The History of Black Women and Violence

Protest held in honor of Sandra Bland (Flickr)

Anti-blackness, including the violent events our society typically invokes when reflecting on racism, often centers on the violence inflicted on Black men. Black men are produced in our internal and external considerations as the face of racism and the primary receivers of racial violence. While this is not technically wrong, the center stage that Black men occupy in the public and academic mind, unfortunately, comes at a cost. Rather than developing a complex understanding of the various methods a white supremacist patriarchal empire employs to cause pain and submission, discourse concerning diversity of experiences, including incidents of gender violence, is viewed as a frivolous distraction. Black women, girls, and nonbinary people’s unique experiences and encounters with racial violence are often devalued and disregarded, fueling ignorance around the complete nature of racial violence and oppression.

Race is seen as the sole or primary oppressive factor in all Black people’s lives instead of acknowledging that racial violence often intersects with other unjust characteristics, like class and gender discrimination. Black women and nonbinary people are then accused of being divisive elements seeking to destroy Black community and stability. Yet any honest and empathetic study of historical oppression and lived experience will illuminate the dissimilarities in what Black women and nonbinary people experience in the United States as well as the salience of recognizing and uplifting that. To address this, Treva B. Lindsey, a historian at Ohio State University, creates a text that is part autobiographical and that can best be described as an intersectional overview of the multifarious facets of violent oppression that Black American women and nonbinary people have encountered and how they have resisted. Lindsey positions together police violence, medical violence, housing insecurity, state violence, and intercommunal domestic partner violence to establish a connective map of the systems that exhibit violence towards Black women.

As stated earlier, these interventions in the conversation surrounding race are considered distractions. The testimonial injustice that Black women and nonbinary people face when conveying their positionality and predicaments to community members produces a new sort of violence that is often neglected. Not only are they being ignored, but Black women and nonbinary people bear the burden of patriarchal violence’s institutional and domestic aspects. They are harmed by Black and white men who wittingly and unwittingly utilize their masculinity in a way that hurts non-men. However, they also retain the responsibility of protecting their Black male counterparts from the harmful narratives and stereotypes that will, in a trickle-down manner, negatively affect them.

Consequently, Black women are less inclined to publicly express the damages they face from their interactions with Black men to not further stigmatize and endanger their counterparts. While noble, this action ultimately hurts everyone in the Black community. Black women and nonbinary people are left stranded by the conventional and white supremacist method of policing as they will either be victims of racial and gendered police violence or fear contributing to mass incarceration. Black women and nonbinary people are also stranded from their Black male community as victims of abuse by men who fundamentally misunderstand the harm they cause Black women. The disconnect between inter-communal violence in the Black community makes reparative and liberatory efforts unstable and incomplete. It also perpetuates patriarchal dominance that cannot be separated from the racist elements now infused in its manifestation.

This book calls for us to recognize the precarious position as oppressed racial and gendered beings that Black women and nonbinary people have historically and contemporarily undergone in American society. It is a call to say the names of the Black women and girls dehumanized by our violent, racist, capitalistic, and patriarchal system and to fight for their freedom and justice with the same ferocity typically shown to Black men. Lindsey maintains a compelling chronology throughout the text surrounding historical sectors of abuse and the contemporary realities created from those longstanding myths and misconceptions. She claims that, historically, Black women have been made inviolable objects. Despite being constantly violated socially and institutionally, there is profound apathy built into the American subconscious towards the pain and inequity Black women face. This inviolability contributes to the inhuman condition of ‘unlivable living’ that Black women are systematically relegated to under anti-black and misogynistic institutional arrangements. For Lindsey, this violence is structural but also devastatingly tangible.

As a Black American woman, Lindsey witnessed racial violence in her community and on the news, mostly about Black men. Like many other Black Americans growing up in America, an education concerning racial violence was almost a birthright. However, Lindsey’s descriptions of the violence Black women experience grow more specific as the book continues. Domestic violence, where Black women are the victims of their Black male partners are issues that hits close to home in more ways than one. Lindsey even describes an encounter she and her mother witnessed during the height of the pandemic. Her description of a violent encounter between a Black male and his Black female partner is horrifying in its complexity. Witnesses worry about the danger that could occur once the police are involved. None of the witnesses wanted a Black man to be murdered by a confrontation with the police, nor did they want the Black female victim to be killed by an institutional force that views almost all Black emotion as violent and threatening. Compounded into the situation is a medical emergency laden with apprehensions about how misidentifying the condition can lead to death. This horrific scene is a real-life example of the theoretical underpinnings of the text: a Black woman at the crux of domestic violence and abuse from a Black man as well as poverty, medical insecurity, police/state/institutional violence, and the lack of a state social security network. The book ends with an open letter to a young Black girl, Ma’khia Bryant, another victim of police violence and a system that too quickly discards Black American girls.

The weakness of the text is also possibly its strength. Depending on the familiarity one has with the topic of Black women and the multifaceted violence they face, this book can either be a great introduction or slightly unnecessary, as other books focus on said violence in greater detail and specificity. The text felt more like an overview than a deep analysis of each arena of systematic violence mentioned. Although a heavy and emotionally taxing request, I wished the author had turned the book into a more personal reflection of the complex and violent situations Black women and nonbinary people face. The text is most potent when Lindsey’s voice is fully activated. Given her training as a historian and academic, her thoughts and actions are already imbued with the historical gravity behind certain moments. Her retelling of the Black woman she comes across during the pandemic is a prime example of this, as it still creates an educational moment for readers. Overall, this book was a sobering examination of the historical and contemporary violence that Black women face in America. The intersectional routes that Black women confront violence are almost suffocating and despairing. It seems the only community is within, but by writing texts like this, Lindsey and other scholars bear witness to the struggle Black women face for a better and more equal future. We must always say their names.

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Chinaza Okonkwo

Chinaza Ruth Okonkwo graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy with Distinction (Honors) and History and minors in Africana Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies. Chinaza also graduated with a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. A Beinecke Scholar, Chinaza's research interests surround Igbo philosophy, gender, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and philosophical issues concerning privacy and technology. Chinaza received the Marshall Scholarship and spent their first year in the UK pursuing an MPhil at the University of Cambridge's Centre for African Studies, focusing on Igbo philosophy and African Intellectual History, and their second year pursuing an MSc in Digital Scholarship at the University of Oxford. She is deeply invested in studying and elevating Black people's histories, experiences, and cultures across the diaspora.

Comments on “The History of Black Women and Violence

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    I enjoyed reading this article by our Nigerian daughter Chinaza. Proud of you!!?? ??

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    Awesome work. Ase’

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