Your Education or Social Status Won't Save You From Domestic Violence

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by Arlecia D. Simmons

Jeannine Shante Skinner, 35.

Her name was not familiar nor was it in my Facebook or cell phone contacts.

“Initial information indicates the incident is possibly domestic related, and the victim and suspect knew each other, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said,” reported The Charlotte Observer under the headline “Slain UNCC professor ‘had so much to give to Charlotte.’”

Reading the fate of Skinner immediately shifted me into a space of lament as I read the September 2 news article posted in a closed Facebook group for minority female academics.

“This could have easily been me.”

I reposted the news report and added the caption “So sad. Hits close to home on so many levels.” The story resonated with me as I looked at the mocha-kissed sister whose hair was woven like mine in locs with blonde highlights. Her career ended at the same university where my teaching career started, and she was young. 

Although a few years my junior, she was a member of what I call the “Sistah Docs”: women of African descent who now hold earned doctorate degrees in various disciplines. Skinner, an assistant professor of gerontology and psychology in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, didn’t live to publish that seminal textbook students will read to learn more about aging. Her story becomes an addendum to the countless log of women who died at the hands of a partner, lover, husband, or someone who loved them to death.

There is no one “type” of woman who finds herself at the end of a gun, knife, hammer, brick, or ice pick, yet there’s often a perception that women who are subject to violence are poor, of a lower class, or are mothers dependent on men. We are saddened by their homicides as we silently question and ask, “Why didn’t they just leave?” Every 9 seconds in the United States a woman is assaulted or beaten.

But after being judgmental I’ve had to confront my own dating and mating choices and ask why did I stay in situations that could have easily ended with my mama calling our sorority sisters to prepare my final ceremony.

Although I know nothing more about Skinner than what has been reported in news reports, I have been the woman ready to conquer my beloved profession in a new city without family, and often more than ready to take a chance on love. Often new transitions, tenure and promotions, family obligations, and just plain old vulnerability derail our vetting processes. Before we know it, we’re in “Bae-dom.” He says what we want to hear, responds how we need him to respond, and he may even vacuum or wash dishes to lighten our loads. All the while, our guards begin to come down.

I mean, I, Arlecia the trained journalist who teaches interviewing skills, would have never believed I would once end up going on multiple dates with a man on the sexual offender registry. Of course, he was innocent, and there’s a reasonable doubt that he could be based on how black and brown men are coerced to plead to guilty instead of going to trial. While I could not be judge nor jury for an offense I had no evidence of beyond his personal testimony. I had to decide if his actions and words lined up. His words were convincing while the actions were not. Before my safety or that of others were jeopardized, I was blessed to be able to walk away. Sadly, that’s not the reality for many who find themselves in relationships where grace has been extended and love given only for a not-so-happily-ever-after.

In memory of Skinner, I vow to pay more attention to church members, students, and sisters I encounter who are trying to find strength and direction to exit a violent union. As a seminary-trained minister with 400 hours as a chaplain intern, I recognize that helping women escape toxic relationships isn’t easy. For many, leaving only occurs after multiple attempts. And then there are the children. Thus, allies and listening ears may find themselves between rocks and hard places.

But will we risk experiencing the tension of those hard places to help keep a sister alive? Will we stop avoiding the writing on our own walls as we try to love people to life who may not chose to do the same for us?

Ironically on the same day the public learns about Skinner’s death and her family, friends, colleagues, and students begin to grieve her life, OWN Network aired the second-part of a new series called the Black Love Documentary. As I engaged in the Twitterverse with other viewers, it was clear information about healthy relationships and communication needed to be more intentionally infused into our community. I even tweeted that a curriculum needed to be developed and taught to coincide with show.

Maybe, just maybe, learning how to manage our emotions, communicate, and work through issues may help couples build stronger unions and show men and women that silencing a partner through death is not the only way to end a disagreement. Who knows if helping people of color embrace mental health counseling and increasing its access will stop partner violence?

There’s usually one degree of separation between Sistah Docs. I lament today that I’ll never meet Sistah Doc Jeannine or hear about her research over brunch. I speak and write her name, and pray that someone will read these words and realize that love doesn’t have to hurt or kill.

Arlecia Simmons Ph.D., M.Div., is a writer, ordained minister, and a Visiting Professor of Mass Communications at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. She is the author of Diggin' For Treasure: Jewels of Hope When Pressure & Time Collide.

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