variable is social silence and lack of platforms to openly talk about rape. The social changes concerning rape are connected with the voices of survivors who are growing in volume and in the audience.
About the writer:
“If I could use four words to describe myself they would be psychoanalyst, feminist, activist, and traveler.
My education and occupational choices were influenced by my family’s story as Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. My Grandma was imprisoned at Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp during the Holocaust. She was raped by a Russian soldier upon the camp’s liberation. From this narrative of initial pain, loss and shame came my inspiration for understanding, acceptance, and empowerment for her and all rape survivors.
I have worked in many countries, immersed in many cultures, and I have seen how survivors have been socially silenced by shame placed on them. I fight to end this social stigma. I fight to have survivors be heard. I fight to bring justice to those who have stolen the safety and innocence of survivors.
I am the founder of Rape: A History of Shame project, author of the book Rape a history of shame diary of the survivors, a proud graduate of The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, International Psychoanalytic Association, clinician, and social worker. Currently, I am a clinical director of the Residential HANAC program, a Rape counselor at the emergency room of the Presbyterian Methodist Hospital, and a private practice therapist working with and for war rape survivors.”