Aishah Shahidah Simmons writes herself whole in memoir on sexual violence and healing

Narrative Initiative is committed to supporting storytellers whose work challenges harmful narratives on complex topics, such as disability, reparations, and sexual violence. That is why we have partnered with the Unicorn Authors Club to help members of the 2022 Changemaker Authors Cohort, tell their own stories while also broadening their access to the publishing industry.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a member of the cohort, produced and directed the 2006 film, NO! The Rape Documentary and edited the 2020 Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology, Love with Accountability. A survivor of child and adult sexual violence, a feminist lesbian, and 20-year Buddhist practitioner, Simmons is working on her memoir, Love, Justice aAishah Shahidah Simmonsnd Dharma. A work, she says, that will be the capstone of a trilogy that began with NO! 

Simmons’ memoir marks the first time she has explored the origin of her advocacy for sexual abuse survivors discussing openly how she was harmed as a child and again as an adult. In doing so, Simmons seeks to create “brave spaces”  – spaces that are both safe and sacred – and explains why healing work, such as therapy and meditation, can lead to true liberation. Simmons also surfaces the ways white supremacist capitalist patriarchy perpetuates cycles of intergenerational harm. to who is believed to be in need of protection or among the wealthy, celebrity elite because of perceived economic value.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Narrative Initiative: Tell us about your memoir you’re working on for the Changemakers Author’s Cohort.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: The working title is Love, Justice and Dharma. I am a survivor of child and adult sexual violence. And for over 28 years, I’ve worked on and created cultural work that looks at how to heal and disrupt this pandemic [of violence]. The work focuses specifically on the voices of diasporic Black people through my film, NO! The Rape Documentary and my anthology Love with Accountability: Digging up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse.

So now the memoir, it completes the trilogy. And it is really taking a look inward. My parents are human rights activists. When I was molested and abused by my grandfather, I told them what happened, and they did not remove me from the situation, and that has impacted me throughout my life. And I think that what’s incredible about my story is the fact that my parents dedicated their lives to struggle in the world around human rights and trafficking of human beings and “honor killings” in the Middle East and yet they didn’t protect me. And part of that was because my grandparents created the home while they were out in the world. And so I’m really interested in telling the story of my healing journey, holding them accountable in terms of these human rights activists who are very recognized in so many places. How do we respond to that without carceral justice?

My grandfather is an ancestor now. But really, just looking at the trajectory of the healing journey, I saved my grandfather’s life – or at least extended it for about 10 months. And I would do it again. And this is the same person who took the night away from me. And so what I’m interested in is looking at the complexities. I think that when we talk about sexual violence, it’s like these people are monsters. We need to just kind of throw them away. And I do believe that they commit monstrous acts, but I don’t think that they are monsters. I do think that there is possibility and capability for change, [but] never at the expense of the survivors and the healing of the survivors. And I’m really interested in sharing about the healing journey.

Narrative Initiative: Does turning the lens, camera, words, page toward yourself, instead of focusing on others’ stories – as you did in the documentary and your anthology –  continue the healing process for you? Or do you feel like you’ve healed?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: It is a continuous healing process. And I think that what’s gonna be different [is that] while spirituality is subtly throughout No! and in the anthology, this time I’m gonna be like a lesbian woman coming out around my spiritual practice, to play on words.

I am a mindfulness meditation teacher. I’m a Buddhist practitioner, and without those along with therapy, I can’t even imagine being able to do this work. And so this book is really talking about the journey. I think I’m further along [in my healing journey] than someone who’s been assaulted yesterday. However, it’s an ongoing journey.

And so, that’s part of what I want to explore in the memoir.

It’s talking about how we’re continuously healing, particularly as someone who’s been harmed as a child. I’m learning how to utilize the resources and tools when things arise, but I’m a work-in-progress and I would offer that most of us are.

Narrative Initiative: Why is it important for you, in your own story, to focus on everything that has come after the hurt?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: I’ve been profoundly influenced by my teacher and big sister, friend, Toni Cade Bambara who taught me and who talked about how the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible. And I think about her incredible timeless novel, The Salt Eaters [and] of so much of her work and her teachings talk about the journey. How do we get here? “How are you sure you wanna be well?” That opening line.

And so for me, I think that I’m able to do this work with this book now, because of all the healing work I’ve done. I think it’s interesting that I’m not in NO! The Rape Documentary. My parents are in the film, but I’m not in it.

In Love with Accountability I wrote the intro, and my mother has a piece [in the anthology] talking about not protecting me, but it’s still calling on the voices of others.

I think, really, it’s the healing work that I’ve done with my parents in terms of them being accountable, decades later, to the harm that they caused me. I can now talk about that journey.

I’m always on the healing journey, but we have really crossed a huge hurdle and it’s been recent. I’m 53 years old. So, I mean, this work I’m talking about is within the past four to five years. I was harmed as a child at 10 years old [and] I was assaulted, raped, in my sophomore year in college. So I think that that external journey, particularly as a Black woman, as a Black queer woman, to talk about the process . . . I think, in a way, about Michelle Obama’s, memoir, Becoming, like we are becoming, we’re constantly evolving and transforming.

Healing is a journey and not a destination. And so for me, I wanna look where I’ve gone from, and then hopefully look forward to where I’m going.

Narrative Initiative: Let’s talk about the narrative change that you are trying to get at in the body of work that you’re putting out into the world . . . How do you see your work? And, can it bolster the narrative that when one of us is harmed, it’s an “all of us” problem – no matter the type of harm, be it state violence or interpersonal violence?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: As a Black feminist lesbian woman, first and foremost, I wanna talk about my own evolution of recognizing that sexual violence impacts all of us. It impacts women and boys and men and queer people, those who are non-binary and trans. I mean, that was really important for me to include those voices in my anthology. The margins within the margins and deaf folks, folks with disabilities, all.

When we – Diasporic Black people –  speak about the harm that we experience from within our community, very few people are paying very small amounts of attention. And I think that for me, my work is part of a long continuum. Rosa Parks and her anti-rape work. The work of Loretta Ross and the D.C. rape crisis center. Alice Walker and The Color Purple. Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls . . . It is a part of a continuum of voices speaking out against communal harm.

I see my work as standing at the intersection of fighting against that external violence and really pushing us to also fight against the internal violence that we commit and recognize that if racism ends right now—and we all want it to end—so many of us are still not safe.

All the people who have sexually harmed me have been men of color. I haven’t been sexually harmed by white folks. I have been oppressed and abused and harmed by white supremacy. But I just wanna say that we have to talk about this notion of “safe spaces.” I want the community from which I come from to be a safe space for girls, for trans people, for non-binary people. For disabled folks, for deaf and hard of hearing people. That is important because it’s not until the most marginalized of us are free, that all of us are free.

I’m writing about what it means to create safe spaces, or actually what I say is “brave spaces.” That ultimately means we can have sacred and safe spaces, which means including people who are more marginalized than I am and talking about that healing process.

I’ve been in therapy since 1992. I’ve been meditating since 2002, but that was something I did over on the side. It was not something that I was out about. And now I’m like, We are not well, and we have to talk about healing, and healing is not something that is separate from activism. Healing is actually going to liberate us.

Narrative Initiative: You alluded to non-carceral solutions and getting to healing and restoration. What does that healing justice look like for you?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: What I’m doing now is offering meditation courses to Diasporic Black women and femmes and non-binary folks. That’s very important to me. And I wanna be really clear that for me meditation is an action. It is not passive and meditation is not, “Oh, I’m just gonna breathe and feel better.”

Which is kind of like the mass mediated version.

Meditation is an opportunity for us to pause, to tune in within, and also discern, particularly when we are enraged or harmed or hurt, so that we don’t react, but instead respond.

We have tools and resources that are grounding us that give us space to pause, to discern, and respond. And I think that is the tool of meditation. And let me just say that it is rigorous work. It’s trial and error. I still react. And so I don’t wanna act like I don’t react. But I’m aware of, “Hmm, you need to pause, you need to step back and then act.”

I think that that’s very important in terms of non-carceral responses. [But] what is really important is remembering . . . [that] the number one solution when you’ve been harmed is you call the police. You lock them up. Anyone who has been sexually assaulted or harmed knows that it doesn’t happen like that. It’s not overnight. And particularly for diasporic Black women, femmes, and non-binary people because we all are holding these stereotypes.

A lot of times people don’t even think we’ve been raped. They don’t even think we’re capable of being raped. Right. So in terms of how this country defines justice, so many of us will never get justice in terms of court systems, and yet, we’re wounded.

So there are two things. I think we need multiple hands on deck. I think that there needs to be people—and there are, through transformative and restorative justice—people who are committed to working with the people who’ve caused harm. I don’t think that that work or burden should be on the survivor. The survivor should be focusing on their healing and restoration. I think that that is really key because too often, especially in Black communities or communities of color, we have to hold the weight of our bodies that have been invaded against our will, have been violated against our will. We’re traumatized. And now I’ve got to also be like, I don’t want the state to get involved. I don’t want the police to get involved. I wanna make sure that this person who’s causing me harm is okay. That’s a lot to ask.

Meanwhile, that person who’s caused harm. I believe, in terms of the way I view the world and understand it, is that they’ve been harmed and even the act of causing harm is causing them harm. And they need help. They need support and prison is not going to do it. I don’t even like prison, but, if there were contained spaces, where folks were getting 24/7/365 therapy and really doing group work, then I can advocate for something like that. But, when I think about the millions, if not billions, of dollars that are poured into the prison industrial complex, I’m like, What if we did that for healing centers? Healing centers . . .where the person who’s caused harm is really looking into ways that they can make restitution.

I think there’s so much denial and silence around sexual violence, particularly in the family. And when we allow that silence, that allows people who’ve committed harm to become serial rapists. I’m not blaming people for being silent, I’m saying that, when we are silent, that this is what happens, that then we’re having people in our communities and our families who cause harm; in some instances, there are generations of survivors harmed by one person in the family. And if we don’t break that silence, none of us will be safe.

Narrative Initiative: What is your vision for the work that you’re doing? How does it speak to what you’ve done and what you will do next?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: Well, the part that’s in conversation with the past is I’m not keeping secrets because in NO! my parents are prominently featured. My mother talks about an assault she experienced during the Mississippi Freedom Summer orientation in 1964 and my dad is there as a human rights activist doing work against violence against women, but I never talk about my abuse in, NO!

So, the conversation that I’m having with my former self with my current self is really [about] authenticity and transparency and accountability to myself because I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. It’s in hindsight that I’m like, “Whoa, Aishah, you were breaking the silence about sexual violence in Black communities with your film. And yet you kept the silence about sexual violence in your Black community.” So, this book, I feel like, is a gift to that Aishah who was not able to break her silence.

The future self is, really, I’m shifting. I’m really clear that this project is closing the trilogy. And while I will always be survivor-centered, because I will always be a survivor of sexual violence, I’m moving in terms of focusing much more [on] my dharma work, my Buddhist work, and my mindfulness work in terms of offering resources, teachings, and things like that.

I feel like I’ve been in the fire for 28 years. Important fire around a lot of necessary, righteous rage, and pain, and that ignited me to create culture work to be used in movements and to be used in classrooms. Now I wanna turn that work into really solely focusing on healing, being survivor-centered, being black and BIPOC, and people of color-centered, but really looking at how we heal, because so many of us who are doing important work . . . are wounded. We don’t have the time to tend to those wounds because we’re always putting out fires. And I just wanna be kind of on the side, saying, “Here’s some water. Here’s some water.”

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