News, On Campus

‘A Long Walk Home’ Tells the Story of Abuse

In 1997, Scheherazade Tillet learned that her older sister, Salamishah, had been raped years before. Wanting to help her older sister heal, Scheherazade, who was then a student at Tufts University, turned to photography, documenting Salamishah’s healing process—taking photographs when Salamishah went to therapy, exercised, or was in her house.

It was the head of the Women’s Center at Tufts who said that Scheherazade should do something more with the photos that she took. The idea quickly took flight and became a multimedia arts show featuring not only visual images, but also music, singing, dancing, and acting— “A Long Walk Home” was born.

On Wednesday, April 13, “A Long Walk Home” is coming to Boston College’s Robsham Theater at 5 p.m. Eleven BC organizations, including Bystander Intervention Education, FACES Council, Females Incorporating Sisterhood Through Step, and the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, are collaborating with BC’s Women’s Center to bring this multimedia performance to BC.

“The performance tells the story of a woman’s journey from rape victim to rape survivor through a collection of art performances,” said Regine Jean-Charles, BC African and African diaspora studies professor and performer in “A Long Walk Home.” “The idea is that the performer will bring to life different aspects of her story. All these different women, this collection of women are all telling the story of her rape.”

Jean-Charles went to graduate school with Salamishah at Harvard University, where the two became best friends. In 2001, a year after the performances started, Salamishah approached Jean-Charles to audition for a role. Now, 15 years later, Jean-Charles is still performing in the show.

The multimedia performance features a song, then Jean-Charles’s performance of two poems, followed by a dance, and ends with the original slideshow of photographs that Tillet created put to a recording of song and narration.

Jean-Charles will be reciting two poems by Salamishah, one called “Do you Know What Rape Feels Like?” which was written immediately after Salamishah was assaulted, and another titled “I Died and was Born on the Same Day.” The second poem is about the hope that Salamishah found and how she was able to heal from what had happened.

“I think the thing that makes ‘A Long Walk Home’ so different is using art to tell a story in so many different ways and using a collective to tell that story,” Jean-Charles said. “And even though this is a story of just one woman, and it’s her sister using the lens, it’s also the story of these other women, such as myself, and others who have become involved in this organization, regardless of whether or not you are a survivor.”

Taking part in the performance has propelled Jean-Charles’s activism on problems of sexual violence, she said. After joining the performance and being incredibly outspoken about her participation in the cause, Jean-Charles found that the more people knew about her involvement and passion in the issue, the more people disclosed to her. To learn more about how to respond, and best help those who came to her, she was trained as a rape crisis counselor at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

“This performance, really, for me, was work that I do in an artistic way, but also in an intellectual way, but also in a personal way as I interact with survivors,” Jean-Charles said.

The purpose of the performance is two-fold. Firstly, the performance is to make clear that there is no one story of sexual assault. The performance is one that tells a single story, yet is influenced by the three different performers who are featured in the show. Jean-Charles stressed how important it is that students understand that there is no universal “rape survival story.” Each victim’s journey to become a survivor is influenced by who they are, where they are, and when they are surrounded by.

The second point that the performance tries to make is how powerful art can be for healing. In 2003, three years after the show took off, Scheherazade and Salamishah Tillet cofounded the nonprofit A Long Walk Home. Afterwards, a girls’ program was founded in response to one of the co-founder’s work as a health teacher who had met many teens dealing with dating violence and sexual abuse. She found that art helped them tell their stories in a way that they controlled.

“It’s important to remember just the healing power that exists in art for this issue, and for issues of violence in general,” Jean-Charles said.

Jean-Charles noted that there have been many steps in the right direction on BC’s campus to address sexual assault, including the support of the Women’s Center, of Bystander Intervention, and of various administrators. She said, however, that there is still work to be done.

“As we think about sexual assault as a social justice issue, at BC as we think about being men and women for others, it doesn’t have to affect you for you to care about it,” Jean-Charles said. “Everyone should come. This should be required for all students. It’s really powerful.”

Featured Image by John Wiley / Senior Staff

April 10, 2016