Members of the African American community and beyond are currently mourning the death of Eric Garner, a man that was accused of illegally selling cigarettes and was subsequently placed in a chokehold by police. Chokeholds have been against police policy for sometime in New York, but for some reason officers used it to subdue him. Needless to say, people are rightfully angry.
Protests are springing up and the community wants answers. Eric Garner’s name trended on Twitter for two days and is his image has been shared by thousands of people on Facebook.
We know by now, this is another injustice that led to another Black man’s death. It’s something we’re all too familiar with. Yet in the midst of the discourse surrounding his death, a commentary has been published by Kimberly Foster of ForHarriet.com. It’s titled, “Why I Will Not March For Eric Garner.” In the article, Foster expresses her sympathy for what happened to Garner. She knows the history behind it just as well, yet she is hesitant to march on his behalf due to the sexism, threats, violence and lack of support Black women face everyday in the Black community.
Black people, both men and women, experience coercive, violent and often deadly interactions with law enforcement. Abuses of the badge draw immediate outrage. In these tragedies, even the men who regularly assault or excuse the assault of Black women, can see themselves, and their fear is most legitimate.
We have been conditioned to believe the exploitation of Black women’s work to be a normal, expected part of our womanhood. Fear of being deemed selfish compels us to act against self-interest. But that which is good for women is good for all of us.
I’m not settling for anything less than reciprocity. If you refuse to hear our calls for help, then I cannot respond to yours. I have no desire, as a Black woman, to be placed on a pedestal, but I will not allow myself to become a footstool. Do not ask me for empathy if you are content to deny it in return.
Many women continue to believe that offering unconditional support to the men who dismiss their calls for help will result one day in a return of care–as though they are watering a seed. But I have yet to see the fruit from that tree of hope, and I’m tired of waiting.
In essence she’s rescinding her full support for Black men, since it appears they won’t support Black women in similar circumstances. Foster is expanding a very serious ongoing discussion. In the cases of Trayvon Martin and the Jena , Black communities instantly rallied in support of protecting Black boys. In similar circumstances, like in the cases of Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and Yvette Smith the fervor behind the support is dramatically less. And it’s not surprising.
As a lifelong student of Pan Africanism and feminism, I know that the lives of Black women are undervalued in both mainstream society and our own communities. It’s a constant and sometimes vicious struggle to get many men and other women to support us unconditionally. There are a series of reasons that can be attributed to this, two that come to mind immediately being patriarchy and respectability politics. This means that we’re living in a male-centered society that hinges respect of women on whether or not they fit into certain approved societal roles and pre-conditions. In fact, even if Black women do submit to these roles, they’ll often still face punishment, reprimand and backlash. As feminist poet Audre Lorde stated, “Your silence will not protect you.” Black identity, which is also undervalued in mainstream society, is used as a characteristic to further marginalize. Female+Black= Bottom rung
I say this, not to engage in any type of so called “Oppression Olympics.” The recent NWA movie casting call, referring to Black women women at “D GIRLS” is a painful but truthful narrative as to how we’re viewed by many in mainstream American society.
Yes, this is still happening. Yes, it takes a lot of emotional wherewithal to fight against. Yes, we need Black men to work with us and we should never stop challenging them on this front.
However, in the midst of this tragedy, we should be careful to keep our humanity it tact. As a fellow writer, feminist and activist I firmly understand Kimberly Foster’s perspective. However, I find it to lack humanity in addressing Garner’s life and family. Yes, we should talk about the lack of support Black women receive. We need to talk about it both steadily and extensively. Yet this idea of “conditional support” of Black men that have faced injustices can have unexpected consequences. It teeters right back along those lines of respectability politics, that we so often try to avoid.
To my understanding, the essence of Black feminism is the recognition of wholeness, interconnectedness, freedom and the human spirit. Standing against injustices heaped on any human being, can not , should not be conditional, lest we stand the chance of becoming less whole in our quest for liberation.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that because of his death six children are fatherless and his wife, a Black woman, has lost her chosen life partner. There is no such thing as trickle down equality, i.e. the belief that because Black men are free Black women are automatically free. However, our interconnectedness makes conditional support against clear human rights violations, a further exacerbation of the problem. It won’t make us any less prone to violence within our communities and violence by the state.
But here is where I return to Foster’s original point. Black women shouldn’t have to do the majority of the double duty when it comes organizing in support of both Black women and men. There are some Black men that have been working towards increasing support of Black women. Some have even went as far as to call out other Black men that they feel should listen and increase their support. Still instances like these are too far and in-between.
As a people, we have to understand that our freedom hinges on the recognition of humanity within all of us. Sometimes, in difficult periods we forget this (especially when dealing with misogyny, gender bias and homophobia.) Yet, our support in the struggle for human rights, no matter how daunting, cannot and should not be hinged on “pre-conditions” and “respectably.” This thought process, while it may make a point, creates further openings for human rights injustices to swallow us whole…without much regard.
One of the most powerful tools in the Black Feminist Movement is the ability to showcase the multiplicity of humanity in order to teach, transform and raise consciousness. We can’t lose sight of this, right now or ever. It’s one of our greatest assets.
P.S. To readers of Foster’s piece, let it be an opportunity to really listen and take action. Work towards making sure that all members of our communities feel supported in the face of injustices.
Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
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