Often when I think about being a Black woman in America, I think of W.E.B. Dubois and the concept of “double consciousness” he wrote about in “ The Souls of Black Folk”:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
This thought struck me again this week when I read about how actor Nate Parker and his friend and writing partner Jean Celestin allegedly raped a severely intoxicated freshman at Pennsylvania State University. At the time they were sophomores, roommates and wrestling teammates.
Parker is set to release “The Birth of a Nation” this October. The film has been deemed an epic telling of the story of Nat Turner and his 1831 slave revolt. Like most Black folks I know, I have been waiting years for a strong, well-written and well-acted story about Turner. I have also followed Parker since his 2007 appearance in “The Great Debaters.” So I was ecstatic to learn that after he wrote, directed and produced this film, it was not only picked up by Fox Searchlight at Sundance for a record breaking $17.5 million, but slated for a wide release with the full backing of a major studio. But—after reading every court filing, transcript and article about the 1999 case I could get my hands on—my heart is heavy.
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I am a three-time survivor of sexual violence who has spent the greater part of her career advocating for Black women and girls, including work as an anti-sexual violence advocate. I carry that history and experience in the same body and mind that identifies as a Black radical; my social and political make-up are shaped by nationalist, Pan-African and revolutionary ideals, and I lead with my Blackness without shame or apology. I am always driven by the reality of my two minds, my double consciousness. So when I read the August 12 Variety article in which Parker discusses the case, I felt gutted.
Parker and Celestin, both 19 at the time of the alleged rape, were tried together. Celestin was found guilty of sexually assaulting the 18-year-old victim, sentenced to six-to-12 months in prison, and eventually cleared on appeal. Parker was acquitted—due in large part to the fact that he and the woman had a sexual encounter the day before the alleged attack. Both men have consistently stated that they had consensual group sex with a sober woman. The victim, who died at age 30 in her third attempt at suicide, maintained that the two men knew she was intoxicated to the point of passing out and that she did not give them her consent. While Parker was found innocent, I was still very disturbed by his comments in Variety. At 36 years old, he showed no remorse or deep insight and essentially painted himself as the only victim (emphasis mine):
“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” Parker told Variety. “It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is”—he took a long silence—“I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
I went on to read his interview with Deadline Hollywood, which features links to documents from the court case. I’ve read Parker’s and Celestin’s statements to the authorities about the incident, parts of the closing arguments from the defense and the prosecution, the civil complaint the woman later filed against Penn State, and the transcript of a telephone conversation his accuser initiated and secretly recorded with police assistance.
One of the first things I discovered in my reading was that the woman was White. I’d be lying if I said that bit of information didn’t give me pause. There is a whole sordid history of White women falsely accusing Black men of rape in the United States, dating back to the days of slavery. It’s a history I’m quite familiar with, and I took it into consideration while working to understand the details of this case.
In fact, as was pointed out in The Daily Beast’s extensive report, some student supporters of Parker and Celestin at the time thought a “contentious racial climate” had contributed to Celestin’s conviction. As a member of the Black Student Caucus told the university newspaper: “Do you really think a Black male of color, who is accused of raping a White female in Centre County, can get a fair trial when a jury of his peers are all White except one female of color? That’s a problem.”
Ultimately, however, experience tells me that nothing would have been different if the woman were Black. In fact, she might have been treated worse.
In the end, I am most disturbed by three things: Parker basically telling the young woman that she brought the situation on herself during the phone conversation (“I’m not trying to be mean, but I felt like you put yourself in that situation, you know what I mean?”); the friend who testified that Parker invited him to participate in the alleged rape; and the allegation that Parker and Celestin harassed this woman and even hired a private detective who flashed her picture around campus in an attempt to unearth information. This action outed her and opened her up to more harassment. I don’t know for sure if the two men raped this woman while she floated in and out of consciousness. But I am inclined to believe that they did, and I am entitled to that belief. So why do I feel guilty?
I have read various responses to this case across my social media feed for the last two days and they vary from “It’s a conspiracy! They are trying to frame a Black man when he’s doing good!” to “I am done with Nate Parker. He’s a rapist. Period.” And while I believe the latter—because even one rape makes you a rapist—it hasn’t settled in my spirit yet because he is a brother with a movie that America needs to see.
What I do know for sure is that Parker and Celestin made some poor choices. While they might have felt they had the proper consent, this young woman clearly felt they did not. These facts alone should be enough to prompt some compassion and accountability from them. And now that it has been revealed that this woman committed suicide in 2012, it makes the manner in which Parker has distanced himself from the incident more disheartening and disturbing.
Parker might be experiencing secondary remorse now. A statement he posted to Facebook last night (August 16), seems to be more earnest and empathetic than his previous remarks on this issue. I always want to leave space for people to redeem themselves, and I hope he comes to fully understand the gravity of both his actions and his response to those actions. But his latest statement doesn’t change how I feel about this situation.
A Facebook friend wrote “the power of patriarchy as we fight racism demands that we fracture ourselves.” But I’m not fracturing myself between my gender and my race. I am standing against sexual violence in all forms. I am standing against a system that finds avenues for perpetrators of sexual violence to succeed, while simultaneously destroying the people they violate. I am setting clear boundaries that say no matter how gifted you are artistically, physically or otherwise, your gifts will not give you asylum on my island if you perpetrate sexual violence. So, like R. Kelly, Mystikal, Cee-lo Green and Bill Cosby before him, I have to let Nate Parker—and “The Birth of a Nation”—go.
Tarana Burke is the co-founder of Just Be Inc. an organization that works with and advocates for Black women and girls. She is also an anti-sexual violence advocate who is working on a documentary about Black and Brown survivors called “me too.”