On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman from Illinois, was pulled over and arrested for a minor traffic infraction in Waller County, Texas. Video surveillance taken by the dashcam of the arresting officer’s vehicle showed an unarmed Bland being dragged out of her car and taken to the side of the road after a heated argument with the officer. The video also includes audio in which Bland can be heard screaming and crying, alleging that the officer had slammed her head into the ground, twisted her arm, and put his knee in her back. She was taken to the Waller County jail and charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer. By July 13, she was dead. Waller County officials claim that Bland committed suicide in her cell on the morning of July 13 by hanging herself with a plastic trash bag. In January of this year, a grand jury declined to indict any law enforcement officials for her death.
Despite the outcome of the case, Bland’s story was almost instantaneously thrust into media spotlight. Every major news outlet broadcast the story, and public outrage over the nature of her arrest and subsequent death sparked mass protests all over the country. The Black Lives Matter movement took an active interest in the cause, and politicians and celebrities all took to social media to call for public outcry. However, over the last twenty years or so, countless Black women have been mistreated, raped, and even murdered at the hands of law enforcement. Yet their lives and stories go unnoticed. In fact, from the inception of slavery, Black women have suffered in silence. Yet and still, they stand in the forefront of every civil rights movement. While there are countless Oscar Grants, Eric Garners, Mike Browns, and Trayvon Martins, there are still more Tanisha Andersons, Miriam Careys, and Rekia Boyds. Why, then, do we not say their names when we speak about police brutality? Has the Black community simply ignored the plight of Black women? Or was Sandra Bland a “special case?”
“[B]eing alive, and being a woman, and being colored, is a metaphysical dilemma.”
Our nightly news is saturated with stories of unarmed Black men who fall victim to police brutality, many of whom lose their lives to these violent interactions. In fact, unarmed Black men are seven times more likely than white men to be killed by police gun fire. Yet Black women are noticeably absent in the discussion of police brutality. Before the death of Sandra Bland, the faces of the countless Black women who suffered at the hands of the police were absent from television, and from discussion among Black social justice groups.
This paper seeks to discover why these women have been so absent from civil rights movements by examining the history of brutality against Blacks, while discussing the nuances that make the Black female experience difficult to understand, and thus, difficult to support. Part Two will take a targeted historical perspective of brutality against Black women. Part Three examines common stereotypes seen in the media about Black women, and how these stereotypes may have an influence in police interactions. Part Four explores the history of the movement for civil rights in the Black community, and how the Black community has at times strategically left Black women out of those movements. Part Five concludes by explaining that if any real change is to be made in regards to oppression of the Black community, the plight of Black women must not only be acknowledged, but openly discussed.
II. Targeted Historical Perspective
“…[L]ikewise, Black women’s silence has empowered White men because in the past, Black women have feared repercussions against them and those they love. This knowledge, coupled with the lack of laws protecting Black women, empowered White men to continue the physical and sexual abuse of Black women for centuries.”
We cannot correct the mistakes of today without understanding how we got here in the first place. Since slavery, Black women have been systematically brutalized and made to hide their pain in the shadows of time. This section will narrate stories stemming from four cross sections of history: slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and the present day. By securing a timeline of events, we can see how remnants of slavery still impact our modern day racial and gender-specific interactions.
During slavery, Blacks were considered mere chattel, and therefore, had no recourse against their White masters. Many Black women stayed silent about the horrors they faced as a way of self-preservation. When Black women did speak of the abuse they suffered, they were either offered no redress, but many times, there were dire consequences. “[A]lthough female slaves endured intense and extreme physical labor, they were also vulnerable to a gender-specific form of slavery—sexual abuse. Given their social and legal status as property, they were without means to deny their owners, or their owner’s agents, sexual access to their bodies.” This lack social status, coupled with the use of brute force as a way of guaranteeing and maintaining Black women’s silence, helped perpetuate years of brutality at the hands of both White men and women. The below narratives help to explain the violence suffered by Black female slaves.
In State v. Mann, the defendant stood accused of shooting and killing Lydia, a Black slave. According to his version of events, she harbored “resentment” against him because she had been sent to work for him by her former slave master. It was this “resentment” that justified him beating her relentlessly. Upset by the beating, Lydia attempted to run, at which point, Mann shot and killed her. A trial was held, but Mann was acquitted, and the court made sure to re-establish the fact that slaves had no rights.
Harriet Jacobs, who was known by the slave name Linda Brent, wrote memoirs of her experience as a slave in the South. She described her helplessness as follows:
I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I run for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.
There is the case of a slave couple from Virginia, Peggy and Patrick. The two slaves fell in love with each, and were tried and sentenced to death for killing their slave master. According to Peggy, her slave master (who was also her father), was angered by her refusal to have sex with him, and locked her in his meat house as punishment. He threatened to beat her nearly to death if she continued to deny his advances, and even went as far as to say he would make Patrick hold her down as he forced himself on her.
Not only were Black women helpless against the abuses of their slave masters, but were also not afforded protection from harms caused by their male equals. In George v. State, George, a male slave, was accused of raping a slave girl under the age of ten. At the trial level, he was sentenced to death by hanging, but appealed his conviction and was eventually discharged. In one of the most horrific opinions written by an appellate court, the court stated, “The crime of rape does not exist in this State between African slaves . . . [t]heir intercourse . . . would be mere assault and battery.”
It is certain that there are thousands more cases of brutality against Black women slaves, most of which went unpunished or unacknowledged. This lack of redress, coupled with laws that made it legal to treat Blacks as property, more than likely made Black women feel as if they were nothing more inanimate objects subject to the beck and call of the men around them. This is a rationale that is arguably still very present in today’s society.
B. Jim Crow
The passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments gave slaves the hope of a better life as free persons. However, this hope was short-lived, as Whites in the South, angry with President Lincoln and the North for destroying their only method of industry, began to enact laws that effectively put Blacks back into a state of servitude. These laws, known as Jim Crow laws, were enacted throughout the South, and had the net effect of retaining the status quo of slavery. Although the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments guaranteed personage to former slaves, the legal system still failed Black women in refusing to apply the law to them in an equitable manner, denying them justice. Lynching was used as a method to keep Blacks “in check,” spiraling the Black community into an era of fear and silence. Black women had even more of a reason to be silent: not only would they go unprotected by law enforcement and the legal system, but they risked both their deaths and/or the deaths of their families and friends.
On July 25, 1903, Jennie Steers, a Black woman, was killed by a lynch mob in Louisiana. Allegedly, she served a White girl, Elizabeth Dolan, a glass of poisoned lemonade. Before killing her, the mob tried to get her to confess, but she refused and insisted she was innocent.
Seventeen-year-old Marie Scott was hung by a lynch mob in March of 1914 in Oklahoma. Marie had been assaulted by two White men who forced themselves into her bedroom as she was getting dressed. Her brother ended up killing one of the men and the mob, angry that they could not find him to lynch him, decided to lynch her instead.
On May 17, 1918, Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant, was lynched in Lowndes County, Georgia. Her husband had been killed in connection with the death of a white farmer in the area, and Mary insisted that her husband’s killers would be brought to justice. The crowd dragged Mary out of her house, poured gasoline over her, hung her on a tree by her feet, and set her body on fire. They then proceeded to cut her baby from her stomach; when the baby let out a cry, the crowd stomped the baby to death, and then sprayed Mary’s body with bullets.
The use of rape as a method of control also continued during this time. However, these rapes were not widely publicized, especially when competing with the public outcry against lynching. The Black community always viewed lynching as the most blatant and violent aspect of Whites males’ attack on the Black community, but essentially ignored the rape of Black women by White men. Yet, it was one of the more widely used attacks on the Black community.
In the book Jim Crow’s Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation, a retired service worker in her late sixties shared her experiences of rape growing up as follows:
There were rapes! The white man would rape girls. . . . If a white man see a half-way decent woman, if he wanted her, he would go up to her and grab her and started doing whatever he wanted to do to her. You know, she would fight, and say no, but he would beat her up, slap her, knock her down, and just, just, take her. . .
In 1915, a 62-year-old white man raped an eight-year-old Black girl by offering her a quarter and then luring her into his home. A White doctor confirmed that the girl had been raped, but the newspaper described the man as being drunk when the incident occurred. The newspaper deliberately left the girl’s name from the article in order to “protect her identity.”
In Thompson v. Commonwealth, a “colored” boy was indicted for the rape and murder of a “colored” girl in Virginia. The boy forced himself on the girl, and choked her by stuffing dirt down her throat. The boy confessed, and was originally sentenced to death. Despite giving several subsequent confessions, the Virginia Supreme Court threw out the boy’s original confession, and reversed the conviction. “[F]ew men were ever arrested, much less tried, for the rape of an African American woman. . . . Appeals courts usually reversed the convictions of both [W]hite and [B]lack men who were convicted of raping [B]lack women.”
Throughout this time and into the beginning of the twentieth century, Black women remained at the bottom of the totem pole of social awareness. Because of this, they were the most vulnerable to brutality, and the least protected members of society. With so much focus on lynching and brutality against Black men, Black women were left without a voice and an outlet for their pain. Maybe this silence was the reason that so much of the brutality they faced was left unwritten in the history books. Regardless, the stories of brutality against Black women are endless, and continued well into the Civil Rights era.
C. Civil Rights Era
Betty Jean Owens was a student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in the summer of 1959. On the evening of May 2, she and three other students were stopped by a car carrying four White men. The two Black males were told to get on the ground, and the two women were driven to a nearby park. One woman got away; unfortunately for Betty, she did not. She was brutally gang raped that night. After numerous protests by FAMU students, a trial was held, and the men were sentenced and imprisoned.
Recey Taylor, a 24-year-old sharecropper living in Alabama, was gang raped by six white men one September evening in 1944 after being abducted on her way home from church. When finished, they drove her back to the road, ordering her out of the car before driving off and leaving her in the darkness. Then NAACP activist Rosa Parks took an interest in her story, and garnered media attention for the case. Despite this, her assailants were never found.
Another FAMU student, Patricia Stephens Due, became a victim of police brutality after participating in a peaceful march in protest of arrests made in an earlier sit-in. A police officer threw a tear gas canister in her face, resulting in permanent eye damage. She had to wear sunglasses for the rest of her life, but she and everyone else used the glasses as a reminder of the consequences of police brutality.
Many female Civil Rights activists faced horrific violence because they chose to take an open stand against segregation and racism. For instance, Fannie Lou Hamer was brutally beaten by police officers in 1963 as she rode a bus home. She was kicked by the police officer while in transit to the Mississippi Jail, and upon arrival, the officers ordered two Black male inmates to beat her.
One of the most famous Civil Rights activists, Rosa Parks, also fell victim to violence. Parks wrote about the incident, which occurred in 1932, in her diary, and never intended that the story become public. In her journey, she recounted how her White next-door neighbor attempted to rape her, and how angry and disgusted the incident made her.
The above-mentioned incidents are just a few of what are probably thousands of instances of brutality against Black women throughout the years. Yet, so many of these names and stories have been unfamiliar, if not completely foreign, to the history of Black struggle in America. This ignorance continues into the twenty-first century, bringing us into the present day.
D. Present Day
Not much has improved since the days of old, and brutality against the Black community is as prevalent as ever. The difference between yesteryear and today may be the methodology in which brutality is inflicted. While violence against the Black community seemed to be a simple free-for-all during slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era, today’s violence seems to be much more institutionalized. The prison system of today thrives on the jailing of young Black youth, creating what has become a new caste system within American society. This imprisonment strips its victims of some of the most basic aspects of American citizenship: industry, housing, public benefits—and, what is arguably the most important of all rights—the right to vote. Coupled with growing mass incarceration is the creation of the police state, where police officers take the law into their own hands, often at the detriment of those they interact with. While the prevalent stories of these violent police interactions are between White officers and Black men, just as many Black women face similar terrorism.
The leading resource in the statistics and frequency of police brutality against Black women in the current day comes from the 2015 report by the African American Policy Forum, SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women. The reports points out the major disparity in coverage of racial profiling and police violence against Black women as opposed to Black men. Families of Black female victims are not regularly invited to speak at rallies and do not receive the same level of community support as those of Black male victims. Below are some of the many stories documented in the report.
Natasha McKenna died in police custody in Virginia in February 2015. McKenna, who was all of 130 pounds, had her legs shackled and was handcuffed behind her back as police put a mask over her face and tasered her four times. McKenna stopped breathing, and died days later.
Miriam Carey died in Washington, D.C. on October 3, 2013. Officers claimed that she refused to stop at a checkpoint site, causing them to fire several shots at her car in pursuit. Officers continued to fire even after her car stopped, and she was hit in the back of the head, three times in the back, and once in her left arm. Her one-year-old baby was in the car at the time. No charges were filed against the officers.
Louis Campbell, and off-duty police officer, shot and killed Shelly Frey in Texas in 2012 after suspecting that a friend she was riding with had stolen merchandise from a Wal-Mart. After failing to stop the group of friends from leaving the store, Frey and her friend got into a car and began to drive away. Campbell fired shots into the car, hitting Frey in the neck. Campbell claims he shot in self-defense because the driver of the car tried to run him over. Frey’s mother explained that her daughter’s body was left in the car for eight hours, and she received no medical attention, which may have saved her life.
In 2006, Kathryn Johnston was killed by an undercover officer in a botched raid in Atlanta. When police arrived unannounced to her home, she fired several shots, hitting no one. Police then fired thirty-nine shots in response, several of which hit the 92-year-old woman. Afterwards, the officers attempted to cover up the incident, even going as far as to plant marijuana in her house and cocaine in her evidence file.
On March 22, 1997, Frankie Perkins was killed by police in Chicago. The mother of three was walking home when she was stopped by officers who claimed they had seen her swallow drugs. While officers said they were trying to get her to “spit them up,” witnesses said they simply strangled her to death. This was consistent with autopsy photos that showed bruising on her face and rib cage, and that her eyes were swollen shut.
Sheneque Proctor died while being detained in an Alabama jail in 2014. Proctor, who suffered from asthma, told her mother that officers had handled her roughly, and that despite complaining of her ailment, they offered her no help. She was found dead in her cell the next morning. Her cell was videotaped through the night, put police refused to release the tape to her family or their legal team.
Daniel Holtzclaw, a police officer in Oklahoma, raped and/or sexually assaulted over thirteen Black women over several years. He generally preyed on Black women who had criminal backgrounds or were caught with drug paraphernalia, which kept them from telling their stories or being believed. The stories finally came to light when he stopped a 57-year-old grandmother on her way home, publicly strip searching her and then forcing her to perform oral sex.
Approximately five women died in police custody within thirty days of Sandra Bland’s death. However, these women’s stories are not well known, and barely received any media coverage, if they even received any. Black women who are profiled, brutalized, or raped at the hands of law enforcement are absent from the discussion of police brutality, even if their experiences are identical to those of Black men. Moreover, the vast media coverage of brutality against Black men makes finding information on Black women scarce and difficult. And they remain invisible because their experiences are unique and distinct, influenced by race, gender, and socioeconomics. It is important that we not merely mention these Black women and their stories, but look deeper as to why they are so easily targeted, yet so easily ignored.
III. Stereotypes Plaguing Black Women
“White girls are pretty funny,
Sometimes they drive me mad,
Black girls just want to get fucked all night
I just don’t have that much jam.”
A stereotype is defined as “a fixed impression that conforms very little to facts . . . and results from our defining first and observing second.” Gordon Allport define stereotypes as “exaggerated beliefs . . . the stereotype acts both as a justificatory device for categorical acceptance or rejection of a group, and as a screening or selective device to maintain simplicity in perception and in thinking.” Stereotypes are often used in place of critical thinking and analysis: instead of taking the time to think deeply of every person and thing that we come into contact with, we group things together by a perceived commonality, making those things easier to understand. For instance, the above cited quote comes from a song written and performed by the rock group The Rolling Stones, and promotes the stereotype that Black women are sexually promiscuous and available.
“Whites have been taught either expressly or implicitly that they are better than Black.” In fact, psychologist Thomas Pettigrew stated, “[M]any Southerners have confessed to me, for instance, that even though in their minds they no longer feel prejudice against Blacks, they still feel squeamish when they shake hands with a Black.” Writer Kimberle Crenshaw believes that stereotypes against Blacks are used as a basis to justify their suppression, and that “the most significant aspect of Black oppression seems to be what is believed about Black Americans not what Black Americans believe.” Scientists have often found that Blacks traditionally receive the most unfavorable attributions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stereotypes regarding Black women. These negative representations are so influential and powerful, that the sight of an African-American woman can stir up responses of violence, disdain, fear, or invisibility. Taking a closer look, the most common stereotypes of Black women resulting in societal disdain and violence against them are Jezebel, Sapphire, and the welfare queen.
The Jezebel displays Black women as hypersexual, carnal, and unfeminine. The original Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab of Israel, and had an extreme hate for the prophet Elijah. At one point, Elijah was so afraid of her, that he fled into the wilderness to escape her evil plans. This characterization was given to Black women before they had made it to the new colonies. The Jezebel is in blatant opposite of the Victorian White woman, who was the full embodiment of femininity and purity. Jezebel was used as a tool to monetize the bodies of Black women, as they were thought to desire constant sexual intercourse and were able to reproduce a steady supply of Black children.
We can see the results of this stereotype clearly in the stories told in Part Two. Daniel Holtzclaw deliberately preyed on Black women who either had a criminal record or were in the process of committing crimes because they were less likely to be believed if they spoke out about their abuse. Many of these women had drug and prostitution convictions, which would keep them silent as society would see them as druggies and sex workers if they did speak out. This stereotype also helps to perpetuate the idea that Black women are incapable of being raped, as more than likely, they were “asking for it,” or are already hypersexual as it is.
Sapphire is also who we commonly refer to as the “angry Black woman;” she is bitchy, evil, treacherous, stubborn, and hateful. She is incapable of compassion and understanding, emasculates and usurps the authority of men. Black women who choose to speak openly about the issues facing their communities, and lash out against the invisibility of Black women within society are usually seen s Sapphires.
A perfect example of this as it relates to interactions between Black women and the police is with Sandra Bland. Bland has often been blamed for her own demise, with those believing that citing her argument with Officer Encinia over her putting out her cigarette before she was ordered out of her car. Many believe that she should have stayed quiet and followed the officer’s orders, and should not have questioned why she was stopped or why she was being arrested; something she had the legal and constitutional right to do. In this way, Black women who ever dare speak out against injustice they face are not only met with brutality, but are seen as deserving of it.
C. The Welfare Queen
While the Sapphire is seen as too strong and matriarchal, the welfare queen isn’t strong enough. She is averse to work, and passes this bad value on to her children. She must be discouraged from reproduction, as she uses it as a method to continue to milk the government for resources. As Melissa Harris-Perry states:
. . . [W]hite American opposition to welfare results from whites’ fixed beliefs that the system supports unworthy black people who lack a suitable work ethic. Central to this opposition is a belief that black women do not appropriately control their fertility, that they have sex with multiple partners, producing children who must be cared for through tax-supported social welfare programs.
This concept merges all three tropes together. Because of the Black woman’s hypersexual nature, she produces multiple children who must be supported. Because she is always angry and emasculating, the Black man leaves the household, making her the sole source of income to the family. Because she is lazy, she applies for government assistance for herself and her gaggle of children. Because the only way she can stay on assistance is if she continues to care for minor children, she makes it a habit to continue to reproduce, because that is what she is best at.
Black women’s encounters with police often take place against the backdrop of disproportionate poverty. Consequently, many Black women who are abused and killed by police are those of low-income or homeless. The criminalization of America’s poor, along with the negative stereotypes of Black women, results in not only police harassment, but also police killings.
IV. The Black Woman’s Absence in Civil Rights Movements
Neither the killings of Black women, nor the lack of accountability for them, have been highlighted as examples of the police brutality that is the current focal point of protest and policy reform. This leaves Black women unnamed and underprotected in the face of their vulnerability to police violence. It seems that up until the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements came into being, and up until the death of Sandra Bland, police brutality of Black women was almost nonexistent because it was not being discussed.
The invisibility of Black women among the Black community is not a new phenomenon. Though the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is a time heralded in almost all history books, and a point of pride in Black history, this movement failed to recognize not only the unique experience of the Black woman, but also the importance of the Black woman’s role in the movement. Most women in the movement had background roles, either by choice or due to bias, since being a woman of color meant battling both racism and sexism. Julian Bond, a civil rights historian, has stated, “In some ways it reflects the realities of the 1950s: There were relatively few women in public leadership roles, so that small subset that becomes prominent in civil rights would tend to be men. But that doesn’t excuse the way some women have just been written out of history.” In fact, one of the most prominent female civil rights leaders, Rosa Parks, was herself pushed into the darkness. After the bus boycotts that came as a result of her refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama, Parks was not allowed to speak on behalf of the movement. Once Martin Luther King, Jr. took up the cause, civil rights leaders told Parks she had “done enough,” and denied her opportunities to speak publicly despite her willingness to do so.
The Black Panthers also excluded Black women from being true activists, although in a much more blatant manner. The Black Panther Party was a “distinctly male-organization” between the years of 1966 to 1967. Many women who were initially interested in membership were turned off by the aggression and macho style of the party leaders. Despite this, many women were drawn to the party’s rhetoric, and some viewed the party as confronting problems that crossed gender lines.
However, as women began to join the party, they felt the pressure to display the macho, masculine attributes of their male counterparts in an effort to be included. Tarika Lewis, the first woman to officially join the party, was often praised by the men in the party for ability to be “one of the boys.” However, she wasn’t always respected by those boys, even when she began to take on leadership roles. This dynamic illustrates how a hyper-masculine attitude was not only respected by, but required of, party members.
Even when women did display these traditionally male attributes, they were still often overlooked and disrespected. In 1969, an unnamed male writer explained his disdain for female involvement in the party in an article written in The Black Panther. This article seemed to encompass what male Panthers in the early stages of the party expressed—that Black men faced a unique set of circumstances that pit them against every other social group, including Black women. Further there was a clear duality in the roles of female Panthers, also known as “Pantherettes.” On one hand, they played vital roles in carrying out the party’s day-to-day operations. On the other hand, they were expected to submit to men’s sexual needs for the sake of the good of the party. Not only did this cause tension within the Panther party, but it also perpetuated the gender roles and stereotypes that already existed and were being used by Whites. Black women were not only disadvantaged by Whites, but were now being silenced by their own people.
This dogma seems to have survived past years of old, and has pervaded the present day, continuing to leave Black women out of the discussion of civil rights and social justice. How, then, can we correct the mistakes of yesteryear, and create movements that embody the unique duality of the Black woman?
“We are obligated to struggle on, to educate, to provide, to serve the people. . . . These are pigs who don’t care whether you’re male or female.”
The pain and horror of hearing a police officer tell Sandra Bland that he will “light her up,” is all too familiar to a community that has been plagued with racial violence since arriving in America so many centuries ago. Yet so many of these stories go unheard, so many of these causes go unfought, simply for the fact that the victims were Black women. In the fight for racial equality, we cannot be so willing to ostracize such an influential set of individuals because of the complexities that come with fighting for them. Though Black women face the interesting struggle of fighting not only against racism but also sexism, the Black community cannot afford to ignore her plight if what we truly want is equality.
“Until we say the names and tell the stories of the entire Black community we cannot truly claim to fight for all Black lives.” The first step to change is to tell the stories of these martyred women in an effort to speed on their cause. A story that goes untold is one that does not exist, so to fail to tell their stories is to thrust them into extinction. Then, we must allow for support of their families. Since it is the family that gets left behind to not only mourn, but to carry on the legacy of the victim, we as a community need to ensure that they receive the support required.
We must demand for reform that crosses racial and gender lines. This will ensure comprehensive solutions to violence, and expands the platforms that these movements can reach. Along with this, we must create a safe space in which patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia impact the Black community, and hold community organizations accountable for addressing these concerns. Above all else, we must continue to say their names, allowing their stories to become timeless and letting their deaths not be in vain.