Words by Andrea Westerlund
Photos by Genae Shields
Genae Shields wasn’t sure what photojournalism was when she got accepted into the program at Rochester Institute of Technology, and she definitely didn’t know where Rochester, NY, was. “I thought all of New York was New York City,” she laughs.
Although she knew that her photojournalism capstone project would be a book, it took a while for Genae to settle on a topic. Thinking back on her family’s history, she decided to share portraits and stories from Black survivors of sexual assault. “During the pandemic,” she explains, “I unfortunately had my own experience with assault. When it happened to me, I knew [the project] was something I had to do whether I included my story or not.”
She doesn’t share many details about her own assault, and it doesn’t feel right to press the matter especially when she expresses discomfort over speaking on her own healing process – “a situation that isn’t finished.” Although the stories shared in the book are intentionally open-ended, Genae wants her story of assault and healing to be finished before sharing it.
The book is called Freedom, and it tells the stories of six Black survivors through scans of handwritten poems, somber portraits, and first-person narrative. The photos are captivating, the quotes chilling, but what’s potentially even more interesting is the book’s cover.
The original copy of the book was handmade with a hand-sewn cover. The inspiration for the cover was a 1992 case in Italy where a girl was sexually assaulted but her jeans were so tight that her assailant forced her to help take them off. So, because of that, the court ruled it as consensual and he was able to walk away.
It’s history like this that makes Freedom so poignant. The book is divided into three sections, the first detailing the history of sexual assault in the Black community. We all (hopefully) learned about the atrocities imposed upon the Black community during the slave trade, but to see it laid out as a timeline of sexual assault is unsettling to say the least.
During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Voyages it was not uncommon for women to be raped and assaulted by crew members. In 1662, a law in Virginia ruled that any child born to a slave woman, regardless of who impregnated her, would inherit her slave status. There was an unspoken rule that “you’re just my property and this is what you have to do,” explains Genae.
And here comes the mind fuck: no matter your race, you can acknowledge that slavery is a disgusting practice, but those outside the Black community may not think about the lasting damages the slave trade had on an entire group of people. For more than 400 years, Black people were traded as property and, oftentimes, raped and sexually abused – and the world told them that it was okay. The law allowed it to happen and those in power supported the behavior. Even after slavery was made illegal in the United States, that mindset has lingered. “You start to think sexual assault is normal,” says Genae. “It’s not fucking normal.”
No, it’s not fucking normal, and yet, one in four Black women will be abused by the age of 18. Read that again. As many as 25% of Black women will be sexually assaulted before they’re even old enough to vote. That number may be even higher in reality, due to something Freedom describes as a “culture of silence.” Black people were forced to find the strength to survive through the worst treatment imaginable and that strength remains even though slavery has ended.
But that strength can make it hard to speak up. Genae explains that it was especially difficult to find Black men and transgender participants “because assault and mental health are not talked about enough in the Black community in my opinion. It’s not prioritized at all, especially among Black men.”
According to RTOR.org, “Black American adults are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems, such as major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.” The rest of the world should be appalled at this statistic but not shocked. It’s not surprising that a community of people who has been mistreated for so long would struggle with the effects of that mistreatment.
But Genae saw this “culture of silence” as an opportunity – a chance to let the people featured in Freedom “release their story. To reclaim it.” When asked what she wanted readers to gain from the book, Genae expressed a hope that people would be more knowledgeable about the Black experience and have a better understanding of where her community is mentally.
She’s quick to point out that this book is not meant to be a representation of all experiences from the Black community because there are many situations that aren’t featured. But, the book does includes some situations that the reader might not expect – and that was intentional. It’s not uncommon for assault survivors to assume that their experience happens to everybody. Many don’t realize they experienced an assault until later.
“I kept saying that it wasn’t rape, that it wasn’t assault,” one survivor shares in Freedom. “But it was – I said no. I said no a few times. I said get off me a few times and my whole body language just said no, you know?”
Quotes like this are just the tip of the iceberg that is Freedom. The content is heavy, but there’s a feeling of letting go in its pages. That heaviness is something Genae felt deeply while working on the project:
Being a Black woman – a newly identifying bisexual Black woman – at a predominantly white institute, in the middle of a pandemic, it felt like all of the odds were against me. I just kind of pulled up my big girl pants and I got it done. It was probably one of the hardest things – outside of college itself – that I’ve done in life so far because it was so mentally taxing.
One might not expect a book called Freedom to be so heavy, but the title is more of a prayer than a preview.
“I want the people I interview to be free,” Genae says. “This happened to me but it’s not who I am.”
 The native upstate and western New Yorkers are not amused.
 The court’s ruling inspired widespread protests by women in the Italian parliament as well as “Denim Day,” which recognizes sexual assault survivors. Learn more at www.denimdayinfo.org.
 Resources to Recovery: Gateway to Mental Health Services (https://www.rtor.org/bipoc-mental-health-equity-fact-sheet)