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Making Visible The Invisible[1]
by Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Written for the Conference Proceedings of
The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community’s
“Black Males and Domestic Violence:
What Do We Know, Where Do We Go?”

Photo Credit:  Scheherazade Tillet (

A National Conference
Philadelphia, PA

There is a silent war going on in the Black community.  This war is a war by Black men and boys on Black women and girls. This war is the rape and sexual assault of Black women and girls. Up until recently, this war was not publicly acknowledged by the Black community because it wasn’t viewed as important.  “One in three women will be raped in her lifetime.  94.5% of the rape victims are female compared to the 5.5% of the rape victims who are male; and 84.8% of the sexual assault victims are female compared to the 15.2% of the sexual assault victims who are male. Though Black women are 7% of the US population, they are 27% of the rape and sexual assault victims. Black women are raped at a higher rate than white women. For every one white woman that reports her rape at least 5 white women do not report their rapes.  And yet, for every one African-American woman that reports her rape at least 15 African-American women do not report their rapes.”[2]  “Black women are less likely to report a crime of domestic violence or sexual assault; are less likely to have their cases come to trial; and are less likely to have their cases result in conviction than white women.”[3]  “Black girls between the ages of 9-12 are more frequently the victims of child sexual abuse than white girls.  Today, 90% of the Black women who are raped are raped by Black men, more than 85% of rape victims have some of acquaintance with their perpetrators.”[4] This type of warfare being practiced against Black women and girls is not limited to the Black community.  Women and girls, regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, class, and/or physical ability, are raped, sexually assaulted, and molested throughout the world every single minute of single day. 

I am a Black feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker who uses the camera lens as an activist tool.  As a media activist who’s a sixth generation African-American woman who has endured and survived incest, sexual assault, and rape, I received a psychic, spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical “calling,” by my blood and spirit ancestors in 1994, to make a documentary, titled “NO!,”  that would address the collective silence in the Black community when Black women and girls are raped or sexually assaulted, physically and/or verbally, by Black men and boys.  In the extremely initial stages of this journey, my sistah-survivor-cultural worker, Tamara L. Xavier, expressed an interest in “helping” me with “NO!”.  Tamara’s “helping” me has evolved into her becoming “NO!”’s co-producer and dance coordinator.  At the time I didn’t have any idea that my “calling,” would be one of the most challenging experiences that I would have and continue to have.  I didn’t know that it would take me 8-years and counting to make this vision a reality.  All I knew was that in spite of the obstacles constantly thrown in my path, I had to follow through with this “calling.” 

Historically in the United States, victims of rape have been presented as white women, and rapists as Black men.  Black women have been presented as sexually lose, immoral, and incapable of being raped.  And very unfortunately, not enough white feminists have worked hard enough to change the aforementioned racist/sexist stereotype.  However, there have been and are many Black feminist/womanist scholars, cultural workers, and activists who are speaking about, writing about, performing about and organizing around this extremely painful and detrimental stereotype in Black women’s herstory and present day reality. 

What does it look like to visually make central that which has been placed on the margins and on the periphery?  The structure of “NO!” moves from rage/trauma/emotional and physical pain to meditation to action to healing where the consciousness of the featured women, who have been raped or sexually assaulted, transforms from victim to survivor to educator and healer. 

Many women can’t talk about their experience in front of the camera, but they have written performance poetry, and choreographed movements about them.  Tamara has taught me the importance of movement as a way to express ones self and, to communicate effectively about the trauma of rape, incest and sexual assault.  More importantly, she has shown me how dance and movement can aid in the spiritual and physical healing and transformation so necessary for the rape, incest and sexual assault victim-survivor and most importantly the spiritual/healing transformation through dance to heal from trauma.  I credit Tamara with the incorporation of dance into “NO!”.  Through Tamara, I learned that movement and other artistic expressions are just as effective as speech, perhaps more so, in conveying the horror of being raped.  Dance is used as a metaphor of the healing process as Black women move through the trauma of sexual violence and find wholeness and wellness of body, mind, and spirit. 

In “NO!,” I feminize Black HIStory while simultaneously addressing the rape and sexual assault of Black women and girls from enslavement of African people in the United States through present day.  I consciously use the first person testimonies of Black women victim-survivors, who range in age, geographic location, and sexual orientation. I integrate their experiences with commentary, scholarship, and performances by predominantly Black women scholar-activists and cultural workers.  Because I understand that violence against women will end when all men, regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, class, and/or physical ability, make ending this international atrocity a priority in their lives, the commentary and performance of five Black men activists and cultural workers are also integrated with the Black women’s voices to expose and address intra-racial rape and sexual assault in the our non-monolithic Black community.[5]

                The reason I consciously use the voices of Black women scholar-activists as experts who both expose and address the issue of intra-racial rape and sexual assault in the Black community is because in the United States (and I would argue the entire ‘Western’ world) Black women are not viewed as experts.  How often do viewers have the opportunities to see and hear Black women’s perspectives as the authoritative voice on celluloid?  Since “NO!”’s inception, making Black women's voices and experiences central, not on the sidelines, not on the periphery but in the center, without any excuses or apologies, has always been a part of the plan for the vision of the documentary.  Additionally, I’m also addressing the classist notion that rape, sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence is only perpetrated at the hands of working class Black men who live in the "hood" or in the "ghetto."  The majority of the victim-survivor testimonies featured in “NO!,” challenge the classist stereotype that Black men with academic degrees, high profiles, and/or men who are on the frontlines fighting for racial liberation are incapable of being sexist, misogynist, and/or rapists.

Rape and sexual assaults are taboo subjects in every community.  As a result of the impact of racism on the lives of Black people in the United States, many Black men and women think that doing any work to expose and address intra-racial sexual violence against Black women divides the Black community because we should only do work to expose and address racism since that is the real problem facing our community.  American Society describes Black as male and woman as white, which is evident in the expression “ Blacks and Women,” that implies that these categories are mutually exclusive.  As a consequence, Black women are made invisible[6].  In “NO!” Black identity is defined as woman; and woman identity is defined as Black. 

In the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Panther Party, Black women knew and spoke about rape and sexual assault amongst themselves, but the feeling at that time for many of them was that the principal issue was racism.  This is what Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., Former SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) Organizer, Islamic Scholar, and my mother, talks about in “NO!”.  At that time, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment were considered to be a minor problem in comparison to racism, racial injustice and racial violence that countless numbers of Black people across the United States were experiencing.  My mother is one of the anonymous heroines in SNCC.  In 1964, she became the Director of a COFO[7] (Council Of Federated Organizations) project in Laurel, Mississippi.  During this time, based on what she both experienced and witnessed, she created a sexual harassment policy to protect the women volunteers on the project.  As a result of this policy she received the reputation of being an “Amazon”, which meant ‘Gwen didn’t’ take any shit from men.’  The Laurel project was known as the “Amazon project,” and as a result many men refused to work in the Laurel, Mississippi project.  Zoharah was one of the first to set such set a policy in SNCC.  I think that it is critical to [publicly] uncover Black women’s herstories through testimonies like my mother and Elaine Brown, who was the only woman to lead the Black Panther Party.  When I interviewed Elaine Brown, she talked about the sexual violence she witnessed during the time of the Black Panthers.  Too often in the United States, when we think about the Civil Rights Movement or the Black Panther Party, we don’t think about the countless Black women who were on the frontlines of these revolutionary struggles.  We forget that women, too, were also faced with death threats by the white establishment while simultaneously having to deal with threats of rape and sexual assault by their Black male comrades.  How ironic it was to have to resist sexual assault and harassment by Black male comrades while having to fight with them against racial injustice, under the serious threat of death. 

                In response to the charge that Black women who publicly expose intra-racial sexual violence in the Black community, through the spoken and written word, as traitors to the race, I offer the following thoughts.  Yes, it is true that Black men are victims to racism, expressed in the form of police brutality, racial profiling, incarceration, unemployment, lack of access to decent education and jobs for which they are qualified, the list goes on and on in the United States.  However, Black women not only experience the same harsh realities of racism everyday of our lives, but we also experience the horrific realities of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy everyday of our lives.  As a result of racism, patriarchy, and sexism, Black men can be both victim and perpetrator simultaneously.

                What I find most interesting is that too many Black men, male identified Black women and progressive anti-racist white people, are unable to step outside the awful reality of many Black men’s lives to see and hear the physical, emotional, psychological, and psychic pain that Black women experience at both the hands of institutional white racism and at the hands of Black men, who are their fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, husbands, boyfriends, comrades, and friends. 

                Fortunately, I've never been beat by the police, and I've never been incarcerated.  However, whenever I hear a story about a Black man being beat or murdered by the police or about a Black man unjustly incarcerated, I am not only enraged, I am called to action.  There isn't a day that goes by when, on a personal level,  I don't worry about if my brother, my father, my grandfather and my male friends will be unjustly stopped by the police for the crime of being a Black man. In my ongoing conversations with many of my Diasporic African, Arab, South Asian, Latina, Roma, Indigenous, feminist/womanist sistahfriends living in the United States, in Canada, and in Europe, I know I’m not alone with these feelings and fears.

                And yet, very unfortunately, when it comes to rape, sexual assault, misogyny, sexual harassment, and other forms of violence perpetuated against women of Color at the hands of men of Color, men of Color are too often silent.  Instead of taking responsibility, more often than not, men of Color want to spend time and energy on focusing the blame on women of Color for the sexual violence that they experience.   These are the usual reframes: “What were you doing out late at night?  Most women say ‘No.’ when they really mean ‘Yes.’  You should’ve been properly dressed. etc.”

                When I was in South Africa in 1994 to monitor the first “free and fair” racial elections, I met with many Black South African women activists.  One of these sistah-activists gave me a poster that reads "One of the most violent social settings in South Africa is in the home."    In 1994, Black South African women were rejoicing about the end of legal apartheid while expressing serious concern about sexism and misogyny.  Today, eight years later, South Africa has the highest rape rate in the world.  Black South African men are raping Black South African women.  Where is the international outcry against these savage acts as there was against Apartheid.  Black South African women, like Black South African men, fought and died for their freedom.  And the highest rape rate in the world for women is their reward.  Algerian women along with Algerian men, fought, died, together and won the end of French Colonialization of Algeria, in 1962.  And in 2002, the 40th anniversary of Algerian Independence from France, Algerian women are fighting and dying for their rights as women in Algeria.

                If racism, in all of its violent manifestations, ended right this second, Diapsoric African women, Arab women, Asian women, Roma women, Pacific Islander women, Latinas, South Asian Women, Indigenous women would not be safe.  Until Diasporic African men, Arab men, Asian men, Pacific Islander Men, Latinos, Roma men, South Asian Men, Indigenous men take up the issue of rape, sexual assault, misogyny, sexual harassment and other forms gender based violence that happen every second of every day, with the same vigilance in which racism, xenophobia, colonialism, enslavement, police brutality, state sanctioned violence, and incarceration are addressed, communities of Color will never be whole…will never be healthy…will never be safe. 

There have been films and videos by Black women directors/producers including Ngozi Onwurah, Julie Dash, Ayoka Chenzira, Oprah Winfrey, Kasi Lemons, and Leslie Harris, to name a few, that have addressed various forms of sexual violence (incest, domestic violence and inter-racial rape in communities of Color.)  However, based on my research (Women Make Movies, Third World Newsreel, California Newsreel, Frameline, Video Data Bank; dialogues with established independent film and videomakers; and viewing of commercial and independent films and videos), I believe “NO!” will be the first documentary of its kind.  It should be noted that “NO!” belongs to a long tradition of protest by Black women writers, activists, artists, poets, cultural workers, and organizations, including but not limited to Enslaved African Women’s Narratives, Ida Wells Barnett, Amy Jaques Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Elaine Brown, Shirley Chisolm, Florence Kennedy, National Black Feminist Organization, Combahee River Collective, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Loretta Ross, Nkenge Toure, Angela Y. Davis, ntozoake shange, Michelle Wallace, Barbara Smith, Beverly Guy Sheftall, Sweet Honey In The Rock, bell hooks, Sonia Sanchez, Elsa Barkley Brown, National Black Women’s Health Project, African American Women In Defense of Ourselves…

As a 33-year old woman, I have gained power, strength, and visions from these pioneers—Black women whose writings, activism, cultural work has preceded and inspired my activist cultural work.  Through “NO!,” I am putting on the screen that which has been written in books, journals, magazines, periodicals, notebooks, pieces of paper; talked and whispered about at conferences, in community centers and organizations, in schools, colleges and universities, in churches, mosques and temples, in beauty parlors and Laundromats…

I have chosen to take a close look at incest, rape, and sexual assault in the community from which I come, the Black community.  Therefore, the diverse non-monolithic Black community is the primary target audience for “NO!”. However, because too many women, regardless of cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, sexual orientation, age, class, and physical ability differences experience rape and sexual assault, I believe ‘NO!” is a documentary with which from across the racial and class spectrum that many women will be able to find a connection. 

On June 15, 2001, almost seven years after Tamara and my first “NO!” research and development meeting,  Sharon M. Mullally, the editor of “NO!”, and I created a 1hour 21minute 08second “NO! Documentary Rough Cut” from 42hours of footage, which was beautifully photographed by Joan Brannon.  Since that time, I have had several “NO! Documentary Rough Cut” screenings with the scholar-activist advisors, college/university students, independent filmmakers, cultural workers, incarcerated youth, and community activists.  These public educational fundraising screenings were held in Budapest, Hungary, Paris, France, Durham, North Carolina, Denver, Colorado, Princeton, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Based on the critical feedback that I’ve received from the viewers, Sharon and I have made changes to the original structure and we now have a February 13, 2002, 74-minute “NO! Documentary Rough Cut”.  Since that time, there have been additional educational fundraising screening and discussions in Albany, NY, New Haven, Connecticut, Seattle, Washington, New York, New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and London, England.

I am still in critical need of completion funding to cover the costs of archival footage/photographs, original music, motion control camera, and eight weeks of fine-tune editing.  The projected completion date for “NO!” is the winter of 2002, if not sooner.  Once completed, “NO!” will be a broadcast quality film made for public and/or cable television.  It will be essential viewing for those interested in the African-American community, in the movements to end sexual violence; and the movements to end heterosexism/homophobia.  “NO!” will be submitted to national/international film/video festivals; and distributed to rape crisis centers, women’s organizations/groups, community cultural centers, churches and mosques, sororities, fraternities, high schools, colleges and universities.  The strategy used to promote “NO!” as an educational organizing tool will include: distribution of the documentary to the aforementioned institutions, mental health care facilities, local, state, and federal correctional institutions; as well as screenings combined with lectures, by the filmmaker(s), on exposing and ending all forms of violence against women and girls.  I hope that after viewing “NO!,” audiences will understand that every woman and girl has the right to say ‘No’ at any time; that intra-racial sexual violence will be put on national and local agendas; and that beyond discussion, concrete actions are taken to end all forms of violence against women and girls.

                It has been and continues to be a grassroots process both in front of the camera and behind the camera.  This almost eight-year journey is a testament to the financial, creative, spiritual, psychic support received from countless women, and a few anti-sexist men, in the United States and internationally, who understand the importance of this documentary to all communities.  It's extremely easy to look at the glass as half empty, but as I get closer to the end of this journey, I know that the glass is really beyond half full… it's overflowing.  Through the ongoing process of fundraising, I have been able to engage in paid and non-paid dialogues about rape and sexual assault with as few as two people and as many as 500 people in meetings, seminars, and conferences throughout the United States, in France, England, The Netherlands, Hungary, and Canada.  There hasn't been a screening where there hasn't been at least one woman or girl who has disclosed to me, or where someone has disclosed that a close friend, a relative, a colleague, or a comrade was raped or sexually assaulted.  It is these testimonials and experiences that affirm this ongoing journey, even in the face of resistance expressed in the form of economic censorship, solicited and unsolicited [sexist, racist, and homophobic] critiques to make “NO!” a feature length celluloid reality.


For more information on “NO!,” please contact Aishah Shahidah Simmons at AfroLez® Productions, PO Box 58085, Philadelphia, PA 19102-8085. Email:


Foremost, this essay is in memory of the lives, work, and legacies of some of my Black women blood and spirit ancestors-- Rhoda Bell Temple Robinson Hudson Douglas, Jesse Neal Hudson, Rebecca White Simmons Chapman, Ollie B. Smith, Mattie Simmons Brown, Audre Lorde, and Toni Cade Bambara…Ase.

Special thanks to Sister Indira Etwaroo for inviting me to present at the “Female “Bodies” of Knowledge Symposium at Temple University in April 2002.  I continue to be inspired by Indira’s cultural work, which is demonstrated through her powerful and beautiful choreography, her research and writings, and her commitment to women’s issues. 

Special Thanks to Brother Oliver Williams for his inviting me to screen the “NO! Documentary Rough Cut,” in its entirety, at the “Black Males and Domestic Violence: What Do We Know, Where Do We Go?” conference in May 2002.  His ground breaking vision, which led him to founding the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, has played and continues to play a critical role in placing the extremely difficult, yet very necessary conversation about domestic violence in the African American community in the national arena. 

Conversations with Michael Simmons, Tamara L. Xavier, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Joan W. Brannon, Janelle White, Salamishah Tillet, Wanda Moore, Gail M. Lloyd, Angela Gillem, Wadia L. Gardiner, Linda Holmes, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Klancy Miller, Barbara Smith, Heba Nimr, Nassira, Nikki Harmon, C. Nicole Mason, Reanae McNeal, Aaronette M. White, Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Kimberly Coleman, Rochelle Grayson, and Tyree Cinque Simmons, have informed my thinking on the issues touched upon in this essay.  Many, many thanks to my mother for her invaluable editorial comments and suggestions, in the eleventh hour.

Finally, this essay is dedicated to Iyana Ali, Courtney Simmons, Christina Simmons, Stella Roline Perrault, Mico Fazakas, Simone Xavier, Savannah McNeal, Zari Thwaites-Simmons, and all little girls born and yet to be born.  May they never experience the horror of incest, molestation, sexual assault, rape, and/or any other horrific form of violence perpetuated against women and girls.

[1] This essay, under the title “Using the Moving Image to Make Central The Rape and Sexual Assault of Black Women and Girls,” is also published in the Female “Bodies” of Knowledge Symposium Proceedings, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA—April 4 and 5, 2002, Indira Etwaroo, editor

[2] Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, July 1999

[3] Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (NY, Routledge, 1991)p178

[4] San Francisco Women Against Rape Women of African Descent Task Force “building Community, Challenging Rape” brochure.

[5] The following interviews and performances are featured in the “NO!” documentary rough cut: Samiya A. Bashir, Poet, Treason; Elaine Brown, Former Chairperson of the Black Panther Party; Johnnetta B. Cole, President Emeritus, Spelman College; Adrienne Davis, legal scholar at University of North Carolina; John T. Dickerson, Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center; Ulester Douglas and Sulaiman Nuriddin, Men Stopping Violence; Farah Jasmine Griffin, scholar and author, Columbia University; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Historian and Author at Spelman College; (the late) Essex Hemphill, poet, To Some Supposed Brothers; Audree Irons, Administrative Associate, Spelman College; Honoree Jeffers, poet, that’s proof she wanted it; Rev. Reanae McNeal, Imani Revelations; Charlotte Pierce-Baker, author of SURVIVING THE SILENCE: Black Women’s Stories Of Rape; Queen, a poet; Loretta Ross, former director, Washington, D. C. Rape Crisis Center; Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Islamic Scholar and former SNCC organizer; Michael Simmons, human rights activist; Barbara Smith, scholar, author, and activist; Salamishah Tillet, writer and graduate student; Scheherazade Tillet, photographer; Rev. Traci West, author of Wounds of the Spirit: Black women, Violence and Resistance Ethics; Aaronette M. White, social psychologist and activist; Janelle White, Leanne Knot Violence Against Women Project; Rosetta Williams, visual artist and poet; Black Feminist Dance Statement; Blues Migration Dance; A State of Rage, A narrative choreopoem; Vignettes exposing inter- and intra-racial rape and sexual assault during enslavement and Reconstruction.

[6] Gloria T. Hull,  Patricia Bell Scott, & Barbara Smith, Eds.  All the Women are white, All the Blacks are men, But Some Of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. New York: The Feminist Press. 1982.

[7] Council of Federated Organization was made up of four organizations working to achieve racial equality in the United States.  The organizations were SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress on Racial Equality), and NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

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 A Long Walk Home is a nonprofit organization that uses visual and performance arts for community outreach.

A Long Walk Home is a unique partnership of art therapy, social documentary and community activism to develop multimedia performances on socially relevant issues.

A Long Walk Home: A Story of A Rape Survivor is a nontraditional, innovative program that uses the real life testimonies of rape survivors to expose the realities of sexual violence in the lives of young girls and women.

 A Long Walk Home: A Story of A Rape Survivor documents the journey from sexual assault victim to sexual assault survivor.

Scheherazade Tillet is the executive director of and the photographer for A Long Walk Home. She recieved her B.A in Child Development and Studio Arts from Tufts University. She has studied photography at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts and Rutgers University Mason Gross School of Arts. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Art therapy at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. In 1998, under tutelage of social documentary photographer, Steve Hart, she began her project "A Long Walk Home:A Story Of A Rape Survivor" as a mini social documentary project in which she intimaterly documented her sister's recovery from sexual assualt.

She is a freelance photographer and has worked on numerous social documentary projects such as "Children in Ghana", "Body Image: The Last Trimester, "Harlem World" and a project in progress on African-American Women.

All Photographs  taken by Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet is the program director of and writer for A Long Walk Home. The performance "A Long Walk Home: A Story Of A Rape Survivor" documents her personal journey as a rape survivor. Salamishah breaks the silence that often surrounds rape by narrating her trauma in order to educate both survivors and non-survivors about sexual assault and recovery. Salamishah has written several pieces on rape and sexual violence. Her poem "Do You Know What Rape Feels Like?" is performed in A Long Walk Home, and her essay "Fragmented Silhouettes," on violence against women in the African-American community, appears in the Abafazi journal and the forthcoming projects of Women and Therapy and Battered, Black and Blue: Violence in the Lives of Black Women.

NO! A Work-In-Progress

AfroLez® Productions
PO Box 58085
Philadelphia, PA 19102-8085
Phone: (215) 735-7372
Fax: (215) 972-8109







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