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Do we need a body count to count?: Notes on the serial murders of Black women

23 Dec community memorial for victims of the Grim Sleeper

“Number 47 looks like my second-grade teacher. Number 83 resembles one of my daughters. Number 66 calls to mind my children’s grandmother. And although some faces were cropped from near-naked bodies, others were shot outdoors, wearing boots and jackets,” said LA Times Reporter, Sandy Banks, commenting on photos of unidentified Black females.

Debra Jackson. Click. Henrietta Wright. Click. Barbara Ware. Click. These are some names of Black women who were sexually assaulted, drugged, murdered, and dumped in LA alleys and the backstreets by a former city trash collector.  As news broke about a serial killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper, I found myself at the computer clicking on the still images of 180 nameless, numbered Black women and girls published by the LA Times.  I sat with each photo picturing each life—and remembering the life of my aunt who was murdered years ago.

For women who are poor, who are Black, who are substance abusers, who are single/mothers, who are sex workers, and for women who possess no Olan Mills yearbook portrait like that of Natalee Holloway, how do we make sense of their lives?  Do we see them?

The national news coverage of the 1985-2007 LA murders has been sensational.  It has created a weeklong media event where images of rape survivors, recovering addicts, missing persons, family friends and kinfolk serve as a collective spectacle to construct a gritty drama about Lonnie Franklin Jr., the accused killer cast as the Grim Sleeper.  The first LA Times web photo of an unidentified Black woman, for example, included a star rating.  (The star rating, 3 out of 5, has been removed from the photo and women who’ve confirmed their identity with the LAPD have had their photos removed from the site.) Also, the CNN website mirrors entertainment pages for television crime series, such as CSI.  The opening page resembles a movie trailer.

Buried beneath the news headlines and hidden between police press releases is the actual story: The Black male serial killer. I am unsure if the media public is appalled by the dead Black women as we are fascinated by Franklin because he represents the methodicalness assigned to white male serial killers.

The Franklin case prompted me to think about other news stories reporting updates or new cases in 2010 about serial murderers, Walter Ellis and  Jason Thomas Scott, who targeted Black women and girls in Wisconsin and Maryland.

You would think the separate news stories about the systematic killing of Black women and girls in different regions would launch a national conversation about gender violence in Black communities.  In the same week that a major network news station reported the LA murders, it also celebrated the No. 1 YouTube video called “Bed Intruder.” The video has been watched more than 54 million times.  It uses actual news footage of Antonio Dodson, a concerned brother who reports on the attempted rape of his sister Kelly.  I remain dumbfounded by the complete thematic disconnect and the utter disregard for the actual loss of Black girls and women.  It is as if media makers and the consuming public are unable to see Black women unless we are repackaged as entertainment.

I began thinking about this piece yesterday.  I imagined there were other stories to tell that would not sour our holiday eggnog.  Then, I listened to the interview by Stephanie Jones, who created MOMS (Missing Or Murdered Sisters) to raise money and national awareness about the serial murders of poor Black women in Rocky Mount (NC).  She had to rent a billboard to attract local media attention. But after watching the morning news about another serial murderer yesterday, I could not look away.  At a press conference Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced a $37,000 reward (from the city and police fraternal organizations) for the arrest of a Black man accused of killing three non-Black female sex workers.  The news coverage about Philadelphia’s “Kensington Strangler” brought it all home.  My aunt, Mildred Darlene Durham, lay dead from gunshot wounds in the Kensington area of Norfolk (VA) in 1998.

At end of group sessions, Black feminist Ruth Nicole Brown used to invite me and other members from an Illinois collective called SOLHOT (Saving Our Lives, Hearing Our Truths) to light an incense to recall another person or to remember ourselves.  We stood face to face so that we might see each other.  One by one, we would say the names of a loved one so she/we would not be forgotten.

This is my virtual incense to Darlene and every other Black woman whose face has been etched in my memory.

I do see you. You have not been forgotten.

You are loved. You are missed.


Holloween, The Mourning-After Poem

28 Oct

At a Halloween house party where I was one of two African American college students, I came to represent available, accessible sex. I was transformed from a sexual subject to object by the rap music and by the anonymous white guy who groped me. The rap music was so loud that I could not hear my soul yelling “No.” I felt hollow. I did nothing that night. I was consumed with rage. This is my mourning-after poem, my way of reconstructing and reclaiming that (body) part of me.

I still feel the echo,

My voice cursing

This drunken 6 ft. something

White man walking out

Of the door

After taking his

Football hand

To grab my ass from my

Rectum upward.


I came to the Halloween party with a halter

Spandex denim catsuit


To be Foxy funked

Out in an afro wig and retro threads,

A black ghost

When I had my guts gored

By football hands

Thinking I was his

Foxy brown black whore.


I saw two blonde-haired twins in their

Pseudo-lesbian stance standing in

For the prostitute. Red-lipped Marilyn

Twisted through the crowd with a bottle of bubbly,

Her breasts bubbling over, her white skin

Blending in

With her white halter dress. I ad-

Dressed my Maryland

No-listen-to-hip-hop roommate why

She tagged her white tank a “wifebeater” without question, I asked her

What it meant

That her closest friends

Coming in as “Heaven” and “Hell” were free to take

Center-stage tag-teaming

Jeanie, Austin Powers and whiteman as himself

In a striptease dance

Which we all consumed,

Looked, laughed and frowned

Because we thought we were somehow not them. I wasn’t

Drunk, like them,

I sipped root beer.

I wasn’t high, like them,

I got off

From humming hip-hop in the corner


From two speakers

From a homemade CD

The horror hostess called a “party mix” that I was mixed up in

‘Cause somehow drunken ass football hands

Who felt me up from the asshole up

Thought I was his real-life blaxploitation ho

From them 70s shows done over in them rap videos.


I walked in the house

Party with goddamn Madonna

In her ultra-mini, black lace tights, peek-a-boo tank

Surrounded by her

Entire blonde ambition, erotica entourage touring

All around me, but

Drunken ass football hands stationed right on top of me,

Right as

One of the number one raps raped me

In the background, I became (her)

Tone-deaf hearing


But the curse

Words I could have said

If my blackness were not drowned

Out by all the white noise,

By drunken ass football hands

Walking up-


Out the door

Hi-fiving his fratboylike buddies bragging

He finally got the opportunity

To fondle the foxy brown black whore

From his virtual




An earlier version of this autoethnographic poem is featured in the journal, Qualitative Inquiry.

Sticks, Stones & Microphones

4 Oct

I can still hear a whisper (song). Arms oval. Neck curled. Hips sway to the familiar southern bass from a black (male) speaker rapping to me the dance floor.  Before I could face the voice coaxing me to move, he drops his hook—a line about a violent sexual fantasy, a common come-on echoed in hip hop club culture.  Still.  Arms raised, I am arrested by his lyrics likening sex to a beating. He wants to “blow my back out.” His lines are in step with other rap courters recounting sexual conquests by the penetrative acts of cutting, bussing, stabbing, screwing, hitting, pounding, smashing, thrashing, tapping, or slicing my body (into parts).  The hearty bass thump with the choreographed slow motion flutter from the strobe light stages a sensual seduction, or what he describes as “making love” in the club. But, love in this space is an illusion. It is a manufactured special effect similar to the one simulated by the strobe light.  It is this conversation between the flashing light and darkness, between bodies and sound, where I am swayed by a melody of misogyny.

Over the years, I have developed coping strategies to “manage misogyny.” In the past, I defiantly put an “X” in the air

Wayne and Drake perform at BET Awards

while walking off the dance floor, persuaded the deejay to play more woman-friendly songs, or created other words to replace the ones I could not bear to hear. Each year, I emotionally prepare myself to watch the BET or MTV awards. As a new crop of crooners emerged, I began listening to more R&B than rap to no avail.  The love songs don’t even love me. These days, I find myself storming out of clothing stores and restaurants, feeling accosted by the background sound taking over the physical and psychic space. I cannot turn off or tune out all of the car stereos, metro ads, or highway billboards where these images and words have become commonplace. Just how much hate can one woman tolerate?

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I want to take time to reconsider the matter of words.  I want to think about the weight they carry in the everyday lives of black women.  More than a discussion about our love-hate relationship with popular culture, I want to take seriously the way misogyny impacts our relationships with menfolk and ourselves.  “Managing misogyny” has become an unwanted, collective group experience for women and girls of color from the hip hop generation(s). Language that humiliates, demonizes, objectifies and threatens is a form of violence.  It is verbal and emotional abuse accelerated and intensified by mass media technologies that make it so pervasive and systematic it is virtually inescapable. We know how language impacts our lives. We are witnessing how the state deploys labels such as terrorists, insurgents or enemy combatants to dehumanize (and kill without accountability). What about the words echoed by the black (male) speaker and transmitted by state-regulated media to dehumanize black women and girls? How does the language of hip hop sustain an environment conducive to our continued sexual and gender exploitation? Rap misogyny is verbal abuse.  Let’s name it. Let’s call it what it is because we’ve spent too many years feeling silenced by it.

Words hurt.

~ Aisha

This month, consider the language of popular hip hop music within the context of violence:

From the U.S. Department of Justice website: Domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.

Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.

  • Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair-pulling, biting, etc. Physical abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.
  • Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.
  • Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.
  • Economic Abuse: Making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one’s access to money, or forbidding one’s attendance at school or employment.
  • Psychological Abuse: Causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner’s family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.

Nicki’s World

26 Aug

As BET gets set to air its documentary about women and hip hop Monday, I am finding my 30-plus, old school feminist-self working hard to gear up to get down with the over-the-top, lyrically layered, brand savvy rapper that is Nicki Minaj.

The self-described Barbie is inescapable. She works every rap and R&B hook, and changes her looks to fashion what could be categorized as camp, cultural appropriation or classic sexual objectification.  Until Minaj, I’ve managed to safely maneuver around mainstream new millennium starlets because they offered no more than a cookie-cutter replica of the unique hip hop dynamism I remembered.  (See the links to artists below.) Likened to Lady Gaga for her eye-catching performances, this former theater student is adept at staging media spectacles, such as autographing breasts, adopting different voices, and orchestrating a coming-out tweet to squash rumors about her bisexuality for those who might have misread the Remy Ma viral video confession from her masculine persona, Roman, as Nicki Minaj. You can call the latter a cop-out or a capitulation to a commercial model that demands that all women perform hyperfemininity period. As I enter Nicki’s world (slowly and with caution), I am not only considering the ways she uses her body, but I am thinking of three ways her performances of race, gender and sexuality instigate a feminist engagement with the popular.

1.  Beauty and Postfeminism

Postfeminism advertises the sexy, smart, economically successful self-absorbed it-girl from a post-patriarchal world where politics are defined by “style wars” rather than issues of gender inequity. Here, beauty and postfeminism seem to be disconnected from critiques of consumerism, gendered labor, or political citizenship.  On the one hand, the look-good-feel-fine empowerment that Minaj offers feels as lifeless as the dolls she suggests every girl wants to be—you know, the nonspeaking, decorative, plastic bodies to be handled and watched. Then again, I can imagine her Barbie thang as her way of injecting a sense of beauty and wonderment for homegirls, like herself, who’ve had to create other worlds to escape the ugly one they lived every day. In either case, Minaj has managed to capture the attention of young women—hook, line and stiletto.

2. The Lady and The Freak

In what could be described as a post-Tip Drill moment where folks are “manning” the line to distinguish the ladies from the freaks, Nicki Minaj is not the only one who is creating personas to perform otherness. As Roman Zolanski she can express desire for another woman, and as Harajuku Barbie she can perform a sexualized Asian girlhood without damaging the central “brand” or image. Beyoncé is another celebrity with a freak persona. In big hair and tall heels, Sasha Fierce does Beyoncé’s “dirty work.” Both entertainers talk about a sense of freedom—which is almost always connected to sexual freedom.  Celebrity aside, ordinary young women on and off screen are crafting “real” and alternate/virtual identities as a response to the increased policing of their bodies through this hip hop binary. Rather than marking public/private bodies, young women like Minaj are now describing their “real” good bodies and their fake freakish ones. In our sincere efforts to “free the girls,” it is possible we might have caged our “real” sexual selves.

3. Camp, Celebration or Cultural Appropriation

From her Anime-inspired Vibe magazine cover, her Harajuku Barbie persona, to her recent music video, Your Love, where she plays a geisha girl (among others), Minaj reprises dated stereotypes about Asian women that suggest desirability comes in part from submissiveness or obedience.  Costuming conceals and reveals her body, and both frame her as the exotic; the hand gestures she does in separate scenes either to seduce her lover or to fight her foe are grafted from other forms of popular culture depicting Asianness. I can remember the debut of the Harajuku Girls shadowing Gwen Stefani at a music awards show. Then, folks flipped about a white woman co-opting Asian culture and parading other women (as objects of her imagination).  Yet, as Minaj mines the visual landscape to reinvent herself, her Afroasian encounters – whether camp, celebration, or cultural appropriation – remain unchallenged.

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On Slim Thug

14 Jun

From news media pundits, comedians-turned-relationship experts, to a soulful singer speaking about his self-proclaimed white supremacist penis in Playboy, it would seem that everybody has something to say about the un/desirability of Black women. When I read the Vibe interview excerpt by Slim Thug and the response gone viral by Marc Lamont Hill, I opened my laptop to see my cursor just jumping on the electronic page amped for me to slam Slim and the keys, to throw my two cents into the blogosphere to make sense out of his deplorable depictions about Black womanhood.

And, then I heard the interview. He does recall harmful stereotypes about race and gender. No doubt. One of them includes the idea that white women possess and perfect femininity. He does recuperate dangerous discourses about the extinct black man and the emasculating black woman. No question. Trust, I could have written an entry without even reading the interview. But, I heard the interview. I heard the pauses. And, I had to pause and wiggle off the knee-jerk reaction to “read” him. I just heard him. I heard him searching for the word—the right words—to frame his analysis (however unconvincing). On a national stage, I heard Slim Thug trying to work through powerful race and gender scripts so ingrained in our culture that they appear commonsense to him and other folks in our community.

In the final part of the interview, Slim Thug describes a black femininity and masculinity tied to the performance of class, or to a wealthy lifestyle (a lifestyle that is, contrary to what Vibe writers summarize, is not exclusive to the hood). For him, a black man blowing dough on dro and syrup (i.e., cocktail mix that includes cough syrup) at home or at the club to attract women is as problematic as the black woman who incurs incredible credit card debt to buy luxury brands to attract men. Both are performing gender scripts from a hip hop dreamworld. While Slim Thug criticizes Black women for our “crazy way of thinking,” his examples speak to the craziness of consumer capital that seduces all of us to live out champagne fantasies. (We need only watch any television program to be reminded of the worldview we are invited to subscribe.) The hip-hop get-rich raps that Slim Thug profits from hinge on the very consumerism he deplores in other folk. He is right on when he suggests these cyclic performances adversely impact black relationships because they are rooted in artifice. He is dead wrong to levy his attack toward already vulnerable black women. Ultimately, the “50/50, fair exchange” that Slim Thug said he wants for successful black relationships and the black community can only materialize when he divests in his own narrow definitions of success—that is, capitalist economic power and patriarchal power over women (i.e., masculinity par excellence).

In peace & solidarity,

She Just Wants to Dance, but She Can’t Fight the Rhythm

13 May

(A Performance Excerpt by Caitlin O’Connor)

She just wants to dance.

He just wants to groove

In his fly dancin’ shoes.

Seconds lapse between his favorite steps, Doin’ tha

Ass tap, dip back, hip thrust, she like that.

She dances because she can’t fight the rhythm.

He grinds, he grins at the lyrics that he’s hearin’.

He thinks he’s got his certified ho and she’s deafly dancing so she don’t even know.

She just wants to dance.

He just wants to groove.

But the lyrics, they spit bullets

Into the faces of dancing girls

Who hope to exist meaningfully in this world.

As the music races, his hand he places in her face, in her spaces she had felt
His breath on her neck before
On the dance floor with the beat no longer
Against space,
Behind a locked door.
Muted beat,
Lyrics play
She finally hears what he’s got to say.

Ass tap, dip back, hip thrust, she like that.
He think she like that.
Syncopated rhythms of harsh hands.
Syncopated rhythms of harsh hands.
Syncopated rhythms her heart stands…Still. You dance.

You can dance. Do a dance-step
At a funeral or at the scene of a crime.
Rape with the
words and rape of the body
Are both rape of the mind.

A victim of dance can promise you this:
When there is no longer a beat
The music doesn’t always sound so sweet.

I open with this performance excerpt because this past week Caitlin closed my office door to purge a poem she’d been holding since we parted. It was a poem purposefully memorized. For months we passed each other, pitching empty promises and pocketing good intentions about reconnecting. When others cycled through my office, she sat unmoved–clutching her bag over her gut as if secrets were stashed there. She said I had to see her, to hear her—the near-tear and the crackle. She wanted me to bear witness to the poetics of her life.

Her poem haunts me.

On the one hand, I am ecstatic she distilled a semester-long discussion about hip hop feminism into a performance. The teacher-me says well done. On the other hand, the need-to-be-togetha-me has come undone with the fleshed-filled reminder that to do this work is to engage constantly in collective healing and self recovery. And women, we are not well. The stories we choose to tell are often triumphant yet traumatic. I wonder if the two represent our carefully choreographed two-step, our coping with the incomprehensible. So, we dance. So, we write. So, we try to get back (into) ourselves that thing that has been lost or taken from us. The triumph of self awareness and the trauma of sexual assault converse. Caitlin crystallizes what we’ve managed to dance around: the psychic toll of violence—real and representational. The victim-survivor trope she uses is a familiar one in our feminist creative-intellectual work. Why this trope? Why these stories?
We empty ugly onto the floor and the page to form art that moves folk, an art form that propels (a) movement. What are we moving toward? What do we make of this cathartic dance we write? Caitlin demanded that I see her, hear her. With recognition comes accountability. I just want to dance right? I just want to dance right. I just want to dance.Write. I sit with her poem and can’t shake that we are stuck in a groove, listening to another woman trying to fight the rhythm while we sing the same tune.


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