Josephine Trilling and Leonard Cortana

The Murder of Dulcie September and many other Black Female Activists and the Threat Their Legacies Pose

A documentary on the murder of South African freedom fighter Dulcie September sparked a conversation between a white student and her black professor.

Part 1: The student

Josephine Trilling

As a female jazz guitarist, I have experienced considerable misogyny. I know what it’s like to have men look you in the eye and tell you with a smug expression: ‘you don’t belong here.’ In this male-dominated profession I have never felt at ease. Their scoffs were a silent demand for me to leave, and their locker room talk was a barrier meant to keep me out.

I never met Dulcie September, the murdered Black South African activist, but I feel a connection to her. When I learned that she refused to talk about her traumatic experiences as a political prisoner, this resonated with me. I’m a private person too. Like September, I protect my vulnerability. And like September, I feel a sense of urgency around exposing racial and political injustice. I think I understand her choices.

But understanding her choices is only part of the picture. The experience of Dulcie’s I feel closest to is what it's like to be in a space where other people think they have the right to tell you that you don't belong because you aren’t a man. Demoralizing and frustrating yes, but in the case of September these conceited and patriarchal assumptions led to her murder.

What happened to her must 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 in 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 Murder in Paris,by Enver Samuel, investigative journalist Evelyn Groenink quoted the French police as calling September “hysterical” and “paranoid” when she appealed for their protection after being assaulted in the metro. Also discovered by Groenink, ANC director at the time, Aziz Pahad, continued to dismiss September’s 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, she was repeatedly told to “calm down”.

The late ANC representative in Paris was called a ‘drama queen’, ‘paranoid’ and ‘hysterical’

I can relate to the maddening experience of being told to “calm down”. That phrase, in particular, is a familiar trademark of misogyny. It is 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.

I didn’t find anybody who knew Dulcie September

In Paris, 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 defiantly told me 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 assassinate an activist in cold blood, on French soil. In the documentary, there is evidence to suggest otherwise.

Eerily similar to September is the murder of Marielle Franco, an Afro-Brazilian activist and elected council member. She was assassinated 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 when Brazil was about to undergo a presidential election that would test the strength of its democracy, Afro-Brazilian congressman, Taliria Patrone was 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. Harriette Moore, 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 afterward. “Our gesture was to restore order and it is more than proven that, for women, order is preferable to chaos.”

For September, Samuel and Groenink show that there was hardly an effort to find her killer, and the ANC did 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 Harriette Moore or hear about Oluwatoyin Salau, despite attending an inner-city high school with far-left politics and an emphasis on civil rights. There was no shortage of honoring and studying black male activists, however.

It is here that the intersectionality of murdered black female activists comes into play again as their legacies are so much less visible than their male counterparts. In writing this piece, I had to scour the internet for stories and examples I could include because I couldn't think of any off the top of my head. Who will remember these women if a high school like mine failed to register their existence?

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, Murder in Paris met with awkwardness and constraint? For me at least, the film was shocking. It exposed how her assassination and erasure were both maddeningly preventable.

The United States, with its history of slavery and civil rights violations, is comparable to South Africa’s history of Apartheid. There is, 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. The atmosphere in the class was tense and uncomfortable.

My hesitations around sticking my hand up and confidently sharing my thoughts and perspectives were not unique to me. Although I had taken the course with full awareness of the subject, my discomfort only dawned on me once I got there. While institutionalized racism and school-to-prison pipelines are topics I knew well in academic contexts, I drew a blank when asked to talk about them on a personal level.

I think it’s possible that the barriers that kept me from speaking freely stemmed from guilt. There are many students descended from plantation owners and colonizers. Although slavery ended generations ago, many of our grandparents still hold racist beliefs. Young people often have to tolerate racist rhetoric and ideology in the context of loving an older relative. I know I have to.

But more pervasive was the fear of accidentally saying something insensitive. Although I was able to relate to some of the misogyny September faced, my white male counterparts didn’t even have that. Their discomfort was intensified by being unable to support their opinions with personal experience, being neither black nor female. But why should that matter?

Growing up around black activism in Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panthers, I was unofficially taught to listen, not to contribute. The tight-lipped habit around social justice I internalized as a child was reflective of an elementary survival instinct that I believe liberal, non-minority children often learn. I am not saying that my black friends and teachers told me I shouldn't use my voice, only that my understanding of the world is irrevocably tainted by my white privilege. From there, I assumed that this wouldn't allow me to analyze civil rights in a fully accurate or constructive way.

Black Lives Matter taught me the balance between listening and contributing

Upon reflection, I misunderstood the teachings of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, I’d consider what they were teaching me as the balance between listening and contributing. They were urging me to think critically, speak out against racism, and use my privilege to accomplish what they couldn’t. But, as a white child, I was intimidated because it is hard to conceptualize where you might fit in. These concepts are abstract, and unlike what we are normally asked of. It is for these reasons that I think my classmates and I wound up in a predominantly white, black cinema diaspora class, without much to say.

I didn’t realize I had these limitations until, in a one-on-one conversation, my professor confided in me how hard it was to get us to speak freely about race. He was so frustrated we wouldn't just speak our minds. As a black person, he really wanted to hear our perspectives. That led me to wonder, was it really that none of us had anything to say, or were we limiting ourselves under the guise of respecting an unspoken boundary?

For me, all it took was discussing the faulty logic I’d internalized with my professor as he encouraged me to stop holding back on my writing. It was liberating. I began writing and discussing with less fear. My internal limitations on racial discourse began to dissipate, and now I’m working with black activists to bring awareness to the injustice of September and others.

Part of what we did in class was put together a podcast that chronicles September's life and career as well as her assassination. It is entitled ‘Dulcie Lives on!’ This was our attempt to combat her erasure in the hopes that people may begin to say her name.

The idea to promote awareness by simply getting others to say her name was not unique to us. The Say Her Name campaign, an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement, became wildly popular in the United States in light of recent injustices to black women and has since spread. Enraged by police brutality and injustice, activists teach that forgetting the names of these women is to sow the seeds of further violence and injustice. To forget what happened is to continue the cycle, but we keep doing it.

In all these cases, 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.

Recently, Murder in Paris has been 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 black female activists. Perhaps people are finally ready to listen.

Josephine Trilling (United States/California) is an undergraduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara. She is completing a double major in Political Science and Global Studies as well as a double minor in Journalism and French. She has published multiple articles in University newspapers. She wants to pursue a career in international investigative journalism after college.

A podcast about Dulcie September

Dulcie Lives On is a podcast designed by students to share the incredible life and intellectual production of Dulcie September. Above all, it is a methodology to re-open wounded historical memories, the ones that many would prefer to sweep under the rug and un-erase important figures of history. Among the many questions it tackles, one can reflect on how does one spread the legacy of human rights defenders many decades after their assassination? How does the new generation look at the dark times of apartheid and make connections to the present times?

Listen here.

Teaching the legacy of Dulcie September and other assassinated anti-racist figures of resistance as poetry for collective liberation

Part 2: The Professor

Leonard Cortana

Like many of my colleagues, I embraced a career working with youth because I wanted to become the mentor I needed when I was growing up. Like many of my friends who have families spread over two continents, I have always had one foot precariously set upon the shores of Guadeloupe, a territory still under French ruling. The other landing with uncertain gravity in Metropolitan France, the origin of the colonizer. This experience of navigating my own equilibrium against opposing historical identities has taught me the importance of knowing my roots to comprehend my own story. Meanwhile, French institutions did not ease my search for self-definition. It seemed impossible to learn about any racial or postcolonial frameworks in school curriculums. Generations coming-of-age before the internet were forced to follow “to the letter” the Universalist Republican discourse.

As a first-generation student, I aimed to pass the Sciences Po national entrance exam to access the prestigious teaching of a labeled Grande Ecole University. However, when Professors unequivocally praised the theses of Fukuyama and Huntington, elevated Napoleon as an uncontroversial national hero, and defined European colonization as a process of “discovery” of Terra Nullius, I quickly realized that the educational system that reproduced the political elites, as our Dean often referred to us, deeply lacked “other voices and experiences.”

Despite all its imperfection, the French system possessed two significant assets: education was free, and they offered generous scholarships to work abroad, an element that needs to be celebrated in our times of neo-liberalization of educational systems. Therefore, I could conduct fieldwork in Chile with a group of street children and collaborate with a Brazilian NGO that offered free tuition to favela students. These experiences in the field were both difficult and electrifying. I understood the courage of social leaders who organized communities, worked with youths and put their lives in danger to speak truth to power. The search for my roots became enmeshed with a hyperactive life combining projects in Art, Performance, Youth Work, and Training.

In 2015, I decided to resume my studies. I started my Ph.D. in the US context, where I could gain greater access to racial and postcolonial frameworks. I was also excited to teach undergraduate students the texts I have discovered during my coursework period as a sort of positive revenge on life for my younger self, who craved to receive such an education. In my doctoral research at the NYU Cinema Studies Department, I examine the transnational circulation of narratives about racial justice and activist movements between Brazil, South Africa, France & overseas departments, and the US, emphasizing the memorialization of political assassinations and the spread of the legacy of assassinated anti-racist activists. I look closely at several anti-racist and feminist figures of resistance. Among them was South African anti-apartheid Dulcie September, who was appointed African National Congress Chief Representative in France when she was assassinated in Paris in 1988. September belongs not only to South African history but also to French one. Dulcie September organized communities to raise awareness around the crimes of the apartheid regime and fiercely denounced the abuses in the arms trade of the European Governments, which did not respect the embargo on the apartheid regime stated by the United Nations. Dulcie September belongs to French history.

During my days diving deeply into the French TV and institutional archives, I have read her correspondence with French activists and watched her performance in the protests and on television. I talked to many people who came of age at the age of her assassination and told me that her legacy was a wake-up call to understand better their roles in fighting racism. In a sad logical scheme, when South Africa was liberated from the Apartheid regime, France threw in the closet the ghosts of their complex relationships with the regime. They erased Dulcie September, who remained a name in schools, streets, and cultural centers but nothing about her intellectual production and incredible life story as an anti-racist and feminist activist. It validated what many scholars have defined as “epistemicide”: the quashing of people as knowing subjects.

Therefore, my role as a scholar and professor is to illuminate these processes and collaborate with students to improve their representations. In 2021, I became a visiting fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara Black Studies Department. I was expected to teach a Black Diaspora film class. In the US, the resurgence of a right-wing and illiberal populism that sought to ban critical race theory and restrict transgender rights made the headlines days before the start of the term. I decided to engage my students in creating a media outlet that would serve as a methodology to understand the un-erasure of activist figures of resistance.

“Remember that if you are free you need to free somebody else”

In addition, thirty-three years after her assassination, Dulcie September’s relatives and friends, with the support of French lawyer Yves Laurin acted to petition the re-opening of the cold case. Excerpts of the excellent documentary Murder in Paris, directed and produced by Enver Samuel, were submitted as evidence in support of the case. The podcast we would create would not only push them to find their own words to unravel September’s life story from an American standpoint but would also serve as a piece to raise awareness about her case. Another important element is that their message will be directed not only to their Professors but also students of their age. I have always regretted that my students’ work remains in the dusty drawers of Universities instead of spreading worldwide and influence other students who might have little knowledge about their ideas.

Despite solid motivation, the experience took much more work than expected. I had almost only white students in my class who, for the majority, felt uncomfortable speaking about race. It became strange that I came from a country where I was not allowed to speak about race and postcolonialism to get to a space where I pushed white American students to speak about Black struggles for racial justice. Despite all this, what saddened me the most was the day when a student told me that I could not expect them to be creative because they did not know how to be creative. I thought of what Toni Morrison said about her teaching experience, “I tell my students, when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, your job is to empower somebody else’. This project was not only a form of gratitude for the grants I have received to research but also an engagement for my student’s future, in a moment where many dreams about another world post-pandemic.

Rosa Parks marched in support of the ANC the same day she refused to cede her seat during segregation

I changed strategies, expanded my syllabus, and added more weeks about South Africa. I wanted to clarify that the anti-apartheid history is complex and nuanced and deserves such a reading. Its ramifications throughout Europe and the US entangled South African history with other significant liberation movements. I will never forget this footage of Rosa Parks, who participated in the march of support for the ANC and all the movements fighting for the liberation of South Africa, on 11 December 1984, thirty years later, the same day she refused to cede her seat during the segregation, connecting the future of Africa with its diaspora.

We discussed Enver Samuel’s film extensively and how he merged collective memory as a form of political advocacy. We watched other footage of the anti-apartheid struggles: The Black theatre companies playing in the townships, the boycott of the rugby games, the talks and conferences of the Nelson Mandela foundation; we read excerpts of the autobiography of Trevor Noah, the restless investigative work of Evelyn Groenink, and Jacqueline Derens’ literary tribute to Dulcie. We analyzed the successes and limits of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the podcast Who killed Dulcie, and their fascinating soundscape to immerse the audience into the sound bites of Dulcie’s life.

My students understood both the power of the image, its circulation, and the strength of transnationality. All these media makers excelled in creativity to fight for justice and raise awareness. Enver Samuel and Dulcie’s family sent them their blessings and much encouragement.

After several personal meetings with each group, the work started to take shape. A group looked at Dulcie’s US media coverage of her assassination and discovered that many articles did not mention her name. Another group would reflect on her torture in prison and her second “torture” – the forced exile far from her land. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, students achieved a podcast called, Dulcie Lives On. They chose the art wall made by Chevron Boysen and exposed in September hometown as the cover of the podcast. They turned into a puzzle, each episode becoming a piece that the audience can rearrange in many ways, but also a piece of truth that they remediated during the term.

In an interview for Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought (Brenna Bhandar, Rafeef Ziadah, 2020), scholar and activist Angela Davis points out, “a consistent theme in my life has been the convergence of academic knowledge and knowledge generated in the course of actively struggling for radical change.” This convergence she refers to has guided me in teaching the class Black Diaspora Cinema and encouraged my students to create Dulcie Lives On to fight against historical erasures.

Dulcie Lives On exists to be completed, enriched, and to influence a new generation of scholars in their search for a successful convergence between academic knowledge and radical praxis. The multiple methodologies in these publications (textual analysis, archival exploration, interviews, and others) reveal the hybrid approaches necessary to speak truth to power. In December, French authorities decided not to allow the re-opening of the case and the archives. Still, this decision will not stop the defenders of Dulcie September from following their quest for justice.

Justice is also the exercise of POWERFUL POETICS OF COLLECTIVE LIBERATION, and the podcast Dulcie Lives on did it. Thank you, Students; thank you, Dulcie September.

Leonard Cortana (Guadeloupe/France) is a PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University and an Affiliate Researcher at the Berkman Klein Center Internet and Society. Cortana is also a documentary filmmaker. His last documentary Marielle's Legacy Will not Die follows activist movements spreading the intersectional legacy of Afro-Brazilian activist and politician Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His research examines the memorialization of political assassinations and the spread of the legacy of assassinated anti-racist activists.