#SayHerName: How black liberation history teaches us to forget black women


When we name the dead in Black Lives Matter protests, the act of remembrance is an act of defiance — a refusal to let lives extinguished by police be erased. We name the dead knowing that there are too many dead to name. Some names, like Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray get repeated more than others. Some names, like Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis, Shereese Francis, Aiyana Jones, Sheneque Proctor, and Tanisha Anderson are rarely repeated, if known to protesters at all.

The fact that these are the names of black women killed by police has not been lost on Black Lives Matter activists. Last week, a series of vigils and rallies in cities nationwide gathered under the banner #SayHerName to do just that — to insist that women (including trans women) victims of racist police violence be included in that pantheon of names we refuse to let white supremacy erase. #SayHerName is doing the crucial work of highlighting the specific ways police exact violence on women of color — for example the fact that 94 percent of people arrested in New York for “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” are black women. It’s an important corrective to any narrative that suggests that male bodies are the sole site of police abuse.

While black male victims have been central to necessary contemporary unrest, the tireless work of female, queer activists of color have ensured that non-male narratives are not excluded. Three queer black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and organized street mobilizations under the banner. Garza has written that Black Lives Matter “centers those that have been marginalized within Black Liberation movements.” #SayHerName exemplifies one such effort. Garza’s commendable vision encourages serious reflection on how women have historically been forgotten, and how they have been remembered in anti-racist struggle.

So many go unnamed. Consider Claudette Colvin. Colvin is now 75 and a crucial figure in civil rights history, but how many of you know that name? I’d venture a fair few. But I’d bet to the bottom of my bank account that more of you know the name Rosa Parks. Both black women were arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up their seats on a Montgomery bus to white passengers. Colvin’s largely unsung arrest predated Parks’s by nine months, but Parks’s act of sedentary refusal became historic.

This was no accident: Colvin was 15 at the time and the largely middle-class, male NAACP leadership in Montgomery felt the teen was too young, her skin too dark, her background too poor, to be a sympathetic icon in the struggle against segregation. They saw a better candidate in Parks, a 43-year-old married seamstress, middle-class, lighter skinned, and (a detail also too often unsung) a seasoned black activist. Parks’s arrest, not Colvin’s, would be the catalyst for the crucial Montgomery bus boycott.

Meanwhile, children learn that Parks was an exhausted seamstress, her civil disobedience an act of individual heroism. Her long history as a civil rights organizer, mentored by Ella Baker, often gets left out of the fable. (Indeed, I wonder how well the name of legendary NAACP organizer Baker is known, even though she helped found the SNCC — the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee — in 1960, after having worked under MLK in the ’50s. Baker found King to be a media-beholden narcissist.)

What remains of the Rosa Parks story in received wisdom is an elementary school fairytale, which demands the credulity of a child to believe. For example, one of the best known images from the civil rights era, the black and white study of Parks staring out of a bus window while a stern looking white man sits behind her, persists in the cultural imaginary as a photograph of her protest. But the famous photograph was staged some days later by an NAACP photographer. The man behind Parks is a journalist, not a begrudging segregationist. Which makes complete sense if we think about it for more than a millisecond—a photographer would not have been there, nor would the bus have been quite so empty, on the actual day of her arrest. It is telling though, that is this staged image has in many ways come to represent women’s contribution to the civil rights struggle. It is the very picture of composure.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting that black organizers in the 1950s were wrong to see Parks as a more sympathetic and palatable rallying point in the desegregation battle. Colvin herself, who was also mentored by Parks after her arrest, told CBS in 2013: “I’m glad that they picked Mrs. Parks because I wanted that bus boycott to be 100 percent successful.” However, what was strategic at the time helped feed into the pernicious tendency to demand the optics of respectability from heroes and victims in black resistance.

#SayHerName is doing the important work of demanding that female victims be included in the narrative. However, the media’s treatment of feminized black subjects in this moment of resistance has been troubling. I specifically have in mind the viral attention garnered by a video from Baltimore of a black mother, Toya Graham, beating her son to pull him away from the riotous protest. The spread of commentary on the video was problematic in every direction.

Digital ink ran thick with racist tropes — be it the condemnable violent black mother, the out-of-control boy; or, equally problematic, the heroic matriarch keeping tabs on unruly black youth with a beating. Almost every report on the video said that Graham was dragging her son away from violently protesting. When the mother was given the chance to actually speak for herself, she made clear that she did not act out of concern for her son acting like a “thug,” but fear that he would become another corpse by police hands. “I’m a single mother with one son. He will not be a Freddie Gray,” said Graham.

It had taken the spluttering online commentariat all but a few hours to use Graham as vector to re-assert a buffet of stereotypes about urban black mothers. At once she was the black “superwoman”—an idea coined in 1978 by Michele Wallace to critique the demand that black women be “inordinately strong.” At the same time, Graham was portrayed as the violent, angry “mammy.” The reaction to the video highlights how at this moment of black resistance, mainstream news representations and readings of black mothers remain tropish and without nuance.

The demand for black women in the movement to perform respectability remains nearly unchanged since 1955. When the Ferguson prosecutor announced that no charges would be brought against officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, the teen’s mother, Lesley McSpadden wept uncontrollably. She was later caught on camera during the protests that night, shouting, “Some of you motherfuckers think this is a joke! Everybody want me to be calm? Do you know how them bullets hit my son? Ain’t nobody had to live through what I had to live through.” A number of news outlets then had the gall to suggest that she was contradicting previous calls for peace—as if it were her rage and pain, not police killings and impunity, that constituted a rupture in peace.

We reinscribe the oppressive myth of the black superwoman when we expect the mothers of victims to call for calm and act demurely when they hear their son’s killer will walk free. It was not because civil rights organizers condemned Claudette Colvin’s behavior that she was not chosen as the Montgomery bus boycott figurehead, rather the black leadership recognized the need for a palatable icon like Parks to appeal to white sensibilities as much as anything. In 2015, the same respectability politics should not determine which black female voices garner attention and respect, and which get erased.

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