If you dig into many of the cultural and social advancements today, you’ll find a rich history of Black torchbearers replaced by white faces.
Marijuana? Black leaders advocated for the legalization of marijuana as a civil rights issue long before it was popular. Body positivity? While often attributed to Ashley Graham, it’s a movement that in fact originated with Black plus-sized femmes.
The #MeToo movement and unveiling of widespread sexual assault?
Despite what you may have heard, the credit doesn’t belong to actress Alyssa Milano. African-American sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke first introduced the phrase in 2006 to raise awareness specifically for marginalized victims. But this fight for sexual justice has been going on since the American Civil War.
The connection between #MeToo and slavery
“The history of the rape crisis movement in the United States is also a history of the struggle of African-American women against racism and sexism.”
— Gillian Greensite, the director of Rape Prevention Education at University of California, Santa Cruz, on the History of the Rape Crisis Movement
To replace Black faces with white ones would be dishonest and insulting to the efforts Black women have made to create a better world for survivors and victims of abuse. But it also removes Black women from the conversation and causes serious detrimental effects to their health.
A fight for good can still wreak havoc on one’s health
“#MeToo started the conversation. I hope it helps Black women realize the importance of seeking professional help,” Dr. Jerisa Berry told Healthline. According to research, African-American women are especially vulnerable to race-related stress that can cause psychological symptoms.
In a recent article, the niece of civil rights activist Rosa Parks clarified her aunt’s role as a catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She described how activism had a negative impact on her health. Parks suffered health issues, including the development of painful stomach ulcers left untreated because the medication was too expensive for her to afford.
In Dec. 2017, activist and police reform advocate Erica Garner died of a second heart attack at the age of 27. Garner was thrust into the national spotlight and into activism after her father, Eric Garner, was killed while being placed under arrest. The video of his homicide went viral, igniting public outrage that helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Black women (also) fail to recognize the difference between being sad and being depressed. We have to abandon the façade of being strong and having it all together. Sometimes talking to your friends and family just isn’t enough,” Dr. Berry told Healthline. “African-Americans are reluctant to seek therapy due to cultural norms that view mental health treatment as exploitative, medically unnecessary, and undignified.
“We need to make the connection between what is occurring in our lives to how it is impacting our health. Young Black women are developing heart disease due to stress, some are dying from it,” Dr. Berry said. According to the American Heart Association, 49 percent of African-American women 20 and older have heart disease. Cardiovascular diseases kill nearly 50,000 African-American women each year. This stress connection has deep roots in slavery.
#MeToo stories existed even before slavery was made illegal
Crystal Feimster, PhD, a historian and assistant professor of African American Studies at Yale University, told Healthline, “The #MeToo movement is using some of the same strategies that Black activists used to mobilize during the anti-lynching movement, which was really an anti-rape campaign for activists like Ida B. Wells.”
Many of the resources, crisis centers, and safe spaces available to women, victims, and survivors today are because of Black women. Specifically, Black women who were early rape activists during slavery.
“A lot of the violence against Black men in this country was justified by the accusation of rape,” Feimster said. Ida B. Wells joined the anti-lynching movement in the 1870s, putting her life at risk while traveling through the South to collect the stories of lynchings — a strategy that has also worked for #MeToo.
Black women’s testimonies and campaigns against sexual violence and sexual exploitation of black slaves led to some of the nation’s most prominent movements for social justice, like the American abolitionist movement to end slavery. They also helped establish today’s safe spaces and crisis centers, including the leading organization for domestic violence, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
One of the earliest collective efforts to expose rape in the United States was after the Memphis Riot of May 1866. Black women boldly testified before Congress, detailing the horrifying experience of being gang-raped by a white mob. During this time, only the rape of a white woman was considered illegal. Black women were left unprotected, often subjected to death threats.
“Even today, a lot of sexual violence perpetrated against Black women — such as sexual crimes in prison — can be traced to slave narratives,” Feimster told Healthline. Historically, whites used sex to exert domination over Black bodies. They subjected slaves to sexualized beatings, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
Despite the threat of death, some slaves fought back. Here are a few of the many stories:
- In 1952, a married Black mother fatally shot her white doctor in Florida. Ruby McCollum claimed Florida Senate-elect Dr. Clifford Leroy Adams forced her into a longstanding nonconsensual sexual relationship that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy.
- In 1855, a teen slave named Celia killed her master Robert Newsom when he entered her cabin demanding sex. Newsom purchased Celia less than a year after his wife died, and raped her for the first time on the journey back home after the sale. Celia tried to end a five-year routine of being raped nightly by revealing she was pregnant with another’s baby, but Newsom didn’t care. Though state laws criminalized rape, the jury found that Celia wasn’t entitled to protections as a “Negro slave.” She was convicted of first-degree murder and executed by hanging.
- Fifty years prior, Harriet Ann Jacobs hid in a crawl space for seven years in a desperate attempt to escape sexual violence. Sexually exploited by her master, prohibited from marrying and threatened with the sale of her children, Jacobs physically deteriorated in her hiding space until she could flee safely. After escaping to the North in 1842, Jacobs became active in the anti-slavery movement as an author, abolitionist speaker, and reformer.
In Jacobs’ book, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” she explicitly wrote about sexual victimization to convince white Christian mothers that Black mothers who were also slaves should be protected and revered just as white women were. Today, Celia’s story is also well-documented in books written by white academics and historians.
“Often Black women are not heard because they do not have a platform. We live in a world where Black voices are discredited and our history is only valued when whites see the value in our stories.”
— Crystal Feimster, PhD, a historian and assistant professor of African American Studies at Yale University
While using white faces to speak for Black voices worked as a strategy then, it’s also backfired and added another layer of injustice. Greensite writes how this shift in power changed the rape crisis movement to “be seen as a white woman’s movement”. Taking Black culture and history to create awareness isn’t being an ally. Black stories produced by white voices introduces biases, which often reinforce distorted stereotypes. It’s exercising white privilege in a way that excludes Black communities from healing, or accessing healing.
For example: The 2017 documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor” chronicles the story of a Black woman who was abducted in 1944 and raped by seven white men. Taylor immediately reported her rape to the police upon her release. Rosa Parks investigated the criminal trial on behalf of the NAACP and raised national awareness for Taylor’s story, forming the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor. It was “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade,” according to the Chicago Defender.
Despite this effort, an all-white, all-male jury dismissed the case, and Taylor continued to speak out against the injustice until her death.
The Guardian hailed the film as “one of the year’s most vital documentaries.” But it’s based off a white author’s depiction and made by a white filmmaker. Richard Brody criticized this approach slightly in The New Yorker, noting the lack of “the sense of present-tense” in the film and that the “violence and the fear… isn’t over.”
“It’s too bad that [the #MeToo shift] is probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”
— Jane Fonda
When we allow prominent white actresses to become the dominant face of #MeToo, it harms Black women.
“We must examine why it took privileged, elite white women to speak out before the public paid attention to issues that affect all women,” Feimster told Healthline. When the stories exclude Black voices, it implies that healing and treatment aren’t for Black people either.
We can see this in the lack of outrage against stories about singer R. Kelly’s victims or the crimes of former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw. This disproportionate outrage can also send a message to Black women — that they don’t have the community support white women do for the same causes.
The health impact of cultural stigmas on Black women
Studies have shown poor African-American women experience higher levels of mistreatment, which has a direct impact on their health. “If we can hear Black women, especially poor Black women, everybody benefits. If the benchmark becomes the treatment of poor Black women, it is a win-win for everyone,” Feimster said.
“For Black women, it is not just about being diagnosed, it is about overcoming cultural stigmas and following through with treatment,” Dr. Berry told Healthline. “Stress can lead to insomnia, depression, anxiety, and the development of other mental health disorders. It can also affect the functioning of your thyroid and cause irregular menstrual cycles, miscarriage and infertility issues,” she said. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes.
“We only know the story of rape survivors like Recy Taylor because they left a trail — they spoke out, their stories were documented in Black publications, and Black women created archives,” Feimster told Healthline. The #MeToo movement, or any anti-rape movement, cannot progress if it doesn’t magnify Black voices and activists of color who laid the foundation for modern anti-rape work.
For Feimster, the solution for making #MeToo succeed is clear.
“We have a long tradition of sharing our stories and fighting for sexual justice. Who is willing to listen? Who is paying attention? Black women have to figure out how to sustain these moments of visibility,” she said.
For allies, this means listening and sharing Black stories, not rewriting them.
Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One, and the REELZ Channel’s “Scandal Made Me Famous.” Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Lily, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day, and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She’s the writer, producer, and director of “Marital Rape Is Real.” Learn more about her work at Mylove4Writing.com.