My story opens in Philadelphia around 1920. Lula, 26, joins the surging cluster of kin migrating from the Carolinas, seeking promise up North. Like the vast majority of Black women of that era, Lula takes up “day’s work” for a White family, and it seems “pleasuring” the man of the house is among Lula’s duties. Circumstances are sketchy, but sexual interaction—it wasn’t called rape back then—results in the birth of Bessie.
Ebony-skinned Lula remains stoic and protective of her latte-colored girl, accepted by her husband as his child. With long, wavy hair and aquiline features Bessie, bearing little resemblance to her parents, won schoolmate taunts of “half-breed!” She swallows the shadows of her beginnings in varying degrees of denial and shame.
At 56, Bessie—my mother—carries misplaced guilt to her grave.
That’s where my maternal genealogy quest begins and ends. I only know that a nameless white man sired my mother. I’m convinced she struggled mightily in her soul, stowing away clamoring regrets that she was a mistake on the altar of unspeakable violation. There were occasional hints and hearsay, but sirens of silence were loudest.
This is a saga of collusion with silence, race and sexual violence—as much a trapping of today as it is the legacy of our shameful past. I grapple with unanswerable “what if’s” embedded in the DNA of the American condition that sanctioned sexual violence against domestic workers like my grandmother and uncounted legions of Black women over centuries.
Would circumstances be different in 2018 if Lula had her day of reckoning? Would circumstances be different if protections for domestic workers were guaranteed? Would circumstances be different if my mother’s life chances were not shrouded in the secrets and shame of her conception?
The burgeoning #MeToo conversation and the launch of the Montgomery civil rights monument stirred up these noisy rumblings in me. But the silence screams loudly.
There is silence in the abuse of women with little status or celebrity. Silence is in the narrative connecting slave women of the 19th century and the domestic workers of the 20th. The record documenting the crimes against them is silent. Most poignantly, the women survivors were usually silent.
Beyond words, the most telling evidence of violation was the mixed-race features of the offspring that resulted, marked by acts of the past but reflected in generations that followed. If history is not a flash light into dark places, what good is it?
So questions professor and author Nikki M. Taylor, who explains that the study of Black women’s history is relatively young, only about 30 years. Before then, Taylor says, sexual violence against Black women was “pretty much untouchable.”
Taylor, author of Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio, points to patriarchy and racism as the defining feature of Black women’s struggle and resistance. Caricatured along a continuum from Jezebel to beast, Black women were considered “unrapeable,” says Taylor, chair of Howard University’s History Department. Just as silence was the salve for survivors, speaking out was a radical form of resistance.
Black women also used their feet through escape during slavery and migration in the 20th century—through fortifying their girl children with tactics to eschew contact with male masters, through religious networks and through collectivism with other women and men activists. There laid the fertile soil for mass movements and political organizing.
Rosa Parks, often erroneously depicted as a quiet seamstress too tired to give her seat to a White man, thus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was a radical organizer. She fueled the movement against sexual violence and lynching, both legal and mob assaults, prior to and throughout the civil rights movement.
Parks, an NAACP activist, gained national attention for the case of Recy Taylor, a 24-year old Alabama woman gang raped in 1944 by six white teenagers who were never brought to trial. Jeanne Theoharis, Brooklyn College professor of history and author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, noted that Parks was relentless in her organizing, largely influenced by her grandfather—a fair-skinned former slave, the product of her maternal great-grandmother being impregnated by the slave master. A staunch supporter of self-defense, her grandfather seeded young Rosa’s a fighting spirit.
“On the one hand Black women’s bodies were the province of white men’s sexual assault,” notes Theoharis, “and on the other hand Black men were the object of horrific lynching, often falsely accused of sexually violating white women.” She emphasizes that, like lynching, sexual violence, often hidden and unspoken, was intended to chill Black demands for racial justice with far-reaching reverberations on survivors, their families and the entire community.
Data suggests that approximately 90 percent of Black women in the mid-20th century South worked as maids and domestic help, but there is scant data on incidence of sexual abuse and the vulnerabilities these women faced. Fast forward to the next century: Black women are now joined by other women across many racial and ethnic groups, especially low wage workers and immigrant women, in facing down the same violations in silence.
While most sexual survivors know their perpetrators, for marginalized women the perversity of power and unequal justice bleed into yet another wall of silence that victimizes survivors with isolation and fear of not being believed. But we can profoundly make change for all women by exploring deeper and wider.
Lifting the veils of the past is a pathway to the future—not just because we’re telling stories once untold, but because in the process we gain compassion for the human spirit that connects us all. In the parlance of our exploding popular culture, this is the call to action for #WeToo.