On Systemic Violence, the Black Body and Reproductive Justice

by Mwende Katwiwa

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 that face before on countless 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 (pictured above):

In making that sign I was, without even realizing it, connecting the struggle for Reproductive Justice (RJ) that was started by black women in 1994 to the centuries-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 the Reproductive Justice framework as:

“the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments — [it] 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/Pro-Life dichotomy to encompass our right to health and safety not just during family planning and childbirth but as we raise our children. 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. 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 that is often overlooked. 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:

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 RJ that black women began decades ago. We cannot continue to misrepresent the issues of systemic violence against black communities as singular, isolated and not related to our right to be born and live safely in healthy communities as advocated for under the RJ framework. Most urgently, we cannot afford to lose any more of our children due to reproductive oppression at any stages of their or our lives.

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 (see article linked above), it happened to Renisha, and it’s happening 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 below with this caption:

“This #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, what picture would they use? We all know”
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 to:

“This #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, what picture would they use? Would I even make it to national media? I am a brown girl after all”

But that my friends, is a post for another day. 

Photo Credit: Nola.com

Mwende Katwiwa is a 23 year black womyn activist living in New Orleans with a dual degree in Political Economy (with a focus on International Perspectives) and Africa & African Diaspora Studies from Tulane University. She currently works at Women With A Vision (a social justice non-profit dedicated to harm reduction and achieving Reproductive Justice for black women), is a founding member of Winnovating (a website dedicated to highlighting the work of women innovators), and is the 16th ranked female spoken word artist in the nation under the stage name FreeQuency.

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