Nate Parker and the Rape Stories We Don’t Tell
I told myself I would not write about Nate Parker being a rapist.
I’d known about his sexually violent history for years, and the vileness of his queerantagonism, too. The depth of his awfulness had already been addressed, and so it was odd to me—but certainly predictable—to witness the conversation rehashed at such a moment, in such a way.
This is not a conversation I take pleasure in having. As a survivor myself, being bombarded with images and words about rape and rapists can quickly overwhelm, and I was grateful to be mostly internet-less for the week this story (re)broke.
But, while therapeutic, avoiding these triggers did nothing to mitigate how easily they will be able to present themselves in the future, how likely another A-list rapist will soon be uncovered, or how undoubtedly my bodily autonomy will be breached within a maximum of a couple days.
More importantly, avoiding the triggers of an ever-present reality of rape will do nothing to address how this reality shapes, influences, and informs me as a person treated as male by most everybody in my life. It will do nothing to ensure I do not uphold this reality, and may, in fact, do the opposite.
Avoidance might be self-care, but it is not a solution.
Many have called for the avoidance of Nate Parker’s Nat Turner biopic, “The Birth of a Nation”, in light of his past. “Black men must get the message that we are done supporting them if they do not protect women,” argues Tiffanie Drayton, adding to a chorus of folks encouraging a boycott of the already record-breaking film. If the film fails, the logic goes, so might the abuser behind it.
I hear Drayton and deeply empathize with her sentiments. I want abusers behind all works to get their comeuppance, too. But I am more concerned about what happens to the abusers who remain behind Parker in their deeds, even or especially if they agree to refuse to remain in front of the screens playing his film.
I am writing this piece I told myself I would not write because a lot of us do things we tell ourselves we won’t do when it comes to this type of violence. The telling is the easy part. Nate Parker can tell a story about liberation while directly contributing to the oppression of womenfolk, femmes, and queer people. And abusers can tell themselves not to watch a film by a rapist and violate bodily autonomy everywhere else they go. Abusers can write pieces like this, even.
It is easy to tell liberation stories. The more difficult tales, the sinister truths, the violent thoughts in which we swim inside of our heads, watered by a culture of rape and forever threatening to drown us, those we tend to avoid.
In a challenge to the power of avoiding this film, Ahmad Greene-Hayes writes, “I am convinced that Black men cannot do the work of standing with Black women, femmes, and girls, until we are willing to confront ourselves.” I’m not certain that watching “The Birth of a Nation” is the best way this confrontation can happen (I’ve seen the film and found it impressive as a piece of art, but counter-revolutionary—or rather, impressive in how well its art masks its counter-revolutionary undercurrents—but that is another piece). But I do know that throughout my life I have seen many people (especially men and masculine folks) go through their days standing on tables to denounce rapists before heading home and violating their friends, families, and lovers under the cover of the night. I have seen them in social justice communities, proudly carrying the feminist banner. I have seen them in my mirror.
The denouncement of sexual violence is important, but denouncement is not enough. Avoidance of sexually violent topics might help survivors like me maintain our emotional stability, but emotional stability is not adequate when it remains always precarious and under attack. Boycotting the work of rapists might take money out of their pockets, but one abuser’s financial ruin does not inherently end their capacity to abuse. And financial success is only the mark of victory under the oppression of a capitalistic system that makes a famous abuser’s financial ruination so difficult in the first place.
I support Drayton’s boycott of this film as much as I support Greene-Hayes’ feminist lens-informed interrogation of it, but the conversation cannot end in either place. We have to do more for women, femmes, and survivors of all stripes. There are no easy answers to difficult problems, and we cannot let the least we can do—not watching the stories of abusers or telling our own stories of denunciating them—become the focus of work. And I fear that often it does.
I fear the fight against rape in times like these becomes reducible to what one will do with a $14 movie ticket and an angry Facebook status to many people. I fear the fight against rape is far too easily externalized, far too easily a story we tell or avoid rather than one we live.
Part of not wanting to write a Nate Parker essay was how it came so naturally. It was easy to tell my story of wanting to take up arms against this stranger who represents nothing but trauma to me. The battlefield for the war against rape is almost never placed in the more dangerous but necessary places, almost never placed closer to home and in our families and within us where fighting is needed most. And if we are fighting on the wrong front, what does winning even mean?
Winning to me is in the creation of stories that need living more than telling. Stories in which we check ourselves, our friends, and family when we perpetuate non-consensual behaviors and violations of bodily autonomy. Winning is listening to the life stories of survivors and giving us space to tell our truths without judgment or censorship. We win when we learn to hear the silent stories—recognize signs of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and what to do when those signs come up. When we admit to stories of our struggles with our own capacity for violence, and genuinely ask for help.
Embracing these untold stories is what a liberated future demands. And this is not just a future in which abusers are financially punished and locked away, but a future in which abusers are not bred and watered and where capitalistic systems that make it possible for the well-off to get away with sexual violence and prisons that serve as incubators of rape culture do not exist.
I am well aware that this may not happen in my lifetime, and that we may have to use one system of violence to address the others in the meantime. But we need to tell stories that remind us that this future is possible. It is possible. It is possible.
We might be forced to live in something not-quite-there for now, but we are not forced to ask for it. By embodying the spirit of confronting toxic masculinities in our private lives and not just in the public, by embracing these untold stories, we can ask for something more.
Photo: Nate Parker Facebook Page