It is high time we recognized the valor of black women. On Tuesday, 98 percent of black women in Alabama voted to elect Democrat Doug Jones over Roy Moore, the Republican candidate who faces multiple accusations of sexual abuse. It was a momentous election and a historic triumph, one for which we largely have black women to thank.
Black women confronting persecution and brutality with courage and solidarity is at the heart of The Rape of Recy Taylor, the stirring new documentary from Nancy Buirski. After Recy Taylor was stopped on her way home from church and gang-raped in 1944 by six white men, law enforcement failed her. But Taylor’s family stood behind her, as did Rosa Parks and the NAACP after hearing about her story.
“Taylor’s story is one thread in a much larger tattered tapestry that Buirski’s considerate documentary helps to illuminate.”
Buirski reconstructs Taylor’s story through intimate interviews with Taylor’s brother and sister as well as scholars familiar with the ethos of Jim Crow Alabama. Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” plays periodically throughout the film, overlaying Taylor’s family’s home video footage, period photographs, and clips from bygone “race films” — movies directed by African-Americans and geared towards black audiences.
At the time of Taylor’s rape, black women were at high risk. As one scholar remarks, rape may have been illegal, but Southern custom not only allowed but actually encouraged young white men to lay ownership over black women through rape. And because cases like Taylor’s weren’t being covered by the white press, judges and juries of the time could claim plausible deniability and white attackers, Taylor’s included, would get off without punishment. Black women lacked not only security over their own bodies, but also the hope that anybody would believe them if they dared come forward.
“Taylor’s rare willingness to fight for justice set an inspiring precedent…”
Taylor’s rare willingness to fight for justice set an inspiring precedent; especially after Rosa Parks became involved, black press outlets promulgated Taylor’s story across the country. The significance of Taylor’s story makes it all the more tragic that, before Buirski’s documentary, her case had been largely forgotten by history.
It was Malcolm X who declared: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Today, as patriarchal hierarchies that have historically enabled gender discrimination continue to teeter and topple, it is crucial to keep in mind the neglect and oppression black women have endured throughout American history. Taylor’s story is one thread in a much larger, tattered tapestry of race and gender relations that Buirski’s compassionate film helps to illuminate.
The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017) Written and directed by Nancy Buirski. Starring Tommy Bernardi, Robert Corbitt, Alma Daniels