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By on May 12, 2016

“We see you, we honor you and we thank you.” Reflections on the Black Women’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault

Herstory was made on April 28- May 1, 2016, when over a hundred survivors, black women and men, and their allies convened in New York to shed light on the experiences of the rape and sexual assault of black women in America. The Black Women’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault was a four-day gathering conceptualized and organized by the Black Women’s Blueprint and was attended by black women from around the nation, including the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The gathering included allies and supporters concerned with the impact that sexual violence has had and continues to have on black women, their families and communities.

Farah Tanis, Robert Corbitt, Sandra Henriquez
Farah Tanis, Robert Corbitt, Sandra Henriquez

Witnessing and Testifying: The Right to Truth and the Duty of Memory – The day was dedicated to the delivery and documentation of testimonies by three generations of survivors who experienced sexual abuse between 1944 and 2016. We heard from Robert Corbitt, younger brother of Recy Taylor and black male anti-rape activist, about his sister’s brutal gang rape by six white men who kidnapped and raped her on her way home from an Alabama church in 1944. He shared about Rosa Parks’ involvement in the investigation, the men’s’ confession, and the state’s failure to hold them accountable. He talked about the healing that Recy felt in 2011, 67 years after the assault, when the state of Alabama recognized the injustice they had done to Recy Taylor and issued a formal apology.

Survivor after survivor recounted her assault and shared her truth. A common theme for this day and the days that followed was the deep sense of invisibility and isolation experienced by these women. I watched a beautiful woman’s cathartic experience when, with tear-filled eyes, she brought the crowd to its feet during a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace. This was the first time in five years that she had allowed herself to pick up her violin, after she was sexually assaulted by her trusted “friend” and co-composer five years earlier. My heart was both pained and full as I witnessed the commissioner helping to bring healing to each of these courageous survivors. I watched and listened to her as she spoke simple but powerful and life changing words to each women after testimony: “We see you, we honor you and we thank you.” Throughout the day my emotions were tender and my heart ached as I asked “why had this taken so long?”

United Nations and Tribunal Hearings on the Historical Sexual Assaults on Black Women in America – The day began at the United Nations Headquarters and was filled with testimony from black women in commemoration of the International Decade for People of African Descent. This event continued with public articulation and timeline of what has historically happened to the bodies of black women and girls, with a focus on the intersections of sexual violence and reproductive justice.

Survivors shared their powerful stories and insights. We heard from Jannie Liggins, sexual assault survivor of former Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, as she spoke about her ordeal; her fear that he was going to kill her, her prayers and the words she spoke to herself “you picked the wrong lady tonight,”  as she went directly to the police following the assault.  It was Jannie’s report that was the catalyst for what later resulted in a conviction and 263 year sentence. Michelle Duster, writer, speaker, educator and great granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, also spoke: “We are here to heal for our ancestors, ourselves and our future!” Lynn Rosenthal, the former White House Advisor on Violence Against Women was in attendance through the last day and she too shared a powerful message, declaring, “We are here these four days to remember the forgotten and see the invisible.”

I respect the Black Women’s Blueprint and its co-founder Farah Tanis for their courage to ask such bold questions as “What does this nation owe to black women?” and for providing a platform for our movement and the nation to begin to answer this question.  I respect them for demanding that the sexual assault experiences of black women and girls not be normalized or denied, but rather that they are recognized and evoke outrage. It is my hope that the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission will serve as a crucial step towards galvanizing us into action!

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