SPECIAL ISSUE: SAY HER NAME
My Sisters/PoLice/White Women
Mama repeated it with disgust at the lack of pride in the sentiment, “Tell them he likes white women.” Somebody had said it. And the thought that they might say aloud what we carried in the deepest, most hurt corners of our minds was too much for my Mama to consider. It was absurd; but, it was real.
My high school graduation was marred by my family’s search for my cousin, fifteen hundred miles away in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. My cousin had disappeared after meeting up with a man who was to help her find a new car. It was 1986 and she had been missing and we were afraid for good reason. While I headed to Centerpoint Mall in downtown Oxnard, California to find the perfect white dress to transition from our commencement to the nighttime gatherings, back home in Pine Bluff, Grandma, Aunt Debbie, Aunt Butch, and all Grandma’s nieces and nephews combed the backwoods and riverbeds around the Northside searching for my Aunt Sarah’s missing daughter. My cousin was thirty-seven and had two children, a boy and a baby girl who were the first to notice her gone.
(While I shopped, forty miles north in South Los Angeles, Margaret Prescod, founder of The Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, was aligning her voice with the families of the unaccounted for black women who’d disappeared from around Western Avenue beginning as far back as 1985. Sisters, wives, nieces and mothers, many reduced to prostitution by rapacious crack addictions, began disappearing silently from the streets of Los Angeles.
Concurrently, in the name of public safety, the LAPD rammed the doors off black homes, arrested en mass black men women boys and girls, and initiated thousands of children into the foster care system – and made no mention of the serial killer they knew about beginning in 1987. Police had a license plate number and a description of the killer’s car and a recording of his voice but did not announce to the public that someone was killing black women in South Los Angeles until 2007. It has been estimated that the “Grim Sleeper” who was finally arrested by accident, in 2009, may have killed two-hundred women over a twenty year period. Lonnie Franklin was eventually charged with the murder of ten black women in Los Angeles. During a celebratory press conference, Margaret Prescod snatched the mic from Antonio Villaraigosa and called him a liar. She held the photos and spoke the names of three of the women who’d been found in the city’s allies.)
The search for my cousin hung over my graduation and by the time the day arrived, I had taken sick, walked the line, then returned home to wait for news from home. The news never switch to good. In fact, it only turned worse as the days passed and the neighborhood began to wonder why no progress had been made in either the search for my cousin or in the apprehension of the last man with whom she was seen. He had been identified. We knew who he was all the way in California. But the police did nothing. All the women on the Northside were terrified. My cousin was still missing. The family was combing through the countryside and … the police sat on their hands.
Then someone thought to say, “Tell them he likes white women.” Maybe they’ll do something. Seven words. In them, a legacy so heavy, complicated and shameful that it can stop the breath. Mama repeated it to me in anger. I knew what she meant: can you believe that ignant Negro would say something so pitiful? Mama has never genuflected to whiteness, especially not to white womanhood. Neither have I. But for years, I have wondered at her anger at the speaker. Was it misdirected? Was this “ignant Negro” speaking into the shame we carry for our inability to be recognized, in this country, beyond our relation to white women? Was Mama’s fury a response to being reminded of black women’s powerlessness against the machine that has never protected us—has always taken us, our families; disfigured our bodies and played out its most pornographic fantasies with whatever we have left. Was she responding to her knowledge that the self-same machine –the one we know will always over-police us and under-protect us, will often misuse us with our permission— after it has beaten us down psychically and we have acquiesced to the weight of the obscenity?
And that is the battle. To never acquiesce to the obscenity: to continually elevate our humanity as round human women. Neither Chickenhead nor Earth mother. Round and whole, black, brown and breathing, sisters, mothers, cousins, wives, nieces and daughters—deserving of this nation’s undivided attention and protection.
Tasha Keeble writes and teaches in Oakland. She writes fiction and nonfiction about shifts and history and politics and love, black and brown love. She's currently writing a database on African authors and completing a historical novel that traces one black family as it contends with the legacies of political activism.