December 6, 2017
Convener’s Corner, Nkechi Taifa
Personal Reflection on Historical Sexual Violation and the Need to Unapologetically Uplift the Conyers’ Legacy
“As attention is called to the ugly reality of present-day sexual harassment, there must also be attention to the historical sexual violations of Black women during the enslavement era and beyond. For well over 350 years Black women were viciously raped, savagely beaten and tortured, and had fetuses cut out of their bellies, oft times by the perpetrator of sexual assault upon them. Women who resisted were terrorized, continuously defiled and disrespected, and lynchings were commonplace. Oft-times White women were complicit in condoning the sexual crimes of White men against Black women, and oft-times falsely accused Black men of rape, leading to their murder and dismemberment. Just as we do not condone or take lightly present-day disclosures and accusations of sexual harassment, the unfettered crimes against Women of African Descent during the enslavement era and beyond that to date still await remedy must never be forgotten.” Statement by a group of women of African descent involved in the reparations movement.
During a Congressional Black Caucus plenary on reparations chaired by Congressman John Conyers two years ago, I spoke of the words of Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till who in 1955 was abducted by White terrorists and thrown into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. The only way her son’s beaten and horribly disfigured body could be identified was by a ring he wore on a finger. Mamie Till refused a closed casket, saying – ‘Open up that casket. I want the world to see what they did to my boy.’
During that forum I stated that NCOBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, opened up that casket, being the coalition which spearheaded the modern day reparations movement. I stated that CARICOM opened up that casket, presenting the Caribbean nations’ 10-point program to their European colonizers. I said that the Institute of the Black World opened up that casket, connecting the dots between the movement for reparations internationally and the movement in the United States. I said that Ta-Nehisi Coates opened up that casket, having thrust the issue of the case for reparations for lingering harm with his article in the Atlantic Magazine on living room coffee tables, in doctor and dentist offices, and in the mainstream media.
But I stated that Congressman John Conyers’ contributions to opening up that casket have been exceptional and unparalleled. Year after year he has introduced HR 40 – the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. It is this bill that has provided the mechanism to have a public policy conversation about the historic issue of redress for the impact of slavery on today’s society in the Congress of the United States.
And why is it important that the federal government have this conversation?
It is important because Black people are the descendants of Africans kidnapped and transported to the United States with the explicit complicity of the United States government and every arm of the U.S. lawmaking and law enforcement machinery. The dehumanization, atrocities and terrorism of enslavement in the U.S. were not isolated occurrences but constitutionally authorized.
U.S. Constitutional Article One expressly guaranteed and sanctioned the importation of kidnapped African prisoners of war to every state that might desire their unpaid labor until the year 1808. That Article also upheld the further dehumanization of the African by relegating the status to that of 3/5 of a White man. And most egregious Article Four, also known as the Fugitive Slave provision, mandated that no enslaved person, even if he or she had reached a free state, was safe, and it was the duty and the constitutional obligation of every White man, woman or child to track down the escaped African and deliver him or her up to the U.S. government.
This is history that still awaits healing and redress.
During the decades in his role as either Chair of the House Judiciary Committee or as its Ranking Member, or as Chair of the Committee on Government Operations, Congressman Conyers has overseen countless progressive pieces of legislation that has moved the country forward to healing. These include but are not limited to the Racial Justice Act, the End Racial Profiling Act, Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform legislation, the Law Enforcement Trust and Accountability Act, the Second Chance Reentry Bill, the Fair Sentencing Act, the Martin Luther King Holiday Act, the Motor Voter Bill, that National Health Care Act, the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Violence Against Women Act, and of course, the HR 40 – the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. It was Congressman Conyers that provided sanctuary to Rosa Parks in Detroit in the wake of the backlash of her historic stance. And it was Congressman Conyers who was targeted as number 13 on President Nixon’s Enemies List as the result of his outspokenness.
For over fifty years Congressman Conyers has been a long-distance runner. For over fifty years he has been the conscience of the Congress. For over fifty years he has boldly opened up that casket. And now we must unapologetically lift up his lifetime legacy of determination and steadfastness on issues of social justice, civil rights, criminal justice and human rights. All policymakers must be challenged to match or exceed his Congressional record and have the courage to likewise take up the mantle of difficult and unpopular issues.
As the country reconciles today with the accusations and disclosures of the indefensible personal frailities of individuals, let us begin the process of national healing by acknowledging the historic harm of enslavement sanctioned by the federal government which led to colossal and commonplace sexual violations against enslaved women, and honor the Conyers’ legislative legacy with the passage of HR 40.
Nkechi Taifa is the convener of the Justice Roundtable. An expert in the field of criminal justice, she is the Advocacy Director for Criminal Justice for the Open Society Foundations and Open Society Policy Center.