Sybrina Fulton mother of Trayvon Martin, speaks at the National Bar Association annual convention, July 29, 2013. (Reuters/Joe Skipper)
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, has been a textbook example of courage in the seventeen months since her youngest son was killed by George Zimmerman. Thrust into the public sphere during a time of great personal tragedy, Fulton has carried her pain with incredible poise. It was no different when she spoke before the National Urban League in Philadelphia this past Friday. She told the audience: “My message to you is please use my story, please use my tragedy, please use my broken heart to say to yourself, ’We cannot let this happen to anybody else’s child.’ ”
In that moment, she made the connection between herself and Mamie Till, mother of Emmett Till, the teen slain in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a woman, even stronger. Speaking on her decision to have an open casket at his funeral after her son’s face had been so badly beaten and disfigured he was unrecognizable, Mamie said: “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” These mothers of black sons publicly asked us to use their pain to seek justice. However, the way we use that pain cannot diminish the reality of the people who live with it. By which I mean, we have a bad habit of acting as if black women exist only as props in the story about black men and it’s time to stop.
Black women’s pain fuels but then becomes obscured in the popular narrative about the consequences of racism and the fight for racial justice, as it becomes framed through the experiences of black men. All of us who do work around these issues are guilty of this oversight, myself included. In our attempts to address the problem of anti-black racism in the US, we neglect to consider the experiences of black women as part of that story.
While the Congressional Black Caucus convened a meeting to discuss the plight of black men and boys, black women and girls who suffer under the same systems of oppression being discussed as problematic for our boys have been left out of the public discourse. We talk often of the criminalization of black boys, and point to the school-to-prison pipeline as an example, but fail to mention the ways it affects black girls, as Monique W. Morris laid out in her report for African American Policy Forum in March of this year. According to Morris: “Black women and girls continue to be over-represented among those who are in contact with the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Black girls continue to experience some of the highest rates of residential detention. Black girls represent the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population, and they have experienced the most dramatic rise in middle school suspension rates in recent years.” Yet, the problem continues to be framed as a nearly exclusive to black men and boys.