“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”
― Audre Lorde
Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a beautiful 7-year-old girl with a soft smile and skin the color of copper, loved Hannah Montana and Disney princesses. Yet we will never know the woman she would become. Five years ago, police entered her home searching for a murder suspect. In a matter of seconds, officer Joseph Weekly fired his gun, shooting the youngster as she lay sleeping underneath a blanket. Later Weekly insisted he did not realize his gun went off. Although indicted, he was later acquitted.
Did you know her story before reading this column? I certainly did not in 2010. The cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and other black men make front page news (as they should), and ignite protests nationwide, but we hear little about police brutality and its impact on black women and girls.
While the now infamous image of officer Eric Casebolt with his knee lodged into 15-year-old Dajerria Becton’s back in McKinney, Texas is beginning to widen the conversation around police brutality, many people are ignorant about how this violence decimates the bodies and spirits of black women and girls. You see, wearing skirts, lipstick or high heels does not protect us from structural racism.
Black Women and Girls Pushing For Change, a Long History
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” – Zora Neale Hurston
Since the first Africans were brought to these shores and enslaved, black women and girls have stood up to systems of oppression, fighting behind the scenes for progress. From Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, and more recently Alicia Garza (one of the founders of #blacklivesmatter movement), there is a long history of black women actively resisting.
When Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others were murdered by police, again, black women and girls stood on the front lines, holding signs, organizing marches for days on end; the academics, writers and artists among us spoke to the palpable pain reverberating around this country in myriad ways. Three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, started the #blacklivesmatter hashtag on social media following George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. As we all know, it’s since emerged as a rallying cry for changes in policing.
Yet when a sister dies, is injured or sexually assaulted at the hands of police, there is often deafening silence., If black lives matter, where is the collective outcry – the mass marches, vigils and viral posts on social media for women and girls who look like me? This apathy signifies the reality of living in a society which is resigned to view us through the narrow lens of nefarious stereotypes – super women incapable of feeling pain, angry, hyper-sexualized or unfeminine. Yet perhaps even more saddening (because, frankly, I expect this from mainstream America) is the unwillingness, by some within our own culture, to examine and call out sexism; this hesitancy seeks to erase the suffering of black women and girls, dishonoring the fullness of our humanity.
The Report – #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women
Two months ago, the African-American Policy Forum, the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia University and Andrea Ritchie, Soros Justice Fellow and expert on policing of women and LGBT people of color released #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women. According to the African-American Policy Forum’s website, this document focuses on the stories of Black women who have been killed by police, specifically calling out “the forms of police brutality often experienced by women such as sexual assault.”
“Although Black women are routinely killed, raped and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality,” said Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Director of the African American Policy Forum and co-author of the brief. “Yet, inclusion of Black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for Black communities and other communities of color.”
Why We Must #SayHerName – Honoring Humanity
Hundreds of years ago freedom fighter Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I a woman?” In 2015, I say, are we not human beings whose perspectives matter? We must name black women and girls across the spectrum of identities (heterosexual, LGBTQ, along with those who struggle with mental health issues and intellectual disabilities) within every sphere – public, private and online. Without proclaiming these authentic truths the struggle remains one dimensional, ultimately stifling a part of the community it seeks to liberate.
Calling the names of black women and girls, while actively listening to their stories, does not divide our community along lines of gender, or dismiss the toxic racism black men confront daily. Instead, it’s an opportunity for our brothers to understand the unique ways we are affected by police brutality and various forms of assault. This is essential if we are to begin candid conversations which lead to collective healing. All of us wrestle with trauma in some capacity.
Black women are the backbones of our community, often heading households, juggling childcare with work and school. According to a recent documentary, 72% of homes are led by single mothers. Ignoring us, or pushing aside the validity of our experiences teaches black boys to disregard the voices of women and girls they see each day – their mothers, sisters, aunties, classmates, girlfriends and wives.
Each life is precious, our worth is immeasurable. Let’s not stifle the conversation through exclusion. Join me today in embracing an expansive truth that affirms the suffering of each individual, while seeing possibilities for deep empathy and radical love. We are here. We matter. And when you see us fully, you see yourselves.
I leave you all with a quote from the great thinker J. Krishnamurti about the power of connection: “Listening completely, without resistance, without any barrier is the miracle of explosion, shattering the known, and to listen to that explosion, without motive, without direction is to enter where thought and time cannot pursue. The seeing is not only with the brain, but also beyond it.”
Note: This was originally published in July for Beautifully Said magazine.