Last week, I checked out “Sex Crimes Against Black Girls,” a multimedia art exhibit that tackles many forms of sexual abuse black girls endure in the African Diaspora. The work, which will be at Bed-Stuy’s Restoration Plaza until April 2, was rich, provocative, and in some cases, quite pretty. But, because I’m a nosy writer, I was most intrigued by its curator, Shantrelle P. Lewis. For her day (and all-night) job, the New Orleans native directs programs and exhibitions at another organization, the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. But the 32-year-old chose to use her free time and psychic energy to find works by black and Latina artists that address the knotty subject of intra-racial sexual violence. Lewis, an incest survivor, was kind enough to sit on the phone and explain why:
Tell me how “Sex Crimes Against Black Girls” came about.
It came about in several ways. In grad school, I read “The Permanent Obliquity of an In(pha)llibly Straight: In the Time of Daughters and the Fathers, an essay by [literary critic] Hortense Spillers that deals with the treatment of incest among African Americans in literature. I was struck by how she put it within a larger context of racism and socioeconomic oppression, not just as [individual] pathology of black men or because black men have so-called issues. That spoke to me as a black woman who uses art to educate people, and as someone who was molested.
Can you talk about what happened?
I was abused by three family members, between the ages of 7 and 9. It happened at relatives’ houses, when no one else was around. They took advantage of me, but I didn’t tell anyone until after Hurricane Katrina.
What made post-Katrina the right time to speak up?
Well, the flood brought so many community issues to the surface—poverty, police brutality, violence and high levels of intra-racial prejudice because of the color caste system. And for me, personally, Katrina brought my sexual abuse to the surface. I finally told my mother.
How did she react?
She blamed herself. And to this day, she’s still trying to figure out why I didn’t say anything because she had always stressed, “If anybody ever touches you, tell mama.” But as a young child, I truly believed my abusers when they said, “You’ll get in trouble if you tell.” I remember thinking, “My mom is always fussing at me about doing the dishes or cleaning my room. What’ll happen if I say something about this?” That’s why I love Delphine [Fawundu-Buford’s] piece, “Speak No Evil” [shown at right] so much, because it highlights that silence.
“Speak No Evil,” one of several images photographer Delphine Fawundu-Buford contributed to “Sex Crimes Against Black Girls.”
I would imagine after mounting the exhibit and promoting it online, you had to talk to other family members about it.
Right before the February 5th launch, I had to tell my dad because I didn’t want him to read about it on Facebook. He said, “At this point in time, there’s nothing I can do besides become very angry and assault someone. I can’t do that.” It’s so hard. I mean, I had a wonderful, protective mom, dad, and stepdad, but they still couldn’t be around me 24/7.
The title “Sex Crimes Against Black Girls,” is so tough in its directness. Did you consider making it more vague?
You know, most of my other exhibit titles are like dissertations; they’re full of colons, semicolons and slashes. But for this, I could not toy with the abstract. I want people to feel a level of discomfort.
I’ve found that when black women talk publicly about being sexually abused by black men, they face the so-called dirty laundry argument. Inevitably someone will accuse them of self-hatred, or being brainwashed by white feminists, or out to tear brothers down. Have you faced this kind criticism so far?
Well several people I know who had never mentioned the issue of childhood sexual abuse before said, ‘But Shantrelle, this happens to black boys, too!’ And I had to say, ‘I’m curating this exhibit, and it’s about black girls. If other people want to curate another exhibit about black boys, they can do that.” The fact is: I will never demonize black men, under any circumstances. I grew up in a family full of incredible black fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins, and I know the types of issues and oppression [black men] deal with, like being harassed by the police and being [sexually] abused themselves. But we still have to hold black men who abuse black girls accountable for that abuse.
“Forsaken” by Numa Perrier
That sounds really stressful.
It is! You know, when the exhibit opened to the public, an older black woman came in to look at the work. I was on my way out—I was going to party—and she stopped me to talk about how she had been abused at 4. She told me that a man had urinated in her mouth and she started crying. All I could do was hug her.
As an incest survivor, how do you educate the public and stay sane at the same time?
With the support from close friends, male and female, and from my mother, a retired social worker, who keeps saying, ‘Don’t forget to take care of yourself.’ They understand my need to look at incest and sexual violence against black girls as a larger issue, and my own need for healing. They give me courage.