Visiting professor presents research on sexual assault prosecution
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013
Updated: Saturday, February 23, 2013 01:02
Joy James, presidential professor of the humanities and professor of political science at Williams College, spoke Wednesday night about the prosecution of 20th century interracial rape cases.
The talk itself, entitled “Killing Mockingbirds: Cultural Memory and the Central Park Case,” was jointly sponsored by the American studies program, the Africana Center, the Africana studies program, the Peace and Justice studies program and the Toupin Fund. James also discussed her latest work, titled “Memory, Shame and Rage: Interracial Rape Beyond the Central Park Case.”
James’ talk focused on the 1989 Central Park Jogger Case in which the assault and rape of a white woman named Trisha Meili led to the conviction of five innocent young males, four of whom were black and one of whom was Hispanic, according to James. The young men served time in prison despite there being no existing DNA evidence to connect them to the crime.
“Even though one of the young males, [Yusef Salaam], did not give a videotape or confession, there were false confessions that did go through,” James said.
As part of her research, James said she worked with one of the five convicted boys’ mothers in Harlem, where the mothers were able to take refuge from the criminality painted on their families. In 2002, she said, a man named Matias Reyes confessed to having committed the crime alone, a fact confirmed by DNA evidence.
“If Matias Reyes had not confessed, there would be no exoneration as we know it, but this is exoneration without the state acknowledging culpability,” James said. “The confession opened the door over a decade ago for a legal settlement from the city, which to this day has not occurred.”
The Central Park Jogger Case was encapsulated in a documentary called “The Central Park Five” (2012), where father-daughter filmmakers Ken and Sarah Burns exposed the manipulations and errors of the state and New York City Police Department (NYPD) in this particular case, according to James. The film is lacking because it does not take into account the families’ humanity, she said.
“What the Burns have done is important, it has gotten awards. However, they have reinvigorated the vigilant white moral agent and put in the passive, victimized black body,” James added. “They did not look at the families’ eyes, talk to the youth or see their humanity — none of that appears in this documentary.”
The event also featured Khalil Saucier, an assistant professor of sociology and director of the Program of Africana Studies at Rhode Island College.
“When spectacles [such as this one] emerge on the big screen, in media productions or on Twitter, they often camouflage what is really going on,” Saucier said of the Burns’ documentary. “We ought to be cautious about the amount of accuracy we ascribe to documentaries that handle cases such as this one involving race.”
Event sponsor Associate Professor Christina Sharpe of the Tufts English department, who also directs the American Studies program, expressed a need for increased discourse in the community.
“I wanted to begin, through the American Studies Program, a series of conversations withscholars, students, and the community,” Sharpe said. "There were people in that filled room who were not affiliated with Tufts but who want to think through questions of race, anti-blackness, and the position of the liberal in managing in the interest of activating white moral agency.”