These are some impressions…I am thinking through recent experiences.
The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. – Jim DeRogatis
This Jim DeRogatis quote has floated across my Twitter timeline several times this week. DeRogatis was referencing the lack of accountability for R.Kelly’s repeated sexual assaults of black girls. I must admit to grinding my teeth every time I’ve seen the quote. It isn’t that I don’t agree with the sentiments expressed by DeRogatis. Rather, I don’t believe that 90% of those who are sharing the quote actually grasp the lived realities of too many young black women and girls in America. So the implications of the quote are too easily ignored. But for hyper-disposable black girls, the pain lingers and festers…
“Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”
I’ve spent the greater part of my adult life working with black girls and young women. I created a workshop that I co-facilitated several years ago focused on using Lil’ Kim’s image and experiences to illuminate our own lives as black girls and women. In other words, I’ve had a longstanding interest in and commitment to engaging in discussions with black girls about issues of representation and survival.
“Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”
Since Beyonce released her visual album last week, there have been many, many attempts to analyze, dissect, and discuss it. This is not another post about Beyonce. At least, it’s not a post about whether Beyonce is or is not feminist. It’s also not an album review. It’s a post (I think) about the historical devaluing of black American girls and women and its implications for today.
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I found this ad and think that it conveys so much about the cruelty & horror of slavery. It also illustrates the intersections between slavery and incarceration.
From the NYPL Digital Collection
Source: NYPL Digital Collection
Herman Wallace would have turned 72 years old today. Instead on October 4th, he died in his sleep, his body ravaged by liver cancer. Wallace had just been released from a Louisiana prison three days earlier after having spent over 40 years in solitary confinement in a 6 by 9 cell.
Among his final words, he is reported to have said: “I am free. I am free.” It’s a minor miracle that he was able to die surrounded by friends instead of in a prison hospital. A judge overturned his 1974 conviction for the murder of a guard at Angola prison and ordered his immediate release. Only a couple of days later, while he lay dying in his hospital bed, the state of Louisiana filed charges to re-indict him. There was actually a question as to whether he might be re-arrested. Louisiana was determined that Wallace should die in prison by any means necessary.
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If you look closely at this rare photograph, you can see Frederick Douglass. If you are interested in the history of the “Great Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Law Convention,” click here to learn more:
On August 21 and 22, 1850, in the orchard of Grace Wilson’s School, located on Sullivan Street in the village of Cazenovia, was held one of the largest and most important of the many abolition meetings. It was estimated that between 2000 and 3000 people came to the Cazenovia Convention, including “a considerable number of escaped slaves,” including famed orator Frederick Douglass and the Edmonson sisters. Leading abolitionists and rights activists of the time took the podium and spread their word calling for abolition of slavery.
In the crowd was Cazenovia’s daguerrean artist Ezra Greenleaf Weld, brother of Theodore Weld, one of the leading abolitionists. An image of the Cazenovia Convention, in the collections of the Madison County Historical Society, and captured by E.G. Weld, is among the most important images of early photography (a contemporary copy of the Weld image is in the Getty Museum.)
The roots of today’s carceral state can be found in part in laws like the Fugitive Slave act.
Ezra Greenleaf Weld, daguerreotypist (American, 1801 – 1874)
Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York, August 22, 1850, Daguerreotype
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
“I Do as I Am Bid”
[John Capehart provided a special service for slaveholders. In his testimony before a court, he explains his job.]
Q: Mr. Capehart, is it part of your duty, as a policeman, to take up colored persons who are out after hours in the streets?
A. Yes, sir.
Q: What is done with them?
A. We put them in the lock-up, and in the morning they are brought into Court and ordered to be punished — those that are to be punished.
Q: What punishment do they get?
A. Not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.
Q: Who gives them these lashes?
A: Any of the Officers. I do, sometimes.
Q: Are you paid extra for this? How much?
A. Fifty cents a head. It used to be sixty-two cents. Now, it is only fifty. Fifty cents for each one we arrest, and fifty more for each one we flog.
Q: Are these persons you flog Men and Boys only, or are they Women and Girls also?
A. Men, Women, Boys, and Girls, just as it happens.
Q: Is your flogging, confined to these cases? Do you not flog Slaves at the request of their Masters?
A. Sometimes I do. Certainly, when I am called upon.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, are the Negroes sent to you? Have you a place for flogging?
A. No; I go round, as I am sent for.
Q: Is this part of your duty as an Officer?
A. No, sir.
Q: In these cases of private flogging, do you inquire into the circumstances to see what the fault has been, or if there is any?
A. That’s none of my business. I do as I am bid. The Master is responsible.
Source: Geo. W. Carleton, The Suppressed Book About Slavery (New York, 1864), pp. 193-195
[Please be advised that this is very traumatic information to read & must have been hell to experience.]
There is an inextricable connection between power, control, and privilege. It is often difficult for people to wrap their heads around these concepts individually, let alone to understand them as intersecting. After the George Zimmerman verdict, there’s been a lot of talk about the continuing salience of racism in American culture. It’s been shocking though how decontextualized from actual history some of the discussion has been. Racism is of course woven through all of our structures. It has always been so and continues today. Racism (like other forms of oppression) is held together through violence which helps to maintain unequal relationships.
It’s useful, I think, to focus on specific examples from history to make these ideas more concrete. I’m reading an absolutely harrowing book by Geo W. Carleton titled “The Suppressed Book About Slavery.” I came across a story that is seared in my mind. It illustrates that slaveowners didn’t respect the bonds of marriage between enslaved people. It shows how slave women were always at risk of sexual violence. One also gets an up-close account of the brutality of slavery which is often obscured in our sanitized re-tellings of history. Most importantly, the story underscores that American racism was a series of ACTIONS that sought to purposely subjugate & sublimate an entire class of people over hundreds of years. Many of these actions deliberately engendered black pain and suffering. Any discussions of the current role of race & racism in the country that don’t take these realities into account are not worth having.
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[This was written in haste and I have a ton to do today. I felt that I had to write this post as an ally to black girls and young women who are consistently maligned, insulted, assaulted, pathologized and oppressed. Many of the young women who I have and currently work with and love are "teen mothers." I want them to know that I have their back. I am sure that I will return to this topic again soon. For now, here's what I have to say.]
I woke up today to see this photograph…
Evidently this billboard is part of New York City’s Human Resource Administration’s “Think Being a Teen Parent Won’t Cost You?” campaign. It’s hard to know even where to begin with this…
When I was in college, I read an account by a free black man named Solomon Northup who had been kidnapped and held as a slave for 12 years. In 12 Years A Slave, he described the closing scene of a New Orleans auction in 1841:
“…The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall [a Negro child] must go alone. Then Eliza [his mother] ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her — all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.
“Freeman [the dealer] damned her, calling her a blabbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place and behave herself, and be somebody. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful, and that she might depend upon.
“The planter from Baton Rouge, with his new purchase, was ready to depart.
“‘Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,’ said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door.
“What has become of the lad, God knows. It was a mournful scene, indeed. I would have cried if I had dared.”
Slaves Awaiting Sale, New Orleans, 1861
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This was going to be a post about the roots of racism and their implications for organizing to end mass incarceration. Then I “watched” the Oscars on Twitter and saw a tweet by the Onion about 9 year old black actress, Quvenzhané Wallis:
My head exploded. I took to Twitter to rant about how disgusting I felt the Onion was to say such a vile thing about a child. I tried to stop there but then went on a tirade about the historical context for this sexual objectification of a black girl. I suggested that originating in slavery, the idea that black women are loose, promiscuous, and generally easygoing about sexual matters still circulates throughout the dominant American culture and has an impact on intra-racial and inter-racial gender and sexual politics.
Look, I am not dumb and I enjoy a good joke as much as anyone else. I understand that this was an attempt by the Onion to make fun of the way that actresses are talked about in the media. But I was deeply offended that they chose to pick on a 9-year old black girl in this way. I tried to take a couple of hours away from social media but still found it difficult to calm down. I am an insomniac but I was even more agitated than usual so I decided to write in greater depth about the sources of my anger and disappointment. My thoughts are inchoate and regular readers are used to this so here goes…
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“A black woman’s body was never hers alone.”
This is a quote from Fannie Lou Hamer and I think that it speaks volumes. I am moved to write this morning because I have been feeling very triggered by the “discussion” about rape over the past couple of days. Once again, social media is abuzz with asinine comments made by another Republican Congressman about rape and pregnancy.
So I want to write about oppression and resistance today. More specifically, I’d like to focus on black women and girls’ resistance to sexual violence.
I have mentioned historian Danielle McGuire’s work on this blog a few times. She wrote an excellent book titled “At The Dark End Of The Street.” I hope that everyone who is interested in women’s history, black history, American history, the history of social movements, and criminal legal issues will read it.
McGuire (2010) writes that black women who were sexually assaulted often spoke out about their experiences and took action on their own behalf:
“Black women did not keep their stories secret. African-American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults. They launched the first public attacks on sexual violence as “systemic abuse of women” in response to slavery and the wave of lynchings in the post-Emancipation South.”
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