Black Girl Walking
It was exactly two weeks ago today that I first heard of Renisha McBride. I read half the story—the 19-year-old African American girl, shot in the face by a 54-year-old white man, after she'd been in a car accident, walked down the road, and knocked on his door seeking help—and dutifully posted it to the hate crimes blog I manage.
The white man, Theodore Wafer, went unnamed at first, leaving Renisha the focus of the news, as her family waited and waited for criminal charges. "Half of her face is gone," Renisha's aunt Bernita Spinks said, a few days after the killing. "You know, we have to go and bury her and they're not even knowing if she's going to be able to have an open casket."
As a mother to a black child and a sister to three young black women, I was terrified by news of the death. Honestly, I initially couldn't read it all. I needed to take a brief break to focus on petitioning the court for full custody of my son and filing a permanent restraining order against a man who'd said that if I ever left him, he would come after me with a shotgun and shoot me in my face.
It took 13 days after the murder—only after grassroots protests, vigils, and social-media outrage—for the prosecution to agree to charge Theodore Wafer with second-degree murder, manslaughter, and possession of a firearm during a commission of a felony.
Even as I tried to distract myself, I kept thinking about Jonathan Farrell, Marissa Alexander, Aiyana Jones, Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin. It was Martin's murder that had inspired me to found my African American hate crimes blog. The names and faces had kept coming.
The fact that Renisha McBride’s murder gained enough national attention to shame a conviction and arrest out of Detroit was due in large part to the efforts of committed activists like Yusef Shakur and the Detroit writer/filmmaker/activist dream hampton. “It’s kind of unfathomable that we [had] to show up at the Dearborn Police Department ourselves, a hundred of us, and demand transparency, demand an arrest,"dream hampton said. "We’re responsible for the discharge of our weapons, just as we’re responsible for our vehicles.”
Renisha McBride was only 19. She was bright, gifted, loving and loved. She could have been me. She could have been any one of my sisters. We have all been stranded, cell phone battery dead or dying, in need of strangers for help.
Most of the black women I know have assumed we'd be more likely to receive help in those situations than our black brothers would, even if that help came with tons of sexual harassment. We know far too well the depth of those bruises that never heal from sexual assault, sexual abuse, menacing, and rape by men close to us. But most of us had not conceived that for white men like Ted Wafer, blackness is inherently criminal and violent, even when written on the body of a black woman.
In the aftermath of Renisha McBride's death, I have heard people say it is reverse racist to draw attention to white on black crime when there is black on black crime and black on white crime. These people claim that Theodore Wafer had a right to shoot Renisha McBride because she knocked on his door an hour after her car accident. I'd love for these inquisitive souls to ask themselves why black perpetrators, regardless of the crime, regardless of gender, are disproportionately arrested and tried more that their white counterparts.
This coming Wednesday, I go to court to try to convince a judge to make my temporary restraining order permanent against a man who said that if I left him, he would hunt me down and shoot me in the face with guns that are his Constitutional right to own. I do not expect to succeed. California family law states that men who have abused their wives, girlfriends, or children still have rights to the child—including custody and visitation—and rarely allows restraining orders to prevent this.
Domestic violence law, like in many other things, protects the man and not the best interests of the woman or child. And I wonder, if this man eventually succeeds in carrying out his threats, will the discussion be, like it is with Renisha McBride’s death, like it was with Trayvon Martin, what did Hope Wabuke do to deserve being shot dead? In the chest? In the back? In the face?
Will the police also decline to arrest the man who shoots me? Or, if I manage to defend myself with a warning shot, like Marissa Alexander, will I be arrested for doing so—separated from my 11-month-old baby who is so anxious when apart from me he cries uncontrollably for “My mom mom,” until he's back in my arms?
Really, though, I wonder what I as a black woman can do, in America in 2013, to be seen not as the target of raced and gendered violence, but as a black woman worthy of respect, decency, and protection because of my race and gender, not in spite of my race and gender. What will it take for black women like me, like Marissa Alexander, and like Renisha McBride, to ever be treated and defended by the citizens of our country as innocent?
Hope Wabuke is a mom and writer who runs a communications company called The WriteSmiths. She writes for Ms. Magazine online, and is Director of Media & Communications for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction. She is currently at work on a novel and a poetry collection about her family’s escape from Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide. She blogs at hopeafteryoga.com and drivingwhenblack.com. You can follow her on Twitter@HopeWabuke.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photos via AP]