On a recent girls' trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, my friends and I made the visual arts exhibit our final stop. I glimpsed the work of Bisa Butler out of the corner of my eye and ran towards it, giddy with admiration. Before me was Butler's quilted portrait of Harriet Tubman, with her black velveteen hair and full skirt adorned with purple and yellow flora—an icon of liberation, wrested by the hands of Black women.
Just over my shoulder, the presence of a vacuous black space interrupted the triumphant moment. I slowly turned until I was face-to-face with Amy Sherald's arresting portrait of Breonna Taylor, hanging in solitude in a blackened enclave. The people who stood in line waiting to both admire its beauty and pay their respects could not hold back their cries. In front of me, a Black teenage girl buried her face in her mother's shoulder. My friend Gloria did the same in mine while she wept.
The visceral sense of anger and hopelessness that we experienced in the presence of Breonna Taylor's portrait captured some of the same emotions that propelled Dr. Treva B. Lindsay to write her latest book, America Goddam: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice.
On April 22, media host and scholar Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry joined Dr. Lindsay at Rofhiwa Book Café, a Black owned bookstore, for the Durham launch of America Goddam. There the two discussed Lindsay's new book and the ways that harm—economic, medical, police, and intimate partner violence—shows up in the lives of Black women.
Dr. Lindsay has experienced these kinds of violence first hand. Her book names the same truth that the murder of Breonna Taylor and the layers of political violence that followed, revealed to the rest of the world. It's a truth that Black women have known our entire lives: America doesn't give a damn about us. The fact that we only learned about Taylor's killing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—which occurred three months later—along with the fact that none of Taylors' killers were sentenced for her death, proves that Black women have never been regarded as full humans, let alone full American citizens.
What makes Lindsay's book unique from others that deal with the violence against women is its expansive definition of the word "violence" itself. Each chapter of America Goddam addresses a distinct, death-dealing system that causes harm to Black women and gender expressive people.
Lindsay wrote of her book, "I bear witness and with-ness to what's on these pages." America Goddam is a mandate from her ancestors to pass down not just her intellectual knowledge of how our country became such a violent place, but her hard-won wisdom on how to survive it.
Lindsay's own journey began in Washington D.C. "I grew up in Chocolate City when it was still Chocolate City," she said with a wry chuckle. Her parents, both North Carolina-bred Fayetteville State University graduates, instilled in her both a love for the South and a love for Black people.
Too often, Americans from the North and the West love scapegoating the South as the nation's Superpredator. America Goddam examines the murders of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, two women slain in Southern states. The last chapter of her book, however, is written as a letter addressed to Ma'Khia Bryant, the teenage girl murdered by the police in Columbus, Ohio, where Dr. Treva Lindsay lives and teaches as Associate Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University.
"I always wince when I hear people over-determine that the South is uniquely violent in the context of America," she explained. "As though once you move from there, somehow the anti-Blackness, the patriarchy and all of that just just disappears and that it's not entrenched in these other regions across the nation. I'm very intentional in talking about violence that's happening all over America to really make it America Goddam."
She also acknowledges that certain cases of violence that stood out to her needed to be examined and written about specifically in their Southern context, which made her conversation with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry at Rofhiwa all the more significant.
"Each region—and sometimes regions within regions—have their own distinct histories and have their own resistance histories that I think are super important to put [certain cases] into context." But while the South has a uniquely oppressive history, it also carries an amazing organizing history, rich with incredible traditions of Black radical resistance and reverberated throughout the country.
Lindsay shared the story of Francis Thompson, a trans woman who, in 1866, was one of the first people to testify before Congress about being sexually violated. "It's a Black woman from the South who is speaking in front of Congress—one hundred plus years before Anita Hill, and later Christine Blasey Ford—about sexual violence. The South to me means so much in terms of the documenting of the violence, and the documenting of the incredible resistance."
Lindsay herself is another living example Southern femme resistance, and looms large in the field of Black feminism as a historian and prolific writer. She has also been awarded an array of awards, fellowships, and grants for her work, including the ACLS/Mellon Scholars and Society Fellowship, The Equity for Women and Girls of Color Fellowship at Harvard University, and The Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship—and has made a significant impact on her community outside of academia, founding the Transformative Black Feminisms Initiative and co-founding the Black Feminist Night School at Zora's House, both in Ohio.
Appearing on my computer screen with a crown of locs down past her shoulders and a stunning dress in a springtime green, her smile accented a soft yet focused countenance. Her presence was powerful, like her words that followed. The depth of her love for Black women and gender expansive people was effervescent.
"This book is for Black girls and Black women," Lindsay replied with pride when asked about her intended audience of readers. "I wanted them to know that there are those of us who deeply care about our stories, who deeply care about the lives we live before this moment of harm, that deeply care about highlighting and amplifying the work of those who are working to end violence against Black women and girls."
She has made herself accountable to Black women and girls concerning the impact of America Goddam, too. "If other people find it and can take something away from it, that's awesome," Lindsay explained. "But I want Black girls and gender-expansive people to curl up with my book and feel like, 'Wow, she sees these issues that I've experienced, that friends have experienced. I'm not alone.'"
One chapter that especially struck me is entitled "Unlivable: The Deadly Consequences of Poverty." I had recently been introduced to the term "the feminization of poverty" in my Introduction to Sociology class, and it resonated deeply as memories of various family members, nightly news clips, and my own past experiences of trading WIC vouchers for milk and eggs swirled together in my mind. It also reminded me of one of a famous quotation by one of America's unsung orators and activists, Coretta Scott King:
"I must remind you that starving a child is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical need is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence."
Lindsay was unsatisfied with the treatment of poverty in mainstream conversations about violence against Black women as incidental instead of a system of violence in its own right. "We have millions of Black women and girls who are barely surviving, without resources, but overworked, underpaid, and hyper exploited," she said.
It is common to hear a poor Black woman or gender-expansive person describe their lifestyle as "making a way out of no way." Lindsay points out that this effort of navigating the impossible nature of poverty with a disappearing social safety net is just that: Impossible. "We see such an acute attack on Black communities, Black kinship networks, Black families, and then at the core of that Black women and girls who feel that disparate impact of this targeted divestment from the public good." Here, she is referring to the "welfare queen" and "crack baby" tropes that were created to dehumanize and demonize Black women and girls and turn white voters against everything from public housing, to unemployment insurance, to pell grants.
She also reminds the women, girls, and gender-expansive people of color that we gave birth to the wealth this country works so hard to keep from us. The impact of this lack of access to wealth, plus the hyper-exploitation of our bodies for productive and reproductive labor, results in multiple layers of violence including kidnapping and trafficking, workplace injuries and abuse, mental health decline, and "weathering," or physiological decline due to chronic racism-induced stress—which, studies have shown, are linked to the most common killers of Black women: heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
In our conversation, Lindsay pointed to the internalization of these tropes as evidence of capitalist violence. "Why have we constructed an imagination in which we maligned welfare, so much to the point that we then do the work to dissociate from it?" she asked, rhetorically. "The impulse to dispute the stereotype of [the welfare queen] as a Black woman still leaves intact the lie that receiving welfare is a negative or something to be maligned for, instead of a part of the robust safety net of a nation that proclaims to care."
Much in the manner that James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time and Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens inspired a generation of Black people to not settle for survival, America Goddam grasped the torch and carried it passionately into the 21st century.
In her endorsement, journalist and author Melissa Harris-Perry says America Goddam is "not a memoir, but it's personal. This is not journalism, but it reports. It is not an easy book, but it's necessary. And in the end, Lindsey challenges you to choose hope."
Dr. Lindsay's book is, indeed, a work that defies category. It is a tapestry of narratives from the past and the present, from the personal to the global, and from the familial to the political. These narratives tear off the cape of invincibility forced upon Black women in an anti-Black world and instead wrap us in quilts that gather us up in a future safety.
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