It’s been called a “sucker punch,” “inhumane,” “exhausting,” “heartbreaking.”
The Louisville, Kentucky, police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in March were exonerated in her killing. Protests have sprung up nationwide and across Connecticut to decry the lack of charges in the death of the innocent Black woman, shot during a no-knock warrant, at the wrong apartment, that began when Taylor was asleep in her bed.
Black women especially are in pain, seeing the ruling as yet another heavy injustice they must carry. Some call to mind the quote by Malcolm X: “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.”
There is fury, there is frustration, there is fear. There is the weary knowledge that this has happened before, it is happening now, and it will happen again. They knew the ruling would happen. They hoped it wouldn’t. But deep down, they knew it would.
“It’s like knowing that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but hoping for the magic anyway. That’s how the justice system works for Black people,” said Hartford poet-activist Tracy Caldwell.
More than anything, there is fatigue stemming from Black women’s own experiences of systemic racism, viewed through the lens of Breonna Taylor: a life snuffed out senselessly by police excessive force, for which no one will be punished, and it could have been anyone, it could have been them.
“There are times when a Black woman is just crying. She doesn’t know Breonna Taylor, but she knows Breonna Taylor,” Leah Burgess said. “She’s experienced the interruption, the invasion of law enforcement in her community.”
Burgess honed her ministerial skills at her father’s Hartford congregation, Union Baptist Church, as well as Hartford City Mission, and is now pursuing degrees in divinity and social work at Howard University in Washington D.C.
“What we’re seeing is another glimpse of exposure to the generational trauma that Black women across the United States and its territories have experienced,” Burgess said. “So many of us are reliving not only our own personal traumas and challenges but also the traumas and challenges of our foremothers and ancestors.”
Caldwell said she didn’t think the ruling would affect her as strongly as it did. She described her feelings as “mourning, hopeless, vengeful. “There’s nothing I can do. That’s where hopelessness came in. I could march. But how will it change?”
Bloomfield Mayor Suzette DeBeatham-Brown said she is compelled to continue to lift up other women while fighting against injustice. But she says it still hurts.
“As a Black woman I fear for my family and every other Black family. It’s hard to see everything going on around the world and not be impacted by it,” she said. “I heard the verdict. The fact that her life didn’t matter in this verdict is painful. We hear the chant Black Lives Matter. And we’re not caught up in the organization, but we’re making a statement of fact: our lives matter, at the most basic level. I heard someone say the other day that animals have rights. it seems we have none. That is painful in 2020.”
Black women are ‘exhausted’
Adrienne Billings-Smith, an attorney and founder of Concerned Parents of Color of West Hartford, said “Black women are exhausted mentally, emotionally, physically.
“We carry a lot on our backs, societal pressure, family pressure. We’re constantly thinking about protecting our children,” Billings-Smith said. “We bear them and send them out into the world hoping they will be safe but … you know the brutal truth, that your child is more likely to be killed or suffer an injustice than other children.”
Black women have endured – some silently, some not so silently – the injustices committed against Black men, boys, women and girls. Those injustices hurt. And when the only charges are for endangering the lives of Taylor’s white neighbors, it hurts even more.
DeBeatham-Brown called the ruling “just one more sucker punch.” She echoed the feeling of fatigue. “You’ve been beaten up, Trayvon Martin. You’ve been beaten up, Sandra Bland. You were knocked out, George Floyd. And they just keep on beating you up,” she said.
Dayeshell Muhammad of Hartford, director of the Black women’s empowerment documentary “180 Seconds of Freedom,” called the decision “heartbreaking.
“She was in her home when she was shot and murdered. … This was nonaggressive, nonthreatening,” Muhammad said. “It reinforced that even when we are in the most vulnerable, safest place, that we are not protected.”
Shelby Williams, director of field operations of Voices of Women of Color, a Hartford-based public policy firm, agrees.
“In other police brutality situations, they always seem to find an excuse or a weird justification to affirm the misuse of firearms. What made this case so infamous is that she was sleeping,” Williams said. “That sends a message that a Black woman always has to keep her eyes open. This world is not for us, not built for us, not here to protect us. Even getting a quiet sleep after a long day at work is not something we have the right to.”
Jelan Agnew, a licensed clinical social worker in Hartford, whose clients are 95% women of color, said Black women are feeling a renewed sense of mourning, a trauma that goes back so many generations and is so ingrained it becomes PTSD.
“I have seen some Black women go into numb, because they still have to get to work, get the kids taken care of, and if they acknowledge all those emotions, they might not be able to function,” she said.
“Then when they do let themselves acknowledge all the emotions, we’re not just mourning Breonna Taylor. We’re mourning the American legacy of disregard for Black lives, specifically in this case Black women’s lives,” Agnew said. “There’s a barrage of emotions, similar to what you feel when you are in mourning: anger, sadness, hopelessness.”
Beyond mental health and emotional damage, there’s an impact on physical health, Burgess said.
“The impact of systemic racism can look like … diabetes, obesity, cardiac issues. All of these are stress-induced medical conditions,” she said. “The impact is not just in the mind and in the anxieties. It’s in the body.”
Agnew said Black women are often in a constant hypervigilant state of “fight or flight or freeze” when they encounter racism. “That puts a tremendous amount of stress on the body if you stay in that mood,” Agnew said. “You go into a space of questioning yourself. The whole interior monologue is exhausting.”
Nzima Sherylle Hutchings of Enfield, an author, poet and CEO Hartford’s L.I.T. literary festival, said “I am angry. Folks have a history of calling Black women angry. Well, this is why. We aren’t born angry. Our sons, husbands and fathers are being killed, and our daughters.”
Despite holding the weight of the world on their shoulders, Black women go on.
“Outwardly you continue to fight another day because you have to. You have other obligations,” Billings-Smith said.
Many turn to activism to channel their anger. Others turn to religion.
To combat the stress, Burgess emphasizes faith. “1 Peter 5:7 says ‘casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.’”
Keren Prescott, founder of Power Up Manchester, said any coping mechanism is acceptable, because it’s “an hourly battle having to reassure yourself you’re worthy, telling yourself you’re good enough, constantly having to keep encouraging yourself.
“For some women they do it through therapy. I suggest all Black women get a Black therapist. For some, it is through lighting candles. For some, it is their lord and savior Jesus Christ. For some it is prostitution. For some it is drugs or alcohol,” Prescott said. “We are allowed to do what need to do to maintain. This is unreal. This is inhumane.”
Agnew emphasized the importance of forming safe spaces for Black women to gather and express their emotions, even virtual spaces. “I am going through it, you are going through it, so let’s go through it together, because on Monday we have to go back to predominantly white spaces and pretend everything is OK,” she said.
Ira Revels, owner and principal of West Hartford-based Ira Revels Consulting, agreed that Black women need to lean on each other.
“We remind each other. It requires us to be authentically who we are. Our lives are examples,” Revels said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not tired in a sense of educating and carrying the burden of living and being in a way that requires respect and demands justice.
“We’re tired of continuing to reiterate our place in humanity. Why do we have to keep doing that?”
Susan Dunne can be reached at [email protected]
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