In 2004, a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking shot and killed a man who had solicited her for sex in self-defense. She ended up tried as an adult, convicted of first degree murder and aggravated robbery, and sentenced to life in prison.

Such is the story of Cyntoia Brown, who served 15 years of her sentence before she was granted clemency and released on August 7, 2019. Brown’s story recounts injustice after injustice, especially when we consider the legal loopholes Tennessee prosecutors took to convict her. Namely, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional, but prosecutors who advocated for a life sentence argued that Brown would technically become eligible for parole in 2055, after 51 years in prison.

Ultimately, Brown’s story underscores a concept perfectly stated by Malcolm X in 1962: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected woman in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

This quote was relevant not only in the 1960s, the decade that dominated the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, but also unfortunately remains fitting to this day. The Black woman has faced obstacle after obstacle of oppression concerning matters ranging from her bodily autonomy to livable wages.

Just one prominent example of this oppression can be traced back to the early 20th century American South, where the eugenics movement gave rise to the “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Throughout history, forms of contraception, such as birth control and sterilization, have been used to try and dictate who could reproduce—and more often than not, these practices targeted Black women in lower economic classes. More specifically, the “Mississippi Appendectomy” was a medical procedure in which doctors would involuntarily sterilize poor Black women who were deemed unfit to reproduce.

The term itself came from civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who went to the hospital to have a tumor removed but was instead sterilized without her consent. Hamer was just one of numerous victims of the propagation of eugenics via sterilization, as during the 1920s to the 1980s, states like North Carolina and Mississippi saw almost 8,000 people sterilized, 85 percent of whom were women and 40 percent of whom were women of color. 

Additionally, Black women have faced erasure from their own history and movements despite playing roles equally as important, if not more, than those of men. Black women worked tirelessly to build the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement, especially in terms of helping to educate their communities and working in voter registration. In fact, the Montgomery bus boycotts were first called by the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery and its president, Jo Ann Robinson, and her fellow members worked to distribute flyers to spread the word. To this day, Black women continue to form the backbone of social movements, most prominently the Black Lives Matter movement, which was created by three Black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, in response to the 2012 police killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. 

And yet, Malcolm X’s words ring truer than ever nearly six decades after he uttered them; Black women are disproportionately affected by inequitable laws and systems. The Black Women’s Roundtable’s report Black Women in the United States, 2014 highlights the full scale of the spheres in which Black women face oppression. For one, Black women are especially vulnerable to violence and the criminal justice system, which we can see exemplified in Cyntoia Brown’s case. The report details that no woman is more likely to be murdered, raped, or abused in America today than a Black woman. To name another one of these spheres, the healthcare Black women receive is in need of urgent reform. The maternal mortality rate for Black women is three times that of white women, on par with several developing nations. 

It is also crucial we acknowledge that Black transgender women face heightened risk factors in regards to employment, discrimination, their physical and mental health—the list goes on. In 2019, at least 25 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed, and 91 percent of them were Black women. Thus, we must take into account the struggles of Black transgender women as included in those of Black women, especially given the rise of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). 

The report ultimately includes a viable public policy agenda for 2014 and beyond, all of which aim to protect the Black woman in a way we have failed to do so throughout history. It is crucial that we start providing equal healthcare and opportunities. These issues are so deeply intertwined that we must observe them all simultaneously in order to create a more equitable society, and we can attribute this multifaceted lens to the unique experiences of Black women at the intersection of race and gender. 

We can achieve these in feasible, concrete ways. To name a few, we can increase funding for HBCUs, increase the federal minimum wage to a livable one, continue implementation of the Affordable Care Act, working to close the retirement security gap—the list could go on, which is quite frankly alarming as it emphasizes the sheer lack of equity for Black women.

What the stories of Cyntoia Brown, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many other Black women reveal is that it is time we start fighting for them the way they have fought for others for centuries.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *