Nate Parker as Nat Turner in a still from his forthcoming film Birth Of A Nation
It took me four years to call what happened to me rape. I knew I didn’t know how it happened. I knew I didn’t want it to happen. I knew I never gave permission for it to happen. But I thought that being denied my bodily autonomy was an unfortunate casualty of a half a bottle of wine, a Xanax, and misplaced trust. I thought it was my punishment for feeling safe enough to relax in the wrong company. That’s what society had taught me, anyway. It taught me that what happened to me required no accountability—the burden was mine to bear. But I unlearned my internalized misogyny, instead of perpetuating violence against myself.
Nate Parker still doesn’t call what happened at Penn in 1999 between him, Jean Celestin, and the now deceased victim what it is. After seventeen years, he doesn’t say rape. He says “a very painful time in my life.” He calls it an “incident.” He calls it “a focal point for social media speculation.” But he doesn’t say rape. Rape is a hard word. It’s an ugly one. It’s one that would force him to reevaluate himself, his friends, the world at large. So, he says the opposite of rape. He says “unambiguously consensual.” He says he’s a father now, he has five daughters. He says he’s a new man.
The new man who is Nate Parker calls himself an activist. He wants to bring about change. But the new man who is Nate Parker upholds the same legacy which he condemns. It’s a legacy where people don’t get to decide what happens to their bodies. It’s a legacy where some people are the gatekeepers to other people’s bodies. It’s a legacy where the law backs it. It’s one where a woman has to call a man after she’s raped and ask him how many men were inside her, how another man wound up inside her, if there’s anything else she doesn’t know. It’s a legacy where that man can become a new man, can decide when he is redeemed, but the woman remains bound up in trauma—unable to heal.
He upholds this legacy by refusing to call it rape. He upholds this legacy by upholding the law that acquitted him. The law is ambiguous when Black men are murdered and their murderers walk away. The law is ambiguous when Black men are convicted of crimes they did not commit. The law is ambiguous when Black men are denied bodily autonomy and enslaved. But according to Nate Parker, the law was unambiguous when it decided in 1999 that a woman having sex with a man consensually in the past meant that the man could become the arbiter of access to her body in the future. Nate Parker is a new man, now, with the same antiquated ideals.
Black people live in a world where we are constantly denied accountability. We are blamed for our misfortunes. We are scapegoats for white supremacy’s trespasses against us. Our offenders write our histories, and position themselves as victims to our provocation. We are a people incessantly gaslighted. For Black women, this is doubly so. Black mothers are blamed for working when their Black sons’ turn to the street. Black daughters are blamed when their uncles assault them before they’ve even developed a sense of sexuality. And Black sisters are blamed when they go off to college and walk somewhere alone, or wear a skirt somewhere past the threshold that makes rape acceptable, or they get drunk around people they thought they could trust.
Power struggles are almost inevitable in this nation. How Black men turn to patriarchy is predictable. When people are denied agency, they find it where they can—and far too often we find it through abusing those with even less agency than us. It gives us the sense of control we feel stripped of elsewhere. This is why intersectionality is a thing. Marginalized people can marginalize others to feel they’ve offset their marginalization—and we often do. Nate Parker upholds this pattern.And I can see the temptation to exonerate him. I can see the long history of society backing white people who write a narrative, assign it to Black men, and punish them for it. But I have lived a long history of society backing men who do the same to women. I have had society back Black men who did the same to me.
And now, too many people are backing Nate on this. They’re calling it a smear campaign against him. They’re calling it a ploy to quell the impact of The Birth of a Nation. They’re calling the timing a tactic to quell his revolution. To them I say, good. I’m so glad this man’s movement is stifled. I don’t want Nate Parker’s revolution, and I never did.
Nate Parker’s revolution replicates systems I seek to dismantle. Nate Parker’s revolution leans on the law. Nate Parker’s revolution rejects any accountability owed to women. Nate Parker’s revolution calls my right to autonomy into question.
I don’t want a revolution that removes my gag while keeping my hands tied. I want a revolution that unbinds me entirely, one which frees me. I am not free so long as men’s word on when I’ve consented supersedes my own. My life is not revolutionized until women’s trauma no longer exists as a teachable moment for men, casualties of growth, pit stops on their path to maturation.
I believe in restorative justice. I believe in personal growth. I believe in a justice that doesn’t seek to punish, so much as it seeks to transform. I think one of the greatest capabilities we have is the human ability to unlearn, to do better, to challenge what we thought we once knew to be true. That’s a revolution. That’s social justice. But it doesn’t exist without full accountability. It doesn’t exist without calling our lived experiences what they are. Nate Parker’s revolution can’t change anything without challenging all aspects of itself. It’s steeped in denial as heavy as chains.
Slavery is regarded as a painful part of America’s past—a lesson we had to learn on the path to post-racial America (where all is well and the president is Black). Slavery’s victims and their ancestors know a different narrative. We know that trauma never stopped, it merely replicated itself. We know that the past cannot be divorced from the present. We’re still touched while America moves on.
Nate Parker says the victim’s rape is a painful part of his past that he’s moved on from. It’s helped him grow into a better father and man. His victim knew a more troubled narrative, and so do I, so do too many women. We know a man who can’t acknowledge his culpability wasn’t ever going to revolutionize shit. Nate Parker’s new world would’ve been the oppressive one Black women have known since America’s inception.
Dominique Matti is a blogger, freelance writer and editor based in Philadelphia, PA. She focuses primarily on social justice, parenting, and personal improvement. Follow her on twitter at @dominiquematti