Originally published at FreeQuency. Republished with full permission.
When I first heard about the murder of Trayvon Martin, I was livid. I remember the searing heat I felt at yet another black person becoming a disposable character in the American narrative of violence against black bodies. Despite my anger, the initial media storm and protests that surrounded his death gave me hope that Americans were finally going to have to confront our blatantly racist society. By the time the Trayvon Martin verdict came out however (and let’s be clear, he was on trial just as much as Zimmerman) the initial feeling of hope I had was long gone. The time in between the injustice of his death and the injustice of the verdict exposed me to how deeply Americans had read into the racist narrative this country has been writing since its “discovery”.
A day after the verdict, I met up with my friend Jose to attend a solidarity rally in remembrance of Trayvon in New Orleans. Before the rally, we sat down to make signs and I started to think about what the endemic violence against black bodies meant to me as a black woman. I thought back to the pain I saw in Sabrina Fulton’s (Trayvon’s mother) face when she was on the news and how I’d seen face before on countless nameless mothers who I only knew by virtue of their dead black sons. I was 22 and hadn’t thought much about motherhood, but I found myself confronting the truth that I could very easily join their ranks if I were to ever have a child. As I painfully faced the fact that I would never experience the white privilege and luxury of not fearing for my children’s safety, I wrote this sign:
In making that sign I was (without even realizing it) connecting the struggle for Reproductive Justice that was started by black women in the 1980s to the age-old American narrative of violence against black bodies (In the time since I made the sign, the high profile deaths of Jordan Russell Davis [11/23/2012], Jonathan Ferrell [9/14/2013], Renisha McBride [11/2/2013], Eric Garner [7/17/2014], John Crawford [8/5/2014], and most recently Mike Brown [8/9/2014], have made sure that I don’t forget that new chapters in this racist narrative are continually being written). SisterSong defines Reproductive Justice framework as:
The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments — is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions is important for women of color.It represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.
For decades black women have been advocating for the expansion of women’s rights to move beyond the Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life dichotomy to encompass our right to health and safety not just during family planning and childbirth, but as we raise our children. Young black people like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, and now, most recently, Mike Brown did not experience RJ. Black fathers like Eric Garner did not experience RJ. Their inability to grow up or parent in safety in this society is an integral part of the struggle for RJ. While mainstream (read: white) activists have focused on the Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life debate, black women realized decades ago that this limiting framework would not work for the complex interactions our bodies, families and communities experience in this society (according to the New York Times though, women’s rights advocates [read: white advocates] are just now “discovering” RJ ). In the wake of Mike Brown’s death, Imani Gandy, Senior Legal Analyst for RH Reality Check posted the following tweets that echoed these sentiments:
Black and brown women have the right to raise their children without fearing they will be gunned down in the street like animals by cops.
— Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) August 10, 2014
I saw so many people on Twitter saying "I don't want to have/raise black children in this country." That is a reproductive justice issue.
— Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) August 10, 2014
This is why repro justice is so important. It goes far beyond the right to terminate a pregnancy to include the right to mother w/o fear. — Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) August 10, 2014
We as a society cannot continue to pretend that the historical and contemporary violence on black bodies is not endemic and is not tied to the struggle for Reproductive Justice that black women began in the 80s. We cannot continue to misrepresent the issues of violence against black communities as singular and isolated and not related to our right to be born and live safely in healthy communities as advocated for under the RJ framework. Another issue of misrepresentation, that has come up in the wake of Mike Brown’s death has been the issue of media portrayal, specifically the consistent attempt to use racist propaganda in the media to vilify black people who have been murdered. It happened to Trayvon, it happened to Renisha, and it happened to Mike Brown. This time however, people are collectively speaking out against it. By way of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, young black folks are speaking out against how the media portrays us when we are the victims of the legacy of American violence. I was so moved when I saw the images coming up behind this hashtag that I made my own:
Later that day, as I was reflecting on the recent high profile murders of black people in this country, I confronted another truth that had been on my mind and changed my caption:
— FreeQuency (@FreeQThaMighty) August 11, 2014
But that my friends, is a post for another day.