By Jesika Laster and Odelia Younge
A few weeks ago, Siana Bangura—a black British poet and freelance journalist—was assaulted by a white man on a train in the UK on her poetry tour for Black History Month. This white man hurled racial slurs at her like ‘black cunt’, peed on her belongings, and struck her. No one on this packed train spoke a word during this, except one man. No one spoke a word except to tell her she was upsetting other passengers and causing a scene. She, who had been assaulted, was turned into the criminal. Someone who needed to shut-up and let everyone else breathe.
These are the lessons we learn as black women—to stay silent in the face of oppression, for no one will hear our cries, and if they do, no one will come running.
For myself, I have seen this happen no matter the circumstance or the setting. I am left alone in a sea of faces. I stopped crying out a long time ago, and the times that I muster up enough emotional strength to do so, I am not surprised or shocked by the lack of response or the twisting of my reality into an act of defiance. Me: the perpetrator of a crime. I have been reminded of this over the last few months. I remember vividly the video from Texas of the 14-year old black girl being assaulted (because that word fits the action) by a police officer. Day after day her bikini-clad body was strung across the internet, as some wondered in horror how this happens to children, while others asked the age-old question of why she was questioning the officer. What no one was discussing enough was the way in which black girls are not allowed to be girls, they are women from birth. What no one was writing enough about was how black women’s bodies have historically been put on display, whether for sexual curiosity, ownership, or violence—with all three typically part of the same act. Our bodies are seldom are own, unless we make it—and even then, the respect of that ownership is questioned daily.
On Monday, a video was released that shows a white police officer violently ripping a teenage black girl from her seat in order to apparently remove her from the classroom. The video shows him dragging her from her seat, tipping her chair over in the process, and dragging desk and girl across the floor, before yanking her out of the chair and jumping on top of her. Even though there is little that surprises me about others’ inability to view black children as humans who deserve the right to exist in spaces without harm, I was still filled with pain and disgust at what I witnessed in that video. But what really stuck with me more than what I have come to expect from police officers who are put in positions of power over minority communities, was the silence of the black students in the room and the complicit nature of the black male teacher who called in the officer on the girl in the first place. I was almost more horrified by the silence than I was the behaviour. Unfortunately, the behaviour has been something I have become rather numb to, but it was devastating to see no one at least demand the officer to stop. How could they watch this performance, which looked disturbingly familiar to the infamous accounts of whites brutalizing people in front of a crowd to evoke fear? I wondered how deep the scars go regarding our mental chains. I was fixed on the image of one particular young black man I could see hiding his face from the camera, acknowledging, to me, that he knew his silence was defining in the moment. He was one of many young black men who looked to their teacher for the appropriate response, and saw that their teacher had called the response in the first place. Betrayal—learned from young and matured through adulthood.
We see countless reminders of this betrayal through other recent occurrences of violence in the black community: the lack of male voices in response to Sandra Bland’s death or almost the complete absence of the representation of black cis and trans women in the Black Lives Matter campaign; the movement has built its momentum on the implication that we must save our black men, despite being started by black women. It implies that black male bodies are the only bodies in danger, the only representation of brutality and degradation. Although no one can deny that black males are victimized and have been labelled a threat to the dominant white heterosexual population, we cannot exclude the fact that the black woman’s body—cis and trans—is also considered, if not more so, invisible. It is not only murdered but mutilated and ravished in order to satisfy the lust of control and exoticism. And it cannot be stressed enough how disproportionately this impacts trans women of color, who are most vulnerable to the effects of a cispatriarchal society that black men uphold when they do not actively work against it. In such situations, the results are too often fatal. The campaign even takes after the Civil Rights Movement as it neglects to mention the Black female voices that advocate for both black heterosexual, queer and trans bodies who are victims of police brutality. Our voices, our faces, and those of us who have become victims blend into the crowds of picket signs and are drowned out by the chants of protestors.
There was a great piece written earlier this month entitled “Dear Black Men: You Are Not Pro-Black if You are Not Pro-Black Women.” It outlines how black men cannot silence black women under the guise of ‘the cause.’ We see it whenever a black man defends Bill Cosby or Floyd Mayweather or Ray Rice. “A black man’s legacy is at stake.” We are told we gave up ‘the cause’ when we decided to talk about feminism, that we sided with white women at the expense of black men.
This story, however, starts centuries before. It begins as black men and women and children were forced into boats across the Atlantic. It begins with the slave auction block, where black men watched as their wives and children were ripped from them, and sold off to different plantations. It continued as black men were forced to watch black women and girls become the object of violent sexual desire and control of white men. They couldn’t keep their families together. They couldn’t save their women. They could only watch it all get violated and stolen. It psychologically caused the black man to detach himself from the union of the black woman. It is easier to disconnect than to be faced with the emasculating fact that you could not do the very thing that you were meant to do, protect your queen. It is a hard legacy to face, as it involves black women supporting their families as black men are locked away or go away. Yet the price of not facing it has been the degradation of black women at the hands of black men. Black men who would stand by as a black girl gets assaulted.
It is imperative to understand that this has become a subconscious behaviour in nature. It has become a mode of survival. When women make these type of arguments about the relationship, or lack thereof, between black men and black women, it is met with much criticism from the black man because they believed it is a part of some feminist bashing session from the new age woman. We are in some way drunk off of the white feminist Kool-Aid and we become the problem of the black community. We become the fungus. This is not to point fingers but to highlight the state of the black woman and to understand that the root of the problem is white supremacy. These posts are really just an eloquent way to beg and cry for support from that black male in an attempt to save ourselves.
A part of this outcry appears in the call for black men to be in the classroom. There are organizations specifically set up to attract them to the classroom to be role models for our young black boys and to be ‘father-like’ figures to our young black girls who may go without. So when that trust is violated in the way it was at Spring Valley on Monday, that wound runs deep. That black male teacher has been indoctrinated into a world in which his silence in the face of such human violation of a black woman should go unchallenged. People will excuse his actions, and say how he had a job to do and a role to play in teaching other students to ‘respect authority,’ but how can our youth be taught respect when they are treated as objects and criminals? If anyone should know how those lessons will not save us, I would think it would be a black man. In our world of zero tolerance policies and the school-to-prison-pipeline, so many have become complicit in the role schools play in becoming holding spaces instead of spaces of learning. The black girl’s role in this holding place does not allow her to be a girl but a competitive point where she is placed a notch above her black male counterparts in respects to academics and three notches below in respects to the boundaries of her body. Although she may be adorned with words like “mature” she is also slandered with the word “fast” or “promiscuous”. And we think of some of our female students. How they needed love and the spaces to breathe and think through their problems, not hands that hurt that don’t let black girls get the help they need. The truth is, she is a child first and that is the only lens adults should use to interact with her.
Instead, black men and black boys not only watch as these incidents occur, but are often complicit in their happening. They have convinced themselves that to react, to speak up, would certainly bring about their demise. “A black man’s legacy is at stake.” But we all die from our silences. We all choke on the words that need to be said that strangle from within. If for a black man saving himself means the destruction of a black woman, then that black man is complicit with a world that places the black community at the bottom of the totem pole. He is not interested in the revival or healing of his community because with the failure of the black woman comes the failure of the black community. Similarly, as we have seen from the slave trade to the war on drugs that has removed the black man from our homes, we cannot operate without one other. We must operate as partners in this battle if we will ever be pro-black and pro-progress.
The gravest of silence in all of this is that young lady stayed quiet during the assault. I wonder if her screams were stuck in her throat, or if she too had found over the short years of her life that no one would come to her aid. I guess the answer to the question of who will stand by a black girl, is that no one will. No one comes for us, and no one cries out. If we must, we must save ourselves, because we are dying—body and soul—standing around waiting.