At every protest I’ve participated in or been to—whether it’s been in Ferguson, which is only twenty minutes away from my home in St. Louis, or on Princeton’s campus—the signs held up by most protestors have boasted the names of slain Black men. At those same protests in which activists, young and old, highlight the deaths of Black men, I always notice one lone and audacious woman holding up a sign with the names of murdered Black girls and women penned on it.
I am ashamed to admit that many of the names are strange to me, and do not roll off of my tongue the same way the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice do. I am even more ashamed that the first time I saw a brave woman holding her sign with names of Black women who have been killed, I wondered “Where did she even find all those names? How long did it take her to find the names of all of those Black women?”
These lone women, who hold up these signs among the throngs of people who chant the names of Black men, recognize that if they do not pen the names of Black women onto their posters, there is a possibility that we may never know those women’s names. These lone women symbolize the often lonely but poised voice of the Black woman who dares to broaden the focus of justice when the lives of Black men remain at the forefront. These lone women understand that Black women are suffocating at the hands of structural violence, sexism, and silencing, and that Black women cannot breathe, either.
By placing the names of Black men who have been victims of police brutality at the center of the conversation, the trend of silencing Black women’s pain and demise is only perpetuated. History has taught us that whether or not Black men emphasize the unique struggles Black women face, many times, Black women have [nonetheless] done the grueling work of amplifying the experiences of Black men.
During the late 1800s, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, journalist and anti-lynching activist, led an anti-lynching campaign, complete with stories about the killings of Black men Robert Charles and Leonard Pierce. Fast-forwarding to 2010, Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow, which focuses (not exclusively, but a great deal) on the systemic wipeout of Black men by the prison system. Though Marie Turner and Laura Nelson were also lynched during the time of Well-Barnett’s activism, and [though] incarcerated poor Black women are also susceptible to violence and recidivism emphasizing racism’s threat to Black women is altogether unpopular for both men and women, and sometimes risky.
I concede that through history, and even during the current movement, there have been many Black feminists and womanists, but these Black feminists are often lone voices in protests of many. More common, and more sinister, uttering that Black women are sometimes victims and be either deemed radical or ignored. Since merely speaking out on the violence inflicted upon Black women is an act of radical political warfare, the lone women who hold the signs with the names of Black women are valiant and courageous for merely drawing attention to one of our sisters. My point is not that there is any sort of oppression competition between the two groups, but that there has been plenty of time dedicated to focusing on justice for Black men, and that if Black women will ever be equally part of the conversation, more of us (men, women, and otherwise) have to be like the women who hold the signs of all of the names of fallen Black women. The intersectional jeopardy of racism, sexism, and often classism, makes the choice to center conversation exclusively on Black women unpopular—but if we never do, Black women may continue to be violated and killed on both individual and systemic levels, going largely unnoticed.