New book alert! This looks like a very interesting read.
Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, this book makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery.
Historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers draws on a variety of sources to show that slave‑owning women were sophisticated economic actors who directly engaged in and benefited from the South’s slave market.
Because women typically inherited more slaves than land, enslaved people were often their primary source of wealth.
Not only did white women often refuse to cede ownership of their slaves to their husbands, they employed management techniques that were as effective and brutal as those used by slave‑owning men. White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment.
By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave‑owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.
Some media outlets are in a frenzy after receiving a tip that Malia Obama, daughter of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, has a secret Facebook account. Her posts included criticism of the Trump Administration, which apparently, is shocking to some.
To me, this “revelation,” (if you want to call it that) is like telling me that water is wet. She’s the daughter of THE Michelle Obama! Which means that not only does she have a brain – she’s probably also pretty good at critical thinking. And anyone good at critical thinking – hell even simple thinking – would have criticisms for the Trump Administration.
I don’t know where this belief system comes from that Malia and Sasha Obama should be void of thoughts. Meanwhile, Meghan McCain (the daughter of John McCain) is a co-host on The View and Ivanka Trump (failed fashion line connoisseur) is in charge of God knows what in the White House.
So for anyone that’s shocked. Yes, Malia Obama (a student at Harvard University) has a brain.
Four-time GRAMMY® winning artist/songwriter India Arie released her eighth studio album WORTHY on Friday, February 15, 2019.
This is her first full-length in five years.
Along with the inspiring “What If” honoring iconic trailblazers including Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, is the Caribbean-tinged “That Magic,” a current Top Ten R&B hit with a video featuring award-winning actor Lyriq Bent and cameo from Reggae Superstar Gramps Morgan. Other songs on the album drawing praise include “Hour Of Love,” “Steady Love,” “We Are,” “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda” and the title track “Worthy.”
Says India about the new album: “My favorite definition of the word ‘worthy’ is deserving of regard and respect. The songs on this album implicitly or explicitly carry the message and the energy of the word. I set out with the title even before I had the song, which is unusual for me, but I wanted to remind people that even though the world ordains that you have to ‘do’ or ‘be’ something to be ‘worthy,’ that’s not true.
There is nothing special we have to do or be, we all are worthy once we arrive at that realization. A person who feels empowered in that way is a much more powerful force in this world.”
India Arie’s willingness early on to challenge preconceived notions of beauty and sexuality coupled with her courage to defy broad racial and gender categorizations have helped empower current culturally-conscious movements.
Her upcoming North American WORTHY TOUR kicks off April 30 at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville, with marquee cities announced so far including Atlanta, New Orleans, Austin, Detroit, Boston, and New York City.
After more than 10 million albums sold and 10 world tours, including with icon Stevie Wonder, India Arie is recognized as a global difference maker.
Among her accomplishments; five Top Ten albums, 22 GRAMMY nominations, numerous NAACP Image Awards, BET Awards, MTV Awards, and command performances for three US Presidents. She has met with the Dalai Lama, touring the National Civil Rights Museum with him in Memphis.
Inducted into the 2009 Georgia Music Hall of Fame, India has joined Oprah Winfrey on multiple projects, a featured ‘Change Makers and Wisdom Teachers’ on Winfrey’s OWN Network and shared with Oprah her trademark blend of performance/spiritual teaching via SongVersation.
After years of being blackballed in Hollywood, Oscar Award-winning comedian Mo’Nique sat down with Steve Harvey to settle their differences. Mo’Nique’s relationship with Harvey became strained after he publically criticized and distanced himself from her after she became outspoken about inequality and discrimination in Hollywood.
Mo’Nique also called out Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, and Lee Daniels for not publically defending her. According to Mo’Nique, they knew she had “done nothing wrong.” Instead, according to Mo’Nique, they allowed her name to be dragged through the mud, rather than telling the truth about what was happening.
Mo’Nique won an Oscar for her outstanding performance in Lee Daniel’s film Precious. However, she was only paid $50,000 for the role and was expected to travel across the country and around the world to promote the film out of her own pocket. When she refused, she was labeled difficult. Mo’Nique then spoke openly about Hollywood’s refusal to pay Black actresses fairly.
At this point, she was blackballed.
In her sit down with Steve Harvey, Mo’Nique stood strong in her conviction that she did the right thing. Stating, “When you allow people, to start taking your freedom and your gift and making it become what makes them comfortable, we then lose.”
Steve Harvey then responded, “When you tell the truth, you have to deal with the repercussions of the truth. WE BLACK OUT HERE…”
He continued, “This the money game. This ain’t the Black man’s game. This ain’t the white man’s game. This the money game. And you can not sacrifice yourself. The best thing you can do for poor people is not be one of them.”
In this statement, Steve implies that truthtelling is the road to poverty and that to thrive, one must play “the game.”
However, Mo’Nique bravely countered, “Before the money game is the integrity game. And we’ve lost the integrity worrying about the money.”
Then Steve Harvey took a route that many people had an issue with. He acted as if standing up for Mo’Nique somehow would have made him lose his $100 million empire overnight.
Steve stated, “If I crumble, my children crumble, my grandchildren crumble. I can not for the sake of my integrity, stand up here and let everybody that’s counting on me crumble – so I can make a statement. There are ways to win the war in a different way.”
This is where we have a problem. I agree that in any situation, especially dealing with employment, we must be strategic and tactful. However, when battling a larger social issue, like the unequal payment of Black women – which is a huge issue – being quiet is the exact opposite of what we need.
This is especially true if you’re in a position of power.
Zora Neale Hurston said it best, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Mo’Nique is calling out a larger social issue. She’s calling out anti-Blackness implemented by expecting Black people to allow themselves to be overworked and undervalued. We may not all be in Hollywood, but working class Black women see it every day. According to the National Women’s Law Center and Equal Pay Today, Black women face steep wage inequality.
“Black women working full time, year round typically make only 61 cents for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts.” (National Women’s Law Center)“
Just because Mo’Nique is speaking out about Hollywood instead of an office job or fast food restaurant, doesn’t mean her words are any less true. Mo’Nique is a comedy pioneer and legend. Her decades of work speaks for its self. Yet, there are some still expecting her to be quiet and “grateful” as if she’s just some novice off the street.
The larger issue that she is addressing is about Black self-worth. Are we willing to set higher standards and enforce them? Are we ready to stop accepting crumbs? Are we ready to call out injustice, even if it means a temporary set back?
Though this can be scary, history has shown us the benefits of taking a stand. Muhammad Ali showed us with his refusal to fight in Vietnam, which led to him being stripped of his heavyweight title. Rosa Parks showed us in her refusal to give up her seat, leading her to be jailed. Recently Colin Kaepernick showed us, by taking a knee during the National Anthem to bring awareness to police brutality against Blacks, leading him to lose his job.
Some may not see the connection but it is there. Mo’Nique is fighting for pay equality. Without it, Black women specifically will continue to face economic instability. This is race-based financial oppression with real-life repercussions for everyday people.
That’s where integrity comes in because the issue is deeper than Mo’Nique personally. The Steve Harveys of the world may think they’re flourishing by staying quiet. Yes, Steve Harvey may be building wealth for himself but what good is it if the people he claims to support are still dealing with everyday struggles of wage gaps and underemployment? What good is his wealth if he refuses to speak out against the mass economic oppression of his people? These are issues that he could speak out about, starting with his industry.
And standing up to Hollywood is not a far-fetched idea.
Remember when everyone thought that Dave Chapelle was crazy for walking away from his widely acclaimed Comedy Central show? Remember how the network tried to bury him, even spread rumors about drug use?
He left for his integrity. It cost him financially at first but eventually, he became even more celebrated for standing his ground and not allowing himself to be exploited for profits. Years later, he was able to fully recoup his losses and is highly respected.
This is more than about Mo’Nique. And yes, integrity may have no immediate monetary benefit. However, history has shown us that if it were not for bravery and integrity – we would still be sitting in the back of the bus being told we should be grateful just for a seat.
Can I admit that I’m tired of talking about Birth of a Nation? Even though I plan on writing my own collection of thoughts concerning the film and its surrounding controversy, I’ve noticed that all of the attention towards it, good and bad, has unintentionally pulled away from much needed discussions about other Black films and shows.
So here are 6 Black films and shows to discuss other than Birth of a Nation:
1. Queen of Katwe starring Lupita Nyong’o
This film has received many great reviews. It’s based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, an international chess champion that learned to play chess at the SOM Chess Academy in Kampala, Uganda. Though she’s already a world hero, Ms. Mutesi is still a young lady with big dreams.
Film synopsis:Queen of Katwe is the colorful true story of a young girl selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.
2. Issa Rae’s Insecure now on HBO
I fell in love with Issa Rae’s work while watching the first 3 minute episode of AwkwardBlackGirl. She captured the everyday plight of so many quirky Black women with awkward tendencies. This is what made her show a hit. She tapped into a market and audience that had been either ignored or deemed non existent. Her new show on HBO is just has hilarious, with the same quirky, cringe worthy, laugh out loud moments. Insecure is definitely a must watch.
Show synopsis: Watch the half-hour comedy series Insecure, starring Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis and Lisa Joyce, looks at the friendship, experiences and tribulations of two black women. Created and executive produced by Issa Rae, this eight-episode series is also executive produced by Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas, Michael Rotenberg, Dave Beck, Jonathan Berry, and Larry Wilmore as a consultant.
This is a movie I’m extremely excited for. I wish we all knew more about the history behind Black women and the NASA program. As the mother of twin girls, movies showcasing the scientific and mathematical talents of Black women is a must watch in my book.
Film synopsis:Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big. In theaters – January 13, 2017.
4. The 13th directed by Ava DuVernay on Netflix
As an undergrad, one of our professors pointed out that the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not end slavery. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
She directed us to the line that states: except as a punishment for crime.
Thus, slavery took on a new form. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture has an entire display dedicated to showing the connections between slavery and mass incarceration. Apparently, everyone in my circle has watched The 13th except me. But fear not, I will be watching over the weekend. Anything Ava DuVernay touches is gold.
Film synopsis: The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. Now Streaming on Netflix.
5. Atlanta produced by Donald Glover on FX
Where do we start? The fact that this show centers around Black men in Atlanta chasing the rap career dream already leads us down the road to authenticity. The admiration of lemon pepper chicken wings, saying “bet” instead of “sure,” working at the airport – so Atlanta.
Yet the most interesting aspect of Atlanta is it’s unflinching willingness to explore societal shifts, along with layered portrayals of Black life. The most widely discussed episode so far has been episode 7. The episode included a number of satirical commercials featured on a fictional tv network, parodying BET called “Black American Network.”
During the episode, rapper Paper Boi is shown on a tv panel grappling with understanding transsexuality. Then the episode shifts to a discussion of transracial identity. Instantly audiences picked up on the false equivalency that was often leaned upon during the real life uproar concerning Rachel Dolezal- a white woman determined to embody blackness through activism, hair weaves and tanning.
On Atlanta, they flip the script showing a young Black man that identifies as a 35-year-old white man, that is both transphobic and homophobic (taking a jab at Caitlyn Jenner’s contradictory homophobic statements).
Atlanta is unconventionally brilliant. There are so many things to digest here. There could be an entire article dedicated to breaking down the children’s cereal commercial in episode 7 that put the spotlight on police brutality.
Show synopsis: Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families. Donald Glover serves as Executive Producer, along with Paul Simms and Dianne McGunigle. Atlanta is produced by FX Productions.
6. Queen Sugar on OWN
Like I said earlier, everything Ava DuVernay touches is gold. I recently wrote about how Queen Sugar’s underlying theme is “rebirth, rejuvenation and resilience.”You can view more of my thoughts here.
Film synopsis:Queen Sugar chronicles the lives and loves of the estranged Bordelon siblings in Saint Josephine, Louisiana: Charley, the savvy wife and manager of an NBA star; Nova, a worldly-wise journalist and activist; and Ralph Angel, a formerly incarcerated young father in search of redemption. After a family tragedy, the Bordelons must navigate the triumphs and struggles of their complicated lives in order to run an ailing sugarcane farm in the Deep South.
Again, I will be writing my own commentary about Birth of a Nation. However, for now I’d just like to bask in the glory of all the greatness featured above.
If there is a film or show you think should be included, add it in the comments below.
Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a poet, writer and social justice advocate. She’s also the founder of Our Legaci. Rant or rave to JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com.
People need to understand that women who present provocative images of themselves are not automatically making a feminist statement. This isn’t to say that a woman can’t express herself, but when this self expression is deeply hinged upon supporting oppressive systems it is not a liberation moment. This is why Nicki Minaj can express herself and still glorify Nazi propaganda. Kim Kardashian can express herself #ALLDAY and still glorify the hypersexualization of women’s bodies. Provocative imagery does not automatically equate to activism or empowerment.
This point of confusion was described by bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center:
“A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification. (p. 18)”
This statement feels even more relevant in 2014 as it did in 1984, especially with the emergence of what some are calling “Millennial Feminism.” Across the digital sphere conversations are constantly springing up around feminism. Still, few are actually producing or referring to a substantial definition of feminism.
The fixation on women’s butts, I’ll call it “assism” is a well documented form of objectification, deeply rooted in the commodification of Black women’s bodies. Kim Kardashian accentuates this fixation, layering it with the benefits of whiteness to score on monetary profits. Though Nicki Minaj is Black she comes as close as she can to Kim K by combining anti-black sentiments with the commodification of Black phenotypes to yet again benefit monetarily. Additionally neither of them are bothered by classism as a form of oppression. They are not feminists. Stop trying to make fetch happen.
Feminism is hinged upon an awareness of oppression in conjunction with working towards ending all forms of it. In All the Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men: But Some Of Us Are Brave, Barbara Smith explains:
“Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women–as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement. (p. 49)”
To refer to Nicki Minaj or Kim Kardashian as de facto feminist icons is to minimize the anti-oppressive backbone of feminism. It’s reductionist thinking. Neither of these women have exhibited any substantial work towards ending sexist, racial, or economic oppression.
While some may point to their open display of sexuality as a liberation moment, this thought process over looks the fact that their displays are based more on the history of women’s commodified bodies under the patriarchal gaze. Yes, they make a lot of money doing this but that does not necessarily translate into freedom. They are riding the constant wave of hypersexualized images of Black women’s bodies with no intention of challenging the status quo. In fact it becomes a competition of who can promote sexual commercial objectification more, who can more closely embody the mainstreamed fantasy of women in sexualized positions.
Yet none of this is new or shocking. It’s actually pretty underwhelming. Another day another booty. Where is the triumph in that? It’s an attention getting tactic but it is not a feminist manifesto or challenge to oppression. The recurring statement is that they were “free” enough to show themselves. However if the only way for them to gain the public’s attention is through a constant stream of butt shots what does that say about society? That’s a far cry from freedom or liberation.
Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda was an act of desperation used to counter the emergence of Iggy Azalea. Iggy then responded by appearing alongside JLo in a video for a song literally called, “Booty.”
Since the emergence of her sex tape with Ray J, Kim Kardashian has been profiting from racialized butt adoration for years.
The sentiment has been, “You want to see more? Here you go!”
Perhaps for her that’s winning. But is it winning for women overall? It doesn’t challenge the realities that women face everyday as constantly sexualized beings. This imagery plays up the dehumanization and never dares to deconstruct or even acknowledge it. This article is not suggesting a policing of women’s bodies. It’s about recognizing a thing for what it is. Nakedness can be a political empowering statement but Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj are not examples of that. This may be provocative but it is not feminism.
We already have a plethora of mistruths floating around about feminism. Why add to the list? It’s very dangerous for feminists to automatically embrace commodified sexual images as feminist modules. There are levels to this. Where are the discussions about about intentions and context? It is a teachable moment. But it is not a grand moment in Women’s History.
Sorry folks but assism is not feminism.
Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.
Growing up as a Black girl writer, various books and writers sustained me. One such writer was Zora Neale Hurston. I lived by her. Her robust unveiling of Black human experiences were the literary nourishment to my young mind. I read over and over again her short story, The Gilded Six Bits.It was like I was there. I could feel the spirited home of Missie May and Joe. I could taste the molasses kisses Joe bought for their new born baby boy. I was literally wrapped up in the entire story.
Yet what intrigued me the most about Zora as a writer was her free spirit. As a folklorist and anthropologist, she saw the world and soaked up its wonders. This captivated me. As I grew older, the list of Black women writers that ruled my universe expanded. In college I was enamored with Ntozake Shange, then in graduate school mesmerized by June Jordan. They all knew a part of my soul, they all held pieces of me in their words. It was a long running connectedness. With each page turned, I saw myself.
When it seemed like the world had turned against me or had become lopsided, they turned it right side up again. Through their writings they let me know, that the things I’m seeing and experiencing are real. Most of all I learned that I had the right to tell my truth, no matter how often its existence may be denied and its fullness unsuccessfully subdued.
This edging out is a tradition of oppression, while the ability to rise even in its midst is a signature testament to the dynamic tradition of literary inspired liberation through Black women writers.
Here are some quotes from legendary Black women writers that can be used as continual tools for learning, growth, confidence and fearlessness.
1. “It’s no use of talking unless people understand what you say.” -Zora Neale Hurston
2. “No black woman writer in this culture can write “too much.” Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’…No woman has ever written enough.” – bell hooks
3. “I’m a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act, and how we act then determines our lives and other people’s lives.” -Ntozake Shange
4. “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde
5. “We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans – because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings.” – Maya Angelou
6. “I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.” -Alice Walker
7. “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” -Toni Morrison
8. “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” -Toni Morrison
9. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
10. “Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it.” – Toni Morrison
11. “Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.” – Patricia Hill Collins
12. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
13. “Writing can be a lifeline, especially when your existence has been denied, especially when you have been left on the margins, especially when your life and process of growth have been subjected to attempts at strangulation.” ― Micere Githae Mugo
14. “Sure you can do anything when talking or writing, it’s not like living when you can only do what you doing.” ― Sapphire
15. “A writer should get as much education as possible, but just going to school is not enough; if it were, all owners of doctorates would be inspired writers.” – Gwendolyn Brooks
16. “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ― Octavia E. Butler
17. “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. I can only change how they live, not how they think.” -Ntozake Shange
18. “Let woman’s claim be as broad in the concrete as the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritism, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. If one link of the chain is broken, the chain is broken.” – Anna Julia Cooper
19. “I don’t want to be limited or ghettoized in any way.” -Sista Soulja
20. “Discomfort is always a necessary part of enlightenment.” ― Pearl Cleage
21. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” -Maya Angelou
22. “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
23. “Many times, what people call ‘writer’s block’ is the confusion that happens when a writer has a great idea, but their writing skill is not up to the task of putting that idea down on paper. I think that learning the craft of writing is critical.” -Pearl Cleage
24. “Shakespeare wrote about love. I write about love. Shakespeare wrote about gang warfare, family feuds and revenge. I write about all the same things.” -Sister Souljah
25. “Putting words on paper regularly is part of the necessary discipline of writing.” -Pearl Cleage
26. “Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.” -Alice Walker
27. “You must be unintimidated by your own thoughts because if you write with someone looking over you shoulder, you’ll never write.” ― Nikki Giovanni
28. “Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” ― Nikki Giovanni
29. “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.” -Lorraine Hansberry
30. “People who want to write either do it or they don’t. At last I began to say that my most important talent – or habit – was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It’s amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.” ― Octavia E. Butler
31. “People wish to be poets more than they wish to write poetry, and that’s a mistake. One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated.” –Lucille Clifton
32. “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” ― June Jordan
33. “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” -Angela Davis
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Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of Our Legaci Press and the National Black Cultural Information Trust. To reach JAM, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jessica @JAMAiwuyor.
There were six of them, chained in the basement of a Philadelphia house. The police almost couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The horrors of what the women experienced were almost unbearable to hear. Their kidnapper, Gary Heidnik, chained them, enslaved them, raped them, starved them, murdered two of them and forced them to eat another human being (feeding the rest of the body to the dogs).
What did all of these young women have in common? They were young, black and brown girls from the lower echelon of society. They grew up poor, some of them were prostitutes, all of them perceived to be “unwanted.” Our America, hosted by Lisa Ling on the Oprah Winfrey Network, featured the stories of missing Black women and the now infamous Heidnik kidnapping case. A quick google search of his name will render headlines like “Heidnik’s House of Horrors.”
Indeed the women survived an unimaginable, terrifying ordeal. One of the survivors, named Jackie shared her experiences. She now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Sometimes, she blacks out and unconsciously re-enacts being chained to the basement floor and eating dog food.
For months Jackie and 5 other women languished in a seemingly timeless agony, wondering if they would ever get their freedom.
When hearing about these types of stories, the blame is usually placed solely on the perpetrator. Yet, we need to realize that society plays a complacent role in allowing these types of crimes to occur. All too often perceived “respectability” trumps humanity. Lives are somehow worth less, or are less important if the victims did not lead “perfect” lives as dictated by societal norms. This is especially the case for young Black women, people living in poverty and for sex workers.
Jackie, being a symbol of this marginalized trifecta, was as they noted in the documentary, “lost before she was kidnapped.” As she lived on the margins of society, Heidnik presumed that no one would miss her. And for the most part he was right.
Jackie asked, “Did anybody care that we were out there? Just to call 911 and say, ‘she’s gone?’ Who cared about a Black prostitute, on drugs?”
So as four of the six women, survived until they were finally freed, time moved on without them. And as they finally regained their freedom, society gasped at the horrors they’d experienced, media focused on the perpetrator and in-depth discussions concerning why or how this truly could have happened in the first place, were passed over in the name of sensationalism.
Moreover, Jackie returned to a community that blamed her for being kidnapped and called her “the slave” and “the people-eater.” This severe lack of community support only exacerbated her fragile mental condition.
“She was a slut. She was a whore. She was high. She was drunk. She was in the streets. That’s what she gets. She shouldn’t have been [insert any excuse]. ” Whenever you hear someone say these things, whenever these words leave your mouth, know that these beliefs nurture the ambitions of abusers and murderers.
What she was, who she was, doesn’t negate her personhood. It didn’t negate her human right to live and be free.
There is a dispute over whether or not Gary Heidnik was sane while he was committing these unthinkable acts. His past medical records indicate that he may have been schizophrenic. But one thing is clear, Heidnik knew for certain where to find the perfect victims, the people that were would less likely to be protected or fought for. He chose the people that had already been used, abused and thrown away by society….poor, young, Black women.
That’s what really enabled this crime…a mass societal lack of care and he knew it.
“There is nothing funny about a Black man going to prison for something he didn’t do.” My excitement about watching the movie Life was quickly shut down when my mother stated those words. As a 14-year-old, I hadn’t looked at it that way before. Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, was a hit comedy about the antics of two Black men in Mississippi serving life in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder. She refused to watch it.
The truthful sting of my mother’s response was fully warranted. Being wrongfully convicted of murder happens far more often than people think and can happen to anybody but especially to African Americans. And indeed, there is nothing funny about it.
Even as far back as 1996, the book “Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy” estimated that there was an output of at least 10,000 wrongful convictions a year. The abstract states, “Even if the American criminal justice system proved 99.5 percent accurate, it would still generate more than 10,000 wrongful convictions a year and these would reflect only serious index crimes.”
More recently the Innocence Project highlighted that studies find,”between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).”
According to a 2012 report by the National Registry of Exonerations about 2,000 people have been exonerated for wrongful convictions since 1989. Still, this number is in the least bit comforting. As the report notes:
…even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about.
So how does this happen?
The Innocence Project lists the leading causes of false convictions as eye-witness misidentification, false confessions, improper forensic evidence and informants. One would think that these components would only lead to rightful convictions but each is severely flawed. For example, in 73% of convictions overturned with DNA, prosecutors used eye-witness accounts. But in many of these accounts there was “cross racial identification,” a known issue because studies show that it’s harder for witnesses to remember the facial details of people from other races.
False confessions are flawed due to pressures to accept plea deals and other coercion tactics. Informants are problematic sources because they are often offered plea deals and dropped charges in exchange for their testimony.
Dateline NBC recently featured a story about Eric Glisson, a man that was wrongfully convicted of murder and served over 17 years in prison. There was no physical evidence, only the words of one “eye-witness” and two other allegedly coerced witnesses. One of these witnesses recanted her testimony stating that she only testified due to police pressure of being threatened with jail time. It took 17 years, but Glisson and his co-defendants were finally freed. A total of five Black and Latino people (four men and one woman) had been in prison for almost two decades for a crime they didn’t commit.
Then there’s the story of The Central Park Five, who were recently awarded $40 million dollars after enduring 7-13 years in prison for a 1989 rape. In 2002, they were exonerated after a confession from the real perpetrator and DNA evidence proved their innocence. In another case, Jonathan Fleming was recently released after spending 24 years in prison for a Brooklyn, NY murder that was committed while he was in Florida.
There are many more stories like these that have yet to be concluded.
I recently learned of a case that hits closer to home. Jean Pierre DeVaughn is the older brother of a friend that I attended college with. Accused of murder-for-hire in the 2005 death of his cousin’s husband, Devaughn has maintained his innocence. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison with an additional 25 years. Having no prior record, he was offered a plea deal but refused to take it, wanting to fully clear his name.
His case is fraught with a series of issues. Devaughn endured an intense interrogation by police, during which a chair was thrown at him, he was taunted and his requests for a lawyer were denied. Additionally, there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime.
According to his defense attorney, a key witness in the first trial testified under the false pretense that Devaughn had accused him of being the murderer. Additionally, racial bias may have tainted jury selection leading to three African Americans being excluded from the jury.
In 2009, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. endorsed a letter written to the Fulton County District Attorney Office on Devaughn’s behalf. He is now represented by Janice L. Mathis, lawyer, activist and Vice President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Atlanta chapter.
Some may think it a bit presumptuous to believe that Devaughn is innocent, but history has shown us not to ignore pleas for a second look at trials that were once proclaimed to be “open and shut” cases. For now Devaughn waits in a Georgia prison for another chance to prove his freedom. The Supreme Court of Georgia will soon review his case.
Perhaps the most disturbing fact about these cases is this could happen to anyone and exonerations are rare occurrences. Many wrongful convictions include death row prisoners, which is all the more reason to support efforts to end the death penalty.
As an article from Scientific American highlighted, “Since 1973 144 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated in the U.S. But Gross says that the analysis indicates that at least 340 people would have been put to death unjustly in that same time period.”
According to the Innocence Project, there have been only 316 post-conviction DNA exonorees, with 198 being African Americans. This is a daunting number considering African Americans only make up 13% of the US population. The numbers indicate that there is an overwhelming rate of bias concerning death sentencing for African Americans. Additionally, it’s hard to have many cases reviewed due to destroyed or lost evidence.
Something is devastatingly wrong here in the land of the “free,” especially considering the influence of corporate profits from the prison industrial complex. This is a real life horror story.
There is a perception that criminal convictions among African American youth are inherently just. But the fact is, many convictions stem from not having proper representation, not knowing the full scope of their rights when questioned by the police, being denied their rights and racially biased sentencing. An overwhelming amount of exonorees are Black men and women because an overwhelming amount of this demographic are wrongfully convicted or given harsher sentencing than their counterparts (sometimes even according to skin tone).