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All the women are white, all the Blacks are men, and many of us have been raped: one filmmaker confronts sexual violence against Black women.

WHEN AISHAH SHAHIDAH SIMMONS was in South Africa celebrating the end of legalized apartheid with the rest of the country, one nagging fact kept her from completely surrendering to the festive moment. "South Africa has one of the highest rape rates in the world," the 37-year-old, Philadelphia-based filmmaker says. Then 25, Simmons was part of the American Friends Service Committee's official delegation to observe South Africa's "first and free non-racial" election. But a Black South African female activist gave Simmons a poster that would change her life. "One of the most violent social settings in South Africa is in the home," it read. As she recalls in an article published in The Black Scholar, "Even with my Black feminist upbringing, I only saw oppression in South Africa through a racial lens."


So she adjusted the lens to focus on intraracial sexual violence later that year. Her film, NO!, released last year, explores sexual violation and healing in America's Black communities. In the culturally rich tradition of "speaking truth to power," Black women scholars, artists and survivors detail how they have historically been and continue to be twice betrayed--by the Black men who assault them and by the larger Black community that looks the other way. They also call attention to the failure of Black leadership to forcefully condemn the sexual abuse of Black women and girls at the hands of Black men and boys--although some of those leaders were quite vociferous when Tawana Brawley accused white men of raping her in the late 1980s. "So when Black men rape us we have to be silent," Simmons asserts. "When white men rape us, the whole community is up in arms." The Mike Tyson rape case, along with the gendered lessons learned in South Africa, lit a flame of resistance that Simmons and her supporters would keep burning through the 11 arduous years it took to complete NO!

Although other Black women directors/producers have explored the subject on film, Simmons believes her documentary is the first of its kind, and others agree. The film nabbed two awards last year from the San Diego Women Film Festival, including the Audience Choice Award, and Simmons has garnered several distinctions, including the 2006 Visionary Award from the Washington, D.C. Rape Crisis Center.


She wanted to make the work of Black women writers that she admired "visual and accessible" to those who might not otherwise encounter, say, Ntozake Shange. Black women intellectuals--such as Barbara Smith, Johnnetta Cole and Farah Jasmine Griffin--get to be the "talking heads" for once. According to Simmons, it was important to position Black women as experts.

"How often do viewers have opportunities to see and hear Black women's perspectives as the authoritative voice on celluloid?" she points out in an essay included in The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology. And the survivors, many of whom are activists and academics themselves, speak from the anguished authority of lived experience. Poets like Samiya Bashir and Honoree Fanonne Jeffers lend a lyrical but no less impassioned dimension to the discussion. Interpretative movement also plays a central role, thanks to the involvement of Haitian-American feminist choreographer and NO! coproducer Tamara L. Xavier. Simmons says it was Xavier who taught her that dance can both express the montage of emotions experienced after rape and enact the healing.

Simmons' personal journey had its own healing arc, moving from trauma to triumphant testimony. A survivor of childhood incest at the hands of a family member, Simmons was raped during her sophomore year of college while studying abroad in Mexico. She got pregnant as a result, had an abortion, and dropped out of college to recover. Even so, NO! was not consciously undertaken as a self-therapeutic project. "When I started working on NO! it didn't in my mind have anything to do with me," she recalls. "I wanted to help other women."

While providing a space of healing witness for other Black women survivors on film, her compassion for the interviewees led her right back to her own story, her own need for self-forgiveness. "Even though I paid for the [hotel room in Mexico], when I got to the room and changed my mind, I had a right to change my mind. I knew that intellectually but not experientially," she explains.

Simmons might have never discovered film as a forum for truth-telling and consciousness-raising had she not met Toni Cade Bambara in 1990. The renowned Black woman writer, cultural worker and filmmaker/screenwriter was then teaching at the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia. There, community members traditionally without benefit of video training and production facilities were encouraged to use the medium in the interests of self-expression and social justice. It was there that Simmons created Silence ... Broken, an experimental short film in which a Black lesbian "talks back" to homophobia, racism and sexism. Her second short, In My Father's House, portrays Simmons coming out in a supportive Black context. Featuring interviews with her father, brother and best friend from high school, the film is intended to interrupt the image of the Black community as a homophobic monolith.

However, when Simmons was grappling with her sexuality as a teenager, she didn't really appreciate it when her father introduced her to his Black lesbian friend and colleague. He wanted Simmons to know that she could be proudly Black and proudly lesbian, but she just wanted him to stop "meddling." She adds that she also took it for granted, laughing, "Don't all dads do this?"

Simmons is inspired by her divorced parents' legacy of activism. Her father, Michael W. Simmons, was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and imprisoned for two and a half years for refusing to go to Vietnam. He explores ways that Black men can hold each other accountable for sexually abusive behavior in NO! Her mother, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, is a feminist Islamic scholar and activist who tells her own compelling story in NO! Also involved in SNCC, she narrowly escaped when one of her comrades tried to rape her. When she went to the SNCC leadership to complain, it was dismissed, because after all, racial violence was the "real" issue. Disappointed in the response from "the beloved community," she drafted the first sexual harassment policy within SNCC as the director of the Laurel Project. But despite her parents' commitment to women's rights, their reaction when their daughter was sexually abused by a family member was less than laudable, according to Simmons. "Both of my parents really did not step to the plate at that time," Simmons says. However, her parents' support of and appearance in NO! "helped us heal our Black community" of three, she adds.

Simmons, who has been working on NO! full-time since 1998, has been getting by on speaking engagement fees and grant money. While she estimates that two to three years could have been shaved off of the completion time if she had relied on volunteer crew, she says: "It was really important for me to hire predominately women of color." Thanks to a recent grant from the Ford Foundation, she is finally earning a salary to oversee the subtitling of NO!, working on putting out extra scenes from the film on DVD and shaping an educational resource guide for those interested in learning more about stopping rape.


Initially Simmons' work was underwritten by women's and community-based funds and foundations. Many potential funders' rejections inadvertently revealed the need for NO!, with its naming of racism, misogyny and heterosexism. One funder suggested that, as a lesbian, Simmons had an axe to grind. Another stated that since most people don't care about sexual violence perpetrated against Black females, it would be pointless to help bankroll the project. So funding NO! became an international grassroots effort by necessity. Women in Palestine and Peru grasped the global relevance of the film, even as myopic funders did not. A group of primarily women-of-color activists in Europe translated the film into Spanish and French and screened it as a rough cut. While white students asked Simmons why she only focused on Black women, women in Italy, Hungary and Croatia knew better. "NO! deals with a universal reality through the experiences of Black women," explains Simmons, noting the conflation of Eurocentrism and universalism.

So NO! was raising funds and awareness simultaneously, which, in retrospect, may have been best, Simmons muses. "I want it to be used as an educational organizing tool, beyond the ivory tower," she adds. Hip-hop historian and writer-activist Kevin Powell sent out an open letter to other Black men via e-mail, soliciting support for NO! The resulting coalition of professors, politicians, artists and thinkers hosted a screening and discussion of NO! in partnership with Hiphop Speaks, a quarterly forum Powell cofounded for the hip-hop generation to talk about sociopolitical issues. More than 200 young Black men and women had to be turned away after waiting in line for an hour on a cold and wet evening at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. It was the much-maligned hip-hop generation, Simmons notes, that brought the film to Harlem and promoted dialogue about intraracial rape.

Resisting stereotypes while refusing to turn away from hard truths is the work of NO!, which it handily accomplishes. Fueling America's fascination with the racist and classist stock character of the Black male sexual predator in the 'hood is not the answer. But Simmons' opus demands that sheltering Black men from racism not leave Black women out in the cold. As she writes in the INCITE! essay: "If racism ... ended right this second, African and African American women, Arab women, Asian women, Pacific Islander women, Latinas, South Asian women, [and] Indigenous women would not be safe."

To learn more about the film, go to

LaVon Rice is a poet and freelancer writer based in northern New Mexico.
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Title Annotation:PROFILE
Author:Rice, LaVon
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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