Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading.
By Aishah Shahidah Simmons
[…]Black children have another burden. “Culturally, there’s this fear of betraying the family by turning someone in to the system,” Robin Stone [author of No Secrets No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Child Sexual Abuse] says. Families try to cope, “and meanwhile the offender is left to continue to offend. They really do operate in silence. It’s the silence and secrecy that enables them to thrive.”
An uncle molested her when she was a child, she says. Two decades later, she told her parents. “I had the opportunity presented to me to tell what happened. It was at my going-away party. The party was to be at this uncle’s house. I said, ‘I don’t want to go,’ and my parents asked why.”
Stone’s parents believed her. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a Philadelphia filmmaker, says her parents did not.
[…]”Why am I protecting a family member? Because I haven’t confronted him, that’s why. I feel like if I had confronted him, then I would feel OK,” Simmons says during a recent trip to Los Angeles. “To put it out there without even talking with him….”
Why coddle a black man who hurt her?
That’s a question for many African American women.[…]
Two weeks ago, my sister-comrade Heidi R. Lewis and I came across the excerpted online version of Gail Pollard-Terry’s July 20, 2004, Los Angeles Times For African American rape victims, a culture of silence article when we were preparing our article Honoring Black Resistance Without Supporting Nate Parker for The Feminist Wire.
I was stunned while reading my words.
Twelve years ago in 2004 I was in the last stages of completing my film NO! The Rape Documentary about intra-racial adult heterosexual rape in Black communities in the United States, and yet, I was not able to publicly delve deep about my molestation as a child.
The uncanny irony is that in addition to my being unapologetically out as a lesbian, I have also been consistently public about my incest and rape survivor identities any and everywhere for over two decades. I frequently gave and give detailed public talks about my rape during my sophomore year in college, but up until recently, I never spoke publicly about my incest. It was “I am a Black feminist lesbian incest and rape survivor.” All I could do was name “incest,” without describing it.
Fast forward to late February 2010 when white queer feminist sibling survivor Jennifer (Jennye) Patterson asked me if I would contribute an essay about my child sexual abuse for her anthologyQueering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti Violence Movement (QSV). I didn’t know Jennye very well and she definitely didn’t know the details of my incest herstory. She reached out to me both because of my film NO!’s impact on her life, but also because of my publicly identifying as an incest survivor. I was both horrified and terrified at the thought. I essentially told her that I would consider the invitation but very seriously doubted that I would be able to participate. Less than one month later in March 2010, my paternal (step)grandfather’s life was in grave danger. My grandfather was also the man who molested me repeatedly over a period of two-years from the ages of ten to twelve. I played a pivotal role in saving my grandfather’s life until his stepson, my father, and his daughter, my aunt, could come to Philadelphia from their respective homes. If I had to do it again, I am unequivocal that I would do it again. These are some of the many complexities that many child sexual abuse survivors hold every single day of our lives.
My grandfather’s illness and subsequent demise was a major turning point in my life. It also coincided with the 50th Anniversary Conference of the founding of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was held at Shaw University from April 18-20, 2010. This incredible multi-day celebration paid homage to those courageous women and men who literally put their lives on the line to demand racial justice in the United States. I attended this celebration with my divorced parents. They were courageous foot soldiers who were on the SNCC frontlines in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Atlanta. Their commitment to struggle for marginalized and oppressed people throughout the world has been continuous for almost 54-years and counting. They are each the embodiment of Miss Ella Baker’s words “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
It’s quite karmic that it was at the SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference that I unearthed a muted awareness that a grave injustice had been done to me not solely by my grandfather, but also by my parents.
I began taking the small steps, which over time became giant strides and leaps in honor of my own rebirthing process. I took an unflinching look at my incest herstory and the joint parental encouraged and also required engagement with my grandfather who molested me (without their ever holding him accountable). What happened to me was egregious and it became horrific because nothing was ever done. My film NO! probably wouldn’t exist had I not been molested. NO! probably wouldn’t exist without the hardcore support that I received from both of my parents, especially my father in terms of consistent emotional and psychic support throughout the journey. How do I hold all of these contradictions and complexities?
Two years later in 2012, I was invited to attend and participate in the Ms. Foundation for Womensponsored and hosted gathering organized by Pat Eng and Monique Hoeflinger for (predominantly) women of color and gender queer of color activist-leaders who work on ending child sexual abuse. It was there that I had the opportunity to meet and engage with some incredible survivor activists-leaders of color including – Mia Mingus, Amita Swadhin, and Sujatha Baliga who have since become friends, comrades, sibling survivor lifelines when I was drowning in the incest-ocean, and co-conspirators on this journey to heal ourselves while we work to address and end child sexual abuse attrocities.
#LoveWITHAccountability was conceived and born out of my own personal child sexual abuse healing work.
Three years after the Ms. Foundation for Women convening in mid-January 2015, I rose up out of my almost daily fetal position resulting from postponed or denied parental responses to my requests to talk about the impact of my wearing a mask about the details of my molestation as a child and my being taught and encouraged to love and engage with my harm doer without his ever being held accountable during the two years of my molestation and for twenty-nine (29) years after it stopped without any warning (which meant for years I never knew if it would happen again). During a period of several months in 2015, I began signing my emails both pleading and demanding for a conversation about what did not happen, with “Love WITH Accountability” at the end of almost every single communiqué with my mother and my father. I needed to emphasize that while I love them deeply and dearly, I would no longer sacrifice or suffocate myself in the name familial love. Additionally, love could no longer be used as a shield from being held accountable for what did not happen. I rewrote the chapter that was originally scheduled to be published in Queering Sexual Violence because what I previously submitted was not my most authentic truth. I was still hiding and protecting my parents, not my grandfather who is an ancestor, but my parents.
I will not write my survivor testimony in detail in this introduction because it, along with many powerful testimonies about sexual violence and healing, is included in the Queering Sexual Violence anthology. My chapter is titled Removing the Mask: AfroLez®femcentric Silence Breaker.
What I am examining in my personal life in 2016 is that there is probably no single event greater than my molestation and my parental forced/encouraged engagement with the man (my step-grandfather) that I both loved deeply for decades and also feared for years that has defined everything my life. This includes my rape, pregnancy, and safe and legal abortion during my sophomore year in college, my feminist queer and anti-rape activism, my twenty plus years work with a Black feminist licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual trauma, the twelve years it took me to make my film NO!, my fourteen-year practice of vipassana meditation, most of my published writings and speeches, and now, finally, #LoveWITHAccountability. Since the early 1990s, I’ve been pruning in the gender based-violence forest, but it wasn’t until the past twenty months that I was able to cultivate the strength to dig up my child sexual abuse roots.
When child sexual abuse occurs and victim-survivors speak out about it as children and also as adults, there is often a what I call a “greater issue” clause that victim-survivors and their allies are frequently asked if not required to consider and factor before we can address the child sexual abuse. This is especially painful in Black communities and other communities of color because we know first-hand how horrific the impact of societal silence about racism and white supremacy is on our daily lives. And yet, many still enforce communal silence about intra-racial molestation, rape, and other forms of sexual violence in the name of family loyalty, and racial solidarity.
“The greater issue” (family, race, nation, family, political/civic/religious institutions) clause frequently silences, marginalizes, and endangers the most vulnerable who are often children, women, and femmes
Given all of our heightened awareness about documented state sanctioned white supremacist violence against and murders of Black people in the United States, it is definitely a painful struggle to point out that addressing and ending gender-based violence is not a deterrent from the “greater issue” that is plaguing Black communities. It’s devastating that child sexual abuse, adult rape and other forms of gender-based violence aren’t often viewed as “real” issues that are also destroying our communities like racism and white supremacy. The same must also be said about ableism. It wasn’t until I read the Harriet Tubman Collective’s powerful “Disability Solidarity: Completing the Vision for Black Lives” statement that I realized that I had a responsibility to widen my lens that I thought was fairly wide.
We cannot wait until the police and white citizens “Stop Killing Black People” before we address child sexual abuse, adult rape, and ableism in our communities. We must tackle all of these issues and many more simultaneously. If racism and white supremacy ended right now (and I wish they would), diasporic Black children, women, femmes, trans, and men inclusive of all physical abilities and sexualities would still not be safe from intra-racial sexual violence in our communities.
In response to these decades long struggles that Black survivors have waged, the #LoveWITHAccountability forum unapologetically places child sexual abuse in diasporic Black communities at the center. When I reached out to individuals to contribute to the #LoveWITHAccountability forum, I didn’t fully grasp that I asked the contributors to accomplish what took me five years to do in less than two months. It was tough ask and not an easy one for many. Despite this, almost everyone who said, “Yes” to my invitation pushed themselves to dig deep and share.
The contributors are an intergenerational group of cisgender, transgender, gender queer, and gender non-conforming people of African descent. Regardless of if our first language is English, Spanish, Creole, Patois, or Kreyol, we are all Black in this forum. This is intentional because child sexual abuse is as much a racial justice issue as it is a gender-based violence issue. Child sexual abuse is an egregious injustice that we can no longer continue to sideline in Black communities in the name of a “greater issue.”
I asked each of the contributors to consider the following questions when writing their “peace.”
- How can we transform societal understanding that accountability is a radical form of love, most especially around child sexual abuse?
- What does accountability look like when tackling child sexual abuse?
- Can we have accountability around child sexual abuse without punitive justice?
- What does restorative and transformative justice look like to you?
There isn’t unanimity with the vision for how we can address child sexual abuse. Instead, each of the contributor’s writings provide road maps to ways that we can reflect upon and continue to consider various ways to act to end this global pandemic through the lived experiences and advocacy work of diasporic Black people in the United States.
I believe we have to interrogate the “Lock up the perpetrators of child sexual abuse (and throw away the keys)” stance. Who are the perpetrators? Are the perpetrators only the ones who molest and rape children? What about all of the bystanders who know but look the other way or even deny that harm was committed? What do we do with the bystanders? If we factor in that there are approximately 42 million multi-racial survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States, we are talking about millions of people who are involved with either allowing the abuse to happen or covering up the abuse that happened?
I do not believe prisons will stop child sexual abuse or adult rape. Children and adults are raped in prisons. I believe people who commit harm must be held accountable.
What can accountability look like in the absence of prisons? How can we explore this while ensuring that the needs of child sexual abuse survivors are placed at the center of this work? Can we guarantee that they will be safe from harm? Is this a process that survivors want to engage in? These are questions that many individuals whose work and activism precedes my own by decades have been interrogating and exploring.
There are 29 contributions that The Feminist Wire will publish over ten days (not including the weekend) from October 17, 2016 – October 28, 2016. Several articles, poems and other creative expressions include fairly detailed testimonies about the sexual harm that the contributors’ experienced by trusted and even beloved family/caregivers when they were children and teens. This is part of the process needed to explore movement forward on the survivor journey. All of the articles offer insights about the healing journey, justice, and some form of love with accountability. While the majority are child sexual abuse survivors, everyone participating in the forum isn’t. One of the contributors is my mother, which is a very new development in response to our experiencing a seismic healing shift over the past two months. This is personal is political work.
Independent of if a survivor testimony is included in an article or not, there will be a standard content notice that precedes every single contribution in this forum. It is of the utmost importance to me and all of the managing and associate editors at The Feminist Wire that our readers take care of themselves while engaging with this forum.
You may want to read the articles alone or in community with others. You may not be able to read everything during the ten days of the forum or read anything right now. Do not worry if that’s the case. The afterword will include an index of all of the contributions with active hyperlinks. You can read and also revisit them when you are able and ready.
It is my affirmation that every single one of us will begin to consistently refrain from marginalizing or worse, condoning child sexual abuse, or any other form of gender-based violence in the name of the “greater issue.” Having your body violated and invaded against your will as a child and also as an adult is a critical issue that must be addressed. We should not have to be murdered in order for our communities to believe that harm has been committed. For many survivors of child sexual abuse, physical death is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to us especially when we have to engage with our harm doers over and over and over and over again without any form of accountability.
Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” ~ Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters
I firmly believe that in addition to addressing racism and white supremacy in the United States and globally, we must also address child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence in our families, our communities, and our religious, academic, political, and civic institutions. If we don’t, we will never ever be well, be free, or even liberated. The #LoveWITHAccountability forum is a compassionate call to action to end child sexual abuse.
This forum wouldn’t exist without the support of so many whose names I will call in the Afterword to this forum. In the interim, I express my deep gratitude to beloved TFW friends/comrades and dear interns, who, in different ways, are supporting the publication of the forum. Roll call (in alphabetical order by first name): Angela Kong, Heidi Lewis, Heather Laine Talley, Heather Turcotte, Jade Frost, Jazlyn Andrews, Monica Casper, Tamura Lomax, and TC Tolbert. I am also deeply grateful for my cherished friend Joan Brannon whose sacred space in the woods provided the unexpected sanctuary that I needed to write, rest, recuperate and rejuvenate. I first met Joan almost exactly twenty years ago in 1996. Since that time she edited my short video In My Father’s House and she was an associate editor producer, co-writer, and the director of photography of NO! It’s very special that I am in Joan’s space during the launch of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum.
Last and most certainly never least, this forum would not exist were it not for the writings by all of the contributors. I bow deep to every single one of these very dear and most committed individuals for not only their powerful writings and work in the world, but also for tolerating my persistent “reminder” emails, texts, suggested edits and revisions. Thank you.
Roll call (in alphabetical order by first name): Adenike and Peter Harris, Ahmad Greene-Hayes, Alicia Sanchez Gill, Aunrika Tucker-Shabazz, C. Nicole Mason, Cecelia Falls, Chevara Orrin, Cyree Jarelle Johnson, Danielle Lee Moss, e nina jay, Ferentz LaFargue, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ignacio Rivera, Kai M. Green, Kimberly Gaubault, Liz S. Alexander, Loretta J. Ross, Luz Marquez-Benbow, Lynn Roberts, MiKeiya Morrow, Qui Dorian Alexander, Sikivu Hutchinson, T. Kebo Drew, Tashmica Torok, Thea Matthews, Tonya Lovelace, Thema S. Bryant-Davis, Worokya Duncan, Zoe Flowers, and the Afterword.
For the future generations…
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Black feminist lesbian incest and rape survivor, award-winning documentary filmmaker, published writer, international lecturer, and activist. She is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, where she is also affiliated with the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. She is the creator of the film NO! The Rape Documentary and the #LoveWITHAccountability project. An associate editor of The Feminist Wire, Aishah has screened her work, guest lectured, and facilitated workshops and dialogues to racially and ethnically diverse audiences at colleges and universities, high schools, conferences, international film festivals, rape crisis centers, battered women shelters, community centers, juvenile correctional facilities, and government sponsored events across the United States and Canada, throughout Italy, in South Africa, France, England, Croatia, Hungary, The Netherlands, Mexico, Kenya, Malaysia, India, Switzerland, St. Croix U.S.V.I, Germany, and Cuba. You can follow both #LoveWITHAccountability and Aishah on twitter @loveaccountably and @Afrolez.