BLACK & FEMINIST with Lisa Napper
Updated: Sep 27, 2019
Talking Feminism With Lisa Napper
To celebrate Women’s History Month, I sat down with my former Howard University classmate, Lisa Napper, a 22-year-old women’s rights advocate and self-identified feminist from Aurora, CO. In college, I admired Lisa’s individuality and her commitment to the cause of ending campus sexual assault. Her work, which started in our freshman year, became the #TakeBackTheNight initiative which got her connected with the Obama White House and It's on Us campaign (where she became best friends with Vice President Joe Biden).
Currently, Lisa is job hunting and using her spare time to read lots of books and to write. In the midst of the chaos of her 20s, Lisa brought uplifting wisdom and a calming groundedness to our discussion.
Amanda (AB): Lisa, I know you primarily as my kickass classmate who, since stepping foot on campus at Howard, has been fighting against sexual assault/standing up for women’s rights, all that good stuff-- would you identify yourself as a feminist, a womanist, none of the above…?
Lisa (LN): I definitely identify as a feminist. I think that the word “feminist” is an empty universal which is a word that has a definition but it doesn’t have a meaning--the people who say that they’re feminists are what give that word a meaning. So, I think it's important for people who traditionally feel like they may not fit the definition of feminist to claim it for themselves.
So, when I say that I’m a feminist, I’m bringing the fact that I am a survivor of sexual assault to the definition, I’m bringing the fact that I’m a Black woman to the definition, I’m bringing the fact that I’m adopted to the definition, I’m bringing many different experiences to the definition and, in a sense, it forces those who may have taken that word and used it as a definition that is limited to themselves and expanding it. So I think that it’s important for people who believe in the equality of the sexes to take that word back and to claim it and to bring all of their experiences into that word.
I think in many ways, that I’m also...and I don’t know if I like this label… but, definition-wise, I’m a humanist in the sense that I think that feminism and elevating the feminist traits that we often attribute to being feminine-- that we need to elevate those traits in men. So, like right now we live in a society where manliness is valued in our society and I don’t think that feminism is about wanting to stomp on that but more so about bringing out and valuing the traits of femininity in our society.
AB: How did you come to identify as a feminist? What forces inspired that?
LN: I was born in Dallas, TX and when I was 3 months old, I was found abandoned in a car. So, I spent the first 2 years of my life in foster care and then I was adopted by a single woman, she didn’t have any other kids. She adopted me by herself and it was a choice that she was empowered to make.
So, I never viewed women as not being capable of making their own choices. My mom is a really awesome woman in that she is older (I don’t want to say her age)--she remembers the Civil Rights Movement and her/our family was deeply impacted by it and by Jim Crow in the South. When she was in college, she was really active in protesting and being vocal about the right to vote. She still is today. She studied Sociology at Wayne State University during the Detroit riots and all of that. That deeply affected her and it affected the way that she raised me and the lessons that she taught me.
"I never had this perception that women weren’t capable of doing amazing things."
What most impacted me as a feminist is that my mom is an assistant city manager and she has been a member of ICMA, which is a big national government leadership organization, for 40 years. She recently shared with me that when she went to an ICMA conference and they were giving out the 40 year medals of honor, that she was not only the only woman, but she was also the only Black person to receive one. So, my mom has been breaking barriers for a long time.
We live in a world where traditionally, my mother’s job is a role held by white men. But witnessing my mom hold that role, I never had this perception that women weren’t capable of doing amazing things. My mom’s passion about voting rights what inspired her to become assistant city manager, because in my city, the assistant city manager is also the elections clerk, so she’s over elections. She’s responsible for seeing that we have fair elections and that people know where, when, and how to vote.
Beyond that, when my mom was hired, the person that hired her was a white man who took an interest in me and allowed me to come to work with my mom if she needed me to. He hired her with the full understanding that she was also a single mother. Also, after my adoption, my mom’s best friend, stepped in to be my godfather and he’s supported me my whole life -- it was something that he felt was the right thing to do. So, I’ve always been around men who supported and empowered women and it never occured to me that that was something uncommon, it was just my life-- women were supported and empowered.
ON USING HER VOICE
AB: Your mom sounds like a powerful woman. You mentioned, that your mom was a part of a lot of activism in her college years, you also were definitely a part of a lot of activism in your time at Howard. Can you talk about what you did on campus when it comes to standing up against sexual assault, as well as any challenges that you faced in advocating for women’s rights (to safe spaces) specifically on an HBCU campus?
LN: The reason I became so passionate about sexual assault on college campuses and particularly at Howard, is that when I was adopted, through psychological and physical testing, doctors determined that I was probably sexually assaulted before I was old enough to remember it. Then, at 8 years old, I was sexually assaulted again. I grew up feeling very outside of my body and very aware of trauma like that from a very young age. But, I didn’t tell anyone about it for a long time. So, when I came to Howard, and left behind the safety and coping mechanisms that I developed at home in Colorado, the trauma was heightened, as well as the sense of feeling outside of my body.
"I cannot believe that this is the extent of sexual assault conversation on this campus…to protect yourself from it!?"
I’ll never forget, the first week of Freshman campus move-in, all freshman girls were called together for a dorm meeting and we were required to participate in a self-defense class. I remembered thinking to myself--I cannot believe that this is the extent of sexual assault conversation on this campus…to protect yourself from it!?
That was right around when the Invisible Bison video came out and discussion on recent campus assaults was happening. I was very aware of all of these things and I just felt so traumatized that we had to participate in these self-defense classes. For someone who’s coming to Howard with this trauma and then having to participate in these self-defense classes that are really invasive, it was a really rough experience that sent me into a deep depression in my first year of college. I knew that I couldn’t be the only girl on campus feeling this way-- things like what happened to me are things that happen to Black girls all the time. I also knew that I didn’t want to leave Howard (I’d wanted to go to Howard since 8th grade). I knew that I had to make Howard work for me and that in order to make Howard work for me, that we needed to be having these conversations.
So, that’s where I started Take Back the Night events. I filmed a documentary about survivors that I had known. In the Miss Howard University pageant, a lot of girls shared that they were survivors as a part of the platform initiatives that they competed on. Some of those contestants agreed to participate in the documentary but I also didn’t want to put the onus all on the survivors so I asked a few male leaders on campus to participate in a conversation about sexual assault on campus and in general.
After I did that, I did a Take Back the Night event and the documentary was screened a the event. Two nights before it took place, I received a text message from someone who worked at the White House asking if they could come because they had recently launched the It’s On Us campaign and it just so happened that my event was during their week of action. They asked to attend my event, loved the conversation and the enthusiasm from the students at Howard, and from there, they wanted to work with me more in helping to shape the national campaign.
I don’t want to say the rest is history, but that’s how I became really involved.
ON BECOMING BFFs WITH JOE BIDEN
AB: So...where does Joe Biden fit into all of this? Because after that, you were on every social media outlet hugging Joe Biden!
LN: After the Its On Us people from the White House came to my event, I was invited to The Hunting Ground screening at the White House and from there, I was invited to the Reach Higher conference which was about college education, college students and the college experience.
So, where Joe Biden came in, which I don’t think a lot of people know, is that he’s always been a very passionate advocate against violence against women. He drafted and worked to pass Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) back in the 90s. The Its On Us campaign was launched out of his office because he saw that after he passed VAWA, the statistics for trauma and violence against women went down in all age groups except for college-aged women and so he started the Its On Us campaign to address this.
I met him after I was recognized as a White House Champion of Change and was asked to introduce VP Biden at the ceremony. Then, I was invited to Joe Biden’s home to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act as a member of the Student Advisory Committee for the It’s On Us campaign.
ON CHANGING TIDES AND MAKING WAVES: BLACK GIRLS AND #METOO
AB: There were a lot of campaigns and social movements coinciding, sometimes clashing, that intertwined with the political climate (read: Trump) towards the end of our college careers, but right now, we are in the midst of the #MeToo movement and #BlackLivesMatter--movements which will define our adolescence and help to shape our lives’ experiences. What is your take on the #MeToo movement with thought given to Black women and holding Black men accountable?
LN: I think that the #MeToo movement is awesome from the perspective of a survivor because, when it happened to me when I was younger, that was a secret that I held for years. The reason that I held it for years is because I didn’t know anyone who talked about this stuff. So, when I see the #MeToo movement, I cannot help but think of all the girls and boys who are like “wow! Somebody’s talking about it. Maybe I can tell my mom/dad what happened to me” so that they aren’t internalizing this trauma for so long I really have to applaud the movement as a whole.
"As far as Black women holding Black men accountable, I don’t think that that’s our responsibility in many ways. I think that when we share our truth, then that’s on you--if you wanted me to speak better about you, you should have behaved better"
I think it's awesome that it went viral in a lot of ways, and there’s a lot of attention paid to the white women in the movement but I also think that we have to acknowledge that Tarana Burke is having her moment too. This is a movement that she started many years ago, and she was rightfully honored as being able to participate in the ball dropping ceremony/pushing the button to release the ball at the Times Square New Years Eve celebration.
As far as Black women holding Black men accountable, I don’t think that that’s our responsibility in many ways. I think that when we share our truth, then that’s on you--if you wanted me to speak better about you, you should have behaved better...I don’t have any sort of sympathy for abusive men. I think that traditionally, why a lot of young Black girls hold these secrets is because historically, in our culture, that we’ve protected Black men. But I think the culture has changed and we’ve had enough...these conversations need to be had out in the open.
AB: I absolutely agree. When we look at our parents’ generation, we hear a lot of defensiveness when it comes to holding Black men accountable because their generation is not far removed from tragic stories of Black men falling into miscarriages of justice in supposed sex crimes...How do we cope with that past?
LN: You have the story of Emmett Till and there’s a lot of stories about Black men who were falsely accused mostly by white women. Then, it's also like, for example, I studied abroad in South Africa and we learned that at one point, it was illegal in South Africa for a Black man to rape a white woman, but there was nothing in law prohibiting the rape of a Black woman--by a man of any race and I think that that concept of what’s legal and what’s not legal has trickled down into society where white women’s pain is taken so much more seriously than Black women’s…
ON DOING IT FOR THE CULTURE
AB: How do you think that Black women’s ability to be heard is impacted by our lives unfolding alongside #BlackLivesMatter and fighting for just policing/police tactics for all Black people but particularly for Black men?
LN: I will never forget, the second time that I did Take Back the Night, I did a week in my junior year...It was the week after Eric Garner’s verdict came down and I remember there were all these #BlackLivesMatter protests going on and I really considered cancelling the week because people were rightfully passionate about Eric Garner’s case.
But, I thought to myself No! These two issues coexist...if Black lives matter, the stories of Black sexual assault survivors matter equally so.
It's a healthy conversation for the Black family and the Black community because these women who carry these stories, grow up to raise children, daughters and sons, and transmit this pain to their children. We get into this cycle when we don’t air our wounds. So, I think that as far as how we protect Black men...we protect Black men by having these conversations because we’re raising Black men and we do not want to transmit our pain to Black children. We protect Black men by protecting the next generation.
AB: Mmm...examining our culture, our legacy, hip-hop is a huge part of Black American culture and identity. We love rap and it's not going anywhere. A similarly beloved token of American culture is football which we’ve learned in recent years (I learned through the movie with Will Smith foisting a bad Nigerian accent) that repeat closed head injuries from football can cause irreversible long-term brain damage. Mainstream rap, often contains sexually aggressive and not uncommonly degrading lyrics aimed at women--songs that matter to us but that may not be the most healthy...what’s your take on it? On male-dominated mainstream rap and its implications for the treatment of Black women?
LN: Rap music, hip-hop culture did not begin rape culture. Rape culture is so intrinsic to American society and to society as a whole (globally)...rap music is a product of that, not the cause or starting point. So, I’m also a firm believer in positive reinforcement and I do think that there are songs, hip-hop songs, that really teach us about consent. It sounds funny but I think of Ray J’s “Sexy Can I”. He is basically saying that when you see a stripper, you need to ask “Sexy, can I?” and that’s like what other genres are doing that?? (laughter)
So we’re not gonna do this “rap music is perpetuating rape culture!” because I think, that at the end of the day, we need to celebrate the positive lyrics that can be found in rap music and “Sexy Can I” is such an iconic song for that!
"Rap music, hip-hop culture did not begin rape culture."
Instead of talking about the songs that aren’t respectful of women and don’t exemplify consent, let’s amplify those that are doing the right thing. The song “Do You Mind” by DJ Khaled is also all about consent! “Lovers and Friends” by Lil John, Usher, and Eastside Boys with lyrics like “are you sure you wanna go this route?...let me know before I pull it out...I would never ever cross the line”. Iconic! It's so blatant and there are so many lines like that if you really listen.
In the same way that we decide what sports our children are going to play, we’re responsible. I get to decide how I’m going to raise my family, if I’m going to put my children in football knowing the risk of them getting a concussion and I also get to decide what music I celebrate in my household.
AB: I will definitely get a copy of your playlist and post it on the blog but to wrap on a positive note, we’ve talked about the not-so-good and the really good rap lyrics that celebrate women’s choices and promote consent. What are some ways in which we can promote Black sexuality more positively (because not talking about it isn’t the answer)? For many of us, who were raised in the Black church, talks about chastity were the only mentions of sex that we had growing up besides the negative mentions in the media.
LN: I think that Black people, as you said, a lot of us grow up in the church and a lot of us grow up being very spiritual and a big part of our upbringing is talking about not having sex and that it says in the bible that we shouldn’t have sex until marriage but that just elicits our curiosity and we have sex.
But I think that in a lot of ways, that we are such spiritual people and sex is such a spiritual act, that that gets lost in our society, we live in a society that doesn’t honor sex for what it is. The biggest way that we can honor it is not by saying “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” but by saying that when you CHOOSE to do it, that you’re doing it with someone who you care about and who cares about you and that you have these healthy ideas of what a good sexual relationship is.
When Fifty Shades of Grey came out, when I was in high school, I wanted to read it and my aunt said to me “Lisa, I don’t think you should read Fifty Shades of Grey because it will give you weird ideas about what a healthy relationship is.” And I didn’t read it because I was conscious enough to say I don’t want to have unhealthy ideas in my head. I do think children and young adults are responsible enough to know what they want in their heads and what they don’t--so, if my aunt had just said “Don’t read it! Its bad--its risqué”, I would have been like Ooo, let me read it!. When she gave me the reason, I said “I don’t think that’s healthy for me either.”
We need to be honest about the reasons why we say “Don’t participate in sex until you’re married” and it's not just about pregnancies or STDs, your emotional health is at stake. I think that teenagers and young people are intuitive enough to not want to bring that upon themselves. We have to be honest.
AB: I want to close by thanking you for sitting down with me. Part of this project, and part of the reason why I am featuring people close to my age, is because I think, we’re still lost in many ways, but we have a humility and a wisdom that comes from our recent mistakes and trials and our diverse experiences growing up. It’s important to me to share those stories while we’re still young and in it.
LN: Thank you for having me.
Lisa is now working at the United Nations Foundation as a Programs Associate with the Girl Up campaign