A Day of Action: Justice for Black Women and Girls on May 21st, 2015

[Have a powerful Trans Day of Resilience! Savage Minds is pleased to present the fourth essay in the series “Making Black Lives Matter: Reflections on the Declaration and the Movement.Erin M. Stephens, the author, is a doctoral student in sociology at George Mason University and a graduate research assistant at the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR). At the IIR, she provides statistical analysis on immigrant economic participation and experiences as it relates to gender. Her dissertation uses qualitative research and social media analysis to explore emotional labor and intersectionality in the Black Lives Matter movement. She also works with The Beautiful Project to engage Black women and girls in critical discourse around the representation of Blackness in the media and broader society.]

I ride the elevator down to the MLK library basement with four other young Black adults, who (based on their conversation) I assume are going to the same event. Following them down the hall, I enter a long room with about 25 chairs set up in a large oval. More chairs line the perimeter of the room. There are only twenty or so of us here so far but the room fills quickly with bodies and light chatter over the next fifteen minutes.

All around the country people are gathering today in rallies, marches, or discussion-based events for the National Day of Action for Black Women and Girls. My dissertation research on the Black Lives Matter Movement draws me to this space – but so does my own identity as a Black woman and my personal concern for the invisibility of violence against Black women and girls. This particular event is organized by Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, a national black queer feminist/womanist organization that formed in the wake of the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The organization is limited in membership to Black activists between the ages of 18 to 35, and the majority of the people in the room fit that profile. The facilitators are women, as are most of the people in the room.

A young light skinned woman with short natural hair calls the room to attention. She is wearing a black t-shirt with white bold script “Unapologetically Black.” She explains that the purpose of this space is to lift up the experiences of black trans and cis women, femmes, and girls. After the warm welcome and introduction, she poses a question to the group to start us off: “What are examples of state violence against cis and trans Black women and girls?” The immediate answers extend beyond police violence: the prison industrial complex, the foster care to prison pipeline, disparities in access to education, sexual violence…The speakers use language and tones that convey deep concern and conviction. After about 10 minutes of discussion we transition into the next part of the agenda. Another facilitator, a slender brown skinned female, speaks on the importance of Black women ancestors who have been freedom fighters in the forefront of social movements. She leads us in an energetic song to bring their spirits into our space. It is a song I will hear many times in the months to come.

 

Ella Baker was a freedom fighter who taught us how to fight. Say what?

We gon fight all day and night until we get it right. Say what?

What side are you on my people? What side are you on? We’re on the freedom side!

What side are you on my people? What side are you on? We’re on the freedom side!

 

We take turns calling out other Black women freedom fighters and continue singing the refrain. The longer we sing, the more the clapping and enthusiasm builds, until we can’t produce names fast enough to keep up with the song’s rhythm. Laughing together, we all sit.

Part of the invitation to this event was the call, if not demand, to “Say Her Name,” represented on social media by the viral hashtag #SayHerName. This invocation is in direct response to the invisibility of violence against cis and trans Black women and girls, and a demand to movement actors and the media to organize around these victims. Recently, a judge acquitted an off-duty police detective of the killing of 22-year old Rekia Boyd in 2012. The officer had fired into a group of people that Rekia stood with, claiming that there was a gun. A gun was never found. There is a deep sense of injustice in the room expressed in words and emotion for her death, not just because of the lack of justice, but also because she has not received the same level of attention and mobilization by Black activists. The same is true for many women and girls like Rekia Boyd, and this has been particularly true for the victims of police violence who are transgender women. Lamenting this disparity, the facilitators lead us in a ritual of saying the names of cis and trans women who have died due to police violence, followed by the Yoruba word “ase”, to affirm their value and express the power for change. The leading facilitator reads the names from the list, several that I know from their circulation on social media. Rekia Boyd…Ase…Islan Nettles…Renisha McBride…Ase…Mya Hall…Ase…Aiyana Jones…Ase. The room is somber and heavy with collective mourning; many eyes are wet with unshed tears.

Following a guided meditation, the room is opened up only to the women in the room to share our experiences with violence. A trans woman talks about the sexual harassment she receives from Black men. A number of women talk about experiences of casual racism while attending predominately white educational institution and the confounding experience of being both objectified and invisible. While the event started with a discussion of the structural violence Black women and girls face, now the discussion is quite personal and takes us well beyond the scheduled ending time. The narratives shared make evident that racialized and gendered police violence is inextricably connected to the daily experiences of being black and female. That is, to be black and woman and live in a white heteropatriarchal society requires finding strategies to survive – knowing when and how to use one’s voice, managing objectification and sexualization, figuring out how to respond to racial microaggressions, trying to be well in an unwell society… It pushes me to reflect on my own experiences with marginalization in academia and how it has led me to accept invisibility and reduction in order to survive. These aren’t just strategies, but emotional battles. I am not the only woman whose eyes fill with tears. It is overwhelming to think of overcoming such daunting structural problems when daily life can feel like a battlefield. We have mourned tonight, out of a sense of collective loss and over our own personal concerns. But the facilitators do not leave us in sorrow. Instead they lead us in a closing chant by Assata Shakur, calling on the strength of past women freedom fighters and affirming the resilience of those present.

 

It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

 

We yell the chant louder and louder, with increasing determination and hope, our voices filling every corner of the building.

 

 

 

I am a cultural anthropologist and Africana studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. My research includes examinations of Black women and their pursuits of happiness; the impact of Black women's emotional labor in higher education institutions and academic spaces; and Black feminist leadership studies, particularly in relation to #BlackLivesMatter.