Angelina Weld Grimké, Christine O’Donnell, and Shame

We have just finished reading Angelina Weld Grimké’s incredibly difficult play Rachel, a play whose confessions highlight its dramatic ellipses and silences. Rachel unfolds as a series of Dickinsonian dashes—strewn throughout the text and increasing in frequency as the play proceeds. Narrative progress halts and the play inhabits what a student (who probably has not read Berlant) termed “stuckness.” Rachel, the eponymous protagonist, hints at traumatic events, possible violations, sexual and otherwise, that mark her coming into age as a black girl, a black woman, suggesting that the post-emancipation North shares a lot, too much, with the antebellum South. Marking how the narrative of racial development attached to male bodies in works including Up from Slavery and Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, works unevenly, if at all, across gender lines.

The problem of sexual violation haunts Rachel. Her mother and suitor suspect she may have been violated, but they will not ask. Rachel herself suggests that she has been violated, but this confession emerges as a dash—a suspension of time and narrative. As the unspeakable of racialized gendering. In Rachel, silences become haunting presences, breaking, attacking, modifying, fracturing syntax and self, self and syntax. Silence haunts palpably, as Avery Gordon suggests.

I don’t know much about Christine O’Donnell. With Glenn Greenwald, I believe that some of the attacks against her are driven by sexism and classism—the first allying her with Hillary Clinton.

I know that she has been described as anti-sex, and this worries me. It worries me as I read Rachel, and I think of the multiple ways anti-sex positions and the cultures of shame they create and sustain make women’s lives impossible. In such cultures, and Kenya has been one of them, rape cannot exist. The silences that accrue around sex make it difficult, if not impossible, for sexual violation to exist, to be recognized as a category against which action can be taken, psychic and legal.

During debates on the Sexual Offences Law, we learned that sexual harassment could not exist in Kenya, as it “threatened” men’s ability to court. We learned that women say no when they mean yes. We learned that women were shy and needed persuading.

In Kenya, as in the U.S., sexual violation, from sexist speech to physical rape, happens too often, too much, to too many people. And even one person is too many.

The kind of shame culture that O’Donnell supports would silence any and all discussion of such violation. And while I cannot map here the long and complex history of how black women’s violation at the hands of white men granted white women a language and permission to speak about sexual violation in general, at least in the U.S., part of the emergence of sex-positive cultures has been the ability to break silences about sexual violation, to refuse the silence of sexual shame.

In the name of protecting decency, O’Donnell promotes the kind of psyche-destroying, life-destroying shame we continue to fight. And whether she wins or not, it is frightening to imagine that political expediency and racist-tinged hatred would allow anyone to endorse the life-destroying shame culture she supports.

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