By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Nafissatou Diallo will not get the opportunity to confront former IMF chief and billionaire, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in a court of law and officially tell the story of the traumatic sexual attack she suffered. This, in the 21st century, when some African women sexually brutalized by White men in the 19th and 20th centuries had that opportunity even if the men were never found guilty. At least there are court records where researchers from later generations could glean information and write books about that reality.
The District Attorney of New York County in his infinite wisdom has decided not to bring the case to trial.
African women have been the victims of White men’s brutality since these men made their appearance on the African continent seeking free labour. This happened whether the men were British, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish or any other European tribe. The Jezebel myth was eventually created to rationalize these often brutal attacks.
Enslaved African females (including children) were portrayed as corrupters of good Christian White men. In his 1859 book The Roving Editor, or Talks With Slaves in Southern States abolitionist James Redpath wrote: “I am a white man and I know that mulatto women almost always refuse to cohabit with the blacks; are often averse to a sexual connection with persons of their own shade; but are gratified by the criminal advances of Saxons.“
An amazing piece of self delusion coming from an abolitionist but at least he recognized that the sexual advances were criminal. The evidence does not bear out what this White abolitionist wrote because there are stories of enslaved African women resisting those criminal advances even though they knew they were endangering their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
In the book Celia A Slave: A True Story published in 1999 (author Melton Alonzo McLaurin used information from Celia’s trial) the 19 year old enslaved woman is hanged after she is found guilty of killing her owner who had raped her on a regular basis for the five years he owned her. The fact that she was defending herself from a brutal beating and eventual rape for the umpteenth time (all this while she was pregnant with the owner’s third child) was not considered. Her lawyer put forward a case for self defence but Celia was property and her owner by law could do whatever he wanted with her including killing her if he had a mind to do so and she legally had no right to resist.
This was no surprise in 1855 Missouri or most states in the USA. That may not have been the law in some of the Northern states but as can be deduced from the words of Redpath even those Whites who thought that the enslavement of Africans was illegal also thought that enslaved African women welcomed the ‘criminal sexual advances’ of White men.
Given this mindset it is hardly surprising that the rape of African women continued even after the abolition of slavery. African American professor Deborah Gray White notes in Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (published 1999):”From emancipation through more than two-thirds of the twentieth century, no Southern white male was convicted of raping or attempting to rape a black woman. Yet the crime was widespread.”
Case in point is the brutal gang rape on September 3, 1944 of then 24-year-old Recy Taylor, married mother of a two-year-old daughter. Taylor left church accompanied by two other church members (a 60-year-old woman and her 18-year-old son) when they were confronted by a group of seven White men who kidnapped Taylor. The men drove out of town where they raped then blindfolded Taylor and after threatening to kill her if she told anyone about the rape, abandoned her on the highway next morning leaving her barely alive to walk home or die trying. She made her way home where her father, her husband and friends had been searching for her throughout the night.
Unlike previous cases where the rape of African American women by White men had been “hushed up” this case did not die a “natural” death. Rosa Parks, then a 32-year-old activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took up the cause and ensured that there was widespread publicity to force the authorities to arrest the rapists.
Meanwhile, the Taylor family was under siege. Death threats and an attempt on their lives when their home was fire bombed forced Taylor and her husband to move in with her father and six siblings. The threats continued and each night Taylor’s father would climb a tree in his backyard and, as reported by Earl Conrad in an article entitled “Death Threat made against rape victim” published March 17, 1945, “Cradling a double-barreled shotgun and a sack of shells, he guarded the cabin until the sun broke on the horizon and then went inside to sleep.”
The men who raped Taylor claimed that she was a prostitute and even offered her husband $600.00 as compensation. Marvin White, the lawyer representing the accused asked Willie Taylor, “N***er, ain’t $600 enough for raping your wife?” Not surprisingly the grand jury returned no indictments and there was no trial. The Taylors were forced to move away from their family and community, settling in Florida where she received the news in March 2011 that the Alabama House unanimously passed a resolution to express its ‘deepest sympathies and solemn regrets’.
Taylor’s 74-year-old brother who was a child of nine at the time said he still vividly remembers his father desperately searching for his daughter on the night of the rape.
“He came back by the house about three times, and each time, his shirt was wringing with sweat. Nobody slept that night.”
Recy Taylor’s story is the first in Danielle L McGuire’s 2010 book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. Joan Little’s story is the last.
On September 7, 1974 Little was arrested for first degree murder in the killing of 62-year-old Clarence Alligood, a White prison guard at Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina. The guard’s body had been found in the cell where the 21-year-old Little had been incarcerated for two months.
“He was naked from the waist down. His yellow and white plaid shirt was caked with blood and a thin line of semen stretched down his leg. His right hand loosely held an ice pick and his left arm, dangling toward the floor clutched his pants.”
Little was declared an armed and dangerous outlaw with police ordered to shoot her on sight. With service dogs and high-powered rifles the police went door to door in the African American community of Washington. After hiding out for one week Little surrendered. At the trial the prosecution claimed that Little seduced Alligood and murdered him to enable her escape. Little testified that Alligood had forced her at the point of an ice pick to perform oral sex before she seized the ice pick, stabbed him repeatedly and escaped. Little was supported by feminists (http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2002/davis.asp) and was acquitted.
Since Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Kahn some White newspapers have hounded the woman, preventing her from returning to work. Her past should have no bearing on whether or not she has the right to face her attacker in a court of law. She has been accused of being a prostitute and her life scrutinized as if she was the perpetrator instead of the victim. With the unfortunate decision to dismiss the District Attorney seems to be sending a message to racialized women who suffer sexual violence at the hands of rich White men that they have to live perfect lives if they want to see justice done.