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[READ] ‘A Survivor’s Sonata’ by Featured Artist LySaundra Campbell

We, As Ourselves is partnering with the Center for Cultural Power, @Culturestrike, to work with Black women and femme survivors and artists to honor their stories and work.

Meet Featured Artist LySaundra Campbell

LySaundra (she/her) is a storyteller, writer, and editor, and the founder of Social Soundtrack LLC, a brand dedicated to community-building, storytelling, and healing across the African Diaspora through creative art and cultural expression. Before launching Social Soundtrack, she worked in the nonprofit sector for a decade at the collegiate, local, state and
national levels to address gender-based violence.

Her words are on platforms like The Washington Post, Shondaland, Rewire News, Sojourners, The Crisis Magazine, The Witness Black Christian Collective, 21Ninety, The New Territory Magazine, Elite Daily, Blavity, and more.


In her own words — about her commissioned piece:

A Survivor’s Sonata is an essay that highlights Black women in my family & life, and redefining rites of passage to include joy. I explore what I’ve learned from ancestors and living elders––our collective and individual experiences with violence––and who we are despite our trauma. I unpack what I believe it will take to disrupt generational trauma, create new rites of passage, and explore the fullness of joy.

A Survivor’s Sonata 

CW: mention of sexual violence, child abuse, and femicide

I come from proud people, especially the women. It doesn’t matter if we are wrong or have been wronged; we are proud, pious, and polite. The scriptures written on our sleeves, intertwined with our hearts, provide comfort through every trial. And we know trials. “All things work together for the good of those who love him,” one aunt reminds me. Trying to ignore the loaded context behind the sentiment, I nod and smile, instantly realizing this conversation won’t go into the depths as I had planned. My story, and hers, is a footnote; not weeds in our family garden needing to be unearthed in this moment. Nodding her head, she continues, “Mmmhmm… your daddy would be so proud of you.” But would he? Who I have become is a mere indictment on how polite and proud I was raised.

I learned my mother was molested as a child while my father attempted to perpetrate the same with me. “You know your mom’s step dad did this to her when she was your age?” The twisted words rolled off his tongue, effortlessly, as if sharing casual information, like this was some rite of passage I must endure as a Black girl.

An aunt spoke candidly, yet disgusted, about a man in her apartment building that kept stealing women’s underwear from the laundry room. It was talked about and treated as isolated; not connected to societal norms that exploit or harm women. Another aunt spoke softly and journalistically about abuse from her ex-husband, an uncle I never knew. My cousin shared how her cousin––not related to me, on her father’s side––molested her. 

These vile “rites of passage” were meant to happen and remain behind closed doors. And since they survived, the women who raised me make no fuss about it all these years later. They don’t want to be victims––won’t even let me name them. They don’t wear their experiences, like the beloved scriptures, on their sleeves.

And so, I never spoke a word of that night with my dad in 2002 except to my mom the next day. It was an attempted sexual assault and so I desperately tried to disregard the everpresent, and possibly worse, emotional assault. I haven’t known what it means to thrive. The women in my family modeled survivorship and getting by so well. 

Most people supported my mother as a survivor when death seemed imminent, so I made every effort to believe my experience was inconsequential. But to this day, I hate the taste of rum & coke. And I’m triggered when I hear the Busta Rhymes/Janet Jackson collaboration, “What’s It Gonna Be.” So, perhaps, my experience is anything but insignificant, and my silence is anything but unique. 

The women in my family have beautiful smiles; so much you might forget we are Black women in America. These Black women, their unapologetic smiles, and their audacity to carry laughs far across the room. It’s enchanting––their joy––because I know, if only a fraction, about what they’ve been through and who put them through it. They have the audacity to laugh and become the damnedest of protectors.

Protecting family was an unspoken norm, but is obvious in the way we chose to remember situations and people, like my dad. Protecting family instilled an optimism in me; a sincere conviction that redemption is possible. Yet, without acknowledging or speaking of what needed to be redeemed, our optimism and joy felt shallow and the only evidence of depth was the shame we carried.

Strong. Smart. Determined. Blessed. These are the words the women in my family use to describe me. They admire my tenacity to excavate roots from childhood though they choose to remain unnamed. I treat our conversations delicately and don’t apply too much pressure where there is obvious discomfort. I listen and take note, give updates on how wedding planning is going––that’s all they want to hear about these days, not the abuse or my concerns. 

“You found your dress, yet?”

“Will it be here or y’all having it in New York?” 

“I know it’s a ways away, but y’all plan to have kids?”

“So tell me more about this Boaz.” 

I wince at the biblical reference I once thought romantic, but would be categorized as a sugar daddy in our present context. I am still polite, they are still proud, so I let them deflect. Coming from a family of writers, I know some of the best conversations begin with the written word; it’s one rite of passage I accept. My family expresses, and accepts, some of our harshest realities in the written word. As much as these women––survivors, elders, loved ones––are concerned about my preparation for marriage, they are unaware of how my prying and unearthing may be the key to ensure a better future, the one they relentlessly inquire about. 

During my second year of undergrad, a classmate was murdered by her estranged husband, provoking and stirring suppressed emotions I’d kept inside for a long time. Emotions that led me to the campus violence prevention and education center, and kept me there as a peer educator and event coordinator until graduation. The space supplied words for my experience—power and control, misogyny, trauma–– and familiarity through the stories of women like Mildred Muhammed and Aishah Shahidah Simmons. There, I gave myself permission to share my story, and do so creatively. 

Still tied to politeness, and shame, I would only share the extent of my mother’s story and the impact it had on me. I could reckon with how my father abused my mother, because then I was a child who witnessed, never experienced, abuse. The first time I considered myself a survivor, I left my experience hung on a t-shirt for the clothesline project during my last year: a cousin in 1999, another cousin in 2000, my father in 2002

“Do you want to talk?” my mentor asked. I’d bravely hopped from classrooms to fraternity houses proclaiming the good news of sexual violence prevention, but never mentioned a word of this to her. 

“No, I’m okay. It’s out. It’s here.” She nodded, respecting my choice to share when, what, and how. I thought it was out––like when I told my mother almost 10 years before––but this was only the beginning. 

I continued coordinating concerts and spoken word events, encouraging other students to use their voice, speak their truth. In between checking my color-coded itinerary, I knew my time would come. My story ached in my bones, disrupted once colorful poetry in a fantasy land, and provoked me to tell the truth. Empathy blossomed when I told the truth of those around me, recognizing how our stories intertwined; and empathy would lead me to gather enough resolve to declare my survivorhood. 

“It’s a song,” I say dryly but with little indignation because I’m the youngest, lowest paid advocate, and only person of color at this domestic violence shelter. “It’s a song by Nicki Minaj. And should we look up survivors on Facebook?” 

I wish I’d said more. I wish I knew more about subtle microaggressions and the right to online privacy. I wish I’d said more when they questioned the validity of survivors’ stories who looked like me. At nearly eight months pregnant, far from home, and debating whether she should return to the man who shapeshifted from lover to abuser to soon-to-be father, a survivor scrutinized behind closed doors by the women who were supposed to be her advocates. They had worked longer than I’d been alive and questioned if she had to earn a star for “every trick she turned.” They questioned if other Black survivors seeking refuge were sex workers, as if that somehow excused violence. 

At the time I thought it might be an isolated event of two misinformed, out-of-touch white women. Yet, I learned quickly how post-college advocacy did not seem like a place for Black survivors. Our stories were gone through with a fine-toothed comb by gatekeepers who held biases about Black women and violence and sexuality. 

My first therapist as an adult, a white woman, discounted my feelings of anxiety. Naturally, being a survivor working in the movement led to re-traumatization, but I wouldn’t learn for another year that I had been burnt out for at least three years. “It’s just life,” and she closed our time together after merely five sessions, while I felt untold stories trapped in my body. Stories that wouldn’t be heard and validated by another therapist, a Black woman, for almost 5 years. 

I noticed these gatekeepers in the way my colleagues became distraught with my concerns about using the carceral system to address domestic violence––notions, I learned, were initiated by other Black women not only before I entered the workforce, but before I even took my first breath. 

I couldn’t justify working with and training law enforcement to better respond to domestic and sexual violence, while disregarding how nearly 90% of women, mostly Black, in the carceral system are victims of domestic and sexual violence. While our means for survival is criminalized and deemed dangerous, I was to believe these gatekeepers cared for survivors and wanted us to lead the movement.

My story and liberation, however, was bound up in the stories of survivors who would never get a seat at the tables I had access to. So, as my cup, full of countless white women’s tears––fellow advocates––began to overflow, I had to reckon with the truth: their tears would not nourish my body or free my soul. Their tears only protected their assets and would not lead to the redemption my immovable optimism knew was possible.

Even as a chosen family, the methods of my sisters in the movement were too much like my father, too much like my family; desperate for redemption without revealing the truth. The damnedest of protectors.

My revolution starts at home; unearthing the realities of my childhood and tending to the ground that will lay the foundation for my future. I can show someone the cracks in their foundation, but I cannot build or mend anyone’s home but my own.  

I do not have to shrink myself for spaces with deficient foundations who, whether intentionally or by conditioning, cannot conceptualize a Black woman’s wholeness. Some bridges don’t lead to reconciliation or healing; only to a cycle that keeps Black survivors from being dangerously whole.

Intrepidity to tell the truth about our experiences and create homes for revolutionary love will free us. And when we are free, no longer feeling obligated to protect the injustices perpetrated against us, there will be no need for their prisons or charities or philanthropy. They will be as enchanted as I was as a small child, watching the laughing women I love lean into a joy plagued by pain.

My ancestors and living elders did their best with what they had, and what they knew. But it would be intentionally reckless for me to not carve a better future for my lineage with what I know, even as living elders are not yet publicly ready to share their stories. 

Forbearance, not bitterness, motivates me to write this song and disrupt rites of passage. I am not removed from the women who raised me and the ones who raised them. I learned steadfastness from smiling, laughing women; moving and surviving and living like life hasn’t tried to crumple them into defeat time and again. 

Their stories are their own, but I choose to not take their pain with me, wrestling with their wounds as I lick my own. Instead, I choose to carry on the tradition of our wide smiles and loud laughs without the weight of untold stories. I want to know where the healing resides and stay there until the sun burns out.

To the children of my future: You will reap the fruit of what happens when a shy kid from Missouri meets a shy kid from Brooklyn, realizing we were never truly shy, just holding onto stories and histories we never asked for. We have voices that are louder than the laughs that came before us. And we dared to create the reality that existed only in our minds. 

You will thrive, not survive

Live, and not just get by 

I will dig and water

Prune and nurture

Unearth beauty and flaws

Honor the beauty in our flaws

For you will thrive

You will thrive

You will thrive, not survive

Live, and not just get by

This piece was created with support from the Center for Cultural Power, ‘me too.’ international, the TIME’S UP Foundation, and the National Women’s Law Center for We, As Ourselves, a narrative campaign challenging harmful narratives about Black survivors of sexual violence and centering our experiences and stories––in our own words.


Follow LySaundra on Twitter and Instagram.

4 responses to “[READ] ‘A Survivor’s Sonata’ by Featured Artist LySaundra Campbell”

  1. LySaundra,
    This piece is… Listen! There literally are NO WORDS! Well said, it resonates, and is 100% AUTHENTIC!
    Against all “New Hope” and in beating the odds, you have emerged as your Authentic Self and are aptly speaking not only YOUR TRUTH, but THE TRUTH for any and all who will take a moment to partake and then to digest.
    It is my honor and my pleasure to have been a part of your life. You may recall that I once told you that you are a “sleeper” and would be a force to be reckoned with.
    I love you and am so damned proud of the woman you have become IN SPITE OF!
    Asé my Love!

  2. Your story is the story of many, many women and girls of color. We have, and will continue to survive, so we can thrive!

  3. Thank you for acknowledging the black experience as it relates to how elders dealt with trauma. In many ways, their need to only survive and skate around their own trauma traumatized us. But the freedom and comfort in recognizing that, not holding it against then, and choosing joy in the midst of it all- now that’s power!

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