“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted , and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And arn’t I woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And arn’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And aren’t I a woman?” – Excerpt from Sojourner Truth’s speech given at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, OH, 1851.
…and bear the lash as well.
I don’t remember the first time I read Sojourner Truth’s speech because it was so long ago, sometime in my teenage years. But that line – that singular line – has always resonated within me. For me, it sums up the condition of Black womanhood in America. It’s so perfect in its subtlety that I wonder how many folks have glossed over its implications and the truths it harbors.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with my 21 year old cousin, Sean. I used to look after Sean and his siblings when he was very young, but we were never particularly close. That afternoon, at his mother’s kitchen table, was the first time we’ve sat and talked without the presence of other family members. I wanted to discover what kind of man the little 4 year old boy I used to scold and make sandwiches for had become. What I found out both saddened and gave me cause for hope.
I asked him how he felt about being a young Black man in America. Sean told me – without using these exact words – that he didn’t really feel “Black”. You see, Sean (like Bruno Mars whom I have jokingly referred to him as) is mixed race, but could pass for anything; except white, of course. This has caused a bit of angst for him because he “feels just as white as his white friends, but doesn’t really feel accepted by them”. As our conversation came to a close, I asked him what he thought about police brutality and if he felt he would get fair treatment by the police. He made reference to some statistics about how more white people were killed by police than Blacks, and that he and his friends had concluded that the media was trying to stir up trouble.
“Sean. The problem isn’t how many Black people are being killed – it’s the circumstances we are concerned about. We don’t know if those white folks were in the middle of a violent crime, or if they were returning fire on the police, or what they were doing to warrant being killed. If you’re in the middle of a shoot out like Cleo in Set it Off, then yeah…we expect you to get killed by the police. Our concern is when Black death happens while in the middle of doing mundane tasks, like walking through a neighborhood or standing on a corner selling cigarettes.”
My cousin is a quiet, pensive young man who nodded silently and chewed over what I had asserted before making an assertion of his own.
“Well, at least it’s safer for you as a Black woman out there, right? Black women aren’t killed as often as young Black men are.”
My heart dropped and my mouth went dry.
The faces of thousands of Black women, many of who went missing or were killed in his own state, shot through my mind in a flash. The lifeless bodies of lynched Black women swaying from Southern trees and on Northern lamp posts soon joined that mental image. My great shame is that although I could see their faces, I did not know their names. Few people do. I told Sean as much.
“No. That’s not true. Black women are victims of police and systemic brutality just as often as Black men are. They just don’t get any press.”
And just think: there is an entire generation that has been brainwashed to believe this way. Who aren’t even curious enough to look at recent history to inform them of the truth! But never did I imagine that just a week after this conversation Sandra Bland’s death would prove to be the case study to bear this out.
It is an understatement to say that Sandra Bland’s death has shaken me. Sandra Bland IS me a decade ago. She was university educated, civic minded, empathetic and loved her people. She put herself out there and was honest and vulnerable with the public. In a Facebook post, she admitted that she was feeling depressed and now that admission is being used as fodder to insinuate that she took her own life. Her encounter with the police officer who wrestled her to the ground and arrested her has been justified because she became “combative and uncooperative”. When I tell you it is by the grace of God that I have not found myself on the cold slab her body now occupies, it’s not a melodramatic sentiment. If the right police officer had caught me on the wrong day, I too could have ended up dead…and that death would have everything to do with my Black womanhood and how I express it.
When a Black woman is irritated, angry or fed up, there is a tinge in her voice that excites a visceral reaction in just about anyone. That’s just how we talk. I experienced this just this Easter when I went to a local Atlanta church to participate in an egg drop. As I approached one of the street ushers, sweat dripping down my face and my 4 kids in tow, he asked why we did not take one of the shuttles from the other end of the park.
“Shuttle? What shuttle? No one told us about any shuttle.”
He took a step back and said, “There’s no reason to get angry ma’am! Calm down.”
I looked at this slender man, whose accent betrayed West Indian origin and snickered in retort.
“I’m not angry, sir. I’m fat, I’m sweaty, and I’m asking about a shuttle.”
His face relaxed and he directed me to the other end of the street and advised me to wait for the next car.
Many people – I included – believe Sandra Bland’s death was a homicide. She was killed to teach her the ultimate lesson. When she was approached by the arresting police officer, she did not exhibit the appropriate amount of anxiety and/or obsequiousness expected during police interactions. In fact, she was smoking a cigarette while the officer questioned her. It would have been “polite” for her to put out the cigarette, but it was not unlawful not to have done so. But as the average Black woman within a certain social strata will tell you, our impoliteness is (and always has been) a criminal offence. Remember when they beat up and locked up Sophia in The Color Purple for sassin’ the mayor’s wife? Mmmhmmm…
The awful truth about Sandra Bland’s death is that she is not the only Black woman to be killed (or to have died, for the benefit of the Negropeans and classic racist who scream ‘wait for the facts!!!’ in cases like these) while in police custody, and had it not been for social media, her death would have been tidily swept under the rug and hastily forgotten. The Fates have just deemed that her name has garnered a great deal of attention. It has been hard to find an accurate number of Black women killed by police or vigilantes, because many of them are not high profile names. Even when Black women and girls go missing, it’s hard to get public interest to focus on bringing them back home. Which missing Black child’s name is branded on your psyche the way Elizabeth Smart or JonBenet Ramsey were/are. The media won’t let you forget the name or the face of a missing white child or woman…but because Black lives don’t really matter to the mainstream, our lost (female) loved ones don’t enjoy these same privileges.
And this is what emboldens every person who preys on Black women’s bodies and polices our mobility in American society. In 2010, when 11 bodies of missing Black women were discovered in a Cleveland home, there was shock and horror. How could have come to this, so many wondered? Why did no one speak of these missing persons before? The answer is because we are invisible to American society, and worse yet, we as Black women KNOW that we are invisible. That is, of course, until the mainstream culture is looking for the next trend to coopt.
…and bore the lash as well.
Can I say one final thing? When Key & Peele did their Negro Town skit, I applauded them for their genius in brining humor in their portrayal of the difficulty of Black life in America. But there has always been one part that unsettled me. A trio of Black women come prancing by, singing about their ONE grievance that Negro Town has saved them from: In Negro Town where strong Black men are raining down/There’s light skinned, dark skinned, every shade/And there’s no white b*tches to take them away.
Bless Key & Peele’s little hearts. Neither of these young men was raised by a Black woman, so I wouldn’t expect them to understand Black female struggles…but damn it if that didn’t hurt. We are being KILLED out there, in every way imaginable. American food is poisoning us. When they talk about Black women’s “health” often times the industry is referring to an abortion and not finding a cure for fibroids, a condition that affects us in greater proportions than other races. We are more likely to be denied affordable housing. We are the “face of welfare”, even though white men are the majority recipients of federal aid. We watch helplessly as our children are carted away in the classroom to prison pipeline. And yes, we have fought, bled and died in the very fields and streets of the US of A with our fellow Black men. In all of this and more, do you really think our one and major concern is catching a man, Key & Peele? Puh-leeze.
Rest in Power, Sandra Bland. It hurts to say your name. Hurts like I’m speaking my own.