After learning that errant bullets, the ones that lodged in walls and punctured glass, were a crime, while the rounds that pierced Breonna Taylor’s body and caused her death were not, Black women across the nation went to work.
We returned e-mails, walked dogs, taught classes, made meals, and attended meetings. We reared children, loved partners, led marches, and delivered mail. We practiced medicine or law, drove buses or carpools, studied, published, and dared sleep. We did all of this while weathering the devastating truth—we, like Breonna Taylor, live unprotected lives, lives that are laden with the types of risks that can instantly loose a daughter from her mother and a woman from her dreams.
Yet despite this ever-present risk and the harrowing finality of Breonna Taylor’s unnatural, untimely, and unatoned “death,” Black women continue to show up.
This is in part because while we exist within a culture that demeans us, a labor market that devalues us, and a political climate that disregards us, this nation still depends on us. Even as Black women process the state-sanctioned affronts to Breonna Taylor’s humanity as affronts to our own, we work, comfort, advocate, and care for everything and everyone around us—even when doing so places us in peril.
In a recorded phone call to the ex-boyfriend whose illegal exploits would lead police to her door with a no-knock warrant, Breonna Taylor expressed concerns about his well-being “with the police.” Famed Houston rapper Meg Thee Stallion was recently shot in both feet by a lesser known Black male artist, and yet was initially reticent to tell police what happened because, as she later noted on Instagram Live, “Police was literally killing Black people for no reason.” Meg, like Breonna, was acutely vulnerable, yet as she bled from wounds in her feet she placed the needs of her assailant above her own.
Many Black women place others above themselves.
Dawn Wooten placed immigrant women who endured forced hysterectomies while detained above her own career. Patricia Okoumou placed migrant children above her own safety when she scaled the Statue of Liberty sans equipment to protest their cages. Bree Newsome Bass placed a grieving nation above her own freedom when, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, she snatched down the South Carolina Confederate flag and was arrested. And young Black women everywhere, like Ieshia Evans and Erica Garner, place our Trayvons, our Michaels, our Altons, and our Erics above their own futures as they publicly confront the state forces that endanger Black lives.
When Black women sacrifice despite suffering or show up for others in the midst of our own need, too often the acts are reduced to “strength.” This narrow depiction of Black womanhood is a relic of stereotypes that deny Black women the fullness of our humanity and the femininity often afforded (or imposed upon) white women. And so what is often cast as brute strength is more precisely a consequence of the unique positioning reserved for Black women in the US political economy.
We are breadwinners. In comparison to other women, Black women have long had the highest participation in the labor market, no matter our age, marital or childbearing status. This was true in the late 1800s and it remains true today. More than 80 percent of Black mothers are the breadwinners in their households.
Yet we also sit at the catastrophic intersection of racial caste, gendered violence, and the economic deprivation that defines both. As a result, when compared to men, and breadwinner dads in particular, Black women earn less, way less. Black breadwinner moms earn only “34 cents for every dollar earned by Asian breadwinner dads, 44 cents for every dollar earned by white breadwinner dads, and 52 cents for every dollar earned by Black breadwinner dads.” It would essentially take Black women a year, and sometimes longer, to garner the equivalent income of their male peers of any race. Consequently, more than one in four households headed by Black women live below the poverty line. Thus to exert power, Black women have become the most highly educated group in the United States with the highest voting rates.
As the primary earners within our households, the lowest earners in the labor market, and the most educated and enfranchised demographic, Black women serve as critical pillars for economic and social stability. This applies in their homes, in their communities, and in society writ large, where low-income households lead by Black women are also disproportionately among the highest-taxed groups.
So right now, in 2020, Black women are more likely to have our labor deemed essential while our bodies are rendered disposable. We are both overexposed to a deadly virus and unshielded from racism’s quotidian and lethal bullshit and violence. And yet we still show up—at home, work, the polls, and school.
So the real question is, who will show up for us?
Over 26 million people protested the murder of George Floyd. But who fought for our Rekias, our Atatianas, our Aiyanas and our Sandras?
Despite the growing list of publicized platitudes and consumerized condolences from America’s corporate class and pandering politicians, living while Black and female has taught us that the privileged will only offer to remember, never remunerate, what we’ve lost. This is partly because what we’ve lost has actually been taken. And partly because the beloved humans that have been stolen can never be replaced. And so forgetting becomes some sort of a national pastime, and promising to remember passes for liberation.
But Black women cannot live on well-wishes. We cannot eat indignation. In the absence of actual justice, who will just protect us?