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By j.n. salters
“Because of the continuous battle against racial erasure that black women and black men share, some black women still refuse to recognize that we are also oppressed as women, and that sexual hostility against black women is practiced not only by the white racist society, but implemented within our black communities as well. It is a disease striking the heart of black nationhood, and silence will not make it disappear.” –Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider (1984)
“Despite Audre Lorde’s call for black women to speak, there has been an even louder call from various segments of our community to remain silent, and if we persist in naming our problems we are often labeled race traitors.” –Johnnetta B. Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall in Gender Talk (2000)
These past few days, I have found myself questioning my blackness. My racial loyalty. My allegiance to racial progress. Every time I scroll my Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline and am met with links to articles on Trayvon Martin and the devaluation of black boys and men in America or photos of rallies and protests in honor of the slain seventeen-year-old whose unjust death was deemed well-grounded by the criminal (in)justice system, I cannot help but think, but what about black women? Each time I see the “long list of African-American men and boys whose non-black killers escaped justice in America’s courts—a list that runs from Emmett Till to Amadou Diallo to Oscar Grant to Sean Bell,” I cannot help but think, but what about Rekia Boyd, Kasandra Perkins, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Deanna Cook?
Yes, I, too, have vocalized my thoughts on America’s devaluation of black men. And, I, too, have worn dark hoodies in Travyon’s honor. And, I, too, called my little black brother upon hearing the Zimmerman verdict to tell him how much I loved him and to express my fears as to what that verdict means in terms of the (de)valuation of young black male bodies in the United States.
But, I, too, unlike the majority of America, also expressed my concerns and fears about the lives of black girls and women.
With so much talk of raceism, raceial profiling, colorblindness, and being post-race, we forget those at the intersection, those who must deal with not only race, but gender, class, sexual orientation, and a plethora of other socially constructed categories of oppression. As I encounter all these stories about Trayvon Martin and overhear conversations about the Zimmerman verdict, I cannot help but think, but what about black women? What about Rekia Boyd, Kasandra Perkins, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Deanna Cook? As I asked in a piece that I penned a month ago, “Why are black girls not ‘our daughters’ the same way that Trayvon Martin is ‘our son’?” Britni Danielle makes a similar observation when she writes: “For every Oscar Grant or Sean Bell or Trayvon Martin, there are many more Rekia Boyds, Aiyana Jones, Ashley Conaways, and Abreeya Browns that go unnoticed. Why?”
I imagine if Trayvon had been a black girl, she might have been raped and then murdered. Her story would have never made national headlines; if anything, a short blurb in a local paper’s crime section. Her family and maybe some friends and acquaintances from the community would have held a vigil in her honor. The perpetrator, if apprehended, would have claimed that she asked for it, probably citing her clothing or the way that she walked as responsible for her sexual assault. The perpetrator would have then blamed her (justified) anger and attempts at breaking free for the homicide, the combination of her “angry black woman” sass and jezebel-like hypersexuality provoking him to rape and then kill her. And that, that would have been the end. There would have been no Million Mini-Skirt March. The NAACP would not have urged the Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against her attacker. She would have just been dead, and most likely forgotten, if ever remembered at all.
As Jamila Aisha Brown notes in “If Trayvon Martin had been a woman,” “If Trayvon Martin were a young black woman, we would not even know her name. A look through history proves that from lynchings, to intimate partner violence, to police brutality, the murders of black women in the United States have rarely evoked much empathy.” Black women are disproportionately victims of rape and assault, domestic violence, and mass incarceration. According to an ongoing study conducted by Black Women’s Blueprint, sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. We are also the fastest growing segment of the criminal justice population. Yet, there are no national news stories, no marches, no collective outcry.
Rather, black women are expected to put their race before their gender, to choose between their dual identities (“black” or “woman”) at the expense of their full humanity (“black” and “woman” and “human being”). We are considered “race traitors” when we internally critique, “air dirty [colored] laundry” in public, break the silence around intracommunity issues such as the sexual hostility against black women often implemented within own black communities. We are taught to combat racism and fight for the redemption of black manhood at the expense of sexism and the liberation of black women, to worry about our husbands and sons at the expense of of daughters and ourselves. We are expected to rally for unarmed Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell, yet black men are not expected to rally for unarmed Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. And this, I cannot stand for.
We, too, needlessly suffer simply for being born into a world in which the color of our skin determines the degree of our humanity. We, too, are not meant to survive—amidst stray bullets, a war on blackness, and a patriarchal capitalist system built on our free labor and sexual exploitation. We, too, are victims of “the race problem,” media (in/hyper)visibility, forgottenness, temporality, and apathy. And until the killing, assault, and devaluation of black girls and women is as prominent on “the black agenda” as the murder, racial profiling, and incarceration of black boys and men, we, as a whole, will continue to suffer at the hands of one overarching structure of domination.
j.n .salters is a black feminist doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania interested in the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality in rights to privacy, black cultural production, identity politics, sex work, law and criminal justice, and visual culture.