“My Body Is the (Cutting-) Edge of Terrorism: Rape, Dismemberment, and Embodied Violence”

Presented at Virtual 52nd NeMLA (Northeast Modern Language Association) Convention 2021,
Mar 10-14, University at Buffalo, SUNY (State University of New York)

Panel: New Directions in Gloria Naylor Scholarship

Photo of Gloria Naylor

“There are a lot of edges. Edges could be some very mysterious isolated spots in the world. You have the edges of rivers…You have the edges of oceans…These are places where you walk. These are places where you go to be alone. You are alone. But there’s something about when you put cutting-edge…and that becomes an art term. And I think it sort of implies that you are being very aggressive about being yourself, and that might put you in confrontation with something that is not quite on the edge. Or, it is a device used in conversation. But edges can be very mysterious places in the world.”

Jayne Cortez, “Artists on the Cutting Edge,” Museum of Contemporary Art—San Diego, 5/1997

“During the trial the Prosecutor famously demanded that in the case of Gramsci, ‘We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.’”

Kate Crehan, Gramsci, Culture, and Anthropology (Pluto Press, 2002: 17)

“Officer Holzer: Touching is when you make body contact with somebody. You can do it by lightly touching or you can do it by hitting with your fist.”

Adam P. Kennedy and Adrienne Kennedy, Sleep Deprivation Chamber (Theatre Communications Group, 1996: 61)

“…but when we are silent/we are still afraid.//So it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive.”

Audre Lorde, “A Litany For Survival,” from The Black Unicorn (W.W. Norton & Company, 1978: 32)


The Gloria Naylor archive, recently digitized through a partnership between Lehigh University and Sacred Heart University where the papers will be housed permanently, provides an opportunity for researchers to take a renewed approach to the writer’s work. As with many novelists, but especially those like Naylor, who emerged as the first generation of Black womanist/feminist writers to be so thoroughly immersed in a fully established African American literary canon, fiction and creative nonfiction has been a way to explore sociopolitical and philosophical themes that impact Black queer life and thought, and which have been largely banned or marginalized from other areas of the humanities and social sciences. Taking seriously Barbara Christian’s assertion, in “The Race for Theory,” that Black peoples throughout the African diaspora have tended to theorize through creative narrative forms rather than “abstract logic,” my dissertation project approaches Naylor’s work within the larger context of Black diasporic thought; and, as a transdisciplinary (leaning towards non-disciplinary) Black Studies project, my methodology, although skewed toward a decolonized critical theory, does not privilege one discipline or creative aesthetic form over another (68).

Gloria Naylor, 1996 (2005).

While Naylor scholarship in the twenty-first century has seemed to stall overall (especially since her premature death in 2016), this is most apparent with her last completed work of experimental fiction, 1996, which has received almost no serious critical analysis. This stands out as an amazing absence, especially since the work she identifies as “fictionalized memoir” (also sharing many attributes of autotheory) elaborates the personal and political circumstances surrounding her experience as a targeted individual of government sponsored electronic surveillance, mind control, and torture. And from all the archival evidence available to me so far, appears to be the most significant factor in halting a prolific career. It was originally my intention to contextualize the apocryphal 1996 by explaining Naylor’s own narration as part of a tradition of Black civic poetics—emphasizing liberatory imagination, personal freedom, and social justice. In that way, I had hoped to disrupt the damaging silence surrounding what is described in 1996 as another form of rape denial, as well as neoliberal state coercion enforcing a totalitarianism of militarized surveillance capitalism. However, as I was writing what amounted to more than 6,000 words in preparation for this presentation, it became clear to me that I had to theoretically narrate what Naylor means by rape in order to consider seriously its significance for an authoritarian politics as an eventual outcome of technocracy engaged in the total domination narrated in 1996.     

i. groundwork

[Trigger Warning: I have redacted the next few paragraphs to take out many of the things that to this day still trigger me and might trigger all of you. But I also realize that if I took out all those details the story would get lost entirely. Because of time limitations, I have also excluded an account of the subsequent re-victimization and brutalization from the NYPD (New York City Police Department), Columbia University Counseling and Psychological Services, and Union Theological Seminary administration that I endured as an adult Black queer cisgender male/masculine presenting rape victim.]

(Left) Explanation of Kant’s “manifold” by Matthew C. Altman, A Companion To Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (2008); and (right) Quote from Kant’s First Critique (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781.)
Quote from The Combahee River Collective Statement, included in All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, as “A Black Feminist Statement” (1982), edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith.

On December 31, 2003, at approximately 11:30 pm, I was gang-raped at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, in the courtyard between McGiffert Hall and Riverside Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence” speech against the war in Vietnam. I was a second-year graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in systematic theology at Union and taking graduate philosophy courses at Columbia University.

It was a post-9/11 New Year’s eve in New York City, Manhattan. Technically Morningside Heights. Actually, gentrified Harlem. In any case, by taking the 1 or A-train quintessential New Year’s eve in Times Square was only twenty-five or thirty minutes away. But I was in my seminary subsidized, one-bedroom apartment, 614 McGiffert Hall at 99 Claremont Ave. That night I sat reading back and forth between Kant’s First Critique (Critique of Pure Reason/Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781) and Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals/Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785). I was particularly interested in how Kant’s transcendental aesthetic answered his own question: “What is a human being?” And how his use of the concept “manifold” (mannifaltiges) might relate to how it is used in The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement.”

(Left) Bondage Mouth Gag. Unidentified enslaved woman/man with iron muzzle. (Right) Illustration from Jacques Arago’s Souvenirs d’ un Aveugle (Memories of a Blind Man, 1839). Image credit: The Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

In an instant, the shape of my world permanently changed. I decided to take a break to watch the Times Square Ball drop. I turned the television to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve special. And, then, took the elevator down from my 6th floor apartment to the ground-level of McGiffert Hall to get a late-night snack from the vending machine. Hearing what sounded like a cat crying out in excruciating pain as I scanned the machine, I approached the large gothic doors to the courtyard. As I opened the door and stepped into the shadowless darkness I was jerked, pushed, and pulled into a large gripping mass of bodies growing tight around me. After a few moments of trying to fight back, I was bound, gagged, and gang-raped.

The gag restraint used by one of my attackers to lock my jaw in place, to keep me from biting and assure that I was unable to speak, also kept my head from turning. But out the corners of my eyes, through the shards of light reaching over the stone wall into the pitch-black courtyard, I tried to trace the outlines of their shoes, count their feet, each pair. The entire time, I was floating out of my body. A slow-motion picture I am watching from the moon. At one point I am miles away and can see or hear nothing. Until, finally…the end. They pulled me back up. Once again, I faced the stonewall. The breathy voice returned to my ear, “You feel like wet pussy, boy.” Which set off a ricochet of laughter among them. It felt like a chorus of nails. And, then, his barbed-wire tongue licked the side of my neck up to my ear.

Quote from Theodor W. Adorno’s book of his own dreams, Dream Notes (2005/2007), “New York, 8 February 1941.”

I became the raped Black woman of Adorno’s dream fantasy—”The other girl…a delightful young mulatto, dressed quite simply in a brown knitted woolen dress, the kind of woman one sees in Harlem.…who refused to remove her clothes” (5-6). She is both in and out of the institution and the circus at the same time; simultaneously dislocated and disordered, belonging to neither the circus for which she is disidentified nor the institution which seeks to rape her—exceeding all available taxonomies of gendered woman/femme. The lick that cuts like a knife: recalling the subaltern transtemporal space that Sarah Baartman occupies as a sexualized medical spectacle of Black pathology, a “circus freak” on display for her large buttocks (Gordon-Chipembere 8, 131); and the enslaved “Luke” that Harriet Jacobs recounts, in The Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, must keep his buttocks exposed between beatings. Commenting on the “erotic spectacle” of Luke’s lacerated buttocks, Vincent Woodard makes sense of a tyranny linked to the white master’s erotic infantilization of the enslaved Black man (Jacobs, 192-3; Woodard, 146-7).

ii. (cutting—) edge

Rape and Terrorism

Photo of Adrian Piper’s Decide Who You Are #21: Phantom Limbs, 1992. Pictured in the piece are Kimberly Rae Harbour (center), an “African American woman who was ‘wilded’ (gang-raped and murdered) around the same time as the Central Park Jogger in the Fall of 1990,” October 31, 1990. Also, a childhood photo of Anita Hill (right).

Rape is understood as a form of terrorism in Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place. This is especially clear in the way Naylor locates power and violence in relation to silence and speech. Making the distinction, Laura Tanner refers to Hannah Arendt’s theory of power and violence in On Violence.  For Arendt, violence, by whatever means, is a destruction that can never be controlled. It is inherently “arbitrary,” unstable, and its actualization leads to additional destruction with unanticipated consequences (Tanner, 29; Arendt, 4). Unlike violence, true power operates collectively within communities and without tools or instrumentalization and therefore can not be manipulated by special interests or groups acting outside the institution (Arendt, 46). A totalitarian rule of government “whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers” (50).

Even apart from the rape of Lorraine, Naylor delineates the destructive actions of C.C. Baker and his gang as “indecent” and detrimental to the community. Mattie, the matriarch of Brewster Place, remarks at a tenants meeting that she has called on police (in this instance, a proxy for authorized institutional power) “a dozen times about C.C. Baker and them boys hanging in that alley, smoking them reefers, and robbing folks” (140). Naylor is commenting on the unofficial violence that operates under the guise of official state power for dispossessed and isolated Black communities. As the Public Enemy song, “911 Is A Joke,” expresses: “They don’t care ‘cause they stay paid anyway.” In Mama Day, Naylor approaches this as a matter of cultural inheritance, which she conceptualizes in terms of “cultural territory” (102).

This scene—where Naylor’s interlocutoring characters have divergent overlapping and competing perspectives at the moment of sighting (to invoke a Toni Cade Bambara concept) ‘The Two’ lesbian partners (Theresa and Lorraine), who fit all the “tropes of middle-class conformity”—is a prism into the multiplicity of Black life in general and Black queer desire more specifically; and the violence that permeates every facet of Black existence in the U.S.. In challenging solipsistic thinking about Black identity and embracing a pluralistic love ethic reflective of many different forms of desire, Naylor rejects the narrowly defined prescriptions of Black heteronormative masculinity already marginalized within a neoliberalism dominated by white patriarchy (Anita August, 37-40).    

Naylor’s situating of Lorraine’s rape in the interval between the queer nightclub and Ben’s sub-ground, basement level apartment, requiring her to “cut through the alley” to avoid the possibility of being seen by her partner, “Tee” (Theresa), waiting in the window for her return, disrupts the heroic form of the American epic novel tradition typical of writers like Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Ralph Ellison (168). Tanner describes how Naylor cuts the ‘tie’ that binds women to the symbolic order of white heteropatriarchy. Although Lorraine’s pleas with C.C. and the other rapists in the gang are eventually silenced by a crumpled, “dirty paper bag…stuffed into her mouth,” the screams that push out of her face—“breaking through her corneas out into the air”…past the flesh…“vibrating back into her brain”…“shaking lifeless the cells that nurtured her memory”—resist the dissociation of an aestheticized violence, and “succeed[ ] in communicating the victim’s embodied experience of rape” (Tanner, 30-1; Naylor, 170-1).

(Left) Cover of Gloria Naylor’s The Women Of Brewster Place (1982). (Right) Newsreel still frame of Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo (1960), being forced to eat a copy of a previously delivered speech, “made to eat his words.” U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly ordered his assassination in collaboration with the Belgian government.

Challenging the biopsychosocial model of Cartesian and Lockean metaphysics, Naylor’s description of an embodied cellular pain, resonant in the stomach and central nervous system–which Lorraine “screamed to death” and “that supplied her with the ability to love or hate”–invokes the ancestral pain and trauma resulting from technologies of enslavement and rape perfected on the bodies of Black women and men, and anticipates a science of epigenetics still, at the time, largely secluded from fields outside biogenetics. Reminiscent of newsreel footage of a beaten and bound Patrice Lumumba being literally force fed his own words from a previously delivered political speech during transport to his torture and assassination, Naylor’s image of the soiled paper bag stuffed in Lorraine’s mouth to silence her places rape right alongside the historical traumas and political turmoil contemporaneously experienced by the intercolony of a Brewster Place as well as destabilized postcolonial nations throughout the African diaspora.

Rape is part of an entire technocracy of death and extermination that enforces peoples disappearance-in-plain-sight. Remarking on the erasure of multiple locations of postcolonial subjectivity by logics deployed to secure the U.S. dominated global post-9/11 terrorism apparatus, Régine Michelle Jean-Charles writes: “Allusions to terrorism in relation to sexual violence implicitly refer to and indict what has been left out of the ‘War on Terror,’ which, as feminist critics have observed, ‘is produced, constructed, and waged on highly gendered terrain’” (2-3). The period immediately following 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. allied “war on terrorism” eventually morphs into a “war on terror,” inciting a frenzied paranoia, a viral fear, which galvanizes the public’s backing of a morally justified preemptive war that comes to be known as the ‘Bush Doctrine.’ Circumventing international law and the U.N. Security Council, this doctrine effectively gives the U.S. “a special right to use force preemptively” despite misdirected motivations, warped perceptions, misgivings or biases that might factor into its actions. The claim of “special right,” bolstered by rhetoric of ‘good and evil’/‘us and them,’ is ethically unsound and politically divisive (Singer, 180-2). In undermining international law, the Bush Doctrine and the USA PATRIOT Act (Patriot Act) effectively dismantle the Lieber Code, enacted in 1863 during the U.S. Civil War to, among other things, protect against rape (Feimster, 17-25; Evans; Fabian Witt). The law was largely the basis of the post WWII Geneva Convention (1949) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This authoritarian cut, as I am calling it, is imposed by a rationalized law like the Patriot Act and dissociates the public-private meaning from judgement about the common good and its sociopolitical consequences, splitting privacy into forms of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff).

For Discussion:

*How might we understand Naylor’s identification of herself as a nonpolitical writer in interviews where she discusses having been targeted in 1996 while at other times identifying herself as a cultural nationalist?

*How might Darlene Clark Hine’s concept, “culture of dissemblance,” in “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black women in the Middle West.” (Signs, Summer 1989, Vol 14, No 4.), help us to better understand this apparent contradiction?

Selected Works Cited.

1. Adorno, Theodor. Dream Notes, edited by Christophe Gödde and Henri Lonitz. Polity Press, 2007.

2. Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969

3. August, Anita. “I Need A Prince To Watch Over Me. Really?! Re-Visioning ‘Happily Ever After’ In Gloria Naylor’s The Women Of Brewster Place,” in Gloria Naylor’s Fiction: Contemporary Explorations of Class and Capitalism, edited by Sharon A. Lewis and Ama S. Wattley. Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2017, pp. 23-43.

4. Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies, Vol.14. No.1, (Spring, 1988), pp. 67-79.

5. Evans, Jennifer C.. “Hijacking Civil Liberties: The USA Patriot Act of 2001.” Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol 33, Issue 4, Summer 2002, pp. 933-990.

6. Fabian Witt, John. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. Free Press, 2012.

7. Feimster, Crystal N.. Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. Harvard University Press, 2009.

8. Gordon-Chipembere, Natasha. Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011.

9. Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin, Harvard University Press, 1987.

10. Jean-Charles, Régine Michelle. Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary. The Ohio State University Press, 2014.

11. Naylor, Gloria. 1996. Third World Press, 2005.

—.The Women Of Brewster Place, Viking Penguin, 1982.

—.Mama Day, Vintage Books, 1988.

12. Singer, Peter. The President of Good & Evil: Questioning The Ethics Of George W. Bush. Plume/Penguin, 2004.

13. Tanner, Laura. Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1994.

14. Woodard, Vincent. The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption And Homoeroticism Within U.S. Slave Culture. New York University Press, 2014.

15. Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier Of Power. Public Affairs, Hachette Book Group, 2019.

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