A group of angry African-American women gathered at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. They stood in silence as they reflected on their own pain, and how the word of a gang rape stirred so many emotions.
Most of those who gathered were survivors of sexual assault. Each person had a story to tell. For some it was the memory of a grandmother’s pain. Most had their own history of agony. Nancy Wilson, one of the participants, screamed in the middle of the silence. It’s all she knew to do. It was a sound they all knew too well.
“This whole thing has me and many survivors reliving our own abuse,” Wilson said afterward. “It’s exhausting. We can’t sleep, or eat, and we don’t cry for fear we will fall apart.”
They left a message in the front yard–a toilet painted red. The red reminded me of blood. The toilet symbolized confusion. Michele Lanier, the organizer of the event, said it was a case of mistaken identity. “They thought she was a toilet,” she said. The words ‘You may not use us like a toilet’ were written on the inside.
“Now we lay this burden down,” said Lanier, a spoken word artist, reading her new twist on the black spiritual “We Gonna Lay Down This Burden.” “We have heard women outside our windows. We ride our rage above this ground as we lay our burden down.”
The women embraced and cried together. “The tears you witnessed on Friday were not just for the victim,” Wilson said. “We were also forced to confront our abusers again as well. I’ve been raped and strangled by a white man, and believe me when I say that carries with it a huge layer of shame. You can hear other black people’s thoughts. Thinking you deserved it for messing with them.”
Old wounds are hard to overcome. Some of the burden is the reminder of what happened to their ancestors. They were kidnapped, raped, delivered the children of their oppressors, and had their offspring taken away to be sold. Each rape is a reminder of that struggle. It doesn’t go away, those memories, because of the pain they endure today. It doesn’t go away because of the way they are perceived by many who regard them as no more than the object of their gratification.
Other wounds also have been opened. “What [she says] they did was about hate,” said Fayne Upshurn as he was getting his hair cut at the Sincerely Yours Salon on Guess Road in Durham. He was the only male customer. “Rape is not about sex, it’s about power. They looked at her as a thing. It was about hate and it was wrong, and it will scar her for life.”
“Young black people have lost contact with their past,” said Glenda Jones, owner of the salon. “There was a time when my being called nigger was like being called a female.” Jones graduated from Durham High School in the ’70s. She spoke of a time when protest was the norm for black people.
The people in the salon see the incident as a reminder that you can’t trust white people.
“They don’t give a damn about you,” said Ashica Tyler. Tyler lives in Raleigh. She is the only black person in her neighborhood. “I see racism all the time.”
We talked about interracial dating. I asked if any of them would date a white man. “My grandma said if you can’t use their comb, don’t bring them home,” joked Monique Gentry.
“I’m scared he might just call me a nigger,” Zhathkya “Missy” Tyler said.
“And it would be over,” Gentry quietly chimed in.
Most of the women were open to dating white men. Despite all that pain, they are willing to give a white man a chance–to look past his skin, to take the risk of being rejected by those within and outside the race. They were willing to give love a chance.
Maybe forgiveness is the black woman’s burden. “I’ve spoken with women who say they were raped 10, 20, 30 years ago and they never told,” Wilson said. “Woman seldom do, and black women, we just go on, and we suffer in silence. This ugliness has made us raw again with a pain that has never healed.
“You know they will be harder on you than white people, who definitely believe you did something to deserve it,” she said. “I mean, why would their men want you unless you were casting some seductive spell on them that they couldn’t resist?”
They cry in silence. They hold the pain inside out of fear they won’t be heard. Who will believe their story? They take the risk of being blamed for what happened.
“It’s sad that they would make remarks about her because of her race but would take advantage of her sexually,” Tyler said. “They said, ‘Thank your granddaddy for this shirt.’ I wouldn’t think you’d be aroused by me since you think I’m a monkey.”
It’s part of the burden that black women carry. The women at the salon talked about it being a carry-over from slavery. In their opinion, black women are the object of white men’s fantasies but are regarded as sluts and whores.
Like their great grandmothers in slavery, they are good enough to abuse sexually, but once the deed is done, they are expected to go back to their appointed place, say nothing, and accept their plight as the object of white men’s pleasure.
That’s a lot of pain to carry. Black women have been raped historically, and many continue to feel the anguish of those memories. It’s hard to move forward when the past follows you. Black women wonder about what’s really on the mind of the man who says hello. Is he interested in a relationship, or does he only want to take a walk on the wild side?
Despite these thoughts, the women at the salon were willing to move forward. They carry scars, but forgiveness is their burden. They have learned to give people a chance. “I can’t judge a person by their color,” Tyler said. She talked about the Bible and how God wants us to love all people despite their race, and what others within their race may do.
Black women carry so much. I left loving black women more than before. They have so much love to give. They have been strong enough to hold their pain and to grow from the experience. “Women applaud this sister’s courage, and she has our gratitude for coming forward,” Wilson said of the victim. “No matter what the outcome, because we know how often justice isn’t served, she should know how many people have been empowered by her strength.”
Mia Jackson stood Monday night before the mass of supporters at N.C. Central University. She asked for a volunteer to share their story of rape. She knew someone in the crowd had a story. You could tell by the tears and screams.
“I’m a lesbian and I’m a survivor of rape,” Satima Mann spoke up. Someone needed to hear what she had to say. “He’s well known. He mentors. He gets mentors. People like him. No one would think he would do something like that. I never said anything.”
Her boldness helped. She released the burden by giving others a chance to tell the truth. It wasn’t her fault. She was surrounded by a wave of support. Male students from NCCU were there. Female students were there, and students from Duke were there to say no to the pain.
“No means no,” a male student said. “There is no other way to interpret no.”
The crowd held lights and bowed in silence. Jackson, Theresa Garrett, Abosede Copeland, Lareisa Stone, Khari Jackson and Sasha Vann, the organizers of the event, wore blue bandanas around their right wrist. They raised their fist reminiscent of the black power salute. The salute took on new meaning. This one was for all the survivors of rape.
It’s easier to fight when you don’t have to stand alone. The burden becomes much lighter when you know it’s not your fault, you didn’t deserve what happened to you, and there are others who have experienced your pain.
Lanier held a pot in her hand. “This is Grandma Ann’s pot,” she said. “She is a survivor of sexual assault. I beat this pot for her.” The women at 610 N. Buchanan made noise in protest. They beat pots and other tools of the burden they carry.
I closed my eyes. “Get in that kitchen and cook my dinner, woman.” More of the burden they carry. I watched the women beat their burden away and stepped away to give them the space they needed to heal from the pain. I touched the house and prayed for healing. Not just for the victim, but for all the black women who carry the burden of forgiveness.
“Now I lay this burden down. Now I lay this burden down. Now I lay this burden down,” Lanier said. That’s a lot to carry alone.