Blood on the Leaves: Black Women and the New Lynching

by Farah Tanis

“My purpose is to go back to Texas and stop all the injustices in the South.” —Sandra Bland's words before returning to Texas, as reported by her mother Geneva Reed-Veal

The hanging deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman in Texas and Alabama jail cells, and the deaths of three other Black women in state custody—Ralkina Jones in Ohio, Raynetta Turner in New York, and Joyce Curnell in South Carolina—continue to make it explicit that in a country steeped in white supremacist violence, we as people of African descent are slated for persistent repression, brutalization, and death. The burning of Black churches, the killing of Black men with impunity, and the torture of Black women and our transgender brothers and sisters by state actors is an apparent repetition of a particular, purposeful, and racist history that continues to stain our nation with the blood of the oppressed. The words of the late great jazz singer Billie Holiday—“southern trees bear strange fruit”—still resonates and her declaration of “blood on the leaves and blood at the root” is as true today as it was decades ago.

Within the context of a white supremacist culture of violence, it is no coincidence that we are once again in mourning. We are once again grappling with brutal violations resembling those inflicted during war, during moments of heightened political mobilization and raised consciousness among the oppressed. The suppression of populations considered dangerous to the status quo, and the suppression of movements during politically charged times often characterized by strategic and targeted violence. Within the context of a white supremacist culture of violence, political repression has been well recorded in our history, in Black narratives on freedom, and in our stories about journeys toward full civil rights and political agency.

Within the past eight years, the political imperative and influence of Black communities has grown exponentially, and Black women’s political culture and political agency has been a revolutionary force. Black women voted in record numbers in the last two elections, carrying the first Black president of the United States to victory in 2008 and 2012. Black women groups, organizations, leaders, and foot soldiers have sprung up everywhere.

Just as the lynching death of Laura Nelson in 1911, who was hanged along with her son from a bridge across the North Canadian River, or the lynching death of eight months pregnant Mary Turner in 1918, who was hanged from a tree in Lowndes County, Georgia, and hundreds of others in the Jim Crow South sent a clear message of terror to those aspiring to vote and organize, we at Black Women’s Blueprint posit that we’re in for a battle of political and historical significance. We're in for a battle where Black women’s lives, their activism, and what happens to Black women’s bodies will undoubtedly influence the course and discourse around power and community liberation.

We lament the deaths of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Ralkina Jones, Raynetta Turner, Joyce Curnell, and the many others whose names we continue to speak. They remind us that our experiences as Black women with state violence are testaments to the ways gendered forms of racism are deployed to undermine our very existence, our well-being, and the full political participation of our entire communities—as many are still missing from the front lines, disenfranchised, and traumatized. Whether someone put a bag, a sheet, or rope around these women’s necks, or they died after torment by alleged “suicide,” white supremacy is killing Black women.

During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, people of African descent sought recognition of our human rights, and subsequently, lynching, torture, castration, rape, and intimidation tactics were weaponized to control the minds and repress the political agency of Black communities. White supremacist violence attempts to send the message that none of us should vote, speak, gather, protest, or aspire to walk, work, and live where we choose. With each church burning; each Black man shot; and Black woman hung, raped, or shackled, the message to Black communities is the same: do not breathe, let alone attempt to lead or define the future of our communities, our families or ourselves—let alone the political future of this great nation.

As Black folks become more and more empowered—especially now during these highly political times—there will be attempts to subvert our full humanity, equity, and fundamental human rights, as has happened with the violence, arrest, and pepper spraying of attendees after The Movement for Black Lives Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. This is how political repression works; with the blood of the oppressed “on the leaves and at the root” of abusive systems, on concrete sidewalks, backseats of police cars, and inside jail cells.

This is how repression works. White supremacist violence has always involved the actual or threatened use of physical force against Black individuals, groups, and institutions for the purpose of imposing fear, despair, pain, and profound loss in Black communities. Its purpose is to deter specific activities or notions—like freedom, reform, dismantling racism, or patriarchal and classist constructs—and the belief that Black lives matter. All of these threaten status quo practices in a white supremacist culture of violence.

When two Black women in state custody are hanged a little more than a day apart and three others are found dead in jail cells across the country within a month, it is beyond devastating. We are once again grieving and once again mourning. The deaths of these five Black women have sent us reeling from yet another attack on personal integrity and the individual survival and security of Black women, and every one of us. The after-effects of this type of structural violence and extortion of Black lives from communities already under siege, is how repression works. Tactics of repression—like police brutality, rape, and the strategic hanging of Black women from front-yard trees, public bridges, or ceiling rods—have been used before to reinforce white supremacy, embolden state actors, and normalize the violation of basic rights, like voting; freedom of speech, assembly, and movement; or peaceful boycott and protest without criminal or civil penalties.

The systematic triggering of perpetual states of fight or flight and mourning among the oppressed during these political times is no coincidence. It is indicative of a greater dynamic—an old and persistent dynamic—bent on producing and reproducing mass trauma among a people trying to heal while mobilizing for self-empowerment and freedom, and while claiming political spaces not only for themselves, but for future generations. We are a people once again enraged. We are angry, and in the words of Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, “The anger can be channeled into something that is so much greater." As a Black mother-warrior, Ms. Reed-Veal also declared, “I’m ready. … This means war.” Black women are being murdered, lynched, raped, and brutalized. The movement for Black lives must continue to act, mobilize, and lift up the voices of Black women and girls, until finally there is justice and peace.

Farah Tanis is a transnational feminist and co-founder and Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint, working at the grassroots to address the spectrum of sexual violence against women and girls in Black/African American communities, and working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the nation on issues of gender, race, sexuality, anti-violence policy and practice. Tanis launched and Chairs the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. ever to focus on Black women and their historical and contemporary experiences with sexual assault. She is founder and is lead curator at the Museum of Women's Resistance (MoWRe), which in 2013 became internationally recognized as a Site of Conscience. Tanis created Mother Tongue Monologues, a theatrical and multimedia art vehicle for addressing Black sexual politics in African American, African, Afro-Caribbean communities. Tanis is a NoVo Foundation - Move to End Violence Program, Cohort 3 Movement Maker, a 2012 U.S. Human Rights Institute Fellow (USHRN) and a member of the Task Force on the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Tanis is the recipient of several awards for her human rights work, including a 2014 Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. Magazine Wonder Award.

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