What does it cost a culture to ignore or outright deny its most marginalized and abused? One need look no further than America, which struggles under the weight of its hypocrisy each time it claims to be the “land of the free.” Simply put, it’s an integrity issue: How can you trust a country that refuses to prioritize your safety and security?
The Black community, largely marginalized and abused ourselves (historically and collectively speaking), wrestles with its own demons—on issues of gender, color, class, sexuality, and respectability, among others—including finding a constructive way to accept, address and support survivors of sexual violence. All too often and for far too long, racial solidarity has come at the expense of survivors, many of whom suffer the compounded assault of having their trauma shamed, silenced and denied—all while we collectively cry “freedom.”
Again: How can you trust a freedom project that refuses to prioritize your safety and security?
Question like these among many at the crux of We, As Ourselves, a campaign platform launched in February to provide a space for Black survivors of sexual violence—a population comprised of predominantly Black women and girls. This week, as the campaign debuts its inaugural Black Survivor Week of Action, we’ve been in discussion with the platform’s founders: ‘me too’ founder Tarana Burke, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center Fatima Goss Graves, and Chief Operating Officer of Time’s Up Monifa Bandele.
“We always provide care. We’ve been the caretakers,” Bandele, a former co-leader of MomsRising, told The Glow Up, citing the backseat Black women have historically been relegated to, even when they are the drivers of the proverbial “culture.”
“We have created the spaces where our culture has emerged,” she noted. “Hip hop, jazz, blues...You don’t see Black women prominently as the folks that are the stars that have emerged from that culture. But when you just look one click back to see who is building the environments where these artists emerge, who’s running the platforms? Who’s writing all the articles in the hip-hop magazines? Who are the A&Rs and the workers at the record labels that are booking the shows?
“I mean, it’s similar to our movement spaces, right?” she continued. “Most of the members of the Black Panther Party were Black women. So we have always cultivated the spaces—we’ve always given care and given birth. And so now, what we’re owed is that same care back.”
As also noted by Burke and Goss Graves, Bandele, who also sits on the policy table leadership team for the Movement for Black Lives, reminds us that the state of Black people in America is a perpetual paradox; one magnified when at the intersection of also being female or femme.
“You know, we are both invisible and hyper-surveilled at the same time. We’re hyper-surveilled for criminality; we’re hyper-surveilled for being hypersexual. You know, all of these ways that we are scrutinized and are under a microscope—and then at the same time, invisible,” she said, adding: “You know, we all know what it’s like to go into sit in a hospital or need care—even if you’re out in the street and something happens to you. And it’s like, all of the sudden I’m invisible; but 10 seconds ago when I was in the store, I know there were four or five people following me.
“That’s experience of my daughters,” Bandele continued. “So the care is not just something that we require—we’ve always required it. Now, we’re demanding it. We’re going to speak out. We’re not going to be silent. We’re not going to protect any feelings or any reputations any more at the expense of our daughters...That’s done.”
While We, As Ourselves is only two months old, it began with a conversation initiated by Time’s Up months before Bandele joined the advocacy organization as COO last October. Much like ‘me too,’ Time’s Up is an organization co-founded and co-led by Black women, but largely identified with the white female celebs who’ve engaged with it. Like Burke, Bandele is rightfully disturbed by the erasure—even while she recognizes it as part of an exhaustive historical pattern.
“You know, at the height of the feminist wave to fight for the [Equal Rights Amendment], they did polling,” she recalled. “Something like 40 percent of white women supported feminism at the time—I mean, it’s very similar to what we see right now—while Black women overwhelmingly supported equal rights for women...So we are the architects of feminism—Black women are. And that was true then, it was true in the ‘70s...and it’s true today. So the erasure is so frustrating.”
Nevertheless, Bandele maintains that erasure is exactly why Black women should assume leadership roles in feminist organizations, “because they could not have existed without this foundation that has been formed for Black women...Time’s Up is as much as a product that we’ve created the conditions for as ‘me too’ is,” she said. (Because to be clear: ‘me too’ didn’t ignore Black and brown survivors; mainstream media ignored its origin story.)
Now, Bandele, along with her co-founders, believes the time has come to build a movement and mission that can’t be whitewashed or erased.
“While this conversation started a year ago, we were actually a community of black women and feminists who have been creating the conditions for this moment for decades,” she explained. “We have been building on two fronts: one, tearing down those stereotypes—tearing down the myths—and also building power in our communities so that we can have platforms; so that we can have voice...
“This is the beginning of a new era,” she continued excitedly. “When you look back in history books, there’ll be pre-’me too’ and post-’me too,’ right? We are turning the page. We are steering the ship in a new direction. So now is really something that we’ve created. It’s also a mandate.”
It’s important to note that while the era may be new, We, As Ourselves, is equally an homage to Black feminist foremothers; the name itself is from Paula Giddings’ famed Black feminist text When and Where I Enter. Referencing this rich legacy, Bandele explained, “because we understand that Black feminists going all the way back to Sojourner Truth have been building us up for this moment—and also for the moment to come after this.”
As a feminist, leader, and mother, Bandele is intent that what comes next must be a sea change in the support Black survivors receive—as well as a reduction of their numbers. Like her foremothers, she is willing to endure risk to reduce future harm.
“It stops with this generation,” she said, referencing the inevitable backlash and intimidation tactics that scare so many survivors into silence. “This is why we Black women right now are taking the hit: We are modeling speaking up. We’re modeling naming names. We’re modeling: ‘We don’t owe anyone anything,’ and we’re taking the hit.
“And so people ask us, well, why do you do this? Because if we take the hit—we name it, we say it, and we claim that it must change, and that we deserve different, then [for] my daughters, we are what they call ‘softening the ground,’” she continued, quickly adding, “because I know that they’re gonna have to fight, but we’re softening the ground for them. We’re taking the hit that our grandmothers did for us. And that’s really why we do this, why we speak out. We kind of know that it’s a long game and we know we’ll be dragged, but we have to soften the ground.”
Soft isn’t something Black women are always encouraged be; likely because there’s rarely a soft place to fall, let alone be fragile. We, As Ourselves aims to change that, another mandate Bandele largely credits to Burke.
“What Tarana has done for me and for so many other women is given us permission to speak—you know, given us the permission to be vulnerable, which essentially also gives us the permission to be human,” she explained. “You know, there is this mythology out there about strong, Black, resilient women...physical myths about our fake superpower physical strength that results in us dying in hospitals...that myth hurts us physically. And then, that hurts us emotionally—because our mothers and our grandmothers, in wanting to keep us safe, trained us that you don’t speak your trauma...So that hurts us emotionally, because then you’re not able to be a full human being.
“So We, As Ourselves is a permission to speak that we are providing for ourselves and for our daughters that we can step into our full humanity,” Bandele concluded. “That we can be vulnerable; that we can talk about our trauma in a place that’s safe, and that we deserve. That we are worthy of that.”
This is the third in a three-part conversation with the founders of We, As Ourselves. Read part one with Tarana Burke here, and part two, with Fatima Goss Graves, here. Learn more about their call-to-action and Black Survivors Week of Action on the campaign’s website.