Post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The Sacred-Political Lives of Black Women Survivors of Rap
Photo Credit: Maybelline McCoy
“we need a god who bleeds now
a god whose wounds are not
some small male vengeance
some pitiful concession to humility
a desert swept with dryin’ marrow in honor of the lord
we need a god who bleeds
spreads her lunar vulva & showers us in shades of scarlet
thick & warm like the breath of her
our mothers tearing to let us in
this place breaks open
like our mothers bleeding
the planet is heaving mourning our ignorance
the moon tugs the seas
to hold her/to hold her
embrace swelling hills/i am
not wounded i am bleeding to life
we need a god who bleeds now
whose wounds are not the end of anything”
― Ntozake Shange
Over seventy years ago outside of a church in Alabama in September of 1944, Recy Taylor, mother, wife, and sharecropper, was abducted by several white men and taken into the woods to be gang raped. The process of remembering Recy Taylor’s rape and survivorship is a political act and spiritual practice for the recovery of all Black women.
In 1964 Fannie Lou Hamer recounted the story of being sexually violated in by an officer while in police custody. A Black woman’s facilitation of an embodied kind of resistance is the beginning of old blood peeling back and new life being born into the mirrors of a swelling hope.
In 1989 Darlene Clark Hine published Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West in the publication Signs. When Black women speak, the ‘wholly impossible’ happens, and mountains shake.
In January 2016 a young Black girl was gang raped in a park in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a small community in New York. After her and her father faced scrutiny and accusations of incest, the young girl recanted her story. In the face of torture and the tying of souls, Black girls thrive, survive, and plant fresh seeds in a garden everyone else called soiled.
Between the Fall of 2013 and the summer of 2015 several women were sexual assaulted and violated by former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thirteen survivors, all Black women, came forward to testify against the office.
In January 2016, Black Women's Blueprint, authors of a report titled Invisible Betrayal, travelled 20 hours on the road to seek justice for the survivors of former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw's sexual victimization. The black feminist organization packed the courtroom in preparation for the sentencing of Holztclaw and in solidarity with 13 survivors.
In February 2016 we called for community action in ending the rape and sexual terror that more than half of Black women experience before the age of 18 through their sixth annual benefit performance and multimedia production, “Mothertongue Monologues: Praisesong for Black Girls, Reclaiming Our Mothers’ Bones,” which launched programming in Brownesville to stop rape and the sexual exploitation of Black women and girls. The benefit performance also sponsors the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It is the stories of the women and girls, and the several hundreds whose names we do not know, that have inspired this human rights initiative, a public tribunal, and a historic truth commission--The Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commision. On the other side of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we are still reclaiming our mothers’ bones, singing our praise songs, and asking critical questions about a new vision for justice and reconciliation.
How do we as Black women continue living in the same world that we were raped in?
Historians continue to archive “black women’s post-slavery silence syndrome” and the racial sexual-terror of Black women’s lives in both public and domestic spheres, past and present. We look back at those stories to conceive of new ways of looking towards the future, however, that is not enough: we also have to live in this present moment of terror, crisis, and urgency.
On April 28 to May 1, 2016 in New York City, hundreds of Black women gathered for the first ever public platform for victims of rape and sexual violence. We convened this groundbreaking four-day event, the Black Women's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (BWTRC) where survivors shared their stories in a public truth-telling and envisioned justice for themselves and their communities.
While the BWTRC has been culminating for close to six years, the narratives of Black women and girls who sparked this movement began decades, even centuries, ago.
Culminating through public education, historic documentation, and narrative collection, all chaired by the staff, board and community members, and senior advisors of Black Women's Blueprint, the BWTRC hosted a gathering of survivors from across the world to reflect upon sites of memory, labor in love and mourn in solidarity.
Hundreds of participants organized to witness the testimonies of Black women survivors, elevate the public deliberation and policy recommendations made on their behalf, celebrate the rights and futures of Black girls around the country, and seek healing and reconciliation for survivors, their families and their communities.
Commissioners for the Truth Commission included racial justice leader and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter Alicia Garza and reproductive justice advocate and former Executive Director of SisterSong Loretta Ross.
The Black Women's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created because Black women have never had the opportunity to publicly deliberate about this human rights issue, the pervasive issue of rape, that impacts more than half of our lives even before the age of 18.
The BWTRC functioned as an intra-communal strategy for healing and liberation, but also a unique opportunity to seek healing and justice in the face of state sanctioned violence. This was a catalyst for releasing the a generational burdens of rape, objectification, and enslavement that permeates Black communities even today after several centuries of progress and journeys toward freedom.
Over four days, the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed us that we know of a God who bleeds like us, that God lives in each and every one of us. That the sacred temples of Black women’s bodies hold a God who bleeds, who understands our wrath, our encounters with injustice, and our resistance.
Our bodies are the site of our rage and the home to our beauty, our peace, our resilience, our truths. The testimonies of Black women and girls who share the struggle and survivorship of rape speaks of the miracles we have created and built between diasporas of memory.
This Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was born out of the faith statements of Black women and girls. It was also conceived of in a moment of political unrest and a moment in movement history that demands the voices of Black women and girls.
When a black woman is raped, a part of her dies. But when a black woman shares her testimony, she gives birth to herself. What we witnessed over those four days of the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation, was a nation of Black women giving birth to themselves, their voices, and their strength. We did what some womanists would call the inner work--accessing our own innate divinity in order to receive more light.
The sacred are the texts of Black women’s lives; the sacred stories they share in their own voices, and the sacred women that they birth from themselves in the process. We have been speaking our truths at the kitchen table, late at night in our bedrooms, and see ourselves in the quiet moments of solitude. Now that Black women have spoken, publicly and out in the open, We have a duty to the memory and truths shared over the past four days. Alice walker writes, “Who knows what the Black women thinks of rape? Who has asked her? Who cares?"
During the BWTRC, Black Women’s Blueprint asked her, and we heard her speak back. We have all acted as the spiritual midwives of these stories, ushering them from the spiritual vessels of our bodies to come earthside, to return to the ground, and return to the earth. We have labored through the process of bearing witness, and now we must issue the care and process of healing going forward.
As we climb over these trials, together and as a community of sisters and survivors, we cannot do it one by one but let it be a collective journey towards healing and reconciliation. We must acknowledge that are sacred lives are vulnerable to the toxic political climate that would have us to believe our bodies, lives, and futures do not matter. We have to acknowledge that our foremothers did not just go through it but that many of them came through it.
The sacred is political, and preserving our sacred lives, bonds, kinship ties is an act of political warfare.
Reclaiming our rituals, our song, our recipes, our memory, is the first step in healing and reconciliation. We are owed our mother’s blood, we are owed our grandmothers stories, we are owed our great grandmothers names, we are owed the hymns and prayers of our ancestors. Those sacred memories inform our political orientation, and call our liberation to justice.
It is through the reconciliation of our relationship to the continent that was robbed from us, that we can begin a new political alignment. It is through the ripple in the waters of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the nightmares in the waves that we can begin a process of rememory and healing.
The project of truth telling and testimony cannot end here. It has to continue as there are thousands and maybe even millions of stories still to come forward. This is only the beginning of our work as truth bearers, holding the stories of Black women close to our own spirits and the traumas that we ourselves hold.
In this moment we call forth truth-telling, honest recognition, painful confession, and the beginnings of reconciliation. The time is now for us to reclaim our bodies, our spiritual homes, and the sacred temples we choose to love in spite of trauma and violence.