Anti-racist discussions of sexual violence that derive from African-American history and activism are not homogenous, as there are schisms between those who combine their anti-racist work with feminist work and those who do not. This is not to say that the divisions are easily divided along gender lines—there are African-American men who participate in critiquing the prevalence of sexual violence and African-American women who do not align themselves with feminism or belive the arguments of the anti-rape movement.12 African Americans are often skeptical of accusations about sexual assault because of a history of stereotypes and accusations that mark African American men as violent rapists. Estimates indicate that over 4,700 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and of this group, 73% were African American. Between 1889 and 1929, only one-sixth were accused or rape, but some of the most notorious lynching murders are related to false accusations of sexual assault.13
There are two cases that most haunt the black imagination when allegations of sexual assault surface. The nine African American boys who most people only know as the “Scottsboro Boys” were charged with raping two white women in 1931. The young women—who were prostitutes—later admitted to lying, but it also became apparent that the accusation was encouraged by the men of Scottsboro so that they would have an opportunity to demonstrate racial dominance. While none of them were lynched, they narrowly escaped death by a mob and all but a twelve-year old boy received death sentences at their trials. After years of trials and incarceration, five had the charges dropped against them, and the other Scottsboro Boys endured staggered releases over the next few years except for one who escaped in 1948.14
The other case which also haunts black memory is that of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who was killed for whistling at and “reckless eyeballing” a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Half-brothers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant shot Till three days later, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck, and dumped him in the Tallahatchee River. Despite overwhelming evidence which indicated their guilt, they were acquitted and later confessed to the murder because they could not be tried twice for the same offense.15
I see Emmett Till and the Scottsboro boys as ghosts because a ghost, as Avery Gordon explains, “is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.”16 The social figure of the lost black boy—destroyed because white supremacists desired to demonstrate their power or possessed anxieties about the black phallus and white femininity—lingers and is lamented in African American communities and writing. This history makes every black boy a potential double of one of the lost, an agent who one hopes can survive the fate of those who came before him.
Another specter in the black imagination is that of the black male rapist that the Scottsboro boys and Till were accused of being. Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, which is the source material for D.W. Griffith’s influential The Birth of a Nation best exemplifies this narrative. As numerous scholars have noted, the “myth of the black rapist” was a tool of white supremacy and was used to justify the lynching of black men who threatened white dominance.17 Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan is perhaps the most famous fiction that circulated this rape narrative, as the story became more prominent when it was adapted into Birth of a Nation. The most famous scene involves an attack on untouched (white) southern girl Marion by emancipated slave Gus. Young Marion is with her mother and pleads with Gus that they don’t have any money:
Gus stepped closer, with an ugly leer, his flat nose dilated, his sinister bead-eyes wide apart gleaming ape-like, as he laughed:
"We ain't atter money!"
The girl uttered a cry, long, tremulous, heart-rending, piteous.
A single tiger-spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat and she was still.
It was three o'clock before Marion regained consciousness, crawled to her mother, and crouched in dumb convulsions in her arms.
"What can we do, my darling?" the mother asked at last.
"Die! - thank God, we have the strength left!"18
They hurried to a cliff because Marion wanted her name to “‘always be sweet and clean.’”19 She tells her mother that after her assault, “only those who hate me could wish I would live.” With joined hands, they jumped off the precipice together.
The scene of the assault is not represented were uniformly implied and not explicit in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction. The absence of representation signifies the ways in which public reflections of rape work. People imagine the events by filling in the holes after an initial introduction to the people involved and the context. Reading rape is often an act of creating a fiction.
Dixon demonstrates with this scene a configuration of race that understands the maintenance of racial narratives as part of a national project, but he also links an African-American nationalist identity with sexual violence against white women. The prosecution of rape crimes is constructed as defending the nation state against amoral, black citizens. While the law does label criminal activities as crimes against “the people” as opposed to simply personal crimes, crimes are nonetheless often read as acts that are against individuals and as only signs of possible threats against others and the state. Dixon explicitly makes rape a crime against the state by associating the crime with black citizenship. Anti-racist activists have understood that widespread narratives about African-Americans and rape are often about a monstrous, black male rapist and rarely about African-American male or female victims. They know that stories about black male rapists serve a national discourse about the impossibility of black citizenship and that these stories suggest that the manifestation of black citizenship threatens white power. The now infamous commercial supporting the George Bush 1998 presidential bid attacked Michael Dukakis with the image of a black male rapist. Prisoner Willie Horton escaped while on a prison furlough in Massachusetts and went on to rape a women in another state. Horton’s visage and narrative, as the Bush campaign knew, was the most frightening bogeyman they could produce to demonstrate that Dukakis was unfit for office. What was more dangerous to the state than a Willie Horton?20
African-American women have often not aligned themselves with feminism because some women’s rights advocates have often staged a conflict between black and white citizenship and ignored the specificity of problems that affect black women and because of cultural narratives that pit black progress and feminism against each other. Many African-American women have had a tendentious relationship with the anti-rape movement because, as Angela Davis has argued, it has had a “posture of indifference toward the frame-up charge as an incitement to racial aggression.”21 And as the Willie Horton case demonstrates, those who are guilty of sexual assault are held up in racist rhetoric as representative of the greatest danger to the safety of U.S. citizens.
These historically inflected critiques of the ways in which sexual assault accusations have been used are merited. But some critiques made by members of anti-racist groups parrot sexist rhetoric about women and rape allegations. These include that women “do it for revenge,” “want money,” “want attention,” and “are trying to bring a black man down.” These accusations are founded on largely unsupported beliefs that many or most women lie about sexual assault. When an African-American male celebrity is accused of sexual assault or sexual misconduct, many African Americans support the accused, regardless of whether or not the alleged victim is African American or Caucasian. When boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of sexually assaulting beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, “Free Mike Tyson” t-shirts could be seen across the country.22 Rap artist Tupac Shakur was convicted of sexual abuse and R&B singer R. Kelly has been charged with producing and possessing child pornography, but their record sales continued to be high after the accusations.23 When Clarence Thomas was accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill, many African American women had, as Cynthia Burack notes, an “overwhelmingly negative response” towards Anita Hill and her testimony.24 All of the women (or girls) in these cases were African American, and no notable grassroots support sprung up for these women in the African American community. This is not to say that no woman has ever lied about a rape or sexual harassment allegation, but the argument that all of the allegations are falsehoods depends upon arguments that loved celebrities wouldn’t commit such a crime and that women lie about this issue in the hopes of financial gain.
The anti-racist reader who is unaligned with anti-rape work or feminist projects may read the Kobe Bryant case as an attack on a good black citizen with little evidence. Kobe Bryant is an L.A. Lakers superstar who spent part of his youth in Italy, became a famous at a suburban high school and grew up to be a good representative for black professional athletes but not of them. Bryant’s figure was supposed to stay clear of criminal charges or controversy. The argument that an attack on Kobe is an attack on strong black citizenship can be made, but this claim relies on two premises: 1) that the alleged victim and prosecuting team have a personal or group investment in attacking Bryant or African-American men (even subconsciously), and 2.) that Bryant is a “good guy” and would not commit this crime. Hidden suspicions related to these claims include the supposition that the alleged victim probably wants attention or money, that men who are seen or known as “good” guys in many aspects of their lives never commit sexual assault, and that if he was a rapist this information would have been revealed at an earlier time.
The first claim may or may not be true, but a revelation that prosecutors or alleged victims may be racist does not totally eliminate the possibility that a crime was committed. The issue of celebrity does complicate the issue of a sexual assault charge for all involved, but it is clear that the path towards affluence through a sexual assault accusation is risk filled and possibly trauma producing. The “good character” argument erases the fact that many of the incarcerated have been fathers, brothers, and sons who may have been considered good family members. They may have been good at their jobs. The commission of a heinous crime does not erase the humanity of the perpetrator—which is something that some anti-rape advocates sometimes forgets. The anti-rape movement easily addresses the issues that people who have argued for Bryant’s innocence before the trial, but it is clear from some of their rhetoric that they are not producing a truly intersectional model that thinks about Bryant as well as his alleged victim.