As college students head back to school, the media and social media are abuzz with daily news about filmmaker Nate Parker and his college roommate Jean Celestin who were accused of raping a woman—who later committed suicide—when they were students at Pennsylvania State University. With their much anticipated Birth of a Nation film coming out in a few months, this story is both timely and critically important. Many black women, specifically survivors of sexual assault, and their allies are making clear that they will not support the film with the recently surfaced information.
An insidious symptom of patriarchy is its expectation that black women put the needs, wants, careers, and egos of men before our own, even when those men have violated our very humanity. Instead of pushing aside the pain of black women to support the egos and needs of men, our generation is demanding to live in our wholeness. We will affirm the value of all black lives, while we affirm the specific experiences of women, trans, and queer people whose pain is too often tossed aside.
Reactions to this case are happening in the context of two connected movements, both led by young people: the movement to make black lives matter and activism against the lack of accountability for sexual assaults on college campuses. Young people impacted by sexual assault, rape culture, and a racist justice system are raising public consciousness about the profound impacts of white supremacy and patriarchy, especially as they are upheld and maintained by institutions. And black women are leading the way.
Anonymous @RapedAtSpelman shared her story of sexual assault by four Morehouse students in May, and continued to expose the absurd response from the college: from asking her what she was wearing and encouraging her let it go, to agreeing to meet and never following through. And senior class president Neah Evering made a point to stand in solidarity during graduation stating: “The class of 2016 stands in solidarity with our sisters who have been victims and survivors of sexual violence. We love you, we support you, and we will not be silent until every victim and survivor has received justice.”
Kamilah Willingham, a survivor of a sexual assault at Harvard Law School called out 19 professors, including prominent black professor Charles Ogletree, for their outspoken support of the perpetrator. She told her story in the film The Hunting Ground, recounting how professors actually claimed that she was ruining his career by pursuing the rape charges.
This same sabotage argument is being put forth by people wanting to protect Nate Parker and Jean Celestin’s careers. But what about the careers—and entire lives—of the victims and survivors?
The same way we have a justice system that acquits police officers of killing black people supported by a culture that devalues and dehumanizes black people, we have a justice system that acquits men of raping women supported by a culture that devalues and dehumanizes women. Systems of white supremacy and patriarchy work hand in hand and their impacts are exponentially more difficult for black women and those who battle at the intersections of multiple oppressed identities. The same way it is important for the public to know about each and every instance of police killing black people with impunity, it is just as important for us to expose and respond to instances of sexual violence against women.
The incarceration rate for women and girls has increased at a much higher rate than that of men over the past few decades, and there is a proven link between the trauma of sexual violence and incarceration dubbed the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline. Studies have consistently found that 80 to over 90% of girls involved in the juvenile justice system are survivors of sexual abuse.
Movements to address these complex issues are led by black women and people across the gender spectrum. For example, the core principles of the Black Lives Matter organization affirm the value and leadership of women, parents, queer people, and trans people. We have leaders across the country lifting up the cis- and trans women killed by police and vigilantes, demanding that we #SayHerName. We will not succumb to attempts to cut us into pieces, and dictate when and how we can represent our blackness or our womanness.
How we live and act out our principles and our values is the constant struggle of being human. At a time when President Barack Obama is identifying as a feminist, a man who loves his wife, mother, and daughters can just as readily be a patriarch. His statements and actions are what we have to understand his beliefs about women, feminism, and about patriarchy. The same goes for Nate Parker and Jean Celestin.
There is no contradiction in understanding the complex ways white supremacy and patriarchy are violating and silencing us. We will keep ourselves whole by recognizing and holding these complexities. We will remain unapologetically whole in our blackness, our womanness, and our humanity. To the attempts to silo our experiences and make us chose allegiance to our blackness or our womanness: we’re not having it.