It's A Crisis

Illustration for article titled It's A Crisis

Perhaps one of the truest and most tragic lines in American film is spoken by the character Yellow Mary in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust(1991) when she sadly declares that "the rape of the colored woman is as common as fish in the sea." As a rape survivor, I speak on behalf of the 1 in 4 women who will experience sexual assault in her lifetime.


Moreover, since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I hope to bring awareness to the fact that even though African-American women make up about 7% of the U.S. population, we currently constitute 18.8% to 28% of the reported sexual assault victims. These women are ,and have always been, our grandmothers,our daughters, our partners. And our friends.

Given the staggering statistics, I cannot help but wonder why this pandemic does not constitute a crisis within both African-American communities and the larger American body politic. African-American women have consistently spoken out against social ills such as the War in Iraq and racial injustices experienced by black men — from lynching to police brutality to racial profiling.

And yet, they have had to confront their own experiences with race and gender-related sexual violence without the support of many African-American leaders. Today, most rapes are intra-racial. The vast majority of rape victims, almost ninety-percent, report that a member of their same racial or ethnic group sexually assaulted them.

Unfortunately, because many African-American female rape victims do not want to perpetuate racial stereotypes about the black male rapist (created and used by white mobs to justify the lynching of economically and politically mobile black men) and the black male criminal (now used to maintain racial disparities in the criminal justice system), they often do not press charges against their assailants because they fear further criminalizing African-American men.

Like most rape victims, many African-American women understand that public disbelief, sexual double standards, and sexist stereotypes such as the "gold-digger" will greet their accusations of rape. But even more egregiously, African-American women know that they risk being labeled a race traitor by some who view their actions as airing "dirty laundry."

And yet, there is a long tradition of African-American women speaking out about sexual violence, and mixing their anti-rape discourse with anti-racist activism. In 1866, a group of African-American women testified before Congress about white mobs who sexually assaulted them during the infamous Memphis race riots. Following suit, African-American activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett continually linked her anti-lynching crusade with her clarion call to end sexual violence.


Today, we can turn to African-American women novelists such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, entertainers such as Oprah Winfrey and Gabrielle Union, writers such as Charlotte Pierce-Baker's Surviving the Silence(2000) and Lori Robinson's I Will Survive (2003) to locate models of anti-rape activism.

We should look at filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons's groundbreaking film NO! The Rape Documentary which details the history of African-American women and sexual violence and watch photographer Scheherazade Tillet's [Full disclosure: She's my sister] multimedia performance SOARS (Story of A Rape Survivor) which brilliantly uses the visual and performing arts to document the journey of recovering from and healing after rape.


In order to end the sexual violence experienced by African-American women, we need to recognize sexual abuse as one of the most important issues facing black America today. We need to encourage and include the voices of African-American women in mainstream activism against rape. And we need ensure that our demands for political and racial justice include calls for an end to sexism, sexual violence and homophobia. Until we begin supporting and believing African-American rape victims, we will always be engaged in a half-hearted fight for racial equality.

Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children.


Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.