Say Her Name

Let us remember that no woman is more likely to be murdered in America today than a Black woman. No woman is more likely to be raped than a Black woman. No woman is more likely to be beaten either by a stranger or by someone she loves and trusts than a black woman. Black women are the greatest demographic influenced by mass incarceration, yet very little academic literature or research studies this tragic escalation.

Last Friday, the Ella Baker Center organized an event to remember Sandra Bland and honor black women who have been killed by state violence. After I read the names of 39 black women and girls who had been killed by police, I paused and asked the crowd gathered if they had any names to add. I held my breath while someone spoke out and I joined the crowd in “Say Her Name.”

Name after name for about five minutes we let the names of loved ones and those we could not find online, in reports, in the news, or from our neighbors be spoken aloud. Names of black mothers, black daughters, black sisters, black trans women, black queer women, black women with mental disabilities, black women with new jobs, and black grandmothers to be spoken aloud honored, remembered, and recognized.

When the naming ended, we went into a moment of silence. I had planned to time the moment of silence for 90 seconds, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull my phone out after all those women had surfaced in the space. So when I bowed my head I sang a song to myself: “We Shall Overcome.” I don’t know why that song was the first to come to mind, but it was ironic and awful.

In a space, where we were supposed to honor Sandra Bland and many other black women, I was not feeling hopeful. I was not feeling certain. I was not feeling courageous. I was scared. I was angry. I was filled with rage and sadness.

Like so many of the other black women, that came to speak at the Ella Baker Center’s #SayHerName vigil last Friday night, I was mourning. I was grieving for the loss of Sandra Bland, Kendra Chapman, Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, and so many more. Black women went up one by one and spoke of their own personal horrific encounters with police and those of their loved ones: their sons, their daughters, their mothers.

The microphone was reserved for them. The microphone was intentionally designated to lift up and radiate black women’s voices. I hugged each of my sisters as they came up to the mic and as they left.

At first, no woman wanted to speak. I thought I would have to read poems all night, but slowly but surely, we encouraged each other. Each woman gave a little more courage to the next woman. Brittaney Carter told me she felt moved to speak when she “saw the women before me who spoke, specifically how they went to the mic even knowing that they hadn’t fully processed how they felt or what exactly they wanted to say.” 

We were not giving speeches. We were sharing our own unscripted feelings on the violence happening to us and in our communities. I witnessed us get stronger as the night went on by leaning on the energy and determination of each other.

I thought when we made it clear that only black women could speak someone would argue with us or someone who didn’t identify as a black women would get up late into the program and beg to speak. Surprisingly to me, everyone respected our space as if we were the white males in the room.

Brittaney said the most moving aspect of the event was “putting Black women at the center”. I believe this is why the event was so emotional, so powerful. When was the last time you went to a meeting, a performance, a play, a movie, a concert, a protest, a party, a debate, or anything where only black women spoke? The space is very rarely created and by just drawing the lines in the sand and encouraging only black women to talk we created a space of power when the world around may deem us powerless.

I think sometimes the world is afraid to gives us the mic, because they know we don’t have the nicest things to say. And when my sisters went up there to speak, we cried, we yelled, we explained, we celebrated, we loved, and we screamed.  

There was not necessarily a hopeful spin, and there was not supposed to be. We created a space where there didn’t have to be hope. I wished that the space would become a place for people to mourn together, to realize we can’t get through this alone that we can’t grieve all alone. When I hugged each woman that left the stage, I did not tell her it was going to be ok, because I don’t know if it will.

Yet, when I bowed my head after reading 39 names of those lost to police violence—and knowing there were so many more—I sang “We Shall Overcome. My subconscious brought it to the forefront of my thoughts. It moved past all the pain, grief, rage, and desperation to stand at the very front of my mind. How do we let hope always sneak back into our bodies?

Hope, this small affliction called resilience, called resistance. Even with all the pain that was shared at the microphone, there is nothing that makes me believe in our triumph more than the women who spoke on that stage.

What I learned from the vigil is that not every space, not every rally, not every demonstration has to be a call to action. Sometimes there needs to be a space to just let everything you are bottling up inside you out with people who understand to support you and catch you.  This was that space.  Even in that space of pain and hurt, when honest visceral testimonies are spilled at your feet, it is near impossible for you to not find hope in the grace and power of each other.