On injustice to sexually assaulted black women

Professors Hill and Brooten focus on religious, legal, cultural histories

Disrupting the Script” says a lot about what Anita Hill and Bernadette Brooten are trying to do with the conference on sexual assaults on black women that the two professors are jointly convening at Brandeis next week.

They do not want simply to point out the statistical evidence that black women who are survivors of sexual assault do not have access to justice equal to what is afforded others.

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A conversation with Anita Hill and Bernadette Brooten

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They want to have a go at multi-layered legal, religious and cultural histories which have created myths and stereotypes that add up to a “script” that determines who will be readily believed as a victim, who will be doubted and what impact that has on who reports rape and who does not.

“This is a real, pervasive issue that is about safety, that is about women’s health, that is about justice and about who deserves to be heard,”  says Hill, a professor of social policy, law and women's studies in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. “We’re not only dealing with issues related to prosecution, but with issues related to reporting, to counseling and social reaction once an accusation has been made.”

“Disrupting the Script: Raising to Legal Consciousness Sexual Assaults on Black Women” will be held from noon to 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 19, in Levin Ballroom. Sponsored by the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project with funding from the Ford Foundation, the program is drawing scholars from across the country and from many disciplines on campus. There is no charge, and attendees can register online.

Brooten, the Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, says many who are on the front lines of combating sexual violence – representatives of health centers for homeless people, domestic violence shelters, religious organizations and hospitals among them – will be in attendance.

“It’s very striking, the places that are seeing this as an issue, the people who are coming,” Brooten said. “Each one deserves an award for the work they’re doing.”

The conference is the latest product of 15 years of conversation and collaboration between Brooten and Hill that began when Brooten read about the disparity in prosecution rates of sexual assaults on white and black women in Hill’s 1997 autobiography “Speaking Truth to Power.”

Based on those conversations, the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project commissioned two meta-analyses of legal and social-scientific research confirming that black rape survivors face greater hurdles than do those of European origin.

Together, they won a Ford Foundation grant and did workshops with representatives of the foundation about putting together a theater project focusing on sexual violence toward African-American women, the difficulties these women have getting hearings and counseling, and the role religion and culture play in shaping the public perception of black women’s credibility in alleging sexual assault.

The upcoming conference retains  central role for theater. Monday’s program will feature a 60-minute performance by artist, actor, director, workshop facilitator and playwright Vanessa Adams-Harris of Janice Liddell’s one-woman show “Who Will Sing for Lena?”, the story of a black domestic worker in Cuthbert, Ga., who in 1944 killed her longtime white lover and abuser.  She was the only woman ever to die in Georgia’s electric chair.

Adams-Harris also will participate in the conference session on “Altering Cultural Perceptions through Theater, Narrative and Ethics.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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