When does survival become more important than salvation?
I struggled with the title of this article. I considered the polarity of the words I intended to use and thought that maybe just this once, the situation called for a disclaimer. But the more I allowed the piece to manifest, the more I felt the title needed to be as raw as the reality. Not for the sake of luring readers with consciousness camouflaged as controversy, but because I’m no longer in the business of coddling people from their truth, especially Black men.
The truth is that Black women have lived in a perpetual state of fear and fantasy with Black men for a very long time. Black women have long carried an unyielding, sometimes unexplainable, loyalty to Black men, even when doing so has cost us our lives. And although Black women have all but verbally committed to being a refuge for Black men’s ruins, for the sake of our survival, we can no longer afford to do so.
I don’t make statements as alarming as this one thoughtlessly, I do so with women like Sadie Roberts-Joseph, activist, educator, and community organizer who dedicated her life to serving the African-American community through the veins of her second home, Baton Rouge, LA, in mind. Ms. Sadie championed for her community, starting a nonprofit organization, Community Against Drugs and Violence (CADAV), to further the reach of her youth advocacy.
Her most impactful contribution, the Baton Rouge Odell S. Williams Now & Then Museum of African-American History, the first and only museum dedicated to the preservation of African and African-American history in the city. When police identified the body of the beloved community leader stuffed into the trunk of her vehicle and abandoned it just three miles from her home, the community jumped at the assumption that Ms. Sadie was targeted for her fight against white supremacy and systemic injustice. It made sense that the people she’d targeted with her activism would make her the target of their violence. It didn’t make sense that she would fall victim to the very people she’d risked her life to serve.
According to a study by the Violence Policy Center, 9 out of 10 Black women murdered by men are murdered by men in their communities. In instances where the relationship could be determined, 91% of Black female homicide victims were said to have been familiar with their killers, Ms. Sadie being no exception to that statement. It’s also important to note that Black female homicide victims were almost always killed during the course of an argument, altercation or disagreement. Like Mary Unique Spears, a 27-year old mother of three who was shot and killed outside of a funeral reception in Detroit after arguing with a man who became enraged at her refusing his advances.
Black women are killed by Black men at a rate 3x higher than that of white women killed by white men. And while white men appear to be the standard Black men measure their behavior against, like when conversations about R. Kelly turn into pity parties about how white men get to be pedophiles with impunity, this particular comparison never seems to make the docket.
Not only do Black women find themselves targeted by violence in other communities, but they also find themselves targets to that very violence in spaces where they should be safe, their own home, often Black men they know. Men like Ronn Jermaine Bell, a 38-year-old convicted child rapist who served a seven-year sentence in connection to the aggravated rape of an 8-year-old girl. As a registered sex offender with restrictions on where he could live, work, and socialize, Bell relied on the existential goodness of people to overlook his crime and recognize his humanness, people like Ms. Sadie.
As an activist and asset to the community, Ms. Sadie saw it as her responsibility to be a resource to her fellow Black man, who by society's standards, had obliged his duty to the community for past crimes. Had it not been for Ms. Sadie renting to a man whom others certainly would’ve deemed too scarred to save, he’d likely have ended up displaced and devoid of the grounding necessary to gain traction as an ex-con. And in some instances, (courtesy of housing discrimination), as a black person in general. But Ms. Sadie chose compassion. If only that same luxury had been afforded her.
What Ms. Sadie and many Black women fail to realize is that you cannot help people who are committed to hurting, whether that’s hurting other people or hurting in general. Black women are socialized to see mistreatment from others as an obstacle, not an omen. We’re raised seeing our brothers and cousins coddled through their dysfunction while we receive tips on how best to cope with it later. We create generations of Black women who feel obligated to repair broken Black men, so much so that many see self-preservation as abandonment or disloyalty. So much so that we will continue to implore one another to “hold a Black man down,” even if that means we’re held down in the process, just so we can brag on our unwavering, unrequited support. Support that has garnered us little in return, in some instances, not even an acknowledgment of our actuality.
Jacquelyn Smith, a 54-year old electrical engineer, supported her 52-year old husband of four years, Keith Smith, despite a string of armed robberies that cost him 12 years of freedom and earned him a felony conviction. She supported Smith and his adult daughter financially according to family, providing him a lavish lifestyle. And on December 1st, 2018, when Keith Smith stabbed his wife to death in the front seat of her vehicle, he would site that same generosity as the cause of her death, misleading the public to believe Smith was killed while handing money to the homeless.
The public would allude to Smith’s giving nature as the marker for her murder. Siting everyone’s social responsibility in avoiding desperate, therefore dangerous, panhandlers. It would later be revealed that it was Smith’s spouse instead, who dealt her the cards of death, expressing no remorse for his deeds. Again, Smith’s inability to somehow know better was brought to question. “What’s an engineer doing with an ex-con, anyway?”, people perplexed. “Talk about low self-esteem.”
Again, the wave of “Whoa for Black women” was short-lived. Once again, overcome by the cumbersome burden of burying one too many Black brothers. And as we settled back into the sentiment of shielding our sons, brothers, fathers, and friends from prison cells and police sirens, the millions of Black women made casualty by the weight of the Black man’s war and wear went unnoticed.
There isn’t a need you couldn’t call a Black woman to nurse as a Black man, and I say this as a Black woman who has watched the women in her family evolve into eternal caregivers in response to the irresponsibility of the men they’ve both made and married. Yet the call for the preservation of Black women’s lives is often met with a list of more important subject matter, mainly the ones unconcerned with their safety. And when we groan that we’ve grown tired of the perpetual position of what seems like self-loathing loyalty, we’re reminded of the honor in our servitude, who but Black women, right?
What make us worthy of doing the saving, if being saved is a measure of worth we’ve yet to achieve? Is our path any less piled with prejudice? Aren’t we serving a parallel sentence in this country of our kidnapping. Why aren’t we worthy of the support that is demanded of us? When are Black women permitted to prioritize their survival over your salvation? If this is the trajectory this road of cultural righteousness continues down, one where we’re constantly called to fight battles while being battled, I want off the ride. Black women, at some point, we have to choose life, our own. And regardless of the social backlash that comes with saying, “My right to live is more important than your right to rehabilitation,” it needs to be said, repeatedly, because it’s true.
Prior to the arrest of Ronn Jermaine Bell, Black men responded to the death of Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph with rage. There was talk of protests and retribution, anything to see the presumed white supremacist responsible for her death brought to justice. But when Baton Rouge Police announced they had arrested Bell, an African-American male, for suspicion of the murder of Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph, Black men responded with dismissal and denial. They went from being fully behind law enforcement to questioning their motives. They diverted energy and attention to baseless conspiracies, arguing that she was killed by the United States government to keep her from opening her museum, a museum she’d opened almost 20 years prior.
They reminded us of the many Black men who’d lost their lives by other measures. Informed us that we weren’t obligated to deal with them if we found them so deadly. Discredited our delivery, told us to “talk to them nice” if we sought their solidarity. “Black men have it the hardest”, they proclaimed to the portion of the population that needed no reminder. Told us to be the warriors we were after, as if we hadn’t already seen the wreckage of the war waged on us. Demanded we stop our bleeding and tend to their wounds.
It wasn’t that fiction was more believable than fact, it was that acknowledging the facts surrounding Ms. Sadie’s death would require a level of accountability that coddled men do not possess. And men who lack accountability lack the capacity for change, even when change is happening around them. With that said, if we do not disrupt the pattern on our end, discontinue the buffet of unconditional support and sacrifice, we cannot expect people who are intentional about emptying us, even if by no fault of their own, to suddenly decide they’ve had their fill. Black women are worth protecting, worth preserving and certainly worth saving. Who better equipped to save us than ourselves?