Note: I absolutely do not wish to appropriate these individuals, their stories, or the problems minorities face by usurping this campaign for my own spiritual experience. I still have blind spots and I still make mistakes, so if this is in any way insensitive, please let me know. Thanks.
I recently had a conversation with my boyfriend about the ways in which people hear and experience God. Though we both were implicitly taught the two primary ways to hear God are scripture and prayer, we agreed we more frequently experience God in completely different, unexpected ways. As I recounted one of my more recent experiences, I couldn’t help but begin to cry. This was my experience:
I listened to a TED talk titled The Urgency of Intersectionality in which something rather incredible happened. The talk, given by Kimberlé Crenshaw – a well established law professor at UCLA and Columbia, as well as co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum – focused on the concept of intersectionality (a term coined by Crenshaw), specifically how it applies to police violence toward black women. The talk was also an extension of the #SayHerName initiative, launched by the AAPF in in 2015. According to the initiative’s page on the AAPF website,
“The #SayHerName Movement responds to increasing calls for attention to police violence against Black women by offering a resource to help ensure that Black women’s stories are integrated into demands for justice, policy responses to police violence, and media representations of victims of police brutality.”
To simplify, this campaign seeks to reclaim and spread awareness of the identities and narratives of black women who have been unjustly killed or brutalized by police but who are often forgotten or not mentioned in headlines. I cannot articulate a precise explanation for why this trends exists -other than that age old marriage between systemic sexism and racism- but it is definitely significant. After all, most of us, even those of us who support BLM and try to pay attention to news of this nature, can name far fewer black female victims than we can black male victims. This unfortunate and telling trend erases the unique experiences of WOC, diminishes the comparative significance of their stories, and reinforces the need for intersectional advocacy and awareness.
In practical terms, this trend also hurts the effectiveness of racial justice advocacy as it relates to police brutality. To quote Crenshaw,
“Although black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality. Yet, inclusion of black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives, and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for black communities and other communities of color.”
This makes sense. After all, it is black women who are consistently the voices and organizers behind many important social movements. For instance, the BLM movement was started by three black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, has also played a key role in spreading the movement by protesting and campaigning. Elizabeth Jennings Graham’s insistence of her right to ride NYC transit led to the desegregation of all NYC transit systems by 1865. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin founded the American Suffrage Association, was a co-founding member of the NAACP, started the first newspaper published by a black woman, and convened the First National Conference of Colored Women. Mary Church Terrell, among many other impressive contributions, worked on the lawsuit that eventually led to the criminalization of all segregated restaurants in DC. Other black women whose voices were paramount to various justice movements include Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Ida B.Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Angela Davis, and many, many more. Needless to say, these fierce black women deserve a seat at the table, and that includes, sad as it may be, being recognized, mourned, and supported in our efforts to address police brutality. During the TEDtalk, Crenshaw led the audience through an exercise intended for exactly that purpose.
This exercise, meant to reestablish these women’s identities, to reclaim and recognize their importance and value, and to bear witness to the injustice and lack of dignity employed by those who fail to acknowledge them, was powerful. It went as follows: A large screen displayed the names of black female victims of police violence. As names appeared on the screen, audience members yelled or said the name out loud. Some audience members were subtle and inward during this exercise. Others displayed combinations of triumph and desperation.
Listening to this was a harrowing experience, and I wasn’t even actually there! I am constantly astounded by the ways in which I experience God, but I have come to recognize that experiences such as this one are how I hear God most. But, no matter how often I have these experiences, they always takes me off guard. So imagine my surprise, and lack of emotional control, when I heard these names – names criminalized and forgotten by us but cherished by God – shouted in this exercise in redemption. For a brief moment, I thought I could almost understand the way God’s heart breaks for us. I thought I could feel it. Oh, how my heart wept!
One need not be a Christian to recognize the value in another person’s life, so this would likely be a powerfully emotional experience regardless of one’s religious beliefs. I will also admit that an exercise like this employs certain tactics specifically meant to elicit an emotional response, and I am not immune to those tactics. However, I genuinely believe there was more to this experience than benevolent emotional manipulation or some sort of universal connection. I felt the Spirit move me. With the annunciation of each name, I heard the voice of a loving God who mourns for and alongside His children. More importantly, I heard the triumphant cry of a God who hates when we commit evil against one another and who brought redemption into the world through Christ.
Through Christ’s act on the cross, he defeated death and brought redemption and freedom into the world – and he did that through triumphant suffering. Now, I’m not at all suggesting the deaths of these black women were triumphant – in case one is inclined to twist my words in that way. However, I am suggesting that this exercise and #SayHerName are in fact triumphant reflections of Christ’s act on the cross. They are a form of powerful poetic justice. Just think about it: someone’s life is lost to violence at the hands of those who have sworn to protect and serve, and to add insult to injury, their names are forgotten, their stories buried. Though this exercise does not undo the injustices that occurred, shouting their names in this manner and for this purpose is an act of redemption, one which I am inclined to believe glorifies God and exemplifies both the love God has for us and the love Christ commands us to have for each other.
You see, scripture tells us that God knows us before we are even born. He knows the number of hairs on our head. These black women meant something to God. Regardless of which side of the BLM debate you are on, if you are a Christian, you cannot deny that these black women had inherent value and were infinitely loved by the Lord. Surely we all recognize their deaths as tragic, and that God mourned each and every one of them, regardless of whether or not one personally thinks they were justified. So, to those of you who oppose BLM and deny that police brutality and racial injustice is a problem in the US, I invite you to join me in tuning our ears to the voice of the Lord. Let’s lay aside our perceptions and differences, our politics and biases, and acknowledge these black women as beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully made children of God whose lives had value and meaning. Let’s celebrate that Christ brought redemption to us and it is still alive and active today, often in the form of surprising and emotional responses to tragedy. Let’s relinquish our pride and stubbornness and participate in this redemption together.
From what I could gather, the following names are those used in Crenshaw’s exercise (unfortunately, this is not an exhaustive list):
Natasha Mckenna, Alexia Christian, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Stanley Jones, Shantel Davis, Aura Rosser, Gabriella Nevarez, India Kager, Kendra James, Kyam Livingston, Alesia Thomas, Meagan Hockaday, Miriam Carey, Pearlie Golden, Yvette Smith, Kisha Michael, India Beaty, Symone Marshall, Jessica Williams, Korryn Gaines, Deborah Danner, Alberta Spruill, Danette Daniels, Duanna Johnson, Eleanor Bumpurs, Frankie Ann Perkins, Gynnya Mcmillen, Janisha Fonville, Joyce Curnell, Kathryn Johnston, LaTanya Haggerty, Malissa Williams, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Margaret Mitchell, Mya Hall, Nizah Morris, Ralkina Jones, Redel Jones, Sharmel Edwards, Sheneque Proctor, Shereese Francis, Sonji Taylor, Tanisha Anderson, Tarika Wilson, Tyisha Miller
Please, if you have a moment, say a prayer for these women and other victims. Write them down in your journal or on a scrap sheet of paper and specifically pray over them. Pray for comfort for their families. Pray for grace, forgiveness, and revelation for those who refuse to see the injustice of their deaths. Pray for remorse and accountability for those responsible for their deaths. Give thanks for people like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Abby Dobson for what they do to bring awareness, justice, education, and, ultimately, redemption, back into these black women’s stories. Pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to ignite Christlike love and mourning in our hearts, that we would never grow hardened or numb to the evils in this world. And when you finish that prayer, if you have the courage to do so, say their names. Cry them out or gently whisper them. Speak them with the spiritual authority and love that dwells in all believers.
As believers we are called to love God, love others, and be the salt and light of the world. We are called to celebrate, honor, and participate in redemption. We are also called to listen for the Lord’s voice and recognize His image in others. This is how we do it.