There’s one image from the recent video that captured the killing of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer that will stick with me forever. The officer shakily points his gun at Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s fiancée, while she live-streams the encounter on Facebook. Her voice is steady and calm as she says, "You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir."
A large portion of American history is sitting within those few seconds. There is, of course, the tragedy of black life cut short by the violence inflicted by state representatives. There is Castile’s blood-soaked white t-shirt, an article of clothing that connects him to a history of black male/hip-hop culture, but now also a more recent lineage of extrajudicial killings. There is the officer who — though he sounded panicked and fearful — still remained in complete possession of his power.
And then there is Reynolds — prayerful that a black man she loves is not lying dead next to her, but knowing differently. She somehow manages to keep her composure while the officer’s gun is trained on her, her cell phone camera trained back on him, on the whole scene. The video’s virality grew in those seconds, in real time.
The week before this video surfaced, Jesse Williams — an actor best known for his role on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, but also for his outspoken activism — was responsible for a different kind of viral video. He delivered a fiery indictment of white supremacy, American violence toward black people, and a forceful assertion of our humanity. Accepting the Humanitarian Award during the live broadcast of the BET Awards ceremony, he began with humility.
"This award, this is not for me," he said to the audience of celebrities gathered at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles and the millions watching at home. "This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students, that are realizing that a system built to divide, impoverish, and destroy us cannot stand if we do."
He followed these remarks with the two most important, and perhaps most overlooked, sentences of the entire speech: "Now this is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you."
It was a brief but powerful acknowledgment of the work black women have done for generations to shape the fight for racial justice in the United States. Consistently, black women are responsible for the emotional, intellectual, and physical labor required to form and sustain movements for equality, although their efforts are frequently erased in our collective memory — from the Civil Rights movement, to many iterations of the feminist movement, and current anti-violence movements.
We know this, yet I can’t help but feel that if it had been Reynolds lying dead in that car instead of Castile, there would be much less recognition and mourning. Recent history suggests that is true.
A year ago, Sandra Bland was arrested after what could have been a routine traffic stop, and three days later she was found dead, hanging in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but the mysterious circumstances shrouding her death have led many to believe had she not been brutally arrested, she would not have died. Four years ago, Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by Dante Servin, an off-duty Chicago police officer. Six years ago, Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed while sleeping when the Detroit Police Department’s Special Response Team raided her home. And we remember these names only because of the relentlessness of social media activists and campaigns such as #SayHerName, which was started by UCLA and Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in an effort to highlight state violence against black women.
Still left without a public mourning are Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Miriam Carey, and Tarika Wilson who have escaped the dominant narrative of state violence against black people, as have the majority of the black women who accounted for 20 percent of unarmed people of color killed by the police between 1999 and 2014. This narrative also fails to mention the thousands of victims of sexual assault by police officers, perhaps most notoriously including the at least 13 victims of Daniel Holtzclaw in Oklahoma City. It fails to include the black trans women who, subject to anti-sex-work laws that make their very existence illegal, face daily harassment and arrest, followed by misgendering that in turn lands them in men’s prisons where they face even greater risk of violence. And it overlooks the countless, daily occurrences that train black women for this unjust fate from early ages — from disproportionate discipline in classrooms, to inordinate rates of childhood sexual assault, and beyond.
We can, and must, continue to say their names and know their stories, and include them in the broader narrative around police and state violence. But we must also change the way we see black women beyond the context of their brave responses to violence. We must recognize their humanity, their vulnerability. We championed Reynolds for her bravery in taking out her phone after a police officer shot into her vehicle, for the poise required to continue filming while that same officer pointed a gun at her. We praised her determination to recount the facts of the encounter, with enough presence of mind to document her own movements and deferentially refer to her boyfriend’s killer as "sir" in order to assure her own survival. But we can’t allow that image of enviable courage to overshadow the pain she later expresses when simultaneously confronted with the fact of Castile’s death and the officer’s violent attempt to detain her. We often find ourselves so enchanted with black women’s strength in the face of great trauma that we fail to acknowledge the trauma itself.
What would it mean to "do better" for these women, and the millions of others, who fear not only violence, but also the erasure that typically follows — erasure of their experience as well as the complexity of it?
Black women’s pain is real. Yet every day, everyone who has benefited from their strength turns a blind eye toward that pain, tells them that their lives are valueless, their concerns divisive within movements, their needs secondary, their torture justified, and their resilience something to be marveled. Groups that would otherwise seem like natural allies in the effort to dismantle systems of white supremacy and patriarchy — black men and white women — constantly find new ways to marginalize them.
And still, they show up to the fight.
Toward the end of the video documenting Castile’s death, Reynolds’s 4-year-old daughter, Dae’Anna, can be heard saying, "It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK. I’m right here with you."
No 4-year-old should have to be that strong. But she is also a 4-year-old who is promised a world in which she will routinely witness this kind of violence, in which an invisible kind of violence may be inflicted upon her, and in which she will be expected to shoulder it all with grace.
"We can and will do better for you," Williams said in his speech. It’s a lofty promise in the face of all that has been expected and taken from black women, and a promise that will take more than two sentences from a famous actor to fulfill. But it isn’t beyond our capabilities to do so.
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