WASHINGTON — She was the silent one at the edge of the table, a woman in a gray suit with a red pin emblazoned with her aunt’s name: Recy.
This was Rose Gunter, the niece of Recy Taylor, who died in December. The pin was courtesy of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat whose office had a couple hundred of the pins produced.
“Recy” doesn’t have the same cachet as “MeToo” or “TimesUp.” “Recy” isn’t a movement or a cause, at least not yet. “Recy” is just a reminder of how particularly vulnerable black women are to sexual assault and of how little they have figured thus far into the broader culture’s reckoning with misogyny in all its manifestations. It’s an unfamiliar name on a button, reminding you to Google it later on.
We were at a dinner Monday night in the back corner of Acadiana, a swanky Creole eatery in Northwest D.C. The event was organized by Watson Coleman, on whose invitation Gunter would be attending President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. Sitting around a table covered with oysters, deviled eggs and biscuits were six women who are highly respected in their fields: Fatima Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center; Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America; Elizabeth Meyer, founder of the Women’s March on New Jersey; Beth Hubbard, a documentary film producer; Enchanta Jackson, the organizing director at Color of Change; and Watson Coleman.
It was the seventh woman, Gunter, who got my attention by virtue of her silence. Many of us ― including most of the women at the dinner table ― had not heard of Recy Taylor before Oprah Winfrey name-dropped her in a speech at this year’s Golden Globe Awards.
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Taylor was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint in the back of a Chevy by six white men in 1944. The men released Taylor after she promised to stay silent about the assault. But Taylor refused to be silenced. She told her family about the assault, and soon the incident had gone national. Me too, she said, years before Gwyneth Paltrow said it. Time’s up, she said, years before Natalie Portman said it.
There was nothing abnormal about Taylor’s assault or the lack of justice she and her family received afterward. In fact, the rape of black women was often a counterpart to the lynching of black men, a political tactic used to silence a community. There’s that word again. Silence.
Black women have gone missing from the #MeToo conversation, a different but still disconcerting kind of silence. “The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape,” wrote Soraya McDonald for “The Undefeated.” “Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.”
At dinner on Monday, Watson Coleman seemed aware of the absence. “Women are very prominent in this moment and this movement,” she said after taking a swallow of Malbec. “And we had to be very careful that it didn’t just have one face. When [black women] thought about feminism and the feminist movement, we automatically thought of other women. But we were there in it. We were being affected by it.”
And black women were in some ways the cause of national feminist movements, Watson Coleman noted. After Taylor told her family what had happened to her, an investigator for the NAACP named Rosa Parks came to the small town of Abbeville, Ala., to push for prosecution of the attackers. Parks was run out of town by the sheriff. But, despite the failure to achieve any legal redress, Taylor’s assault gave rise to a national campaign against the brutal rape of black women by white men.
“People don’t think of us as having suffered. People don’t think of us as having the same suffering experiences and no justice,” said Watson Coleman. “This is a classic example of that.”
The conversation at the table shifted from Trump’s current policies to how things seemed a bit easier under President Barack Obama to youth engagement in politics. Throughout it all, Gunter didn’t say a word. She’d nod her head. She’d smile. She’d laugh. But she didn’t speak. Finally, Graves addressed Gunter. She said she was excited to share a table with Gunter, “especially right now when our stories are finally being told.”
Gunter gave a quiet smile and a nod.
“That’s that silent power,” said Hubbard.
The conversation stalled as people took bites of their food. And I took my shot.
“What are your thoughts on all of this?’ I asked Gunter, who cared for her aunt in her final years. “You haven’t said that much, and I’m interested in what you have to say.”
“About this conversation?” she countered.
“It was truthful,” she said before pausing to collect her thoughts. After a few seconds, she sighed and gave me a smile.“I can’t think of what I want to say right now. I’m not a talker.”
That didn’t stop the questions from flying in now that she had spoken. What would Taylor have said about the #MeToo movement, Meyer asked. “I think she’d be relieved in some way,” said Gunter. She’d be overjoyed, Gunter added, and maybe even a little satisfied.
We learned Gunter didn’t know about her aunt’s rape until 2010, which sparked a conversation on how the rapes of black women are often “family secrets.”
“She’d only talk about that with her baby brother,” Gunter said.
“So how did you find out?” asked Meyer.
“A newspaper came out when the book came out,” Gunter replied, referring to At the Dark End of the Street, a book detailing Park’s legacy as an activist and Taylor’s assault. Shortly after the book was published, Abbeville’s current mayor, the county government and the Alabama Legislature issued apologies.
“Did any of the family members apologize?” asked Watson Coleman.
“In fact, they really acted like it didn’t happen,” said Hubbard.
“Yeah, but it did,” said Watson Coleman.
Gunter nodded, and as the questions came flooding in, she kept shifting in her seat. She seemed unaccustomed to the spotlight. She preferred her silence.
Not all quiet is created equal. There’s a difference between words suppressed and words withheld. On Tuesday night, Gunter will again sit in silence, dressed in all black. This time in front of a man who bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.” A man whose presidency has been an act of aggression against people of color in general and black women in particular — black women, who suffer from higher rates of sexual and domestic violence than any other demographic, who are the fastest-growing part of the prison population, who are more likely than their white counterparts to be the sole providers for their households and to live below the poverty line.
Gunter will sit silently in the face of a further assault on her rights and her aunt’s legacy, and her silence will be power.