Our patriarchal society doesn’t always tell the stories of Black women
To be Black and a woman means you are always at intersections, exposed to varying levels of discrimination, racism, sexism and prejudice
Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Natasha McKenna, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson and countless other women and girls have been killed by police or died in their custody. Their gender and race leave them exposed to police violence. Yet, unlike Black men, the stories of Black women and girls being hunted, objectified, harmed and sometimes killed by police remain seemingly sidelined in the call to upend policing as we know it.
Much of this has to do with the way our society treats women, and in particular, Black women. Thirty years ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe the way race, class, gender and other markers of identity intersect, interact and overlap with one another. In other words, our identities are simultaneous and dynamic rather than discrete and static.
Intersectionality brings to the fore the reality that to be Black and a woman in the U.S. means that you are always at the intersections, exposed to varying levels of discrimination, racism, sexism and prejudice, often all at once. So, as we take on this next iteration of Black liberation, it is necessary that we centralize the particular ways Black women, whether cisgender, trans, able-bodied or not, middle-class or poor, educated or not, are impacted by the oppressive forces of police violence.
If the ethos of the current movement to address systemic racism does not focus on Black women, it will fall short of upending the oppressive economic, political, social and cultural systems we intend to escape.
Race, gender and class are at the center of the way we understand the structural, political and iconography of resistance. We live in a patriarchal society, which means men’s, including Black men’s, experiences and stories are privileged. It is by design we know about police killings of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, but know very little about the deaths of Alberta Spruill, Shantel Davis, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Kyam Livingston, Miriam Carey and Eleanor Bumpurs, who all were killed by police or died in their custody.
This is something we have seen throughout history. Nearly 6,500 Black people were lynched between 1865 and 1950. While that figure includes women and children, we don’t commonly think of women as victims of lynching.
Why can’t our collective imagination conjure up images of mangled Black female bodies swinging from branches of America’s great oak trees? It’s horrific to remember the way that Black women have been treated in this society. For 400 years, Black women have been subjected to state-sanctioned rapes and beatings.
To remember this would mean that we would have to accept a hard truth. White patriarchy is an inhumane system that is built on false premises and robs all men of the full expression of their humanity. It fails all men because it codes masculinity in terms of violence and domination, especially when it comes to their relationship with women.
Patriarchy is why we remember Emmett Till, but not Mary Turner, Eliza Woods or the other 128 Black women who were lynched from 1880 to 1930. Our male-dominated society demands we centralize Martin Luther King Jr. in the story of the Montgomery bus boycott and not Gertrude Perkins, who after being sexually assaulted, galvanized her community to protect Black women’s “bodily integrity” against the tyranny of white men’s sexual violence.
Before King arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, Perkins and other Black women were organizing and doing the hard work to bring attention to the sexualized violence they faced, often at police hands, as well as the violence they faced from white people on public buses. It was Black women’s efforts that built, and then sustained the foundation for the bus boycotts.
My point is not to characterize the brutality that Black women face as greater than that of Black men. It’s all horrific. Rather, my point is to highlight the urgency in which we must centralize the violence, and often sexualized violence, Black women face. When we do so, we take on the possibility of truly upending the oppressive system rather than replicating it.
The erasure of Black women’s experiences is a resounding denial of humanity. Beyond the fact that this country was literally built on the backs of Black women, whiteness needs Black women to be a gender and racial wedge to sustain the power imbalance.
So, as we try to imagine what this country could be, we must remember what it has always been like for Black women.
Reckoning with how Black women are exposed and vulnerable in ways Black men could never be is a step toward upending implicit and explicit bias, discrimination, structural and institutional racism that prevents this country from being great. To redress how a woman can be roused out of her bed by strangers at her door who refuse to answer her calls to identify themselves, we have to understand that Black women have never in this country’s history been afforded safety and security, even when they were innocent and resting in their own homes.
Until this reckoning, Black women will be on the front lines, at once seen and unseen, standing fearless in the face of spirit-breaking cruelty, demanding equity, “not revenge,” in our persistent quest for liberation. Knowing our vulnerabilities, we say each other’s names, knowing that if we don’t, no one will.
Today, we say the name of Breonna Taylor.
We speak Taylor’s name as an assertion of not only her humanity, but also as an assertion of our own. With each protest, with each arrest, with each shout of righteous indignation against hundreds of years of suffering, we say Breonna Taylor’s name, and in doing so, we stand against the notion that Black women are disposable.
Saying Breonna Taylor’s name is a rebuke of a system that demands absolution where none can be given. We know that the laws, as they stand, are not designed to protect us. And, so we stand in the dignity of our humanity and seek redress for the loss of Taylor’s life and the life of every Black woman and girl who was stolen from us.
We know that our lives matter. And, as we take to the streets, and more and more of our lives are swallowed whole, figuratively and literally, by this system, I can’t help but wonder, why must we separate liberation and revenge? I want both.
Yet, no amount of blood will make up for the loss and the snuffed-out promise of Taylor’s life.
So, rather than continue to yearn for what cannot be, give me what is possible: mantles of revenge for Taylor and every Black woman. Let the mantles of revenge be the urgency in which Black women’s lives are centered in the efforts to bring social, political and structural transformation.
For the centuries of unimaginable violence and brutality that Black women have faced, let the unrelenting way of being unashamed of who they are and the relentless pursuit for full citizenship and joy serve as revenge.