As the school year comes to a close and our children and youth prepare to spend their summer at camp or neighborhood swimming pools, at the beach, park barbecues or on the couch binging on Saturday morning cartoons, I remember Brownsville and how we vowed to take it back.
We were in the middle of the school year. It was February when I heard an eighteen-year-old girl in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York was reportedly gang raped at gunpoint by five men and boys as young as fourteen while sitting in a local playground bench with her father, we at Black Women’s Blueprint, many of us survivors ourselves sprang into action. Knowing full well through lived experience and Department of Justice statistics that every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States, we pushed past our shock and anger that one more girl had been raped right in our backyard. We hit the streets of Brownsville with a handful of volunteer members, red and black This is Rape postcards in hand, doing brief teach-ins, having one-on-one conversations at the bus stop and in front of the school across the playground. We canvassed the neighborhood desperate to tell any community member who’d listen, what rape is and what to do about it.
We are also well acquainted with the fear, shame and desolation which comes in the aftermath of rape. We are familiar with the probing and prodding of post-sexual assault examinations, and the revictimization and dehumanization which comes often from those we love—family, friends, spiritual leaders, as well as “protectors” of the law which cause many victims and survivors of sexual brutality to want to run, to hide, to bury themselves in guilt, wishing and wanting to disappear from view—to recant. In the aftermath of rape, many survivors find themselves in the same position during rape—waiting for it to be over and needing it to end. So this past week, when we hear that the 18-year-old survivor recants her story we are almost overcome with sorrow, but we understand her in ways that only those who’ve lived the nightmare of sexual violation could understand. When we hear media reports she refuses to cooperate, we are overcome with the overwhelming internal conflict that lives in almost all of us as Black women, as Black girls, loyal, with whole communities to bear on our narrow shoulders.
For Many Survivors, Brownsville Is Personal:
For me, having dedicated most of my life to ending intimate partner violence including sexual violence, in February when I hear this 18-year-old girl recants her story, says there was no gun, no five boys who seized upon her father raping her and then each took their turns because her body was not hers anyway, the girl inside me cried out.
I go back to every catcall which still, no one understands to me, to many of us, means the threat of rape. I go back to every date which could have ended with me in a heap on my living room floor. I go back to the kissing, gyrating, trusted uncle who told me it was our secret. I go back to that breaking of the seal on my small money-green diary, my first journal, and the reading of my thoughts inscribed therein, by my paranoid, sociopathic and broken father.
The mainstream media plays the story on a loop— every hour on the hour as my vision becomes clear, my memories and senses more keen. I feel the powder blue pleated skirt sticking to my skin as I run through my childhood home screaming. I don’t remember what shirt I wore but I remember the powder blue pleated skirt. I remember the powder blue pleated skirt and how I threw it away later that day, making a mental note that I must forget what happened. However today when I hear the 18-year-old girl recants her story, I remembered. Decades later, I remembered. I thought throwing the skirt out would help me forget the two-hour beating from my paranoid, sociopathic and broken father—a violent, vengeful beating for a girl, my girl, the girl in me, because I had dared write about freedom, about life, about sex, about love and about hate for violence and the embodiment of violence with whom I lived every day—embodied violation of the spirit by a male figure.
So when I hear, the 18-year-old girl “refused to aid in the prosecution of her father” for attempting to kill her soul through incest; when I hear news of her public shaming— “she recanted,” and “her story is inconsistent,” I am at once engulfed in rage.
I am 12 years old again, and I don’t want to die. My father’s got me by the arm in a left-handed grip so tight he is crushing bone, and with his right hand, he’s got my mother by the throat. This warrior, Black red rose, ancestral gold flowing through her veins, and he’s got her in a choke hold to snuff the “no” out her mouth. And me, judging by who I am today, at 12 I’m already defiant. I am sheer will and strength dangerously suppressed. I am survival. I am a fire breathing leopard lying in wait, already plotting revolution. My mind an underground railroad. My mother’s warrior blood coursing through my veins, ancestral gold inside me, inside me. I’m blasting old locks off carefully constructed cages. I’m running, I’m running and my Black red rose, warrior, mother, she’s got me. She’s got me. She’s always got me.
This is for my sister in Brownsville, all the little sisters in Brooklyn, it’s for the girl in us and those around us. What is done at Black Women’s Blueprint—our Mother Tongue Monologues, Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault in April 2016, all of it is for the surviving, the disappeared, the unacknowledged, the "hollering" girls with fire in their eyes. What we do is for the radical part of each of us hungry to tell our stories and shape the world, demanding more of our communities and of our country.
This is not the first time in our lifetimes that news broke about a Black girl or Black woman recanting her story about having been raped. There are several prominent cases readily available with a simple online search. This is not a new narrative, but we insist the public must also know why victims and survivors recant their stories. We are outraged at what has happened in Brownsville, Brooklyn from the reported incest committed by the father of this 18-year-old girl, to the reported gang rape, to the framing of the survivor as lascivious. It’s a narrative as old as American slavery itself.
It is unfortunately not so widely held knowledge that sexual assault is most often unreported—60% unreported each year according Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. However, the intersectionality of race, immigration, class, sexuality and often gender identity faced by survivors in Black communities make survivors in Black communities less likely to utilize the criminal justice system and support services to seek justice and support owed to them. Codes of loyalty and protection of community which have historically existed and especially been taught to Black women and girls who represent the bulk of sexual assault survivors in our community, can also discourage Black girls and Black women from seeking help based on ideology that reporting a sexual assault will further vilify Black men, betray their families, and place already marginalized communities at further risk for discrimination and harm.
Black men’s vulnerability to police brutality, stop & frisks, plus the reality of high incarceration rates, all reinforce silence in both victims and in community on this issue, and often results in what is framed as “uncooperative” or “recanting” from Black survivors of sexual assault. Sexism, heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia as part and parcel to a patriarchal society make it difficult, if not impossible for some survivors to seek support or other chosen remedy after rape.
Silence prevails and the invisibility is almost complete within our Black communities and in greater society about Black women’s lives, about the level of victimization, the systematic exclusion of our specific gendered experiences in the broader agenda for civil and human rights.
Taking Back Our Black Lives:
Across the country, as Black communities we’ve purportedly made it clear that our Black lives matter. Today, Black Women’s Blueprint is making it crystal clear that our Black lives and our Black bodies not only should be, but are in fact ours. We believe no one—not the State agent, the brother next door, nor our fathers, our mothers, husbands or wives, or partners—has the right to violate our Black bodies sexually or otherwise. Our Black bodies are in fact, ours. For each 18-year-old Black girl whose body is violated by gang rape, there are hundreds more in New York City and thousands more across this country. As we told the UN in 2014, we are outraged at the silence when sexual violence happens to women and girl identified Black people. Whether in shared agony or shared celebration, we will not be silent and we will not be subdued.
Together let’s send a message that our collective survival depends on our collective acknowledgment, recognition and action on behalf of each other. With Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter, having joined Black Women’s Blueprint as a Commissioner of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission ever to occur in the United States to address the rape of Black women and girls, taking back our Black lives as women and girls is no longer merely aspirational. We see vision already manifest.