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Ida B. Wells to Destiny’s Child: how we never stopped failing Black women

Tom Eversley for Iso Republic [IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a Black woman is painted outside at 3/4 profile over her right shoulder. The grate of a door is visible on the right side of the frame].

Black women’s writings on the burden that is “strong,” “Black,” and “woman,” could be the only writing available in all of our libraries, yet misogynoir would still persist in the United States. Anti-Blackness is the root of our modern day racial system and deeply rooted anti-Black misogyny from everyone but other Black women ensures that it is here to stay.

We — those of us who are not Black women — inflict ideological and literal harm when we expect Black women to bear all of our burdens, whether we are Black ourselves or not (#NotYourMule). From physical harm to psychological harm, there are countless cases throughout history and current events that highlight the ways we continually mistreat Black women. Nonconsensual testing with Henrietta Lacks, infant mortality rates, mass sterilization, increased rates of cancer, and more. There is really no other way to say it:

We don’t give a shit about Black women.

Given the current political climate and our complacency with treating Black women like shit, it is easy to ignore how much we truly hate Black women. Not in our words, but in our actions. I mean, we’re living in a year where a white supremacist is president, Black men are hugging nazis, and a Black playwright wants to complicate the notion “that all slaveowners were evil, and that all slaves were noble martyrs,” by exploring the relationship between an owner of multiple enslaved Africans and Sally Hemings. And it is unsurprising, but still disappointing to find that it took until November 9th, 2016 for many people to recognize that the weight of white supremacy never went away. But who is doing the heavy lifting to fight against it?

There is really no other way to say it: we don’t give a shit about Black women.

While our history as Black Americans starts before slavery, the intensive amount of abuse Black women faced altered after they were enslaved in the Americas. Black women scholars such as Talitha L. LeFlouria examine Black women and convict labor in the new south, explaining how sexualized violence was used on Black women before and after emancipation. In fact, while Black women were enslaved they were excluded from the law of rape that protected white women. This legacy did not stop when slavery was abolished, and in some areas it even increased as whites used violence to compensate for the loss of their “property.” Black women’s only form of protection was other Black women, and little has changed in over 150 years.

The people who put their lives on the line to oppose both lynchings and rape in the U.S. were and still are Black women. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, and many others who remain unnamed and often forgotten were doing the necessary work that no one else wanted to do. They were filling in the gaps for folks who check both the “woman” and “Black” boxes, but in ways that ultimately benefit everyone. While white women often forget that intersectionality is a theoretical framework rooted in legal racial disparities — and not just a buzzword — harassment and sexual assault are only taken seriously when called out by those same white women. These are not just anecdotes either, but historically driven and empirically proven facts.

In fact, while Black women were enslaved they were excluded from the law of rape that protected white women.

White people cannot bear all the blame, however. Black women created the framework and still uphold the Movement for Black Lives and the rest of us twiddle our thumbs or send out a tweet. With minimal exceptions, the only group that truly watches out for Black women are other Black women. The rest of us, the ones not doing the work, includes anyone who is anything but a Black woman.

For example, we did not show up for Black women after Daniel Holtzclaw took advantage of his position to rape women, there are still those among us who defend Bill Cosby’s reprehensible actions, and we continue to “separate the artist from the art” fifteen years after video evidence of R. Kelly’s charges in the case of Black women. Abusers get publicity, and the survivors are shamed. We have proven that we do not provide any respite for Black women, merely trauma. And just like generations of Black women before have endured this unnecessary pain, young women continue to go through the same cyclical processes in every sector.

Insecure uses comedy to poke fun at the very struggles Black professional women face in the workplace and in daily life. Ava DuVernay has spoken extensively about the difficulty of being a Black woman in the industry. Black women on twitter have recently pointed out how we celebrate Keyshia Ka’Oir for holding it down while Gucci Mane underwent immense personal growth, using their marriage as an example of the way Black women should act as placemats and emotional labor generators for Black men. And RZA recent backtracking statement about how Russell Crowe treated Azaelia Banks demonstrates just the many ways we don’t just fail Black women, but actively harm them.

Abusers get publicity, and the survivors are shamed.

Unfortunately, the members of one of the world’s largest girl groups, Destiny’s Child, serve as yet another case study for the ways in which we expect Black women in particular to suffer in silence. When Michelle Williams confided in Matthew Knowles about her depression, he responded poorly. “What do you have to be depressed about,” he asked, as if mental illness cares about material wealth or fame. When Jay-Z released 4:44 he was lauded for starting a discussion on mental health and emotional intelligence. Beyoncé’s Peabody Award winning Lemonade became even more personal as many people asked, “if Beyoncé got cheated on, no one stands a chance.” This analysis highlights a woman’s physical appearance as the only reason men cheat. And when Kelly Rowland revealed how she survived an emotionally abusive relationship, I can guarantee that many of us asked “why did she stay” instead of asking “why didn’t we help women like her out in our own lives?”

At first read the connection between historical figures like Ida B. Wells and pop culture figures may appear frivolous. We draw a line between entertainers and political figures, activists and artists. Yet every Black person matters, and these binaries are often not as strict as we think. And truthfully, how we respond to people in the public eye is correlated with how we respond to those in our own lives. If we don’t respect Gabrielle Union’s testimony, why would anyone in our lives come forward with their own? If we think consent is a joke and doubt that violent toxic masculinity is killing cis and trans women everyday, then how do we face reality? Or, in other words:

How can we say we love and care for Black women if we prove time and time again that we are dangerous?

One thing I know is true is that we cannot change the past, but we can alter the future.