Race, and racial injustice are uncomfortable topics of conversation. In California, arguably the liberal capital of the world, students are no strangers to politically charged and highly personal discourse. Why then, in a black cinema diaspora class at a public university, was the documentary Murder in Paris, by Enver Samuel met with awkwardness and constraint? For many of us, the film was shocking. Exposing the story of Dulcie September, a murdered South African activist, her maddeningly preventable assassination and the calculated erasure of her legacy was horrifying.
The atmosphere in the class was tense and uncomfortable. The United States, with its history of slavery and civil rights violations, is comparable to South Africa’s history of Apartheid. There are, no doubt, rich conversations to be had about the parallels between the two. But, sitting in a majority-white classroom, and as a white person, the challenge of engaging in meaningful discourse was apparent.
In a one-on-one conversation, my professor confided in me about how hard it was to get us to speak freely about race. The fear of accidentally saying something insensitive was in the air. I battled with hesitancy to speak my mind, as I was only able to relate to half of September’s marginality, being a woman. The injustice committed against her was largely due to her intersectional identity as black and female.
Growing up around black activism in Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panthers, I was taught to listen, not to contribute. While helpful in discouraging hateful rhetoric, the generation-wide transformation to ‘political correctness’ imposed by the liberal left suffocates, inducing fear of being “canceled.” Discussing the logic of simply listening with my professor, was liberating. I realized that racial discourse is essential. I began writing and discussing with less fear.
What happened to Dulcie September should not be forgotten. It is a far too common example of how law enforcement treats black female activists: with disregard and condescension. September’s story highlights not only misogyny and racism but also raises questions about who police protection is for.
At the time of her murder, September was gathering evidence to expose an illegal arms trade between France and South Africa during Apartheid. She was the chief ANC (African National Congress) representative of Paris. The illicit exchange was a violation of the 1963 UN embargo, and its exposure had the potential to incriminate many high-ranking officials.
In the documentary, the French police are quoted as calling her “hysterical” and “paranoid” when she appealed for their protection after being assaulted in the metro. ANC director at the time, Aziz Pahad, continued to dismiss her concern by calling her a “drama queen”. She wrote in her diary, “no one even seems to write down anything I say”. Until her murder in 1988, September was repeatedly told to “calm down”.
Although unable to relate to the discrimination she faced because of her racial identity, I can relate to the maddening experience of being told to “calm down”. That phrase, in particular, is a very familiar trademark of misogyny. It is often used to ignore something that is eliciting an emotional response, indifferent to whether or not the response is legitimate. It is a dismissal of pain or anger which culminates in an infuriating expression of condescension.
Examining the murder of September closely, it becomes obvious that misogyny played a crucial role in the police’s refusal to provide her protection, despite unrelenting death threats.
Over the summer, I traveled to Paris, and I asked people if they knew who Dulcie September was. I didn’t find anyone who did. What’s more, the people I talked to had a hard time masking their disbelief. A few told me defiantly that it didn’t happen, and that France wouldn’t do something like that. This is similar to the attitude of French people at the time of her murder. They couldn’t conceive of the notion that French companies or government would assasinate an activist in cold blood, on French soil. In the documentary, there is now evidence to suggest otherwise.
Eerily similar to September is the murder of Marielle Franco, an Afro-Brazilian activist and elected council member. She was assasinated by two former police officers in 2018 while investigating instances of police brutality and violations of human rights by Brazilian law enforcement.
Like September, whose discoveries threatened to undermine France’s violation of the UN embargo, Franco’s investigative work threatened to destabilize Brazil’s police authority by challenging the conservative and masculine status quo. And there are, of course, more such activists.
Just as Brazil is about to undergo a presidential election that will test the strength of its democracy, Afro-Brazilian congressman, Taliria Patrone was recently forced to turn to the United Nations for protection after Brazilian police denied her requests. She continues to suffer from unrelenting threats of violence and is being stalked. Despite dangers to her life, she has remained in Brazil, unwilling to abandon her community which includes Rio’s under-represented minorities and LGBTQ+.
Closer to home in the United States, Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X are often revered. But, lesser-known black female activists remain in the background. Harriete Moor, with her husband Harry T. Moore, founded one of the first NAACP chapters (National Association for Colored People) in Florida in 1934. Investigating lynchings and challenging barriers to voter registration, they were murdered in 1951. Despite an investigation and massive public outrage, much like September, no perpetrator was arrested.
And recently, in 2020, Oluwatoyin Salau, a nineteen-year-old Black Lives Matter activist was found dead in Tallahassee Florida soon after tweeting about being sexually assaulted. She had gained prominence as one of the main voices in protest after the death of George Floyd and Tony McDade, both killed by American police officers.
The harm to these women does not stop after death. It continues through their erasure. Following the murders of September and Franco, powerful groups of people decided it would be better if they were not remembered. In Brazil, far-right politicians are quoted while proudly posing with a plaque for Franco that they destroyed soon afterwards. “Our gesture was to restore order and it is more than proven that, for women, order is preferable to chaos”.
For September, Enver Samuel shows that there was hardly an effort to find her killer, and the ANC does not further her story and legacy, or try to keep her memory alive. What’s striking to me is that I didn’t learn about Harriet Moore or hear about Oluwatoyin Salau, despite attending an inner-city high school with far-left politics and an emphasis on civil rights. Who will remember these women if a high school like mine failed to register their existence?
Those who wish to combat the erasure of unjustly killed black women in the United States join the Say Her Name campaign, an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement. Enraged by police brutality and injustice, activists in the United States teach that forgetting the names of these women is to sow the seeds of further violence and injustice. To forget what happened to these activists is to continue the cycle, but we keep doing it.
In the cases of all these women, too few people are saying their names. Their erasure poses a threat to generations to come as it prevents us from learning from our mistakes. In my opinion, powerful politicians and law enforcement keep erasing their lives and legacies because they recognize how powerful a tool they are to unite behind. These women pose a threat to the existing white and patriarchal order, both alive and after they are murdered.
This year, Murder in Paris will be shown at the South African Film Festival, an unprecedented step forward in addressing the injustice of her assassination and erasure. It is a testament to the progress activists have made in the battle against Apartheid, colonialism, and the un-erasure of many black female activists. Perhaps people are finally ready to listen.
- Josephine Trilling is a Masters candidate in Black Diaspora Cinema, University of Santa Barbara, California
- Leonard Cortana is a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies, New York University Tisch School of the Arts