Chen Felicia Wu is a current OHMA student. In this post, she asks, Can individual stories be the weapon to solve structural problems of sexual violence against Black women?
Every two minutes at least one Black woman is raped in America. The fear of being raped is inherited from the older generation, and even can be traced back to the slavery system. Even now, Black women’s bodies still are regarded as objects, consciously or unconsciously. Survivors are systematically silenced and they are concerned about the consequences of telling others. What will happen if more Black women and girls who have survived sexual violence decide to speak? What influence will the public testimony have on the Black community and social justice? The Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint Farah Tanis and Counseling Program Consultant Naimah Johnson gave a presentation “When Truth Is Justice: Narratives of Black Women and Sexual Assault Across Generations” at Columbia’s Oral History and Public Dialogue workshop series, which addressed these very questions.
In this presentation, Farah and Naimah presented a recording about the experience of sexual violence of a Black girl in the period of slavery. The same tragedy happens to grandmother, mother and daughter, like an unbreakable circle. They explained how racism, sexism, and economic oppression exposed Black women to this specialized victimization. They also explained reconciliation, which for them does not mean forgiveness for the harm-doers or “get over it” - it means inner peace and strength. Black Women’s Blueprint highlights the power of community-based activism, which in this case brings to light past violence and encourages Black women to explore the inner source of self identity and support each other’s resilience.
Could individual stories be the weapon to solve a structural problem?
Individual stories are used as the foundation of action in Black Women’s Blueprint. BWB pays attention to how ideologies, culture, capital, politics, and power affect Black women in different ways. Specifically, in what they describe as a “neo-colonial white supremacist patriarchy,” why do Black women make the choices they do considering telling the truth and resisting injustice and violence?
Firstly, BWB pays attention to culturally specific narratives, especially the shared family stories that hold the collective memory of the Black women about their ancestors. Through telling their stories, Black women gain the chance to present their own past and present images. In this way, they actively resist the long-term colonization of their cultural sources. Secondly, BWB works with the local community to conduct critical participatory action research. Through providing trainings and resources, BWB encourages local Black women to share their own life stories and equips them with leadership capability. Once a certain number of individual stories is collected, they will be evaluated and used to build collective power for policy change through a public Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the United Nations. Finally, BWB also uses public historical exhibitions and educational tours to connect the past to the present. In the exhibition, the narratives of older generations are presented to demonstrate the history of institutionalized gender and race-based violence. It is a beginning to wake up the public to seek racial justice and respond to institutional oppression.
"Change don’t come easy. For anyone. But this state of war we live in, this world on fire provides us no other choice”. – Cherrie Moraga
The question of how to make personal stories of trauma reach the public is quite difficult. Considering the culture of stigma, the survivors of sexual violence usually choose to keep silent and their real lives are hidden by research statistics. Mother Tongue Monologues provides a good example for the public presentation of sensitive oral history narratives. It is a multimedia performance, which incorporates various imagery, music, and poets in the performance. Actors present the testimony in the theater to bring the audiences to the journeys of the past and reexperience the struggle of Black women foremothers. This creative form makes their voices transform from the private space to the public. Additionally, healing can be achieved through mourning in the context of public performance. Finally, Mother Tongue Monologues attempts to regain the cultural identity of Black women through using one’s native language. It explores the beauty in African-American culture, and presents every Black woman as a concrete cultural being in the context of various cultural communities. The hope of the members of Black Women’s Blueprint is that their personal stories can gain new power by being brought together in public. They hope that their daughters won’t have to experience the violence, fear and stigma that made these stories so hard to tell.