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By Stephanie Dunn |@DrStephaneDunn | with thanks to NewBlackMan(in exile)



Kwanzaa Day, Tuesday, 26 December 2017.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about campus rape and assault, about the backlash that happens often when silence is broken, about how I was the girl in a dorm room who just escaped having the story of my first sexual encounter turn into a tragic narrative, how I still remember.

Shortly before that period, during the Ray Rice furor, I wrote for the first time publicly about the violence against my aunts and mother when I was growing up in Indiana. And before Harvey Weinstein collapsed the dam of quiet around Hollywood’s long, long history of sexual predators, I’d begun writing this little book I’m finishing, Beyond Mule & Bridge: Legacies of Rape. In this, I am raw insides spilling out on the page.

I’ve been journeying towards it for a good twenty years, ever since my mother unintentionally revealed that how I came to be had everything to do with rape and the exploitation of a pretty young woman by an older man. It’s about the rape of aunts and sisters woven into the larger fabric of a narrative about the veil of invisibility surrounding Black women who have historically been raped by white men at will and by Black men who’ve been strangers and family.

I cringe inwardly at memories turning like a kaleidoscope in my mind’s eye. I’m maybe eleven and a young Black woman in my hometown is brutally murdered by her husband with their young children there in the home. He attempted to gut the woman literally and afterwards she lingered in a coma for days I think then died. He went to prison but actually lived long enough to know the children, be released, and have a life for some years before he passed.

I was devastated thinking of the woman and the children, thinking of my mother. When she was pregnant with me, she’d spent a few months married to this same man. One day he hit her and after he went off to work, she left him at my grandmother’s ‘You ain’t gotta stay’ and knowing he already hated me as I was not his but the child of a man about town he was insanely jealous of, that older man who had preyed on her.

I’m fourteen in the bathroom of a mall, this handsome twenty-something year old I’d admired like a dashing prince from afar, clutches my breast. I elude his grasp and flee, splinters of shame lodged in me to dog me even now at the thought. I’m twenty in college, sitting in the office of the charming, funny, middle aged Black male mentor and caretaker of us Black students on campus whom I trust and like and he says some things, sexually suggestive things I don’t see coming and don’t have a clue how to navigate as I sit there in the seat across from his desk where I’d sat quite a few times, laughing and cheered up. I leave and over the years I can’t recall the exact words just the feeling, discomfort, shame, momentary brain freeze.

A kaleidoscope turning and falling in uneven patterns and odd shapes like my wide-eyed, naïve brother at seventeen who has sex with a girl at school and is then accused of raping the girl, a white girl, the daughter of a lady on the school board or city council I think it was. I’m left in school without my lifelong best friend. Other white girls slip me notes, girls who hang with the accuser, saying how my brother’s innocent they know for a fact and they’ll say what they know aloud. But he’s accused, yanked out of school, arrested until my mother begs and borrows to raise the bail money, and he’s released and sentenced to a year of awaiting trial, going to a solitary night school to get his diploma, before being acquitted by an all-white mixed gender jury.

At the words ‘not guilty’ My praying mother falls out on the floor praise shouting to Jesus right there in front of the astounded judge and jury and everybody. Years later, I cannot help but recall her there and think of all the Black mamas and daddies who never got to live that moment and buried sons instead.


My brother was never the same; his life was rerouted on an unfamiliar track, the wide-eyed innocence gone, replaced by something like terror and confusion and mixed in with alcoholic father pains. His adolescent face melds with the young Black men at the historically Black male college where I teach, their stories tumbling out bravely about how there childhoods were stolen by a man or a woman, sometimes both, how in the here and now some are verbally and physically assaulted by their peers on one hand and the media on the other.

How do we respect justice so it gives voice and agency to the victimized but does not become a weapon of destruction at mere will or public word -- something then that is not justice? The Hollywood fall out is a stark representation of a fact that should not surprise as much as it has -- that many, an untold many are guilty, but the right quest for justice and an end to sexual terror and sexual misconduct must not begin to ride on the swift, exclusive conclusion that everyone is guilty all of the time. This is something increasingly unpopular to point out because no justice loving human being wants to stem the long-denied tide of agency that so many preyed upon have not gotten.

In a perfect world only the guilty would get publicly shamed. While we must absolutely call out the truth strongly, we must also take seriously the power and usefulness of the word as a sword for justice or the violation of it where anyone and anybody can be figuratively and literally victimized by its abuse, especially in this digitalized public sphere. The history of Black women's rape and the lynching Black men over false accusations of rape is not something that Black collective memory forgets.

To grapple or not with this uncomfortable reality is not a choice; the times call for a just transparency and thorough interrogation of our gendered social codes generally and sexual behavior and attitudes in the workplace and this requires a process of education and transformation that cannot be encapsulated or achieved in a hashtag or a tweet.


 main picture: Hughie Lee-Smith, "Untitled" (1951)

Stephane Dunn is a writer and professor and the director of the Morehouse College Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies Program (CTEMS). Her publications include the 2008 book Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois) and a number of articles in mediums such as Ebony.com, The Atlantic, The Root.com, Bright Lights Film journal, and others. Follow her on Twitter at twitter @DrStephaneDunn and www.stephanedunn.com


“In a Perfect World . . .”: Shame, Sexual Violence and Black Collective Memory

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