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FEATURE | spring 2002

Joan Little: The Dialectics of Rape (1975)

Ms. Spring 2002

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No one-not even the men in the mob-had bothered to accuse Cordella Stevenson of committing a crime. She was black and that was reason enough. She was black and a woman, trapped in a society pervaded with myths of white superiority and male supremacy. She could be raped and murdered with absolute impunity. The white mob simply claimed that, a few months earlier, Cordella Stevenson's son had burned down a white man's barn.

It was 60 years ago when this black woman was raped and strung up on a tree. There are many who believe that incidents such as these belong to an era of racist terror now forever buried under the historical progress of the intervening years. But history itself allows only the naive to honestly claim these last 60 years as a time of unequivocal progress-especially when the elimination of racism and male supremacy is used as the yardstick.

Angela DavisTwenty-year-old Joan Little, one of the most recent victims in this racist and sexist tradition, is the cultural grandchild of Cordella Stevenson. She says that she resisted when she was sexually assaulted, but as a result she is currently being tried on charges of first-degree murder. In the event of a conviction, she will automatically get a death sentence and will be placed on North Carolina's death row-the result of a "legal" process, but still too close to the lynch law of the past.

The story begins last August 27, when a guard at the jail in Beaufort County, North Carolina, was found dead in the cell of a missing prisoner. He had been stabbed eleven times with an ice pick, the same ice pick that he had kept in his own desk drawer. The jailer, Clarence Alligood, was white. The missing prisoner was black, and the only woman in the entire jail. Because of a conviction on charges of breaking and entering, larceny, and receiving stolen property, Joan Little was serving a sentence of seven to ten years and had already been kept in the Beaufort County jail for three months at the time of her disappearance.

When the autopsy report was released, it contained this evidence of recent sexual activity on the part of Alligood: "His shoes were in the corridor, his socks on his feet. He was otherwise naked from the waist down. . . . The left arm was under the body and clutching his pants. . . . His right hand contained an icepick. There was blood on the sheet, cell floor, corridor. . . . Beneath his buttocks was a decorated, partially torn woman's kerchief. On the floor was a night gown and on the cell door was a brassiere and night jacket. . . . Extending from his penis to his thigh skin was a stream of what appeared to be seminal fluid. . . . The urethral fluid was loaded with spermatozoa."

After a week of evading police-who conducted their search with riot weapons and helicopters-Joan Little turned herself in, stating nothing publicly about the case except that she did what she had to do in self-defense. At her own insistence, Jerry Paul, the lawyer she contacted, received assurances that she would be incarcerated in the women's prison in Raleigh-not in the jail where the incident took place, and where she feared that she would be subjected to further sexual assault and perhaps even that her life would be in danger. Shortly thereafter, Joan Little was charged with murder in the first degree.

The circumstances surrounding this case deserve careful attention, for they raise fundamental questions about the bringing of murder charges against her. Moreover, they expose conditions and situations many women prisoners must confront, especially in the small-town jails of this country.

  1. Joan Little was being detained in a jail in which she was the only woman-among prisoners and guards alike.
  2. Like any other prisoner, Sister Joan was being held under lock and key. Only her jailer, Clarence Alligood, had access to the key to her cell that night. Therefore, how could he have been present there against his will? A part of an escape attempt on the part of Joan Little, as the authorities then charged?
  3. Alligood was apparently killed by stab wounds inflicted by the same ice pick which he was known to keep in his desk. What was a jail guard doing with an ice pick in the first place? And for what legitimate purpose could he have taken it into a prisoner's cell?
  4. Alligood was discovered naked from the waist down. According to Karen Galloway and Jerry Paul, Joan Little's attorneys, the authorities maintained for a full three weeks that Alligood's pants were nowhere to be found. Were they afraid that the public would discover that, although he had been stabbed in the legs, there were no such holes in his pants? Were they afraid people would therefore realize that Alligood had removed his pants before the struggle began? In any case, how could such crucial evidence be allowed to disappear?

In fact, the reality of Joan Little's life as a prisoner, even before the rape, may have been one of sexual exploitation; a fate she consistently resisted. Jerry Paul has said, "One possibility is that she was being kept in Beaufort County Jail for openly sexual purposes."

She should have been moved to the women's prison in Raleigh shortly after her original conviction, but she was never transferred. According to Paul, a TV camera was focused on her cell at all times, leaving her no privacy whatever even when she changed clothes or took a shower. When she used her sheets to block the view, they were taken from her. Joan Little's lawyers have said that on one occasion a highway patrolman visiting the jail on business unrelated to Joan, came into her cell and urinated on the floor.

Essential to a clear perspective on the Joan Little case is an analysis of what might have happened if the situation had been reversed. What if Alligood had overpowered her? What if he had stabbed her with the ice pick-as he may have intended to do if she could not otherwise be raped? What if the sexually violated body of Joan Little had been discovered in that cell on the night of August 27?

There can be little speculation about the turn events would have taken had Joan Little been killed by Alligood. A verdict of "justifiable homicide" would have probably closed the books on such a case.

But she had the courage to fend off her assailant. The price of her resistance was a new threat of death, this time issuing from the government of North Carolina. And so she is being tried-by the same state whose Supreme Court decided, in the 19th century, that no white man could be convicted of fornication with a slave woman.

Joan Little stands accused by a court system which, proportionate to its population, has sentenced more political activists to prison than any other state in the country. The number of state prison units in North Carolina is staggering-more than five times greater than in California, the most populous state in the country. In fact, North Carolina, along with Georgia, can claim more prisoners per capita than any other state-and they include, of course, an enormously disproportionate number of black men and women.

As this article is being written, there are 71 prisoners on death row in North Carolina, making that state Number One in the nation in condemning people to legal death. In the event of a conviction, the state's present sentencing policy could make Sister Joan Little the third woman in the country to be sentenced to death since the Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that the death penalty imposed at the discretion of judges and juries was cruel and unusual punishment. North Carolina subsequently mandated that a conviction on a first-degree murder charge automatically carried the death penalty. This procedure was appealed to the Supreme Court in late April. The other two women presently on death row are also in North Carolina-a black and a Native American.

Joan Little's attorneys relate numerous possibilities of judicial bias against her. In Beaufort County, for instance, where families are generations old, virtually everyone knows everyone else. Living in the area are numerous Alligoods. One of these Alligoods sat on the Grand Jury which returned the indictment against Joan Little.

Without exception, every pretrial motion filed, as of this writing, has been flatly denied. Despite inflammatory publicity about Joan Little-including unfounded and malicious charges that she was a prostitute-and in spite of the unconcealed public sympathy for Alligood, the courts have refused to grant a change of venue for the trial.

Although Joan Little is indigent, her motion to have the court assume the costs of expert witnesses has been denied. It was denied even though the court does not have to pay her attorneys' fees, since the lawyers are donating their services.

Efforts to gain access to the evidence, in the form of discovery motions, have also been thwarted. The sheriff at first refused to release a list of female prisoners previously incarcerated in the jail, leading to a belief that the authorities feared the exposure of other sexual assaults by Alligood and his colleagues. Later, after the State Bureau of Investigation had questioned 65 former prisoners, their names were released to Joan Little's lawyers-but even this SBI report stated that some of these inmates claimed Alligood and other jailers made sexual advances toward them.

After the difficulty in locating Alligood's pants, the defense attempted to have all the evidence assembled and placed in protective custody. This was denied.

Although Sister Joan seemed clearly eligible to be released on bail, District Attorney William Griffin employed every trick of his trade to prevent her release. When the defense attorneys attempted to post bail, for instance, Griffin, relying on a technicality, ordered the clerk not to accept the bond. Finally, as a result of a nationwide outcry, she was released in February on bail of $115,000: an amount that is itself clearly exorbitant.

Over the last few years, widespread concern about the increasing incidence of sexual assaults on women has crystallized into a militant campaign against rape. In the Joan Little case, as well as in all other instances of sexual assault, it is essential to place the specific incident in its sociohistorical context. For rape is not one- dimensional and homogeneous-but one feature that does remain constant is the overt and flagrant treatment of women, through rape, as property. Particular rape cases will then express different modes in which women are handled as property.

Thus when a white man rapes a black woman, the underlying meaning of this crime remains inaccessible if one is blind to the historical dimensions of the act. One must consider, for example, that a little more than a hundred years ago, there were few black women who did not have to endure humiliating and violent sexual attacks as an integral feature of their daily lives. Rape was the rule; immunity from rape the exception. On the one hand the slave master made use of his tyrannical possession of slave women as chattel in order to violate their bodies with impunity. On the other hand, rape itself was an essential weapon utilized by the white master to reinforce the authority of his ownership of black women.

Although the immediate victim of rape was the black woman-and it was she who endured its pain and anguish-rape served not only to further her oppression, but also as a means of terrorizing the entire black community. It placed brutal emphasis on the fact that black slaves were indeed the property of the white master.

In conjunction with the sexual exploitation of black women, the stereotypical image of the black woman branded her as a creature motivated by base, animal-like sexual instincts. It was therefore no sin to rape her. This bestial notion of the black woman, incidentally, played and continues to play a significant role in justifying the overexploitation of her labor. For such a woman would hardly be distinguishable from a beast of burden. Again, she is openly defined as property. If rape was, in effect, institutionalized during slavery, essentially the same institutionalized form of rape is present today in such vestiges of slavery as do-mestic work. How many black women working in the homes of white people have not had to confront the "man of the house" as an actual or potential rapist?

The rape of the black woman and its ideological justification are integrally linked to the portrayal of the black man as a bestial rapist of white women-and, of course, the castration and lynching of black men on the basis of such accusations. Struggle against the sexual abuse of black women has demanded at the same time struggle against the cruel manip-ulation of sexual accusations against black men. Black women, therefore, have played a vanguard role, not only in the fight against rape, but also in the movement to end lynching.

For black women, rape perpetrated by white men, like the social stereotype of black men as rapists, must be classed among the brutal paraphernalia of racism.

Whenever a campaign is erected around a black woman who has been raped by a white man, therefore, the content of the campaign must be explicitly antiracist. And, as incorrect as it would be to fail to attack racism, it would be equally incorrect to make light of the antisexist content of the movement. Racism and male supremacy have to be projected in their dialectical unity. In the case of the raped black woman, they are mutually reinforcive.

Joan Little's assailant had probably been exposed to all the racist myths about black women, and was aware of the lack of redress available to victims of white rapists. In the aftermath of the incident, in fact, vicious accusa- tions were hurled at Joan Little: she was called a prostitute and it was claimed that she engaged in sexual activities with jailers.

Of course, the conviction rate for rape is the lowest of all violent crimes -regardless of the victim's ethnic group. Only in those instances where the accused rapist is black and the alleged victim is white can a long prison term or death penalty be antici- pated. From 1930 to 1967, 455 men were executed as a result of rape convictions: 405 of them were black, 48 of them were white, and two were of other ethnic groups. This means that almost 90 percent of all rape executions during this period involved black men.

Courts have established the pattern of either acquitting or not trying the majority of white men who are charged with rape. In New York, for instance, in 1967, 30 percent of all felony indictments ended in convictions, but in only 13 percent of all rape indictments were there convictions.

There must be a reason behind this social and judicial encouragement given to rape. This reason, in turn, must be related to the social and political function of male supremacy in general.

The oppression of women is a vital and integral component of a larger network of oppression which claims as its foremost victims black people, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Indians, and all poor and working-class people. Just as class exploitation, racism, and imperialist subjugation of peoples abroad serve to nourish this larger system and keep it functioning, so male supremacy is likewise essential to its smooth operation. The larger system, of course, is monopoly capitalism and its overall driving motive is profit.

It is in the interests of the ruling class to cultivate the archaic patriarchal domination of women-based on male ownership of females as property-that flourished during the feudal era. As long as women are oppressed, enormous benefits accrue to the ruling class. Female labor can be even more flagrantly exploited than male labor. (White women's median wages are even lower than black men's and, of course, women of color receive the lowest wages of all workers.)

The social definition of women as housewives provides, as Alva Buxenbaum states, the most effective "rationale for failing to make housework and child care a social responsibility." A list of examples could go on and on. The social incentive given to rape is woven into the logic of the institutions of this society. It is an extremely efficient means of keeping women in a state of fear of rape or of the possibility of it. It is, as Susan Griffin wrote, "a form of mass terrorism." This, in turn, buttresses the general sense of powerlessness and passivity socially inflicted upon women, thus rendering them more easily exploitable. Yet, just as working-class and poor white people who exhibit racist attitudes toward people of color are unconscious agents of a higher power, so rapists (though they may be individually unaware of this) are performing deeds that give sustenance, not to them, but to the existing system.

Joan Little may not only have been the victim of a rape attempt by a white racist jailer; she has truly been raped and wronged many times over by the exploitative and discriminatory institutions of this society. All people who see themselves as members of the existing community of struggle for justice, equality, and progress have a responsibility to fulfill toward Joan Little. Those of us-women and men -who are black or people of color must understand the connection between racism and sexism that is so strikingly manifested in her case. Those of us who are white and women must grasp the issue of male supremacy in relationship to the racism and class bias which complicate and exacerbate it.

Let us be sure that the leitmotif running through every aspect of the campaign is unity. Our ability to achieve unity may mean the difference between life and death for Sister Joan. Let us then forge among ourselves and our movements an indivisible strength and with it, let us halt and then crush the conspiracy against Joan Little's life.