“Left Exposed to View!”: Black Women and Sexualized Violence

Black Lives Matter in Chicago: July 11 2016 (Photo: Bob Simpson, Flickr)

In May 1962, Malcolm X delivered a commanding speech with his now infamous lines regarding the positionality of Black women: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Recently popularized by mega superstar Beyoncé Knowles, who familiarized Malcolm X to a new generation in her 2016 visual album Lemonade, those already familiar with Malcolm—or knowledgeable of Black history and liberation struggles—were aware of the content of his speech. After all, Black women had long articulated their status in the U.S.

What is more elusive or, in turn, goes less recognized is the very context in which he delivered these words: in response, in part, to the death of Ronald Stokes, a Black Muslim man who was killed by Los Angeles police. What stands out is that Malcolm calls attention to Black women’s condition, specifically their sexual vulnerability and lack of protection, while simultaneously castigating the state and white America for its systematic mistreatment of and violence against Black people and their bodies. It speaks to the nexus of race, gender, and assault, as well as how Black people and Black women’s bodies operate as receptacles of racialized and sexualized terror and assault.

Fast forward fifty-six years. Consider Chikesia Clemons, a 25-year old Black woman arrested by police in an Alabama Waffle House on April 22, 2018. Within moments of their arrival, white police officers threw Clemons to the ground and ultimately exposed her breasts. Yet did this stymie the officers? No, and they made no immediate efforts to cover her. She remained exposed, and footage later circulated in an uncensored video that went viral on social media. Or, what about Charnesia Corley, a then 20-year old student who in August 2017 was stopped by police in Texas for allegedly running a stop sign and failing to use a turn signal. She was handcuffed, her vehicle was searched, and—even after police found nothing incriminating in her car—Corley was put on the ground, stripped naked below the waist, and forced to endure a vaginal cavity search that lasted 11 excruciatingly long minutes. To exacerbate matters, as if that alone was not heinous enough, police officers performed the search in a public area near a gas station, leaving Corley inappropriately exposed and within the view of passersby.

Both instances resonate with Malcolm X’s assertion regarding Black women as the most disrespected and unprotected people in America. After all, these types of public violations, especially the exposure of women’s bodies, happen almost exclusively to Black women and rarely, if ever, manifest in police encounters with white women. It is no coincidence that the police who body slammed a teenager at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, did so to a Black girl in a swim suit. And, of course, there is Daniel Holtzclaw: a former police officer convicted of sexual crimes, assaults ranging from groping and forced oral sodomy to rape, against at least 13 African American women in Oklahoma. He was sentenced to 263 years in prison. That he was convicted is significant since police-involved crimes against Black people, as well as sexualized crimes against Black women, largely occur with impunity.

Why is this the case? Some of what we witness currently in terms of issues regarding race, gender, violence, and sexual dehumanization and assault, especially of Black women, are rooted in earlier historical practices—some social, others legal—in the American landscape. During the antebellum period, Black women had no recourse for the sexual violence and rape they endured in the “peculiar institution” and slave economy. Moreover, throughout Reconstruction and the long Jim Crow era, sexualized violence against Black women served as a “ritualistic re-enactment of the daily pattern of [white] social dominance,” as historian Danielle McGuire posits, or as a “weapon of terror,” to quote Gerda Lerner. After all, “like lynching and murder,” rape “served as a tool of psychological and physical intimidation that expressed white male domination and buttressed white supremacy.”

Black women’s bodies and their sexual violation, in contrast to the treatment of white women as pure and protected, were deliberate and a central part of not only constructions of whiteness but also the maintenance of racial difference and white supremacy. For “white America’s perceptions of racial difference,” as historian Deborah Gray White asserts, “were founded on the different ways they constructed black and white women.” As a result of white supremacist patriarchal constructions of white women as vulnerable, protected, and “protectable,” then, Black women were excluded from the realm of (“true”) womanhood. Instead, Black womanhood was characterized and situated within a realm of unassailability, thus dangerously rendering Black women as “unharmable” or essentially as incapable of being raped or violated.

This puts into greater perspective Malcolm X’s assertions regarding the vulnerability of Black women—as the most unprotected woman in America—as well as his subsequent calls for Black men to protect their women to the extent that white men protected white womanhood at all cost. And his words were not without context or precedent. On May 2, 1959, nearly three years earlier, Betty Jean Owens, a Black female freshman at Florida A&M, was raped seven times by four white men armed with shotguns and switchblades in Tallahassee, Florida. Even as these men admitted to abducting and raping Owens (and believing that they, as white men, would not be charged as it had invariably gone when the victim was Black), something unprecedented occurred instead. They were charged and found “guilty with the recommendation of mercy.” They would not face the death penalty—the electric chair—yet they were sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after a few years served. (In fact, David Beagles, one of Owens’ rapists, was released six years later in 1965 on parole.) A landmark case since it was the first time the state of Florida convicted white men for the rape of a Black woman, it had larger implications for not only the state but for the South and America.

Still now, the ways that race, gender, and sexual violence intersect impact Black women. Yet, discourses, practices, and movements such as #SayHerName and #MeToo have yet to address the totality of these overlapping dynamics confronting Black women. It is incumbent that we address, more concretely, how Black women register largely invisible—or less visible and as less worthy of the same level of protests that Black men receive—when it comes to police brutality. Likewise, as long as #MeToo addresses sexual harassment and assault against women in Hollywood or other (limited) contexts and spaces, it will cater to particular crowds; and it will not encompass or address the intersectionality of violence Black women endure, especially when it comes to the police. Fortunately, scholars and activists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea Ritchie, and others are doing this work. And the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and others are not neglecting Black women who, too, were targets and victims of lynching.

In her recent New York Times article on Black women and lynching, historian Crystal Feimer foregrounds Eliza Woods, a Black woman who after allegedly poisoning her boss, “was taken from the county jail,” “stripped naked,” “hung up in the courthouse yard and her body”—“riddled with bullets”—was “left exposed to view!” These are the words of Ida B. Wells, noted journalist and anti-lynching crusader who also illuminated the racialized and sexualized contours of lynching and, importantly, “how not only race, but attitudes toward women and sexuality,” as Black feminist historian Paula Giddings asserts, “instigated it.” Not only did Wells call out the overwhelming extent to which Black men had been lynched due to false rape accusations by white women; but, equally consequentially, she did not neglect to address the sexual violence and crimes committed by white men against Black women.

Why does it remain significant, especially in 2018, for us to know this history and the reality of Black women’s experiences with racial and sexual dehumanization, sexualized violence, and state-sanctioned assault? It is because when we only construct Black men as subjects victimized by police and state-sanctioned violence, it convolutes history, presenting it in a Black masculinist fashion. It neglects the actuality and nuances of our struggles for equality and liberation, particularly as they intersect with sexual domination and constructions of race. Moreover, it recirculates tragically flawed narratives that woefully neglect Black women who should not be embodied superlatives as the most disrespected, unprotected, or neglected in America.

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Trimiko Melancon

Trimiko Melancon is an associate professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University. She is the award-winning author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and editor of Black Female Sexualities. Her writings also appear in African American Review, Callaloo, The Black Scholar, Reconstruction, and Journal of Popular Culture. She has also written and provided commentary in other public venues: Ms. magazine, Huffington Post, Elle, Wired, The Good Men Project, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and the BBC World News. Follow her on Twitter @trimikomelancon.

Comments on ““Left Exposed to View!”: Black Women and Sexualized Violence

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    Tremendous article Trimiko! I remember my first semester at FAMU, my ENC 1101 professor, Ceron Bryant, having us close our eyes for one of our lessons. He laid the scene bare of what occurred to Betty Jean Owens and all of the students were left shook. The fact that she was one of us struck us hard. Thank you for highlighting her case.

    Also, as a budding scholar in abolitionist and emancipation studies, I remember the public lecture pleas of abolitionists like Sarah Parker Remond, Maria Stewart, and Sarah Forten whose work spoke to the points you mentioned of the vulnerability of Black women, except in this context as enslaved women.

    Once again, thank you for your article!

    • Avatar

      Many thanks for reading and sharing your powerful experience of learning about Betty Owens at FAMU! Appreciate it and your comment.

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