Activism at the Intersections of Race and Gender

As we are all so painfully aware, on November 19, 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published a story about the national problem of college administrations mishandling rape cases, UVa being the case study of choice. In the wake of this article, all kinds of forms of protest arose, such as some beautiful writing in Cav Daily and The Declaration, a student rally, the Take Back the Party march, and the Slut Walk to name a few. These caught the attention of national media outlets as well as the university. I participated in many of these protests and meetings and conversations and, despite the eventual backlash, was impressed with the vigor with which students expressed themselves. However, in the back of my mind, I could not stop wondering, “Why am I only one of very few black people, male or female, at these events?” Now let’s skip ahead a bit.

On November 24, 2014, a grand jury in Missouri failed to indict  police officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. On December 3, a grand jury in New York decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner to death. The failures to indict sent shockwaves of protests around the country, including in our front yard of UVa. The night of December 3, a majority black group of students filtered through various libraries and buildings chanting “black lives matter,” “stop don’t shoot.” Campus police were on forceful guard during this protest. That same night, racist remarks against the protesters were made through the anonymous posting application Yik Yak . The comment “Did anyone just see all that farm equipment walk through Clemons?” was especially gross and proves that the university’s history as an institution built on the brutal enslavement of black people is far from past. As disheartening as the hateful words against the protesters were for me, my extreme joy at seeing students of color express themselves was not diminished. However, again, my mind wondered, “Where are all of those white men and women from the slut walk etc? Is this not their fight too?”

UVa Students at the Slutwalk | Photo from Cavalier Daily 2014

UVa Students at the Slutwalk | Photo from Cavalier Daily 2014

We may not see these absences as noteworthy. One might think that it makes sense for activists to “stay in their lane,” so to speak. Antirape activists over here. Antiracism activists over there. White women over there. Black men over here. Black women forced to choose sides or try to make it to both if their schedules allow. However, these so-called lanes are really anything but parallel. They exist in not only a tangled network of ideologies, but also a history that so severely enmeshes rape and race that it is difficult, nay impossible, to isolate one from the other. The larger question on my mind: “What are the current historical and cultural obstacles to a sustainable alliance between current antiracist and antirape activism at the University of Virginia?”

We cannot ignore slavery and its role in making black female objects of property that are literally incapable of consenting (or not consenting) to sexual intercourse. The stereotyping of black women as jezebels, constantly available to the sexual advances of all men, namely white men. The history of slavery makes it very difficult for black women to have a deracialized view of the history of rape, but the history of lynching makes it difficult for any of us to have such a view.

Modern lynching of black men reaches grossly high numbers in the postbellum South as white supremacists seek other ways besides slavery to control and limit the power of black people. Many see lynching as strictly a violent act committed against men. It is true that few women were lynched, but, no matter the gender of the victim, lynching was an act of violence against everyone in the community. This was particularly the family and often the women whom the husband, father, son, brother may have left behind to fend for themselves without male protection. Lynching of black men possibly the most visceral symbol of the deeply entrenched relationship between rape and racism. Rape is behind every lynching. Victims of lynching were so brutally murdered by mob rule as punishment for the accused raping of a white woman. Rape and interracial sex were used as a scare tactic by white supremacists. Any step toward achievement—a black man opening a business, fighting for the right to vote, being in a white place at the wrong time—was interpreted as black male desire to be just like white men so as to steal white women and dilute the purity of the white race. While white men went to such great lengths to maintain the sanctity of white womanhood, black women were not granted such protection. The connections between racism and rape reach epic levels of injustice when we look at the long overlooked history of black female rape victims, one of the first of whom to almost make it to court is a name we never hear: Recy Taylor.

On September 3, 1944, 25 year-old Recy Taylor was walking home from church with a friend and her friend’s son when a group of 7 white boys, ranging in ages 14 to 18, jumped from a car and told Taylor that they had been sent by Sheriff Gamble to bring Recy to the jail because she had cut a boy in a neighboring town. When Recy tried to run, one of the boys held a gun on her and pushed her into their car. They then drove into the woods of Abbeville, Alabama and raped Recy Taylor one by one. Though Recy Taylor identified the car of the perpetrators and the driver, the sheriff at the time, Sheriff Gamble, questioned the rapists but never charged them with any crime. This injustice did not go unnoticed. For more than a year, black and white equal rights organizations, namely the Campaign for the Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor (CEJMRT) wrote letters and postcards to the Governor of Alabama asking that these boys be charged and punished according to the laws of the land. The governor sent two state legislators to conduct an investigation in which they interviewed the accused as well as the victim, Recy Taylor and the arresting officer Sheriff Gamble. These interviews reveal that not only did Gamble bring in one or two of these boys only to quickly release them, but also they all admit to the crime! They all admit that they had intercourse with the victim that night. However, they claim to have paid Recy Taylor $1 each…making it not a rape but a prostitution deal!

Recy Taylor | Photo from Colorlines.com

Recy Taylor | Photo from Colorlines.com

No matter what laws against rape Alabama held at the time, de facto and de jure segregation maintained the cultural status quo of slavery according to which black people held no legal recourse and black women were especially denied access to the mere acknowledgement or recognition of their pain. And, in line with this status quo, even their admission to intercourse did not lead to these men being charged, arrested, put on trial, punished. Only one white man in the history of the civil rights era was found guilty of raping a black woman. He served five years and upon release, killed a woman he mistook for his original rape victim. No one would even admit that Recy Taylor was raped! Recy’s case has never been more relevant to me and to the current status quo at our own university, state, nation, world.

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Jackie Weaver. Yeardly Love. Hannah Graham. Sage Smith. Renisha McBride. Tawana Brawley. Eleanor Bumpers. So many more. We must never stop saying their names lest the weight of their worth be lost. #BlackLivesMatter is a radical outgrowth of the legacy that activism around Recy Taylor’s rape hoped to encourage: a group of concerned citizens, speaking truth to power. Unrelenting. So here we are. Back at ground zero. Back to the point where clear evidence of wrong done against us, the video recording, the admission of guilt by 7 teenage boys, still fails to yield legal justice because we are not seen as trustworthy. Our pain, our lived experience, our truth. These are not to be believed. The same is true for women on grounds. An article is released and defenders of the University find the crimes unbelievable. She was hysterical. She was drunk. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He stole cigarillos. He sold loose cigarettes. He looked like a “demon.” He wore a hoodie. Her skirt was too short. There is no end to the ways that white supremacy strangles the agency of all lives, but we are experiencing a heightened loss of agency among two purportedly separate groups. Again we have white women over here. Black people over there. But this fragmented tide of activism can be turned. There is highly precedented ground for intersectional unity. Of course, this ground is not without its tripping points. It is my hope that through this discussion, we will confront the issues, challenges, discomforts, pains that we encounter when speaking across racial and gender boundaries. How can we confront them? How can we honor the legacy of Recy Taylor, of a past riddled with violated bodies? There are no satisfying answers, but one thing that I have chosen to do is to continue teaching in and teaching out.

By Maya Hislop 
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