#SayHerName: Why We Must Do the Necessary Work to Stop Erasure

by June Beshea

“Who is Sandra Bland?” was spray painted on the confederate monument, affectionately called ‘Silent Sam’, that watches over the entrance to north campus at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. On a regular day thousands of people walk past the monument and for the two hours that I sat and stared at the sloppy words that marked the sides I noticed they all had one thing in common, no one had an answer to the question that was posed.

At first it was amusing, as reporters asked white person after white person if they knew who she was or what happened to her and the singular answer they got was doe-like eyes directed at the camera lens. After an hour though, that amusement changed to intense concern and I was left with a set of questions: How come no one knew who Sandra Bland was? Why were no Black womyn interviewed? Plenty had filed by that spot but to the media it was almost as if they were invisible.

The statue on August 18th, 2015, the first day of class at UNC-Chapel Hill
The spray painting of Silent Sam lined up with an event I had been planning since the summer, a #SayHerName vigil on campus with the purpose of providing a place of healing for Black womyn and allies in the community. Given the timing there were rumors being spread of my involvement in the vandalism, and with this on the forefront of everyone’s minds the only mention of my name was to tie me to the act. At the time however, I would have been unable to exhaust energy towards vandalism. I was near the end of planning the vigil, which had involved me reading through each story that I could find of black womyn being killed by police and that had taken a toll on my emotional health; the tales of rape and murder seemed to be compounding on my psyche at this point.

‘Who is Sandra Bland?’ should have been accompanied by hundreds of other names of Black womyn erased, silenced and murdered. ‘Who is Mya Hall?' ‘Who is Miriam Carey?’ ‘Who is Michelle Cusseaux?’ and on and on until trying to say all of the names made my mouth feel like cotton that could no longer absorb the bloody history. Add this to the fact that there was a constant need to take my work and pin it on male-centered groups and also on my male colleagues, including the local NAACP chapter and the campus Black Student Movement. There was even a insistent questioning as to why a vigil needed to be held just for Black womyn at all, as if the need to mourn/heal was not enough to justify bringing our community together. What they meant to say with this questioning was the death of Black womyn was not a good enough reason to hold a vigil.

The night of the vigil was a somber validation of what I had thought up until then to be paranoia. Even after I spoke that night and detailed my struggles with planning and my aim for the space as one of healing and uplifting of Black womyn, I noticed that at the end, when it was time for reporters to make their rounds and interview participants and onlookers, not a single Black womyn was approached. The only person given an interview was the male president of the local NAACP chapter.

No names of the Black womyn remembered that night were published in the paper and the purpose of the event was not mentioned at any point. I say this with the hope that it was not done explicitly to erase me, those in attendance or the womyn who we had come together to mourn over still the lack of understanding about how Black womyn are erased from history was jarring. Here I was planning an event that had the aim to say the names of womyn who go unheard and to uplift the voices of Black womyn in my community who are often not given space to speak and heal, and we were all actively being silenced.
Picture of womyn after the vigil on the steps of Wilson Library. August 24th, 2015
My experience was far from a singular event; the history of Black womyn in the course of liberation has been one of erasure. Often it is men who are heralded as the sole authority on blackness. This is a trend that is prevalent today. Turn on your TV and Marc Lamont Hill is the face of Black intellectual thought. Get on twitter and Deray will be your principal source on all things #BlackLivesMatter. Want to read a book on Blackness in this country? Ta-Nehisi Coates will be recommended. This is not to say that these men do not contribute in positive ways to the community. It is to say, however, that Blackness is still seen through the lens of Black masculinity and also that the contributions of Black womyn are not recognized on a large scale. Black womyn are silenced, erased, murdered without any uproar and this silencing is perpetuated not just by mainstream white media but by the way in which we view Blackness in this country.

This centering of male experiences at the expense of womyn is detrimental to our cause; it has stopped our progress before and could easily do so now. Combating this injustice means a conscious effort to center womyn throughout the movement; if you are for Black lives, you must #SayHerName #TellHerStory #GiveHerCredit #LetHerSpeak or whatever other hashtag you can think of that helps drive home the idea that Black womyn deserve to be remembered, to speak, to be heard and to be recognized.

Photo: June Beshea

June Beshea is slam poet and artivist who makes her home in Atlanta, GA. She is currently a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill where she has launched her initiative, #BlackHeal, to create healing spaces for Black people in the triangle area.

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