Trigger Warning: violence against women; misogyny
One of my earliest and most vivid memories was at five or six years old. My mother and I went to a local Hampton Inn after one of my step-father’s drunken rages left her black-eyed and busted-lipped. At the check-in counter of the hotel, my mother encountered a deep cocoa-colored woman, not much bigger than herself. Knowingly, the woman looked at my mother with child in-tow and refused to accept payment for the night’s stay. She ushered us to a room and gave me quarters to play Ms. Pac Man in the make-shift arcade while my momma let me eat Fruit Loops for dinner—the only apology she could muster for not being able to assuage my sobs after the beating I’d witnessed. We spent the better part of 3 years spending weekends in that hotel to avoid my Daddy’s weekend binges turned violent fits.
In 1996, my mother left him for the last time—moving far enough away where she knew he would be reluctant to venture. Far too many other Black women are not as fortunate. According to the American Bar Association, “the number one cause of death of Black women ages 15-34 is death at the hands of a current or former partner.” Tellingly, half of Black women killed by their partners are killed while attempting to leave the relationship.
While it should be no surprise that there is an endemic rate of violence against Black femmes*, women and girls, the often-ignored truth is that this violence is overwhelming perpetuated by the hands of Black men and masculine-performing bodies. More importantly—as seen in the public (re)victimization and blaming of Janay Rice— trans*, queer and straight Black femmes*, women and girls are often seen as at best complicit and at worse at fault in the violence they experience. Consider, for example, Islan Nettles, 21, a young Black trans woman who was street harassed by a group of young men in Harlem, NY. After perceiving her as trans, the inherently violent experience of street harassment turn physical when the men attacked Islan and beat her into a coma from which later died. Her murder—like Janay Rice’s assault by her then-fiancé—does not exist in a vacuum. It is incubated in a system that tells men and boys that women’s bodies are things to be policed, dominated, controlled and even extinguished without regard for women and girls’ humanity or autonomy.
Let me make myself abundantly clear, Janay Rice is a victim—but not only of Ray Rice. Janay Rice is the victim of a nation that sees women—especially Black women—as considerably less than human. In the American psyche, Black women are liars about sexual assault, criminals deserving of execution,con-artists, unfit mothers and the butts of jokes about brutal beatings they suffer at the hands of their partners.
These depictions stand in direct conflict to the narratives we tell about Black boys and men, and rightly so. We do not accept that Trayvon Martin deserved to die because he fought back George Zimmerman, but we are willing to accept that Janay Rice deserved to be cold-clocked for “hitting” her running-back fiancé? We are livid that Michael Brown was gunned down for retreating, but it is acceptable that Rihanna is deserving of a black-eye because she threw a cell phone? Either all Black life matters or no Black life matters, and I am not naïve enough to believe that Black men are the rock upon which the mantle of justice can be placed.
In an era where Black youth have taken to the streets to declare the inviolability of Black life, we must reconcile that to be complicit in the shaming and victim-blaming of Black femmes*, women and girls is to be an active opponent to the fight for justice and liberation for all Black people.
Samantha Master is a fat queer femme* activist, BYP100 member and baker extraordinaire. Tweet her @TheFireNexTime