A haunting film about the brutal gang-rape of a young black Christian woman by six white men as she walked home from church in 1944 sparked a deep and at times uncomfortable discussion about rape, mental health and healing in the black church at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan on Wednesday night.
The 2017 work, “The Rape of Recy Taylor” by Nancy Buirski explores the crime against a then 24-year-old devout sharecropper named Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama.
“I saw the car pulled up behind me. Some white boys. They didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout what they were gonna do to me. They put me in the car then went and blindfold me. I was begging them to leave me alone, don’t shoot me. I got to go home to go see about my baby. They wouldn’t let me go. I can’t help but tell the truth. What it done to me. Every time I go down there I look down that road. Try to remember them trees,” Taylor, who died in 2017 at the age of 97, recalled of the crime in the film.
While the men who raped Taylor were never prosecuted for their crime despite nationwide outcry from civil rights activists at the time, including Rosa Parks, her story is now being used to draw attention to countless untold stories of sexual assault against black women and girls through screenings of the documentary at churches in a national campaign by Odyssey Impact.
Ahead of the screening, Joan Capel of the World Federation of Methodists and United Church Women, who is also an NGO representative at the United Nations, said the conversation on rape in black churches is necessary because it’s not happening at all.
“It’s not a subject that’s being discussed in the black church. It’s not. And I find that the black churches now, I don’t think they are living up to what they should be to people and to communities. I think religion has become big business,” she said.
Black churches, Capel argues, need to get “back to basics,” retool to the evolving needs of their communities grappling with trauma.
“We want people to be aware that this exists and to try to see if churches can establish some sort of support systems for people. So people can come in and feel free to be able to share their experience without having to be looked at and be pitied, because it’s not a pity thing either. It’s just something that you need to kind of embrace the individual that has gone through that,” Capel said.
The gut-wrenching documentary, which shows Taylor as well as her siblings recounting the terror unleashed on their family by the rape, was followed by a panel discussion moderated by cultural critic and writer Jamilah Lemieux. She was joined by Nancy Buirski who produced and directed the documentary; Atira Charles, CEO of the Charles Consulting Group; Rev. Alisha L. Gordon, executive minister of programs at The Riverside Church and Candace Simpson, associate minister at Concord Baptist Church.
‘A black woman’s body is never her own’
Lemieux, who called Taylor’s rape “an act that was not just meant to dehumanize and terrorize” her “but others like her,” challenged the panel to share their thoughts on Christian civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s words that “a black woman’s body is never her own.”
“I think what is most striking about Recy Taylor’s story is just how ordinary her story was and just how everyday this kind of atrocity was. I appreciate you uplifting Fannie Lou Hamer in this because we learned that black women’s bodies are not our own. We are taught that, especially in church, and our theologies kind of warp our sense of ownership over our bodies. What I think was so striking to me as I [thought about] the film was these are Christian boys and this is a Christian woman coming home from church,” Simpson said.
Buirski argued that Taylor reclaimed her body when she chose to speak up about her rape. She explained that after interviewing Taylor and her siblings she felt this “grave responsibility to help her reclaim her story, tell her story, and universalize what happened to her. So when she spoke up, she spoke up not just for herself but for so many women like her.
“As a white filmmaker … being entrusted to tell her story was really quite an honor and I hope that, as difficult as it is to watch, I think all of our mission is to universalize this horrible thing called rape, try to remove the shame from it. It’s one of the reasons the word is in the title of the film,” she said.
Simpson, in a discussion of how church culture has helped to perpetuate the silence on rape among black women and girls, suggested that, had Taylor not been a respected Christian woman, her story might not have gotten the attention it deserves.
“It drives me mad that Recy’s story is the one that would go viral because she is a church-going woman. Throughout the documentary, even throughout Danielle McGuire’s 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], we get the sense that she is a respected woman of the community and that people take to that and they attach to it,” she said.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Leonardo Blair