I struggled with the title of this article. I considered the polarity of the words I intended to use and thought that maybe just this once, the situation called for a disclaimer. But the more I allowed the piece to manifest, the more I felt the title needed to be as raw as the reality. Not for the sake of luring readers with consciousness camouflaged as controversy, but because I’m no longer in the business of coddling people from their truth, especially Black men.
The truth is that Black women have lived in a perpetual state of fear and fantasy with Black men for a very long time. Black women have long carried an unyielding, sometimes unexplainable, loyalty to Black men even when that loyalty has cost us our lives. And although Black women have all but verbally committed to being a refuge for Black men’s ruins, for the sake of our survival we can no longer afford to do so.
Women like Sadie Roberts-Joseph, activist, educator and community organizer who dedicated her life to serving the African-American community through the veins of her second home, Baton Rouge, LA, come to mind. Ms. Sadie championed for her community, starting a nonprofit organization, Community Against Drugs and Violence (CADAV), to further the reach of her youth advocacy. Her most impactful contribution, the Baton Rouge Odell S. Williams Now & Then Museum of African-American History, the first and only museum dedicated to the preservation of African and African-American history in the city.
When police identified the body of the beloved community leader stuffed into the trunk of her vehicle and abandoned just three miles from her home, the community jumped at the assumption that Ms. Sadie was targeted for her fight against white supremacy and systemic injustice. It made sense that the people she’d targeted with her activism would make her the target of their violence. It didn’t make sense that she would fall victim to the very people she’d risked her life to serve.
According to a study by the Violence Policy Center, 9 out of 10 Black women murdered by men are murdered by men they know. In instances where the relationship could be determined, 91% of Black female homicide victims knew their killers, Ms. Sadie being no exception to that statement. Black female homicide victims were also most often killed during the course of an argument or disagreement. Like Mary Unique Spears, 27-year old mother of three who was shot and killed outside of a funeral reception in Detroit after arguing with a man who became enraged at her refusing his advances.
Black women are killed by Black men at a rate 3x higher than that of white women killed by white men. And while white men appear to be the standard Black men measure their behavior against, like when conversations about R. Kelly turn into pity parties about how white men get to be pedophiles with impunity, this particular comparison seems to never make the docket. Not only do Black women find themselves being killed by men they know, but most often by men they’ve extended themselves to, by men who’ve come to them after exhausting all other resources, having the expectation that these women will meet their needs in some empathetic way. Men like Ronn Jermaine Bell, 38-year-old convicted child rapist who served a seven-year sentence in connection to the aggravated rape of an 8-year-old girl. As a registered sex offender with restrictions on where he could live, work and socialize, Bell relied on the existential goodness of people to overlook his crime and recognize his humanness. Had it not been for Ms. Sadie allowing Bell to rent an apartment in one of her properties, Bell would’ve likely struggled to secure housing while branded by his scarlet letter. But Ms. Sadie chose compassion, if only that same luxury had been afforded her.
What Ms. Sadie and many Black women fail to realize is that you cannot help people who are committed to hurting, whether that’s hurting other people or hurting themselves. Black women are socialized to see mistreatment from others as an obstacle, not an omen. We’re raised seeing our brothers and cousins coddled through their dysfunction while we receive tips on how best to cope with it later.
We create generations of Black women who feel obligated to repair broken Black men, so much so that many see self-preservation as abandonment or disloyalty. So much so that we will continue to implore one another to “hold a Black man down,” even if that means we’re held down in the process, just so we can brag on our unwavering, unrequited support. Support that has garnered us nothing in return.
Jacquelyn Smith, a 54-year old electrical engineer, supported her 52-year old husband of four years, Keith Smith, despite his string of armed robberies that cost him 12 years of freedom and earned him a felony conviction. She supported Smith and his adult daughter financially according to family, providing him with a very lavish lifestyle. And on December 1st, 2018, when Keith Smith stabbed his wife to death in the front seat of her vehicle, he would point to that very same generosity as the cause of her death, misleading the public to believe Smith was killed while giving money to panhandlers. Despite Smith’s giving nature, she aligned herself with a man who only knew how to take from her, eventually costing her her life.
Black women can no longer afford to rescue wounded Black men. Yes, some of us eventually pay with our lives but these interactions have cost us so much more in the interim. We’re not just rescuing our intendeds, we’re rescuing our brothers, our fathers, our downtrodden male friends. We’re who they call when they need a place to crash, we’re who they call when they need a couple of dollars until payday, we’re who they call when the people they abandon us for turn their backs, we’re who they call when the rest of humanity is refusing to recognize the value of their lives, we’re always who Black men call when they’ve been wounded. Why is it that Black women are everyone’s first pick for savior but worthy to no one of being saved?
We’re just as disenfranchised as our male counterparts, serving a parallel sentence in this country of our kidnapping. Why aren’t we worthy of the support that is demanded of us? If this is the trajectory we’re going to continue to head down, one where we knowingly risk our lives for bragging rights and close call survival stories, ignoring the red flags and warning signs while cutting ourselves trying to piece together other people’s shards, I want off the ride. Black women, at some point, we have to choose life, our own. And regardless of the social backlash that comes with saying “My survival is more important than your rehabilitation,” it needs to be said, repeatedly, because it’s true.
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Prior to the arrest of Ronn Jermaine Bell, Black men responded to the death of Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph with rage. There was talk of protests and retribution, anything to see the assumed white supremacist responsible for her death brought to justice.
But when Baton Rouge Police announced they had arrested Bell, an African-American man, for suspicion of the murder of Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph, Black men responded with dismissal and denial. They went from being fully behind law enforcement to questioning their motives. They diverted energy and attention to baseless conspiracies, arguing that she was killed by the United States government to keep her from opening her museum, a museum she opened almost 20 years ago.
It wasn’t that fiction was more believable than fact, it was that acknowledging the facts surrounding Ms. Sadie’s death would require a level of accountability that coddled men do not possess. And men who lack accountability lack the capacity for change. With that said, if we do not disrupt the pattern on our end, discontinue the buffet of unconditional support and sacrifice, we cannot expect people who are intentional on emptying us to suddenly decide they’ve had their fill. Black women are worth protecting, worth preserving and certainly worth saving. Who better equipped to save us than ourselves?