Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Freddie Gray.Tamir Rice. John Crawford. These names have become etched in our collective consciousness as the victims of murder, whether their executioners have been brought to justice or not. Whether killed by police or overzealous night watchmen, these young Black men have paid with their lives for the implicit racism still festering in this country. While once we fought to keep Black men from being hung from trees, now the fight has moved from verdant Southern greenery to the insides of a police van or sudden death in your own vehicle.
Black men remain under siege in America but it is Black women who bear the burden of their victimization. Not only Black women like Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland and Mitrice Richardson and the countless other nameless women who have been abused or murdered by police or because of racism, but Black women overall.
In the Black community, Black women are the stalwarts. They are the single mothers raising children alone when a man can’t or won’t provide financial or emotional support. They are the grandmothers, aunties, play mothers and mothers of friends, who take in, pitch in, soothe, heal, and handle children, situations, and households when someone has failed to do so. This doesn’t negate the many men who do provide for and love their children, wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers.
But it is the reality that white supremacy and racism often render Black men unable to do so. Black women are now the most educated group in America, while our men lag behind. That that educational disparity is also true of white women and men is not our issue, as what happens to us as Black people must always be viewed through the prism of the debilitating impact of racism.
As is being pointed out more and more, racism doesn’t always come with a ‘For Colored Only’ sign. As actor Jesse Williams referenced in his BET Awards speech, that racism is on display in educational, job, income and housing disparities that remain firmly in place despite years of legislation and activism. It is understood that a traffic stop – one of the most common places for the ugly head of implicit racism to show up – is a vastly different experience for a white man or woman than it is for a Black man or woman.
It is with this knowledge, that simply transporting yourself from place to place can be fatal, that Black men bring home to their families. Ask a Black man, or better yet, read a Facebook timeline, about the latest police shooting and it is inevitably the anguished posts from a Black women that catch your eye. What do I tell my sons? What do I tell my brothers, fathers, lovers, husbands? How do I protect and love them in the face of the everyday siege on their bodies, characters, reputations and indeed, their lives?
Surely some of the anger comes from Black men. Surely, in its worst incarnation, that anger turns into the vile actions of a Micah Johnson – a festering rage coupled with untreated mental illness, that burns into a hatred of police, who by violating civil rights ignite the poisonous thinking that leads to their execution. I’m not saying that Johnson’s actions were justified. Just that he represents the worst-case scenario for already unstable men trying to make their lives make sense. If you ask most of the Black men I know whether they think about the daily peril they are in, they shrug. How could they survive and be constantly mindful of something so monumental? If they stopped to think about it, they would likely be paralyzed by anxiety.
But as women, we do the agonizing. We do the thinking. What if it was my husband/son/nephew/brother/father laid out on the ground? We are the ones, who along with the regular duties we choose to take on with love – the wifing, the childrearing, the car pooling, the keys/socks/glasses finding, the ‘Baby you can do it-ing’ the sexing to fade out the world for a minute-ing, the soothing, the tucking in, the homework-monitoring, the ‘I know those people at work don’t appreciate you- ing’ have to find ways to self-care and heal ourselves as we hold up everyone else around us.
When I see Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, I see a teenage parent who said minutes after her son was murdered and still lying dead in a Ferguson street: ‘Do you know how hard it was just to get a young Black man to graduate high school?’ When I see Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, calmly give answers to an officer with a gun drawn who has just killed her boyfriend in front of her four-year-old daughter, my first thought was ‘How in the world is she staying so calm?” Was it because she realized that her and her daughter’s life depended on her demeanor in those moments?
When I consider that Tamir Rice’s sister, herself a child, was taken into custody when her brother was shot to death, I think of her years later as an adult, permanently scarred by that experience, but still expected to be strong for the people around her, and whole, and to make sure, despite her trauma, that she is careful not to ever be an angry Black woman?
And there is the tragic epilogue to John Crawford’s story, the man killed while talking on the phone at a Wal-mart in Ohio holding an AirSoft rifle they sold in the store. His girlfriend, Tasha Thomas, died in a car crash on New Year’s Day. Would she have been in a car going so fast, so out of control, had it not been for the lingering emotional impact of being aggressively questioned and threatened by police for almost two hours after Crawford’s murder, just because she drove him to the Wal-Mart, although she’d remained outside? How does Micah Johnson’s mother Delphine Johnson, reconcile her son’s actions to her church family, her community and the world to explain how her son, who lived with her, stockpiled an arsenal and killed 5 policeman, when all she knew was that the military had impacted him in ways she couldn’t draw out of him?
If we are fortunate enough not to have a loved one who has been impacted by these egregious losses, we still have to see the barrage of Black bodies being needlessly killed on the video that is playing throughout our social media feeds. We have seen the executions of Black males in cold blood and then watched as their characters are assassinated as well, as though imperfection was a death sentence. At the same token, as anguished as we are, many of us have also seen a Facebook feed filled with outrage, fear and despair from our Black friends, while other feeds are silent, or worse, still posting about golfing or beach vacations.
Makes you wanna holler.
Black women should not always have to be so strong, to be stalwart, to be the ones who the burden of our entire race’s suffering falls upon. It’s not that we don’t have men on the front lines that love and support us. Jesse Williams and LeBron James and Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony are just the celebrity examples of the kind of Black men who do stand up and hold it down in their families and communities.
But we as women know that we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of ourselves to be everything and all things to everyone. I’m saying now that we need to take some time to cry. We need to take some time to heal. We need some breathing room, dammit, some good loving, some spirit uplifting and some PTSD therapy. We are hurting. And we can’t always be expected to be strong and unbreakable in the face of such racial animus, such divisive rhetoric and continued attacks both physical and psychic on ourselves and those we love. We need solutions, but mostly we need each other and our families and friends to give us a hopeful word, a break, a minute. We too, sing America, but it’s time like these that the song is off-key, off pitch and the lyrics escape us. Don’t always expect us to be the strong ones. Sometimes we need to cry and scream and be angry. It’s OK. We’ll be back to form in a minute.
PHOTO: ABC screenshot