Printed in Left Turm Magazine
By Walidah Imarisha
“Every rape is an assault that happens to every one of as a people. It also means we are crippling our own folk… at our own hands... Racism wakes up everyday and begins to cripple us.” – Dr. Johnnetta Cole in NO!
I first saw a rough cut of the film NO! at a screening put on by a black fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania. Though I have been a black woman organizer for 10 years, this was the only forum I had ever been in where there was a deep and meaningful discussion of assault of black women by black men in a public venue. I felt cracked open, exposed. It was concurrently inspiring, moving, powerful and frightening as hell.
Just the same way Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ film NO! is.
Intensely and painfully personal, unquestionably and unapologetically political, NO! shows through interviews, archival footage, re-enactmnents, dance, and spoken word the way black women have been assaulted by black men, the way that our community and the larger society have colluded against us because of a triumverate of racism, sexism and homophobia. NO! brings the history of 500 years of oppression and encapsulates it in each woman’s story of having a piece of her stolen away.
NO!’s central message is that we as black women have had to choose our gender or our race, ourselves or our people’s freedom. Charlotte Pierce-Baker read from her book Surviving the Silence, “We are taught that we are first black and then women… Black women have survived by keeping silent, not solely out of shame but out of a need to preserve the race and its image. In our attempts to preserve racial pride, we black women have sacrificed our own souls.”
Rev. Traci West said in the film, “Will we stop that white racist from being a racist by being silent about the rape of black women? Will we have prevented whites from being racist? I want to say quite loudly and emphatically, no. All we will have succeeded in doing is revictimizing black women who have been brutalized.”
Making this film, even just watching it, subverts the paradigm that all of us are taught in this country, the masculinazation of race. The case of Mike Tyson, who was convicted of assaulting Desiree Washington, shows Washington was blamed while ministers and community leaders rallied around Tyson. Human rights activist Michael Simmons asked, ““Why would [telling of her assault] make her a traitor? The traitor is to have a rapist in our community and not warn anyone.”
The power of NO! lies not just in regaining lost voices, but in revisioning and repositioning black women’s history and present. Interspliced between intense interviews with black women about their assaults, the film gives a historical context, rooting it in slavery. Scholar Adrienne Davis said in the film, “Black women’s sexuality and reproduction were a vital part of the American economy,” and white wealth was built on black women’s reproduction. To gain access to that patriarchy, black men often used black women’s bodies as the playing field.
Two veterans of the 60s liberation struggles, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons who was a leader in the Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and former head of the Black Panther Party Elaine Brown, talk about their assaults from men within the movement. Other men responded, saying that was not an important issue and that they should have “given him some” anyway. But they also discuss the proactive steps they took at leaders in their organizations, to enact guidelines about behavior with women, and that these issues were not separate from the larger black struggle for freedom, but were in fact at the core of that struggle.
One of the strengths of the film is that it does not show the women broken. They come as whole human being with agency and insight. One of the continuing brutalities of assault is that it steals your power, and for black women, who most often only have their inner power in this society, that is not only painful, but deadly. A woman said, “When you’ve been raped people always want to tell you “you are the victim.” And I’m like, no I may have been victimized, but I’m a survivor.”
Men also shown in the film, black men addressing these issues. The late poet Essex Hemphill reads a piece that ends, “But we so called men we so called brothers wonder why it is so hard to love our women when we’re about loving them the way America loves us.” Brothas like those at Men Stopping Violence and the Bluegrass Rape Center interviewed in the film are envisioning new ways of loving and standing in solidarity with sistas.
Looking at the credits, you see that this film was created in communion with so many others. It was created in a community similar it seems to what you see on screen: majority black folks, mostly black women, working together to unleash our tongues, to move our bodies to the foreground, to nurture and honor all of us.