Her name was Tricia Meili. Their names were Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson. On April 19, 1989 all of their lives were irrevocably changed. They would never meet, but their lives would become forever linked. When they entered into Central Park on that night, did they know that they were stepping into a haunting history of dismembered bodies? Tragically, their bodies would become another story to be told in that history.
On that April day in history some 34 years ago one white female body went into Central Park for her routine jog. Five black and brown male teenage bodies went into Central Park to hang out, but soon became a part of a crowd engaged in mischievous if not dangerous and out-of-control harassment of other park visitors. As the night wore on, police were called and arrests were made. It would later be discovered that Tricia was brutally and sadistically raped, but not by Yusef, Raymond, Antron, Korey or Kevin. Yet, the five young teenagers were badgered into confessions, charged with the rape and sentenced to prison.
This is the story of innocence lost. Tricia’s innocence was ravished by the rape. The boys’ innocence was destroyed by the criminal justice system. And for all six, innocence was defiled by history. By the end of the day, six bodies were objectified, dehumanized and exploited, but perhaps worse yet they were betrayed.
As I watched the film about this, The Central Park Five, several nights ago and engaged in discussion with two of the teenagers, now men, as well as the filmmakers, I was yet again sickened by the violent web of history that continually ensnares and imperils the bodies of women and of black/ brown men. Even more disconcerting to me while I listened was how this history repeats itself by consistently pitting two of the most disregarded and disempowered bodies against each other. This is the history yes, of Emmitt Till and other untold lynched black male bodies, but it is also the history of the Suffrage Movement in relation to the Black Abolitionist Movement, the Contemporary Women’s Movement in relation to the Black Power Movement, The LGBTQ Movement in relation to the Civil Rights Movement. Though a cliché, it is true: fundamental to power is the ability to divide and conquer its victims. In African American culture we call it the “crabs in the barrel” theory. As long as you keep the crabs fighting with each other, pulling each other down, then those at the top are never in danger of losing their position. And so, as I sat watching and listening to the events that were set in motion on that April 19th evening in Central Park, I wondered how long that young woman and those five young men, and bodies like theirs, would continue to be betrayed not by the history past, but by the history we are now making.
We betray their bodies as womanist and feminist scholars if we are not “proleptically audacious” in the history we make. The discursive and activist work we do must chart a different future in our very present realities. We must write with our words and through our actions the future we want to see for our daughters and sons. This is a future where their bodies will not consistently be threatened and denigrated by a racialized patriarchy that sets the parameters of justice in a way that denies them and defines what it means to be human in ways that discount them. And so how do we write this future?
Fundamentally, we must not fall prey to the tactics of power which divide and conquer. These divisive tactics are carried out most effectively through the manipulation of sexualized narratives which not only objectify female and black bodies, but nurtures distrust and fear between the two communities of bodies. In other words, as the innocent and chaste white female body is contrasted with the beguiling and rapacious black male body, the stage is set for the two bodies to become antagonists in battle not partners in struggle. As womanist and feminist scholars we must not get caught in the “contagion” of victim blaming, castigating and demonizing one another. We must not fall prey to the temptation of staking claim to our victimization while we fail to fully appreciate the plight of others. We must remain ever vigilant in recognizing and naming the ways in which racist, sexist, and heterosexist narratives interact to protect patriarchal power, even when others are not so vigilant. We must see the ways in which we aid and abet the power of patriarchy every time we fail to see the ways in which we are connected in our debasement and abuse—even when we appear to be enemies. We must resist the dualistic thinking that says the freedom of one depends on the oppression of another. We must reject the dualistic paradigm that does not permit complex realities of guilt and innocence to be named and recognized.
The work we do must be that which projects into our present realities the way to the future of our gods and goddesses where all created bodies have a safe space to grow, thrive and contribute to the bettering the world. We must be committed to the reality that all bodies have a place in this world and thus we must claim that place for all. Our work must be chart a future not where the last become first and the first become last, but instead where one cannot distinguish between the first and the last because all are treated fairly and justly. And so what kind of work is this? It is work where we spend just as much time listening to the story of others as we do telling our story—if not more. It is the work where we engage each other, as Martin Buber once said, in I-Thou relationships. We don’t see each other as objects of study or curiosity, let alone as antagonists, but we find ways to participate without agenda’s in each other’s history, in each other’s lives, in each other’s struggles. It is out of participation with one another that our scholarly work should flow. I am convinced that it is through participation in “I-Thou” relationality in our work and in our activities that a foundation for a different history can be written.
Several tragedies of history occurred surrounding the events that took place that April 1989 night in Central Park. Not only was the brutal rape not properly solved, but communities were set against each other as they each protected their rightful claims of being victims. And victims they were, but not of one another. In the meantime, the systems and structures that created the space for the crimes that took place on that night, let alone the people who were complicit in them, remained unscathed and protected. Quite frankly, I am tired of hearing Central Park Five stories. Yet, some 34 years after it happen we continue to be live into this history and write it into our futures. And as we do that, we betray not just the bodies of Tricia, Yusef, Raymond, Antron, Korey and Kevin but also the bodies of our daughters and sons. As womanist and feminist religious scholars we must break chart a new paradigm of being and working in the world. What we are doing here in this blog is surely the right beginning—but still left for each of us to do is to find a way to write a different history in the place we occupy in the world.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.