The images are too numerous and too egregious. The latest, a female student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, being brutalized by a police officer. I remember the 15 year-old child in McKinney, Texas earlier this summer. I remember Sandra Bland, standing up for her rights on the roadside, winding up with her face ground into the pavement, and then taunted by another Black female officer of the law. Bland was literally told she should’ve kept her mouth shut. I can’t describe the ache my heart feels, but I know it is an ancient ache. It’s the ache of women like me who were beaten, killed, raped and sold away, because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut. At least, that’s the narrative.
And when I saw the dashcam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, I knew exactly what people; not just white folk, but Black folk too, would say. Even Black male folk. They would say, “If only she shut her mouth, she’d still be alive.” How is it they don’t see what I see? That she exercised restraint? That she was only standing up for her rights? Of course she was upset. The officer had no reason to even stop her. Why don’t they see it? Can’t they see she’s not to blame? How is it, no matter how often the Earth orbits the sun, the Black woman can’t catch a break? How is it we are never the damsels in distress; the cherished; the protected? This is the sentiment my heroine Sojourner Truth spoke to when she asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Ain’t I?
When we were imported here, we were seen as animals; not women. We were bred, like livestock. We were sold, like the property we were. We were many things but we were not women. And we know this because we have never been afforded even the thinly veiled veneer of civilization patriarchy gives to white women. Even Donald Trump “cherishes” women, even as he calls Carly Fiorina ugly. But Black women? Our bodies continue to be grist for the mill of racism, classism and sexism. Don’t believe me? Tell me the last time Laura or Barbara Bush were characterized as gorillas. Tell me the last time Rush Limbaugh (or any liberal political entertainer) talked about either of them as if they are a piece of meat. Ain’t Michelle Obama a woman?
Given the history and the here and now, I look at Sandra Bland and Tatyana Rhodes and even the sister in SC, whose silence spoke for her, and I don’t wonder, “Why don’t they just shut up?” I wonder, “How did they keep it inside so long?”
In the lives of Black women, there comes a time when shutting up equals dying. Not a physical death, but a death to self-respect. There comes a time when you’ve swallowed so much injustice, unfairness and downright evil that you can’t swallow another drop. There comes a time when you can’t endure one more micro-aggression. When you are sick to death of feeling the weight of somebody’s foot on your neck. No, you don’t snap. That’s not us. “To snap” implies a loss of control.
My thesis is that when Black women finally speak, we are taking control; very much aware of what we are doing. Very much aware of the danger, and very, very tired of trying to “deal with it.” We try. We embrace poetry and meditation; and Blue Bell and Zumba. And although our collection of candles and emollients and soothing smooth jazz playlists is second to none; and our contact list is full of sisters who understand; there comes a time when we just can’t. Not again. When you decide, “I can’t accept myself as a fearful chattel slave, unable to speak for myself.” Not again. So we get suspended from school. We get disciplined at work. Or fired. We get jerked around and pushed and prodded. We feel the knees of privilege pressing down on our spines, even as our faces are ground into the dirt. Because we use our agency; our voice. And sometimes, we lose our lives. We lose, even as we fight for our selves.
Despite the best efforts of women like me, you may see another video. When you do; when you fix your mouth to judge another Black woman or girl, remember a few things first. Remember how vulnerable we have always been. Remember that we have yet to be cherished. Remember that we are, after all this time, still asking, “Ain’t I A Woman?” Ain’t I?