Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Black feminist lesbian incest and rape survivor. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, cultural worker, activist, and international lecturer, she produced/directed NO! The Rape Documentary and created the #LoveWITHAccountability Project. Simmons is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow, and a Visiting Scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication and Affiliate Scholar at the Ortner Center for Violence and Abuse in relationships, both at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow her on twitter @afrolez, and #LoveWITHAccountability @loveaccountably.* * * * * *1. You created a documentary called NO! The Rape Documentary that came out in 2006 to worldwide acclaim and that features and centers the stories of Black women survivors. How has NO! been received over time?
I started working on NO! The Rape Documentary in October 1994, with co-producer and director of choreograpgy Tamara L. Xavier, PhD. At the time we were 25 and 23-years old respectively and no one wanted to touch the idea for a film about intra-racial heterosexual rape of Black women by Black men. The internet in the 1990s is an archaic cry from what it is in 2019. So, there wasn’t social media to promote the film, or Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and any other crowdsourcing mediums to support the making of the film. It took me twelve-years, seven of which were full time, to make this vision a feature length documentary reality. I was able to accomplish this through the global multi-racial, feminist and queer village. The completion of NO! is a testament to Black, feminist lesbian-led grassroots educational fundraising across the United States and Canada, as well as in England, France, the Netherlands, Brussels, and Italy.What’s fascinating for me is the relevancy of the film, thirteen years after its world premiere at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. NO! is taught and used widely in Women’s, Gender, and Black/Africana studies courses at colleges/universities and rape crisis centers in the US and internationally (it’s subtitled in Spanish, French and Portuguese). The unapologetically Black feminist anti-rape film centers the experiences of Black women survivors and the expertise, scholarship, and cultural work of Black people.There is dated material in the film. For instance, the film’s climax centers around the 1991-92 (former Heavyweight Champion) Mike Tyson trial when he was convicted of raping Desire Washington. Most millennials weren’t even born during this time period. So, they don’t have any first-hand knowledge about what happened with this specific case, especially how Black religious leaders in the Nation of Islam and the National Baptist Convention rallied hard in support of Tyson while they essentially threw Washington to the wolves. What is tragically timeless, is how leaders in communities throw rape survivors under a bus in support of convicted and alleged rapists. Without question, this transcends race. We can look at how “45” mocked and belittled Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, let alone allegations against him. We also must not forget that “45” was in full support of Mike Tyson during the trial in the early 1990s. Past is definitely prologue. In some ways, NO! feels more relevant now than when it was initially released. NO!, which includes campus rape, was released one year before Title IX was successfully applied to campus sexual assault cases, and nine-years before the release of the award-winning film The Hunting Ground. Anti-sexual violence activism has been happening for centuries, , and it has always been multiracial. It’s important to also be clear that Black women have been in the leadership of this work since enslavement of African people in the U.S..NO! exists because of work and activism that precedes it by centuries. I provided an incomplete visual chronology of some of the radical, Black feminist anti-rape herstory from enslavement of African people through the late 1990s/early 2000s in the documentary. I didn’t have language for community accountability, restorative justice, and/or transformative justice when I made the film (1994-2006). Despite this, NO! strongly advocates for community accountability for rape and sexual violence outside of the criminal justice system.I share all of this because there’s both celebrated amnesia, and also a sincere lack of knowledge about the origins and multiple (hu)manifestations of anti-rape organizing, activism, and work. This results in many people believing that what is new or trending hasn’t ever happened, when often that just isn’t true. We have a responsibility to learn and share the her/hx/histories that were instrumental in our current and very important societal heightened awareness about sexual violence.
2. What is #LoveWITHAccountability and what are its origins? What’s next?
The #LoveWITHAccountability Project journeys deeper than my film NO! The Rape Documentary to examine what I unequivocally believe are the origins of all forms of sexual violence. The Just Beginnings Collaborative-funded work literally comes from my personal incest healing journey, which I didn’t have the strength to address until many years after the completion of NO!. In 2015, I began demanding conversations with my beloved, divorced, human rights defending parents about their lack of response to my being repeatedly sexually abused as a child. I signed “Love WITH Accountability” in virtually every email and text communiqué to them. In doing so I was trying to emphasize that my deep love for them would no longer shield their lack of accountability for the violence I endured for two years as a child, and their subsequent 30-year cover up. This is truly “the personal is political” in action.#LoveWITHAccountability examines how the silence around child sexual abuse in the familial institution plays a direct role in creating a culture of sexual violence in all other institutions-- religious, academic, activist, political and professional. Its focus is on tackling the global epidemic of child sexual abuse through the experiences, insights, and perspectives of diasporic Black child sexual abuse survivors and advocates. Similar to NO!, #LoveWITHAccountability is part of a continuum, and simultaneously it is part of an undefined cohort of many who are doing this work.I am excited to share about the Fall 2019 release of “Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse” anthology (AK Press). The collection features over 35 Black cisgender, transgender, gender non-binary, queer and straight, child sexual abuse survivors, advocates, one former bystander, my mother, who, with my father, was a bystander to my child sexual abuse. The anthology contributors use transformative storytelling to explore how we can name, disrupt, and ultimately end child sexual abuse without solely relying on the very inhumane systems that brutalizes Black people. I bow deep in honor of all of the contributors in the anthology and, I am especially grateful for my mother’s willingness to be not only privately accountable to me but also publicly accountable to provide insight on the non-negotiable responsibility of believing children when they say they’re being harmed. My affirmation is that the anthology will be a prevention resource that highlights the critical need to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in dialogues, writings, and work on racial justice and sexual violence through the lived experiences of diasporic Black survivors and advocates.
3. What does accountability look like for you, in your life? How has it changed over time?
Accountability is not easy work at all. It is exponentially easier to demand it, than it is to give it. During the time that I began relentlessly demanding accountability from my parents for their bystanding roles in response to my child sexual abuse, I started thinking about places in my familial life where I needed to be accountable. This led me to my brother who is exactly nine years my junior, which means he was one-years old when my child sexual abuse began. In August 2015, I reached out to my brother to be accountable for my harmful behavior toward him. I came to excruciatingly painful grips with the fact that for most of his life I expressed a lot of misplaced anger, sadness, and pain on my brother. It was exponentially easier to do that than it was to hold my mother and our father accountable for their not protecting me when I cried for help as a child, and their three decades-long cover up. Essentially, when people feel powerless over a situation, some tend to take it out on another person or entity they identify as less powerful than them. Power is often relative. One may have power over another in a familial structure, but that dynamic may not exist in the "outside world. August 2015 was the tip of the iceberg of my understanding the ways that I harmed my brother. Contemporarily, I’m still uncovering the layers and my behavior patterns. I will probably do so for the rest of my life. Accountability isn’t punishment. It is an opportunity to take responsibility and make concrete amends for harm caused. It is very easy for some to say, “lock them up and throw away the keys.” The problem with this line of thinking is that most of us have caused unintentional and also intentional harm. Clearly, there is a wide spectrum of harm. All harm isn’t the same, and we shouldn’t deny the pain that anyone experiences when harm is caused. I don’t believe the criminal (in)justice system or the prison industrial complex provide any humane options for accountability. Equally as important, there isn’t a level playing field when it comes to our courts and prisons. U.S. Prisons are not focused on accountability or rehabilitation, but are a kind of modern-day slavery as the incarcerated (disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and Latinx cis and trans women, cis and trans men, gender non-binary folx, and children of all genders) are routinely brutalized, raped, and degraded. I believe there are many instances when accountability needs to be a two-way street. There’s definitely the immediate harm that must be addressed, and there may also be situations when the person who harmed most recently, was responding, albeit inappropriately, to harm experienced by the person they harmed. I do not include child sexual abuse and adult rape. I don’t think survivors of sexual violence have any responsibility to be accountable to the harm doers who commit sexual violence against them. There isn’t anything a child or an adult can do to cause any form of sexual assault or rape committed against them. Survivors may have a responsibility to be accountable to people whom they have harmed as result of the violence they experienced. I definitely refer back to my relationship with my brother as an example. I’m interrogating when does the harm begin? Is it the most immediate harm caused or do we keep going back and back? I think about the Academy Award nominated motion picture film, Precious, directed by Lee Daniels, based upon Sapphire’s award-winning novel, Push. Precious’s mother, Mary, brilliantly portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Mo’Nique was sexually and physically abusive to her daughter Precious, portrayed by the incomparable Gabourey Sidibe. The violence was almost unbearable to read in the book, and also view on the screen. Simultaneously, however, Mary was also a victim of unspeakable abuse, which we were not privy to in great detail in the book or on the screen. I am not condoning the harm Mary caused her daughter, Precious. I am wondering who is accountable to Mary for the harm she experienced? How do we put together all of the pieces in this complex puzzle to ensure that those who’ve experienced immediate harm receive the support and accountability they need, while supporting those harm doers who have also been harmed?Since our criminal (in)justice system is not equipped to handle these complexities, we need to focus on new models of compassionate and humane justice. Thankfully there are several collectives and organizations who are implementing these forms of community accountability, restorative justice, and transformative justice. Some of several include: Creative Interventions, INCITE! Radical Feminists and Trans People of Color’s Community Accountability, Bay Area Transformative Justice, The Ahimsa Collective, Survived and Punished, Impact Justice, and TransformHarm.org.
4. Who are some of the people who have come before your work, and who you’re working alongside with now that are also engaged in the work of accountability?
My cultural work is not created in a vacuum. While I have ideas and visions, I don’t have one fraction of the answers for how we will tackle this inhumane epidemic, humanely. One of the things that I strive to do in my cultural work is to be in conversation with people whose work precedes my own, and whose work is in conversation with my own. NO! features the intergenerational experiential and researched wisdom of approximately 30-Black survivors, scholars, poets, dancers, and/or activists. The "Love With Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse" anthology features the intergenerational experiential and researched wisdom of over 35 diasporic Black survivors, advocates, one former bystander and/or activists. I am explicitly clear that addressing, disrupting, and ending child sexual abuse and adult rape without relying on systems that brutalize Black communities will require the work of many and probably a few lifetimes.Additionally, and as it specifically relates to my current child sexual abuse work, I lift up Melba Boyd’s book, Crossing the Boundary: Black Women Survive Incest (Virago Press, 1993), Grace Poore’s film, The Children We Sacrifice (Women Make Movies distributor, 2000), Robin D. Stone’s book, No Secrets No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Incest (Broadway Books, 2004), Bettina Aptheker’s memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became A Feminist Rebel (Seal Press, 2006), Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s co-edited anthology, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press, 2011 and AK Press, 2016). Secret Survivors, a theater project-turned-documentary conceived by Amita Swadhin for Ping Chong & Co., a New York City-based performance group. I encountered and engaged with most of those aforementioned resources years before I could fully tackle my own child sexual abuse herstory and legacy in any substantive way.I am also very fortunate to be a member of the Just Beginnings Collaborative’s inaugural cohort of eight fellows who are all child sexual abuse survivors of color, and ten-organizational grantees. We are all working to disrupt and end child sexual abuse without solely relying on the criminal injustice system. This fellowship marked the first time in my life, and I’ll be 50-years old in April 2019, when I could hone in on my cultural work without simultaneously worrying about how I will literally survive while doing the work. Equally as important, it has afforded us the time to get into the weeds with each other while we co-envision and work to co-create a world without sexual violence. Working across differences is not easy work at all, but it is necessary. In the words of Black Lesbian Feminist Mother Warrior Poet Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
5. What are ways you care for yourself in this work? How have these ways changed over the decades you’ve been engaged in it?
There are three core resources, one of which dates back to October 1992, that are anchors upon which I rely, and use to care for myself. Dr. Clara Whaley-Perkins is a Black feminist licensed psychologist whose sacred space known as her office has been a refuge for almost 27-continuous years. Over the years, thanks to Dr. Whaley-Perkins’ razor sharp guidance and support, I have pulled back many layers that were covering festering wounds, and opened bolted doors. When I had little to almost no funds, she never allowed the balance of my checking account determine if she would provide her expert services to me. Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is a restorative tool that has been an integral part of my daily life for almost 17-years. Every moment there is an opportunity to refrain from giving my innate power away as a result of these vicious and atrocious forms of oppression. This shouldn’t ever be misunderstood or misconstrued as excusing or condoning oppression. Quite the contrary. Applying equanimity and mettā (infinite non-attached loving kindness and compassion) to anti-oppression work, especially as a survivor of both child sexual abuse and adult rape, are tools to circumvent destroying oneself in the process and becoming the exact systems or entities that one is working on eradicating. This is not an easy feat at all. It is trial and error, with glimpses of progress along the way. This is why a regular meditative practice is necessary. I am also in non-defined community with my cousin Marie and friends some of whom are survivors and advocates who are predominantly Black and People of color. These relationships and camaraderie provide critically needed experiential peer support while doing the day to day work to break loud silences both in our own lives and also in the world.I’m not sure what’s changed over the years. What I know for certain is that my personal incest/child sexual abuse work brought me to my knees a few short years ago. This was two decades after I started working on sexual violence. Truth be told, there are completely unexpected times when it still brings me to my knees because of sheer rage and profound sadness. This is what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder looks like in my life. If it were not for therapy, meditation, friendships, survivor-peer relationships, and my partner Shelia, I honestly do not know how I would have made it contemporarily. They are my life rafts that very literally keep me from drowning when I take deep dives into the child sexual abuse ocean.
6. Is there anything else you’d like to share with HEMA readers?
In Fall 2018, I made NO! available for streaming rental on Vimeo On Demand. I realized it was past time that I make NO! widely accessible because it is an educational and organizing resource in the movement to end sexual violence. http://vimeo.com/ondemand/notherapedocumentary
Fall 2019 will mark the 25th anniversary of the first NO! pre-production meeting that I had with Tamara. It is also the same time when the #LoveWITHAccountability anthology will be published. To commemorate both the 25th anniversary milestone and the anticipated release of the anthology, I am partnering with the University of Pennsylvania to host a national conference titled, From NO! The Rape Documentary to #LoveWITHAccountability: Building on a Movement (#FromNO2Love). My affirmation is that #FromNO2Love will be an intergenerational, multiracial conference and gathering that will celebrate and lift up the long-term, and new survivor-led work that addresses, disrupts, and works to end adult rape and child sexual abuse. More information will be available on both the NO! The Rape Documentary, and the #LoveWITHAccountability websites in the coming months.