The Rape of a Nation and the Reconstruction of Black Masculinity

With a month left before the 2016 presidential election, a sobering topic has emerged to dominate national discourse: rape and sexual assault. Angry at what they perceived as the lack of box office success for Nate Parker’s film Birth of a Nation, some Black men have blamed Black feminists for dampening enthusiasm and turnout of the film. For their part, many Black women have called attention to the evasive answers and lack of regard Nate Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin showed toward the woman who asserted in court during multiple trials that she was raped by Parker and Celestin.

Going into the last month of the presidential campaign, a tape of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was released where he was recorded making vulgar remarks against women. He boasted and bragged to Billy Bush, a cousin of former President George W. Bush, that: “…when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything.” In the days after the tape was released, multiple rape and sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump began pouring in.

Due to these events, the topics of rape, sexual assault, structural patriarchy, and male privilege are being discussed across America. Even though we are in the midst of a national Movement for Black Lives and militant urban uprisings, the controversies surrounding the Nate Parker, Jean Celestin, and Donald Trump present Black men with an opportunity to examine how we are complicit in rape culture, how we condone sexual assault, and how we wield male privilege.

The Women of Color Network has found that 40% of Black women experience coercive sexual contact by age 18 and that 18.8% of Black women have reported rape in their lifetime. However, many victims of rape and sexual assault do not report the crime to authorities, so the percentage of Black women who have been raped could be much, much higher. In Baltimore, the Department of Justice investigation of the Baltimore Police Department found that many rape cases were not investigated by police and that city prosecutors blamed sexual assault victims instead of believing victims who reported. Across the nation, many Black women are subjected to rampant street harassment by Black men. Some Black women are killed by Black men after being rejected or after a domestic altercation.

These statistics and occurrences provide concrete evidence for the sharp statement Malcolm X once made:

The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the black woman.

While it is important to state that men of all racial backgrounds engage in rape, sexual assault, and killing women after rejection, we must examine why we as Black men have not owned up to our overt or covert participation in the culture of rape and sexual violence inflicted against Black women. Even more, Black men have not yet had a reckoning with the aftermath and residual impact of being subjected to terroristic violence in America during the period of enslavement from 1619 to 1865—a period of 246 years.

One might ask: is it possible that the terrorism of American slavery negatively impacted the construction of modern Black masculinity? While filmmaker Nate Parker sought to encourage moviegoers to think of how Nat Turner’s insurrection can be considered the birth of a nation, perhaps Black men are simultaneously served by comprehending how the terrorism of American slavery, involving the practice of human breeding and placing human stock on auction blocks, resulted in the rape of a nation—particularly of enslaved Black women, very often by enslaved Black men.

cotton_productionAs the production of cotton grew on White-owned terror plantations in the Deep South, the demand for enslaved Black labor exploded among White Southern planters. The domestic production of cotton exploded after 1800, growing from 100,000 bales in annual production in 1801 to 1 million bales by 1835, 2 million bales by 1842, and 4 million bales of cotton production by 1859. Our Ancestors did that work, picking and producing over 70 million bales of cotton for White planters. The White planter demand for enslaved and unpaid Black labor was so high that an entirely new Domestic American Slave Trade (DAST) was born in the early 1800s in which 1.2 million enslaved Black people were shipped from the Chesapeake region (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) and sold to White planters who owned cotton plantations in the Deep South. In his groundbreaking masterpiece Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois breaks down the DAST activity of slave breeders in states just below the Mason-Dixon line:

Sexual chaos arose from economic motives. The deliberate breeding of a strong, big field-hand stock could be carried out by selecting proper males, and giving them the run of the likeliest females. This in many Border States became regular policy and fed the slave trade. Child-bearing was a profitable occupation, which received every possible encouragement… Virginia had bred and exported to the cotton states between the years of 1840 and 1850 no less than 100,000 slaves, which at $500 per head would have yielded [Virginian slaveholders] $50,000,000.

Breeding slaves was institutionalized rape! While we can argue that breeding was forced for those Africans and African descendants that were sold in slave markets on auction blocks and enslaved on White terror plantations, this human breeding likely took place for decades preceding the Civil War, affecting generations of Black people. This institutional rape involved Black men “breeding” with Black women, but we do not discuss this by and large in our discourses on American enslavement and what impact institutionalized rape had on enslaved Black women, the primary victims. Since we have not examined the impact of human breeding on our enslaved ancestors, we have not accounted for how the rape of a nation contributed to the internalization and intergenerational transmission of a masculinity that mirrors that of slavemasters and condones rape, sexual assault, street harassment, and intimate partner violence among Black men with respect to Black women.

Breeding was not the only form of rape during enslavement. Black women were also brutally raped and assaulted by White slavemasters and owners. Freedom fighter and former Black Panther member Angela Davis elaborates on this in her remarkable article* entitled Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves:

In its political contours, the rape of the black woman was not exclusively an attack upon her. Indirectly, its target was also the slave community as a whole. In launching the sexual war on the woman, the master would not only assert his sovereignty over a critically important figure of the slave community, he would also be aiming a blow against the black man.

Angela Davis makes clear that rape by White slaveowners and masters was “sexual war on the woman” and a devious tool by which to inflict terror and helplessness on the entire enslaved African and African-descended community. But enslaved Black women were not helpless victims against the rape to which they were subjected. They were warriors! Angela Davis highlights instance after instance where Black women engaged in slave rebellions and insurrections to secure freedom for their community:

The sexual contest was one of many arenas in which the black woman had to prove herself as a warrior against oppression…. An intricate and savage web of oppression intruded at every moment into the black woman’s life during slavery. Yet a single theme appears at every juncture: the woman transcending, refusing, fighting back, asserting herself over and against terrifying obstacles.

Given this legacy of institutionalized rape and sexual war, we Black men who are descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States must begin to seriously assess how we have internalized and passed down a warped vision of masculinity based our Ancestors’ survival responses to the trauma and terror of enslavement.

We must ask: do we devalue Black women and participate in their oppression through our male privilege in a capitalistic and patriarchal white supremacist society?

We must inquire: how has our masculinity been impacted by the practice of breeding on terror plantations, which was institutionalized rape where no one was ever punished and sexual assault was utterly normalized?

We must assess: do we perpetuate the rape of a nation by not challenging rape culture, sexual assault, and street harassment from other Black men?

It is not enough to lift up the righteous insurrection of Nat Turner and illustrate how White men raped Black women, as is depicted in Nate Parker’s Birth of A Nation, without examining the repercussions of White slavemasters and slave traders profiteering off of enslaved Black men breeding with enslaved Black women. It is not enough for us to excoriate and denounce Donald Trump on the basis of his vulgar and violent misogyny without examining how we as Black boys and men perpetuate misogyny in our own interactions and relationships with Black girls and women.

Our goal as Black men cannot be to lower the standards of our masculinity to the level of slavemasters, slave traders, and titans of capitalism (like Donald Trump) and claim the prize of equality. Our goal must be to redeem and reconstruct our masculinity to reject the dehumanization of slavery that institutionalized the rape of Black women and served as the foundation of equating Black masculinity with the neo-plantational roles of pimps and players. To become the best men we can be for our communities and families, we should think beyond the birth of a nation and also think about the normalized rape and sexual assault of our nation. Equating Black manhood with the freedom to adopt the masculinity of White slavemasters and slave traders only perpetuates neo-plantational interactions in Black lives. The revolution we seek to end state violence against Black men must also include the end of physical and psychological violence experienced by Black women…often at our hands.

* Special thanks to Dr. Asia Leeds for pointing me to Dr. Angela Davis’ journal article Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves. I highly recommend reading her article right now!

By Lawrence Brown, Ph.D

Lawrence Brown is the grandson of sharecroppers who lived in the Mississippi Delta and is a native of West Memphis, Arkansas. He is an Assistant Professor at Morgan State University in the School of Community Health and Policy. He is engaged in Baltimore communities as an activist for equitable redevelopment along with housing stability and studies the impact of forced displacement, historical trauma, and masculinity on health.