Simmons explores ways we can hold harm-doers accountable without getting involved with the very state that brutalizes Black and other communities of color.
“We must make eradicating child sexual abuse and all forms of sexual violence a priority in our communities.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Aishah Shahidah Simmons. Simmons is a Black feminist lesbian activist, cultural worker, international lecturer, and the award-winning documentary filmmaker of NO! The Rape Documentary. Her cultural work is informed by her lived experiences as a child sexual abuse survivor, adult rape survivor, and Buddhist committed to ending the inhumane, humanely. Simmons is also a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Ortner Center on Violence and Abuse, University of Pennsylvania. Her book is Love WITH Accountability: Digging up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons: Child sexual abuse is an epidemic. In the U.S., there are over 40-million child sexual abuse survivors and millions of bystanders who look the other way as the abuse happens and cover the harm-doers. The Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse anthology explores this epidemic through the lived experiences of diasporic Black adult child sexual abuse survivors, advocates, and a former bystander. The collection addresses the profound harm that comes – especially for diasporic Black people – when the only option for holding the child sexual abuse harm-doer accountable is punishment through the prison industrial complex. Prisons don't focus on rehabilitation. Instead, they represent modern-day enslavement as the incarcerated who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and Latinx youth and adults, are often raped and degraded by inmates and correctional personnel. Too often, family and community bystanders ignore child sexual abuse; the prison system does worse, facilitating its continuation. Many U.S. laws in place to protect victims/survivors of child sexual abuse, sexual and domestic violence punish and harm more than help. Love WITH Accountability explores ways in which we can hold harm-doers accountable without getting involved with the very state that brutalizes Black and other communities of color. The anthology offers accountability mechanisms that address the needs of the immediate survivors without discarding the harm-doers, including bystanders.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I am a child sexual abuse survivor who is a 50-year old daughter of two incredible human rights activists who've been on local, national, and global frontlines for peace and justice for sixty-years. When I was a child, they did not protect me from my paternal step-grandfather, who sexually abused me for two-years. My divorced parents wanted and needed to believe that I was safe in my grandparents' home while they traveled extensively for their transformational work in the United States and internationally. While the specifics of my story are unique, there is a common thread in the Love WITH Accountability anthology that underscores how centering children's safety in our families, religious institutions, and communities is radical, activist, and community organizing work. We can no longer look the other way or believe that changing society, and by extension, the world means we can sacrifice our children for any "greater" cause, including not disturbing the peace. This collection of writings by 43 individuals solely relies on the collective experiential insights and wisdom of diasporic Black adult survivors, advocates, activists, scholars, and/or service providers who are exploring ideas and models of "Love WITH Accountability" in the context of child sexual abuse. One of those contributors is my mother, who writes, for the first time, about why she didn't protect me. She also offers suggestions for parents/caregivers to refrain from making the same grave error. The experiences, insights, and visions shared in the anthology are resources and tools that activists and community organizers can utilize and build on in their work.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you're hoping to dismantle?
I want to dismantle any belief that child sexual abuse (CSA) and other forms of sexual violence committed against children and adults are private, familial, and personal issues. While it is, without question, a non-negotiable imperative, ending racism and white supremacy alone will not liberate us. All of the contributors are not survivors. Those who are were sexually abused by members of families, churches, or communities. These weren't the white outsiders coming in and causing unspeakable, life-altering harm to Black children. These are the Black insiders from within our so-called safe and sacred spaces who caused life-altering damage to Black children. Clearly, they, too, were harmed at some point in their lives, or they wouldn't have caused the sexual harm to children. We must make eradicating CSA and all forms of sexual violence a priority in our communities. The disruption and eradication of CSA and all types of sexual violence are racial justice issues as they are gender-based violence, LGBTQIA rights, disability justice, and immigration issues. How do we tackle this vicious epidemic without tearing our communities apart? Love WITH Accountability doesn't focus on harm-doer demonization. Instead, the anthology centers survivors' experiences and insights, while simultaneously holding the harm-doer accountable, and understanding the conditions, including silent bystander mentality, that allow child sexual abuse to flourish.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I have many intellectual heroes, but in the interest of space, I will only name a tiny few. The late award-winning Black feminist writer, cultural worker, filmmaker and theorist, Toni Cade Bambara was my teacher for five-years until her untimely death when I was in my early 20s in the early 1990s. Toni said, "The role of the writer/artist is to make revolution irresistible." I'm a cultural worker and a documentary filmmaker because of Toni. She taught me to create work that is not only accessible but also accountable to the community from which I come in this lifetime. In Toni's tradition, I created cultural work, namely, NO! The Rape Documentary, and Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse to make disrupting and ending sexual violence irresistible.
I never met the late Black lesbian feminist poet laureate and theorist, Audre Lorde, but her written words also profoundly impacted the trajectory of my life. Her words, "Your silence will not protect you," struck a chord that led me to come out as a Black feminist lesbian in 1990 unapologetically. For thirty years, Lorde's words served as a compass for my work in the world. Whenever I want to retreat, I call on Lorde's words to support and propel me forward with breaking silences about unspeakable violence.
Finally, both of my parents, SNCC Veteran, Black feminist, and Islamic Scholar-Activist, Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and SNCC Veteran, Conscientious Objector to ameriKKKa's war against Vietnam, and International Human Rights Activist, Michael Simmons, were, without question, my first intellectual heroes. My radical Black feminist activist consciousness was formed and nurtured in both of their households. This apple didn't fall far from her trees.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I'm a child sexual abuse and prison abolitionist. Prisons will never end child sexual abuse. For those who believe they will, we can't feasibly incarcerate everyone, inclusive of millions of bystanders, who are responsible for child sexual abuse. The majority of us are implicated in either minute or direct ways. The writings in the Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse anthology envision how we can disrupt the inhumane epidemic of CSA, humanely. We do not have to rely on the criminal justice apparatus that has routinely harmed our communities since enslavement. There is a goal amongst 43 diasporic Black contributors to share their lived experiences and visions as road maps for co-creating a world without violence that centers diasporic Black children. There aren't "one-size-fits-all," overnight solutions. Ending CSA is long-term, generational accountability, healing, and prevention work. Love WITH Accountability informs readers that this work is not only imperative, but it is also possible.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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