From Falcon Heights, Minnesota, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the last couple weeks have brought renewed attention to the lives, struggles, and activism of black women. Three Atlantic staffers discuss how recent events have focused attention on the distinctive challenges African American women face, and how they respond.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: This week, a single image from a protest in Baton Rouge captured something I have been thinking about a lot in the last two years: the unmatched role of black women in protecting black men—and by extension black lives—and by further extension, all our lives. The powerful image shows Ieshia Evans standing in a flowing summer dress as two policemen dressed in tactical gear approach her.
Less than a week ago, I agonized with Lavish Reynolds as she broadcast live on Facebook as her boyfriend Philando Castile lay dying in the passenger seat after being shot four times by a police officer during a traffic stop. Last year, I witnessed Bree Newsome scale the flagpole at the state capitol in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag. I have also seen scores of black women arrested during protests in the last few months as they fill streets and block highways to ring a bell against injustice. They have done all this while risking their safety and lives. That black women are and have always been the pillars of black activism, from before the Civil Rights and well before, is not news. Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley allowed gruesome images of her son’s mangled corpse to be published in 1955, daring the entire country to look away from the gore of the era. Rosa Parks. Coretta Scott-King. Fannie Lou Hamer. These are the historic icons Americans learn about. But there are countless more whose names are never learned or already forgotten.
For every hero publicly revered, there are countless black women doing equally important work in homes and neighborhoods. I am not a black woman but I have benefitted from their work as an immigrant woman, as a woman and mother of color in this country. My understanding of their contribution to my life and our society is more complete because I can now clearly see that for many black women the call to act, the instinct to protect, and the push to right wrongs is rooted in a personal imperative tinged with necessity and courage.
Gillian White: The necessity of black female activism, to me, is one of the most complex and important parts of this conversation. Black women haven’t been the backbone of agitation just because they wanted to be, but because often times, they are the only ones who are able to.
Black men are America’s favorite victims. The country’s racial brutality and bias all too often truncate the lives of black men—either through death or incarceration. Even before the modern versions of mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and recent police violence, black men had targets on their backs. From lynchings to indentured servitude in coal mines during Jim Crow, the country’s legacy of taking black men’s lives and liberty has left black women to bear the burden of caring for families and advocating for justice for their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers whose voices are often silenced.
Adrienne Green: Last week I repeated a horrifying ritual in the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—I read how black writers, specifically women, process black death in an attempt to digest my own feelings. “To be black in America is to exist in haunting, mundane proximity to death at all moments. There is no reprieve, no mute, no block, no unfollow that can loosen us from its shadow. And yet, we must live,” Hannah Giorgis wrote. “We have to bear witness and resist numbness and help the children of the black people who lose their lives to police brutality shoulder their unnatural burden,” said Roxane Gay. “I can continue to vote and go to protests and sign petitions and donate money and get in arguments with racist white people. And I can write. I can write again and again for as long as the this nation piles up black bodies,” wrote Kara Brown.
These black women, among so many others, amplify a common thread in the lives of black women—experiencing unimaginable tragedy, and then, often for their own safety, soldiering on. In addition to having to protest on behalf of others, and to protect them, throughout their lives, they are doubly burdened by the necessity to be calm, collected, and pragmatic while they grieve. For black women, freedom and safety are conditional. They lie in the ability to operate a Facebook Live stream, like Lavish Reynolds after the death of her boyfriend Philando Castile, or to offer a soothing word like her 4-year-old daughter, to process death and know at the same time your life is dependent on keeping it together.
Lantigua-Williams: You’ve both touched on many themes in the lives of the black women in my own life. I have talked to them for years, in some cases decades, about what they perceive as a black person’s daily proximity to death, and how that’s a constant for so many, from poor blacks in the Delta to educated, upper-class ones in cities like New York and Chicago. In most cases, it’s not the possibility of their own deaths that burdens them as they live out their daily lives. It’s often a brother’s or a son’s, because these women have come to accept that no amount of education or economic attainment can thwart the negative attention a black man attracts by merely existing. My husband is black, and I often hear myself asking him to avoid bringing attention to himself when he’s traveling through airports or driving alone at night in other states because I am fearful that his presence would provoke someone who is unnaturally afraid of a black body. In a way, he has been the filter through which I have come to more fully grasp the exhausting oppression—physical, emotional, and spiritual—to which so many black people in the United States have to submit in order to simply live out their lives. And black women bear the brunt of that burden because, as you mention Gillian, black men have been removed by a confluence of systematic efforts. The women are always on guard to protect those that remain.
Green: Juleyka, you mention that fear for loved ones is such a filter for how women are spurred to activism. I remember reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and a single statement stuck with me: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have. And you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed in the streets that America made.” He wrote this in the context of how he parented his black son, Samori, and was parented by his black parents. Whether they’ve actually mothered or not, I think so much of black female activism is born out of the knowledge that the bodies of our brothers, fathers, partners, and sons can be taken at any moment and the injustices may go unpunished. My first job in journalism was to blog about the death of Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012, and the trial of his shooter George Zimmerman. It was that summer that I really came to terms with how tangible the disregard for black life was, and I thought of my father. It feels like in every summer since, I return to that fear for him and the other black men in my life when processing the destruction of black bodies. I think many black women, particularly those engaged in activism, may feel the danger that Ta-Nehisi referenced—the responsibility of saving their black loved ones and the agony of knowing that they might not be able to do so.
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