I Shouldn’t Have to Be a “Strong Black Woman” for My Life to Matter

Support Black women when we are loud or quiet, when we are brave or scared, when we are fed-up or meek.

Ramenda Cyrus August 7, 2020

A protester takes a knee in front of San Jose Police officers during a protest on East Santa Clara Street in San Jose, Calif., on May 29, 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Photo by Dai Sugano/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

In May 2020, a young Black woman kneels in front of riot police with noth­ing but a face mask. In August 2016, Ieshia Evans calm­ly approach­es riot-armed police and is prompt­ly tak­en into cus­tody. Over 50 years ago, Glo­ria Richard­son push­es a rifle away from her in appar­ent exas­per­a­tion and outrage.

Black women are quite literally on the frontlines of this fight and the least the rest of the movement can do is let us cry and yell and curse.

This type of pho­to — where the Black woman is unabashed and unafraid in her protest — emerges often. The mur­der of George Floyd at the hands of Min­neapo­lis police that sparked world-wide, almost dai­ly protests for weeks was no excep­tion. Dur­ing these protests, I have seen these images cir­cu­lat­ing with­out any mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion of what they rep­re­sent. These pho­tos remind the pub­lic that Black women have always been on the front lines of anti-racism movements.

As a Black woman, these pho­tos ter­ri­fy me. They are pow­er­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tions of our strength and tenac­i­ty, yet they con­tribute to the bur­den Black women car­ry everyday.

We rarely see con­vic­tions or indict­ments for Black men dying at the hands of police, but we do see mas­sive move­ments ded­i­cat­ed to them. The Civ­il Rights Move­ment grew in response to, among oth­er things, the death of Emmett Till in 1955. Black Lives Mat­ter gained nation­al atten­tion in response to protests over Michael Brown’s death in 2014. The mas­sive protests this year were sparked by George Floyd’s death.

Black women have been inte­gral to these protests and to the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in gen­er­al, just as dur­ing the Civ­il Rights Movement.

Peo­ple are right to protest the racist mur­der of any Black per­son. But, as not­ed in Say Her Name: Resist­ing Police Bru­tal­i­ty Against Black Women,” the deaths of Black women are not get­ting sim­i­lar atten­tion, and our silence around the killing of Black women and girls sends the mes­sage that their deaths are accept­able and do not mer­it repercussions.”

It is an ugly truth to say that this has bur­dened us. The move­ment, while glow­ing and active at the moment, has become com­pla­cent when it comes to Black women. Pho­tos like these allow peo­ple to see us as the unshake­able face of the move­ment, which only plays into the oft-crit­i­cized trope of the Strong Black Woman, where Black women are por­trayed as upfront, always in con­trol, and nev­er vulnerable.

The Strong Black Woman is more than just a media trope, though. It is a per­va­sive myth that will con­tin­u­ous­ly harm Black women as long as the move­ment and soci­ety at large demands Black women’s atten­tion and ener­gy with­out giv­ing any­thing back.

On the pod­cast 15 Min­utes on the Couch, Ayan­na Abrams, a licensed clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, puts its ori­gins at slav­ery and the dif­fer­ent roles Black women played in their own fam­i­lies and the fam­i­lies they were owned by.

They had to play this role in which they were always doing, always car­ing, always serv­ing, always tak­ing care of oth­er,” she says. That tran­si­tions through gen­er­a­tions, through decades, quite lit­er­al­ly through cen­turies. And now we are up against this myth and this trope that has taught us that we are on the bot­tom of the list… or that we’re not even actu­al­ly on the list.”

These pho­tos rein­force this harm­ful myth because they cre­ate the expec­ta­tion that I, as a Black woman, put my body on the front­line. They rein­force the expec­ta­tion that I must always be brave in the face of racism or violence.

I resist this idea because I am a Black woman who is afraid. I am a Black woman who cries over the pain our peo­ple have been sub­ject­ed to, who becomes locked up with anx­i­ety at the thought of an encounter with the police. On top of this, I often fear no one is fight­ing for me, but instead expect­ing me to fight for myself and every­one else.

I resist this idea because, despite these pho­tos, we know of so many Black women who encounter the police and do not survive.

#Say­H­er­Name is a hash­tag ded­i­cat­ed to Black cis- and trans- woman vic­tims of police bru­tal­i­ty. It grew out of the need to shed light on the fact that Black women are dying by police hands too, and that we are rarely get­ting jus­tice or even media attention.

The need for this hash­tag is exem­pli­fied by the death of San­dra Bland, who I think about dai­ly. Bland like­ly knew she was about to have an uncom­fort­able — poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous — encounter, as it recent­ly came to light that she filmed it on her phone. Then she got out of the car and remind­ed the offi­cer that he was over­re­act­ing by active­ly threat­en­ing her.

Yeah, let’s take this to court,” Bland said. She act­ed brave in the face of racism and vio­lence, the way Black women are expect­ed to.

Bland was dead 72 hours lat­er. Sui­cide, the author­i­ties said, and the grand jury delib­er­at­ed for over eight hours before return­ing no indict­ments for her death and hand­ing legit­i­ma­cy to the iffy (at best) sto­ry where she hung her­self with a trash bag.

Out­cry over Bland’s death result­ed in the San­dra Bland Act” being passed in Texas in 2017. But Rep. Gar­net Cole­man, who wrote it in part­ner­ship, acknowl­edged that dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions it was stripped of impor­tant reform tenets focused on reg­u­lat­ing the inter­ac­tions of Texas police with the pub­lic, and it became a most­ly men­tal health bill.”

It was heart­warm­ing to see many peo­ple remem­ber her on the most recent anniver­sary of her death, and many did call for jus­tice on that day. The African Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy Forum (AAPF) that start­ed #Say­H­er­Name in part­ner­ship with Cen­ter for Inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty and Social Pol­i­cy Stud­ies (CISPS) men­tions her in, Say Her Name: Resist­ing Police Bru­tal­i­ty Against Black Women” under Dri­ving While Black.”

And there were protests in her name in the imme­di­ate after­math of her death. Cer­tain­ly, Bland lives on in our protests for jus­tice for mur­dered Black women such as Bre­on­na Tay­lor or Natasha McKen­na. While we are demand­ing that Taylor’s mur­der­ers be arrest­ed, charged and tried, calls to reopen Bland’s inves­ti­ga­tion are met with atti­tudes like that cap­tured in the New York Times head­line, The Death of San­dra Bland: Is There Any­thing Left to Investigate?”

For the Times, David Mont­gomery writes, Both her men­tal health back­ground and the phys­i­cal evi­dence in the autop­sy report point­ed to sui­cide,” despite the con­tin­u­ous demands from her fam­i­ly to reopen the case and the com­pelling argu­ment that, as Matt Taib­bi wrote for Rolling Stone, Sui­cide or not, police are respon­si­ble for San­dra Bland’s death.”

To some, the cir­cum­stances around Bland’s death might make it hard­er to fight for her. While Bre­on­na Tay­lor was rude­ly awak­ened and almost imme­di­ate­ly shot, the fact that Bland was not kow­tow­ing to Encinia’s demands was paint­ed, for his defense, as rea­son enough to treat her the way he did.

My safe­ty was in jeop­ardy at more than one time,” Encinia said. His per­jury indict­ment was thrown out in exchange for a promise to nev­er work in law enforce­ment again, which I find blasphemous.

The whole inves­ti­ga­tion was a sham, and demand­ed far more out­rage. If a yard sign or street mur­al is per­for­ma­tive, tri­als that bring no jus­tice, and laws such as Breonna’s Law” and the San­dra Bland Act” that do not address the sys­temic oppres­sion which has result­ed in such ram­pant police bru­tal­i­ty, are as well. This is what Defund The Police,” the call to dis­man­tle police forces and redis­trib­ute resources to com­mu­ni­ty health, is all about.

There’s more we can do, though.

The move­ment can only move for­ward. We can still hon­or Bland — and all Black women killed or ter­ror­ized by police — by sup­port­ing Black women when we are loud or qui­et, when we are brave or scared, when we are fed-up or meek.

Because right now, there is nowhere for us to be vul­ner­a­ble, and no one pro­tect­ing us. Black women are quite lit­er­al­ly on the front­lines of this fight and the least the rest of the move­ment can do is let us cry and yell and curse.

Abrams is also the founder of Not So Strong, a space made for Black women to express emo­tion and be vul­ner­a­ble with each oth­er. It is an exam­ple of how we can be active in cre­at­ing space for Black women, but there is more we can do along­side this.

White peo­ple can choose to be active in the fight against racism and cen­ter the voic­es of Black women in their protests, and Black men can start lis­ten­ing to us and work­ing on cul­tur­al issues with us.

At the very least, stop tak­ing these pic­tures and plas­ter­ing them over the inter­net. We do not need any­more of the sort, but we do need heal­ing spaces for Black women. If we can hold vig­ils and protests, we can ded­i­cate space to the voice and the pain of Black women. Not just peo­ple of col­or or Black peo­ple, but Black women.

Let us speak. Let us rage. Let us sigh. Let us be vul­ner­a­ble in any way we see fit in the moment, and fight for us regardless.

Ramen­da Cyrus is a sum­mer 2019 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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