***TRIGGER WARNING: The following blog post contains graphic nerdiness as well as an actual account of a crime committed against an actual nerd***
I was headed back from my first day on the job, walking merrily home, high off the potential and kindness the day had shown me. Just seconds before, I had shared an impromptu cab ride with some friendly people from my former university. After waiting for far too long out in the cold for the university shuttle to pick us up, we, a trio of strangers, had decided to share a cab. I told the other two I only had a dollar. They didn’t care. The cold had stirred compassion in them—made them determined to prevent anyone from having to endure one more second of the stabbing arctic chill that they had just experienced. In the end, I didn’t have to pay a dime for the ride, because my dollar was so trivial in comparison to the size of the shared cab fare.
Since we were all headed to different destinations on Charles Street, we decided that the cab should let me off at an intersection close to my home, just one block below my usual shuttle stop. Overjoyed by the free cab ride (can you tell how broke I am?), I practically skipped home, bounding over snow banks and dodging patches of ice.
I was happy. I was two blocks from home.
Maybe that was it, I was too happy. I was distracted.
When I heard someone running up behind me, it didn’t even occur to me that they could be an assailant. I was ready to write the thunderous steps off as those of an approaching jogger. But then I realized that the steps were to uneven, too urgent. For a second I paused fearfully, should I start running just in case? If I start running and then look back and see that it’s just one of my neighbors—especially one of my Black male neighbors—will I feel ridiculous, will I feel like I have given into the stereotypes that contribute to the killing of unarmed Black men? I thought all of these things in a jumble and not coherently.
And then “just in case” was out of the picture.
I had already started to run, when a hand grabbed the purse that hung from my shoulder. Perhaps I cried out? I don’t know. What I do know is that my first reaction was to pull away. My head filled up with the words, “No no no!”
I was all alone.
“I’ll cut you. I’ll cut you,” the man, whose face is still blurry in my memory, said.
I was all alone on a street that was technically filled with people. People safe in their houses.
For a moment, it seemed as if I were no longer in my body. I was on auto pilot. I faintly remember letting the purse slide off my arm. I watched, dumbstruck, as the thief ran awkwardly away with my purse slapping against his side. Then it hit me. I had been mugged. “Help I’ve been mugged,” I yelled to the empty street, only realizing the futility of my words once they reached the air. Waving madly, I tried to flag down a car but it cruised past me, its passengers unsympathetic, leaving me standing on the corner like an idiot.
And then I heard something reassuring, the sound of women talking on a porch nearby.
As a gut reaction, I hurried toward them. I babbled something like, “Can you help me call the police? I just got mugged.” They understood immediately. They dropped everything to help me. Only for a second, did one of them hesitate when she handed me her smartphone to call the police. For a second I wondered incoherently, “does she not trust me because I’m Black? Because I look like the mugger? Do they all see us a criminals like him?” And, as I imagined my smartphone jostling down the streets of Baltimore in my stolen purse, I couldn’t blame her for not trusting me. I felt like the crime had somehow tainted me.
As we waited for the police, the women, who were also affiliated with my former university, shared the last of their freshly baked cookies with me, as well as the war stories they had accumulated merely by being young women, moving through the world. They gave me the commiseration that I so sorely needed.
I will not share the details of their experiences without their permission. I will say that their stories share a common thread. That thread is terror. Fear of being mugged again, assaulted, targeted for the vulnerability associated with their bodies again. Like so many women (all women?), the group of women who helped me were overwhelmed by the need to modify their behavior to protect themselves. Everyday, even in the midst of the mundane, they were anticipating the next attack, which they knew firsthand could be just around the corner. As I sat in this racially diverse circle of women who had rallied around me, answering the uniform cops’ questions, I was both miserable and inspired.
I am a woman and I am part of a sisterhood, I thought.
And then I thought, I am a woman and I am always in danger.
At one point one of the cops said something like, “It’s clear you girls are very smart. But I’m going to need you to practice some common sense.”
“What kind of common sense are you talking about?” I wanted to ask. The kind of common sense that gives you 2,000 dollars for a down payment on a car, as well as a job that ends before 6 pm AND pays a living wage (so I can buy said car or at least a taxi)? Cuz that’s the only common sense I can use. That’s the only common sense that would have helped me.
For the first time, I viscerally not just intellectually felt what it means to be a woman. Being a woman means being mugged and then being blamed for it. Being a poor Black woman in Baltimore means not having enough money to travel safely through your terrible neighborhood and then being blamed for it. I am not saying that men don’t get mugged. Of course men are mugged all the time. My concern is that the blame for a crime that was perpetrated against me was assigned to me and not to the perpetrator.
The police officer was only the first person to blame me for being mugged.
My father said, ” You learned a hard lesson.”
A female friend told me how she would have avoided the situation, if she were in my shoes.
I was excoriated for having all of my things in my purse (something I usually don’t do).
My mother, who has been mugged three times, chastised me for having important identification on me—identification I needed for my first day of work.
For the first few days, I felt that the mugging was my fault. It was my fault that my social security card had been stolen. If only I had remembered to put it in my jacket pocket. If only I had put my phone in one of my other pockets. If only I had been carrying the really good library book I was reading in my hands and not in my bag. Maybe then I wouldn’t be fighting the bureaucratic behemoths that are the Social Security Administration and the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to pay ten dollars I really can’t spare for a police report documenting that my library book (ironically the most valuable thing out of all the items in my bag including my debit card) was stolen.
The mugging was also a moment of awakening.
I woke up to the fact that, as a woman I (me, personally, not just that abstract nameless faceless woman out there who these things usually happen to) am expected to modify my behavior to protect myself from those who would prey upon me because I am a woman AND society for the most part accepts that fact or a least does little to change it.
I had known this intellectually already, but now I feel the truth bearing down on me every moment of the day. Now I truly understand that, as a woman, I will be blamed for not protected myself if a crime is perpetrated against me. Berated for not having common sense. For not wearing the right thing. And, in the event that I am raped, for not protecting my virtue.
I woke up to the fact that every woman of every color, whether cis-gendered or transgendered, should be protesting in the streets RIGHT NOW demanding that her life, her labor, her body (regardless of what it is clothed in or how much makeup it is painted with) is regarded with equal value and respect. AND ALL of our allies should be marching with us.
I felt sickened at the stories that women shared with me after I told them what had happened. A close family friend recounted what happened to her daughters when each of them had been mugged. She recounted the time her mother was attacked by a mugger/rapist at the front door of her home. The kind woman who rejected my application for a Maryland ID at the MVA told me that she only travels alone to and from work, out of fear of being attacked in her neighborhood. She believes all women and girls should be at home by 5 pm for the sake of safety.
After the mugging, the Feminist inside me, with a capital “F”, who stands for the human dignity of women and girls all over the world roared. I was more certain than ever that women across the globe need to rise up! I still didn’t know how that was going to happen exactly…but I was righteously pissed!
The Black Feminist in me, however, was broken.
Every thin Black man wearing a hoodie in my neighborhood, looked like the man who mugged me and considering that it was winter that was pretty much everyone. I became obsessed with trying to remember the mugger’s face. I looked for him on the street, when my dad and I walked to the laundromat. I looked for him at the grocery store. I worried that I was becoming a kind of racial-profiler and I also didn’t give a fuck. I didn’t trust anyone anymore.
When I first had to tell the cops the mugger was Black, I sobbed harder than I had at any other point that night. I felt the strange worming sensation of being disappointed in the man who mugged me. How he could do this to us, I raged, how could he do this to Black people?!
For a couple days, I doubted my commitment to the anti-police-brutality movement. After all, none of the activists who I had been working with had even bothered to wonder where I had disappeared to. I realized I didn’t even feel close enough to any of these people to tell them what had happened to me. For around four days, the only people I could rely on for help were cops (albeit overburdened and slightly disorganized cops), a few friends and my therapist.
I was devastated by a story that the detective in charge of my case shared with me. He recounted how a beloved matriarch on the street he grew up on led the charge in cleaning up his block by working with the cops and like minded neighbors to kick the gangs and drug dealers out.
As he spoke, I thought bitterly about the drug dealers that troll my block, a street that I learned is notorious for drug sales. I thought of the creepy gold-toothed man who holds court in his luxury car outside of my house. I thought of the way my silence and my fear made me complicit in these activities—activities that lead to neighborhood shootings and the senseless deaths of Black youth.
I tore up my beloved “Black Lives Matter” sign and threw it in the trash.
And then Tony Robinson happened in Wisconsin.
And then Anthony Hill happened in Georgia.
And I realized that my trauma had caused my thinking to become muddled.
I realized that the terrorism that Black criminals in my poor Black neighborhood inflict on me and my neighbors is no different than the terrorism criminals in my mother’s neighborhood in rural California inflict on their neighbors. The difference is that many Black victims of crime in predominately Black neighborhoods are afraid to reach out to the people who are supposed to protect them, the police.
I now understand that the people in my neighborhood would give anything to be rid of the gangs and crime, but worry that by working with the police they would merely be trading one evil for another. They don’t know who to trust.
Quite honestly, I still don’t know who to trust but I will keep trying. I will keep trying to live with an open heart, committed to fighting for women AND men who are victims of injustice. I will not let one Black man, who held a knife to my face and took what little I had left in the world after what has been a financially and emotionally devastating year, overturn the love I have for my own people.
I WILL let this be a learning experience. I will remember how fragmented people’s thinking becomes in a moment of fear. I will never let anyone tell me that ALL cops are bad.
I will approach each individual I meet with the love and respect they deserve, regardless of their exterior, their clothing, their uniform, their accent.
I will work to forgive the asshole who mugged me. I will remind myself of the fact that after he took my things, I did not, for a moment, wish harm upon him. In fact, I feared that the police might use excessive force if they apprehended him (don’t get me wrong, I still wanted him to be apprehended. Vindictiveness springs from primal instinct after all.). I will hope someone close to my mugger will show him enough love to help him change. I will remind myself that love and care are stronger than fear.
I will learn.
I will love.
I will learn.
I won’t let fear stop me from going outside after 5 pm.
This post has been stewing in my depression-seasoned brain bile for some time, just waiting to get out. I was originally going to start my discussion, about the challenges Black women who suffer from mental illness face, with a half-baked joke like:
My emotionally austere, overly achievement-oriented Black American father and “Blasian” mother don’t believe in depression or mental health care.
OR A ZINGER LIKE:
Another kid at the cut-throat university I attend(ed) just committed suicide!
But I’m just going to skip all the introductions and the transitions and the attempts at decent writing and get to the meat of the issue.
For the first installment of a series that I’m calling “Black Woman Down!” (Because writing skills), I want to discuss the particular problems that being a Black woman who suffers from mental illness presents and why there is a desperate need for an active and engaging discussion about Black women’s mental health specifically. Like a grade school essayist, let me break it down for you in a stilted and disorganized fashion.
As Black woman who suffers from depression and anxiety, I feel that four key aspects of my cultural and social environment stand in the way of my ability to manage my illness.
1. The complete and total resistance that both my culture and my particular family have toward the concept of mental illness.
2. The acceptability of emotional abuse as a parenting style. That’s right I said it, the thing that you are NEVER supposed to say lest racist white people hone in on it and use it as a justification for racism. Let’s put that idea to rest, why don’t we? Racists don’t need fodder for racism, they can whip it up out of thin air—like all bullshit.
As Black people, we need to discuss the emotional abuse (and physical violence) that pervades so many of our families. By this I mean having a full discussion—not just writing familial abuse off with excuses like “Black parents have to be extra harsh with their children to protect them from racial violence,” and “learning how to act right could mean the difference between life and death for a Black child.” While survival in a world in which Black people live under the constant terrorism of white patriarchy may be part of why Black parents are so “harsh” on their children, it has been my experience that the roots of emotional abuse (and corporal punishment) in Black families are far too gnarled and thorny to be untangled with the overly-simple explanation “it’s because of racism.”
I first got the sense that something more complex was afoot (yes, afoot), when my father recounted a story about my grandmother and her sisters bonding, over copious amount of sugar, while celebrating the best “whuppin’s” they had given their children. Just to give you a picture, one “whuppin’”* involved an extension cord and a bathtub. I don’t know if it was the best whuppin.’ There wasn’t an official vote.
3. A lack of a safety net in my community. This road block for Black women’s mental health is closely related the previous two. When those who form the bedrock of your support structure do not believe your illness exists, and thus will not help you access the resources you need when you are incapacitated by your illness, it is easy for you to fall into dire straits. Your symptoms may become unmanageable. You may fall on hard financial times either from an inability to function or because your therapy and medication is breaking the bank.
You find yourself reeling from the dearth of mental health professionals who are attuned to challenges that you face as a woman of color.
For example, one of the many therapists I saw in college tried to equate her experience of growing up German-American in a predominately Italian-American neighborhood in Philadelphia to my experience as a Black kid growing up in a predominately white environment. Though I respect that she experienced prejudice and conflict, I resented the way in which she drew a parallel between her experience and mine in order to invalidate my experience. Her advice was somewhere along the lines of, “Everyone experiences prejudice. Racism against Black people is just like all other forms of discrimination. So get over it. Move on. You are obsessed.”
I’m not saying that mental health professionals who treat People of Color need to be People of Color themselves, but they do need to be attuned to the distinctive scars that racism leaves on us and should be able to negotiate the nuances of our different cultures.
4. Jesus. On my father’s side of the family, Jesus is the cure for all ailments including mental illness. One is expected to surrender (along with the first ten percent of her earnings) all her troubles unto the Lord. Because why do you need a therapist when you have the Bible?!
Okay, put the pitchfork down! I am not seeking to devalue spiritual support when it comes to managing mental illness. However it is time that we start regarding mental illnesses as illnesses in the full sense of the word—as worthy of the same rigorous treatment that other diseases receive. There needs to be some kind of bridge to connect, what has been the traditional bastion of support for most Black communities, to medically-based mental health care.
The four preceding points (woot love that alliteration!) are just the beginning of what I hope will be an engaging discussion about the challenges Black women and other women of color face when confronting mental illness. Over the next few months, I will examine each of these points more closely. It’s time we seriously engage with the silence around mental illness in Black communities in the United States (as well as in American culture at large). We have to go beyond simply acknowledging the stigma of mental illness in communities of color. We need to actively fight it. The only way we can do that is by talking about it and making it visible.
Feel free to jump into the conversation. You don’t have to be a Black laydeh to do so.
*I have no idea how to spell “whuppin'” and I sure as hell am not going to plug it into google.
Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) is the state’s own prison labor company. A semi-autonomous subdivision of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), MCE commands a workforce of thousands of prisoners, paid just a few dollars per day.
According to a search of the ProQuest database (available with your Enoch Pratt Free Library card; County residents try here), The Baltimore Sun has run a total of nine articles covering MCE since it changed names in 2005. That’s about one article per year. One hundred percent of these articles show MCE in a neutral or positive light, reporting mostly on officials who worked as overseers of MCE and on good works done by prisoners, e.g. “From the Prisons Comes a Thanksgiving Feast“, written by Peter Hermann in November 2009.
“Myra Wooten’s Thanksgiving came from prison. Officers from state correctional institutions in Jessup and Baltimore delivered a…
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