Author discusses storytelling, violence against black women
Gina Twardosz | Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Danielle McGuire, author of ‘At the Dark End of the Street,’ spoke at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night about the power of historical storytelling. McGuire said her research into the stories and narratives of the Civil Rights Movement led her discover a common thread of sexually-motivated violence against black women.
“What I found was that even the most oft-told and illustrious civil rights stories all had an unexamined history of gendered political appeals to protect black women from sexualized violence,” she said. “But I think as historians, we have missed these stories because we have not listened carefully enough to black women’s testimonies. We didn’t think of racialized violence, that was also sexualized, as a civil rights issue.”
McGuire said these stories are often overlooked because people have a tendency to ignore information that challenges their beliefs.
“We tend to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit into the broad outlines of what we think we already know, even though as scholars, we’re trained to question,” she said.
In 1998, McGuire listened to a radio show where the host discussed a key figure in the civil rights movement: Gertrude Perkins. Having no idea who she was, McGuire began to research Perkins’ life.
“She was a 25-year-old African American woman who was walking alone from a party in March of 1949, when two white Montgomery police officers kidnapped her off the street, arrested her for public drunkenness, and instead of taking her to jail for her arrest, drove her to a dark railroad embankment and raped her repeatedly,” she said. “Somehow, she managed to get home … the police, of course, refused to help, they accused her of lying and the mayor denied all charges, saying, ‘my policemen wouldn’t do a thing like that.’ But African Americans in Montgomery knew better. They knew what happened to Gertrude Perkins wasn’t at all unusual.”
McGuire said African Americans in Montgomery organized themselves and rallied behind Perkins.
“They formed an umbrella organization called ‘The Citizens Committee for Gertrude Perkins’ and demanded an investigation and a trial,” she said. “Their public protests lasted for more than two months, and that had never happened before. Their protests put the story on the front pages of the white newspapers in town. Those protests enabled the black [community] to expose the longstanding practices of white police officers who had been attacking black women regularly … They created an activist infrastructure that they used again and again and again.”
After researching Perkins’s narrative, McGuire left the story alone. However, attending graduate courses and reading new literature renewed her interest in the subject, McGuire explained.
“What I saw now, having taken those courses and read widely, was bold testimony about rape and community mobilization about the issue of sexualized and racialized violence,”she said. “I saw organized activism for the right to bodily integrity. I saw sexual violence as a civil rights issue, something none of the civil rights books at the time even mentioned.”
The assault on Gertrude Perkins was not an anomaly, McGuire said.
“I thought in a new way,” she said. “Maybe the assault on Gertrude Perkins was not unique. I wondered, people had mobilized pretty quickly. Their outrage and anger at police was not rooted in naivete or inexperience, it was seasoned. It was simmering.”
McGuire noted that assaults on black women in the 1940’s initiated protests and campaigns for human dignity.
“There had been a series of sexual assaults on black women by white men in and around Montgomery in the 1940’s,” she said. “Each time that happened, black women’s testimony sparked campaigns for human dignity and bodily integrity and those campaigns were almost always organized and led by the exact same people: E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson, Rufus Lewis and Rosa Parks.”
These protests grew as more testimonies from black women came in, including stories from those who regularly used public transport, McGuire said.
“There were first hand accounts from working class black women who used the buses,” she said. “The majority of riders on the Montgomery line were black women — working class black women, domestics. For them, the buses were sites of violence.”
Incident reports at the time show bus drivers assaulting or sexually harassing black women, with no assistance from the police who often participated in the violence.
“Reading these reports, and thinking differently about Gertrude Perkins’s story, made the narrative of the Montgomery bus boycott really different from the one I thought I knew so well,” she said. “Looking at it through intersectional lenses taught me that the bus boycott was definitely about racial segregation, but also about gendered, and sexually violence and it had a particular impact on working class black women.”
For McGuire, understanding the true historical narrative provided necessary historical context that helped her to comprehend the Montgomery Bus Boycott as well as the underlying current of sexual violence that affected so many working class black women during the era.
“Once I knew that story, I realized that it was almost impossible to understand and situate the boycott in its proper historical context without understanding the story of Gertrude Perkins and all the other women who were assaulted and harassed in and around Montgomery,”she said. “Without that context, it was impossible to understand why so many thousands of working class black women put their bodies on the line to protest the buses. This story was there all along.”
McGuire couples this story with that of Recy Taylor, an African American woman who was gangraped at gunpoint by white men in 1944; McGuire said that Taylor’s assault was another key component of the Civil Rights Movement narrative.
“A couple of days later she got a call from the NAACP, and they promised to send their very best investigator: her name was Rosa Parks,” she said. “Rosa Parks arrived on Recy Taylor’s doorstep with a notebook and a pen, with great risk to her own life and to that of Taylor and her own family, and she listened to Taylor tell her what happened … She and the city’s most militant activists formed the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor … This was a huge movement, decades before #MeToo, before the personal was political, before women took back the night.”
McGuire met Recy Taylor in 2009, the same day millions of Americans gathered to watch the inauguration of the first black president.
“I asked Mrs. Taylor if she ever believed an African-American woman would become first lady. ‘Not in my lifetime,’ she said.”
Taylor’s past is one plagued by inhumane treatment of black women, McGuire said.
“Growing up in the Jim Crow south, Taylor knew that black women weren’t even considered ladies,” she said. “From slavery through the bulk of the 20th century, white people denied black women the most basic citizenship and human rights, especially the right to ownership and control over their own bodies.”
Contextualizing the stories of Recy Taylor, Gertrude Perkins and all the other black women assaulted and harassed in the twentieth century can help people rally behind the women who continue to be victims of this kind of assault today, McGuire said.
“Telling stories about the past only matter if we can contextualize them,” she said. “This story about Recy Taylor helps us to see the women like her who remain at the margins, and as a result of that, remain the most vulnerable to sexual harassment, violence and rape. Until we can see them the same way we see A-list actresses, or Olympic athletes, none of us will be free from the scourge of sexual violence.”
Telling the stories of women of color and marginalized women can impact our present and our future, McGuire explained.
“If we’re going to make history matter within a society where an iPhone 5 is already an ancient artifact, where people prefer to tweet or Instagram rather than read books, then we really have to think about how to make ordinary people care about a past that has an enormous influence on our present,” she said. “One of the ways to do this, is to tell really good stories. We have to write something that ordinary people actually want to read, something that speaks to them about their experiences and about their lives.”
Students have an obligation to read and think deeply, McGuire said. They should also aim to look at the past, present and future with new eyes.
“It’s your job as budding scholars and storytellers to make the past come to life, to make the dead past live again and to perform a resurrection,” she said. “Your job is to read deeply, to rethink old narratives and to look at the past and the present with new eyes, eyes that can see intersectional oppression.”