“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
So said Malcolm X in 1962. And in the decades since, those words have continued to resonate: a rallying cry for black women who felt sidelined in the fight for civil rights, ignored during the feminist awakening and discounted even as their protests against police violence have earned that movement new attention.
At least one could be classified as good news. On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown. In 2004, the then-16-year-old was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of a 43-year-old stranger who picked her up and took her to his home. Brown said she had been forced into prostitution by a violent boyfriend and that the man was one of many johns who had purchased her for sex; nevertheless, she was tried and convicted for murder. Now 30 years old, Brown has been in prison for 15 years. Her release, on supervised parole, is scheduled for Aug. 7.
In a statement thanking Haslam, Brown wrote: “We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings.” But her case highlights how the criminal-justice system fails to see the unique vulnerability of black women in America today. Black women are especially likely to be victims of intimate partner violence. No woman is more likely to be raped. Yet the attention to Brown’s case is an anomaly. Who cares when it’s a little black girl?
Her death gained national attention in the first days of the new year, especially because the suspect was first described as a white man. That information raised the specter of racially motivated violence, catnip for public discussion. This weekend, however, a tip led to the arrest of two black men, and the story is quickly fading from view — despite the fact that black women constitute more than a third of female homicide victims in the United States while making up only 13 percent of American women. But then again: Who cares when it’s only a little black girl?
Both episodes have been instructive — showing black women how to make people care, even though the general public’s attention is most often fixed elsewhere.
Brown wouldn’t have been freed without the tireless work of the organizers and activists who launched the social media campaign #FreeCyntoiaBrown. Jazmine Barnes’s alleged shooters were found via tips solicited on Twitter. Celebrities used Instagram, Facebook and other social media outlets to call attention to both stories; the key is to sidestep mainstream media outlets (which more often relegate black women to the back page, if they’re acknowledged at all) and put pressure directly on police investigators and their bosses.
The third episode tells us how far we have to go.
Over the first weekend of the new year, the Lifetime network aired “Surviving R. Kelly,” a six-part documentary detailing the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer’s decades-long history of sexual predation. There are interviews with women who say he manipulated and sexually abused them and parents who say he’s holding their daughters in coercive sex cults; it revisits his 2008 child pornography trial; and it looks back at his 1994 marriage to a then-15-year-old Aaliyah. It is harrowing, and horrifying. But Kelly’s behavior has been an open secret for years. Fans, critics, producers and music executives have given him a pass, largely because his victims are black women and girls.
It’s not yet clear that will change. Only a few of Kelly’s famous collaborators have been willing to publicly speak out against him, and streams of R. Kelly’s music reportedly increased by 16 percent after the Lifetime series aired. But once again, black women are using the tools we’ve developed, and in this instance, they may actually work. #MuteRKelly is trending on social media, and celebrities are finally calling for boycotts of his music and shows. R. Kelly is now under investigation in Georgia, and witnesses are being solicited by the state’s attorney in Chicago.
More than a half-century on from Malcolm X, black women deserve better. Maybe this year, someone will care about black girls.