"Black women have a long history of wardrobe malfunctions," Carolyn West told the crowd at Chatham College, as a movie screen played images of early American white slave masters ripping the clothes off black female slaves and Justin Timberlake ripping off Janet Jackson's breast-cup.
"It doesn't matter if Janet Jackson participated or not," said West, speaking at Black & Blue: Violence in the Lives of Black Women, a seminar held June 26, where several hundred gathered. "I'd argue that she, like those women enslaved before us, still has her body on the auction block."
West is a psychology and women's studies professor at the University of Washington and has won numerous awards for her research on sexual and domestic violence.
"Most women either take the secret of sexual assault to their grave, or go to the grave for revealing their sexual assault," she told the audience, explaining that violence towards black women was legitimized during slavery, when laws declared that black women were naturally promiscuous and so raping them wasn't possible. Rape between black male slaves and black women -- a "reluctant historical fact," said West -- was allowed because slaves were considered property, not humans.
Homicide by an intimate partner is the No. 1 cause of death today for American black women aged 15 to 24, West found in her research. A third of urban black women have witnessed a serious act of violence -- murder, rape or battery -- leading to more depression and suicide, including what West called "suicide by installment plan": over-eating, substance-abuse, starvation and other self-destructive measures that deteriorate communities. Surgeons and physicians preparing to go overseas to operate in war zones are trained in urban neighborhood hospitals to learn how to deal with high-trauma and combat-style-wound victims, West noted.
Pittsburgh Police Commander Maurita Bryant, who also addressed the audience, said there were 990 arrests last year following 1,252 reported incidents of domestic violence in the city
The most talked-about event of the day, however, was a dramatic presentation of poetry, African dance and drumming -- "She Crawls, She Walks, She Runs" -- by Kelly e. Parker. When she was 3, Parker said, she watched her mother get shot to death by a jealous ex-lover.
Other seminar workshops covered community violence, family violence, rape and healing for victims. The day also included an unscheduled (or at least unbilled) men's circle.
Laverne Baker Hotep, a director of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime and chair of the event, said grim domestic violence statistics locally and nationally moved her to "create a space where black women can talk about these issues ... that have really been ignored by the mainstream media and historically in America."
"The best way to deal with this is primary prevention," West told CP after her speech. "If you live downstream along the river and you see people in the water drowning, you're going to try to rescue as many of them as you can, but ultimately you'll have to go upstream to see how they're getting in the water in the first place."