Long before the #Metoo and #TimesUp movements, a groundbreaking film took on not just the difficult subject of rape, but dared to tackle intraracial rape in communities of color, and the use of rape against LGBTQ women of color as a way to “fix” queerness.
Since its debut in 2006, “NO! The Rape Documentary” has shown in film festivals, schools, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, community centers, juvenile correctional facilities and more in the U.S. and across the globe. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker said, “If the Black community in the Americas and in the world would save itself, it must complete the work that [‘NO!’] begins.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is the director and driving force behind “NO! The Rape Documentary.” She is an award-winning filmmaker, published writer, international lecturer, professor and activist. An incest and rape survivor, she has been on U.S. national and international roads raising awareness about rape, sexual assault and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. This year a conference, #FromNO2Love: Black Feminist Centered Forum on Disrupting Sexual Violence, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 will celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary.
PGN: Are you a Philly native?
AS: I am! A Philadelphia born and raised Girl’s High girl. I grew up in Mantua; we call it “down the bottom” around 32nd and Haverford.
AS: I have a brother, Tyree Cinque Simmons. He moved to Atlanta for school and has since blown up as a world-renowned D.J. and producer who goes by the name D.J. Drama. My parents are activists who were involved in radical movement work. They met working for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Both of them are featured in the film. They’re no longer together, my father lives in Budapest, Hungry, where he does human rights work, and my mom lives in Florida, where she retired, but she worked as a professor at the University of Florida.
PGN: If you could describe yourself as a child in one word, what would it be?
PGN: An early signs you were queer?
AS: Looking back, when I was young, about nine, I had a journal that I wrote in about crushes. I had a list of all the people, male or female, that I wanted to marry, not peers, mostly celebrities. And I’m 50 now, so that was before we could Google, “gay celebrities.” I just always had good queer sensibilities!
PGN: Who was top on the list?
AS: Oh my God, [laughing] I was always into Wonder Woman. I wanted to live on the Island and fly the invisible plane. I’m not sure which I wanted more — to be her or to be with her!
PGN: What was a favorite toy?
AS: I had a Baby Alive doll, the kind that could eat and drink and go to the bathroom; it was fun. But I’m happy not to be a parent these days, what was I thinking!
PGN: Did you have any idea of what you wanted to be when you grew up?
AS: When I was very young I wanted to be a gynecologist/obstetrician.
PGN: That’s pretty specific for a kid,
AS: I know, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. I had a female pediatrician growing up and I… well, I don’t think I had a crush on her, I just really admired her.
PGN: You have a ton of academic credentials, where did you start?
AS: After high school, I went to Swarthmore College, then I took a leave of absence and transferred to Temple. I left Temple my sophomore year because I was raped. I got pregnant and was able to have a safe and legal abortion in ‘89. For me, it was all connected to internalized homophobia because, at that point, I’d broken up with a boyfriend from my freshmen year, and I thought something was wrong with me because I hadn’t had vaginal sex. The assault happened on a study abroad program. I was trying to prove that I was heterosexual and went out on a date with this guy, and as things were heating up, I decided that I didn’t want to have sex, but I didn’t get that option.
PGN: What did that do to you, and how badly did it throw you off track?
AS: It was a difficult time, but it made me start to reevaluate things. I left Temple and spent some time with my father, who was doing nuclear disarmament work in Europe. I spent some time backpacking through Europe and at the end, decided that I didn’t want to go into debt pursuing a degree. If I was going to go into debt, it was going to be making a film. When I came back, my mother, who was very close friends with Sonia Sanchez, took me to an event Sonia was having. The filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara was there, and she kind of took me under her wing and invited me to study with her, and that changed the trajectory of my life.
PGN: What was your first film?
AS: It was called “Silence Broken,” and it was a short eight-minute protest piece about an African American lesbian and the silence around racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s dedicated to the memory of Audre Lorde. You can watch it for free on Vimeo!
PGN: When you decided to create “NO!,” what prompted you to want to tackle the subject matter.
AS: What’s funny is that initially, I didn’t think it had anything to do with me as a rape survivor. I thought I just wanted to help other women, and what prompted it was the Mike Tyson trial, when he was accused and convicted or raping Desire Washington. I was devastated at the silence from the Black community and the way people rallied around Tyson. Let me make it clear, there is silence in most communities when it comes to rape culture, but I was especially focused on the Black community and the idea of protecting Black men, even at the expense of Black women who have been sexually harmed.
PGN: Remarkably, you made this film during a time when it was even more taboo to “air our dirty laundry.”
AS: Yes, it took me 12 years to make — in part because no one wanted to talk about it. Thankfully now, we’re in an incredible movement fueled by the dynamic Black activist, Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement. The film has been fortunate to be shown around the world, but there are a lot of people that are still not aware it exists as a teaching tool and is still relevant today.
PGN: I liked the fact that you included men’s voices. One man eloquently stated, “You cannot work towards eradicating oppression of color and continue to oppress your sisters.”
AS: It was important for me to have different voices. I wanted people to see and hear from Black men who are doing and have done work to end violence against women in our community because it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have the stereotypes about Black men and myth that rapists are Black men, when that’s not the norm, but on the other hand, there’s the reality that Black women are being raped and abused by Black men, and we often turn a blind eye to it. There are also men working to eradicate violence against women, and I wanted people to see that. But overall, I think the survivors’ voices are the ones that are the most dominant, and I’ve heard many people say that the film transcends race.
PGN: What has been the most impactful response?
AS: I’ve had people who didn’t realize that what happened to them was rape come to understand what they’ve been through. One of the women in the film, a lesbian, speaks about the fact that because her body reacted to the stimulation, she felt that she couldn’t call it rape. A lot of people had that misconception, but if you say no, it doesn’t matter what your body does. And often, if it was a boyfriend or a trusted friend, people thought it didn’t count as rape, because we think of a rapist as the terrible stranger in the bushes, when it’s more likely to be someone you know.
PGN: That brings to mind the gymnasts who were assaulted by their doctor, Larry Nassar, close to 300 and counting. Many of them didn’t know what was happening to them until others came forward.
AS: Exactly. I am also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of my grandfather. I just wrote a book about it called, “Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse.” As a child, I knew what was happening to me, but I didn’t know what to call it. When I was doing the movie, I was so focused on getting it done, I didn’t even consider my childhood abuse. But certainly that and the fact that I was raped my sophomore year have led me to do this work. The anthology is a collection of 42 voices on the subject.
PGN: Considering your parents are such activists and humanitarians, how difficult was it to disclose to them that your grandfather had been molesting you?
AS: At the time, they didn’t deal with it at all. I told them, and it was dismissed because they wanted and needed to believe that I was safe in my grandparents’ home. I wrote about it in the anthology because in “NO!,” They’re presented as these incredible people, and they are, and like most of us, they’re complex and fallible. My mother writes about it in the book as well — of the grave mistake that they made. When you asked what I was like as a child, part of me doesn’t know because you pack all that away and don’t deal with it.
PGN: Your second film was called, “In my Father’s House.” Was that also about abuse?
AS: No, not at all. It’s actually about how supportive my father was when I was struggling with my sexuality. He came to me and said, “I think you’re struggling between your race and your sexual orientation, and you don’t have to choose.” He asked a friend who was an out and proud Black woman to talk to me, and it was a life-changing experience for me. So the film was interviews with my father and brother about my coming out experience. It can be seen for free at www.vimeo.com/afrolez, along with several other pieces and interviews I’ve done over the years. I spoke to people like Audre Lorde’s partner Dr. Gloria Joseph, who has now [died].
PGN: So what do you do for fun when you’re not on the frontlines?
AS: I love going to the movies. I love to travel. My partner and I take a lot of trips when we’re able. Paris is one of my favorite places in the world. They were also big supporters of the film, and I have a lot of friends there. India was really big for me. I was there for six weeks, and even though I’ve spent time in Europe and it’s not the U.S., there’s still something familiar, not in India, there was nothing familiar to me, especially when it came to race. It didn’t have the Black/white paradigm that we have here. There was a caste system, but it’s a little different. It was fascinating. I’m a Buddhist, and I go on meditation retreats where we don’t talk for 30 days.
AS: [Laughing] Yeah, I’m like that. It helps keep me grounded. And when I say silent, I mean no reading or writing; there’s no journaling or any of that. It’s intense and makes you really search inward and study what’s going on internally. I love the rigor of it.
PGN: The closest I’ve come is an isolation tank for an hour! And that seemed like forever and then was over before I knew it.
AS: It does, and you’re completely cut off from the world, so it’s like you’re on Mars. When I did one of the 30 days, it was around the time of inaugural, so when I went in, Barack Obama was still president, when I came out, the person in office now was there. I missed all of the women’s marches and the protests. It was weird.
PGN: That might have made me turn around and go back! What is the Feminist Wire?
AS: It’s an online publication that was cofounded by Dr. Tamura Lomax. I got involved and became an associate editor in 2014. It’s an online platform that publishes radical, left of center stories and information. It’s a multi-racial, multi-gender, national and international magazine that at one time had a million hits to the website. We’ve cut back, but our mission is still to lift up different voices and perspectives.
PGN: What does your partner do?
AS: She’s an activist too, Sheila Alexander-Reid, she founded a group, Women in the Life, in D.C. It started out mostly as events and parties, but now they’ve branched into working on issues that impact lesbians of color, and they publish a magazine. She’s also now the director of LGBT Affairs for the mayor in D.C.
PGN: Random question: What three people from your past would you like to see?
AS: Toni Cade Bambara, my Aunt Jessie and my paternal grandmother, my Nana.
PGN: Did you ever confront your grandfather?
AS: I never did. And I saved his life in 2010 and would do it again. It’s so complicated. What he did was horrible, but he was also the hero of the family when he took care of my grandmother, who was suffering from Alzheimers. He dedicated his life to her, and because of that, she never stayed a day in a nursing home. That’s part of what I excavate in the book, that yes, he did something that impacted my life forever, I would never downplay that, but at the same time he was the provider and caretaker of someone I loved. He didn’t get sick until 2010, so I had plenty of time to confront him but never did. Like many survivors, I was scared, not of him, but of how to handle it.
PGN: Were you speaking about it publicly?
AS: I’ve spoken about being an incest survivor since the ‘90s, but I never named who it was until after he died. I told my parents when I was 10, and it wasn’t taken seriously.
PGN: What’s something you should throw out but won’t?
AS: Paper. I have a ton of paper everywhere: clippings, stories, writings, you name it. I’m an archivist at heart and have trouble throwing things away.
PGN: What should people know about the conference?
AS: Well, first thing, it’s free. It will open with the screening on “NO!,” at the Lightbox Film Center. It will be historic because it’ll be the first time that most of the people in the film will be in attendance. Some of them are octogenarians, so it will be a once in a lifetime experience. At the conference in the Annenberg Center, there will be women of all types, straight and gay sharing their stories and expertise around sexual violence, but we focus on queer women of color because so often our voices are left out of the conversation. And then we’ll do the book launch at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. A lot of the contributors, many of them queer, will be there to talk about and sign the book. I’m really looking forward to it.