Say Her Name: Billie Holiday and the Erasure of Black Women's Experience

Say Her Name: Billie Holiday and the Erasure of Black Women's Experience

It’s been 100 years since the birth of the American musical genius, yet for girls born today into communities like hers, little has changed.

July 1, 2015

When activists gathered in Baltimore on May 21, 2015, as part of a nationwide rallying cry protesting police violence against black women, it seemed fitting that they should stand in the shadows of famed jazz singer Billie Holiday. Holiday, or rather her towering eight-and-one-half-foot likeness, is erected on the west side of the city, at the corner of Pennsylvania and Lafayette Avenues.  

Adorned in a full-length strapless gown and donning what came to be known as her signature gardenia, the darkened bronze monument affectingly dramatizes the musical great in elegant pose, her open-mouthed head tilted ever so slightly to the side and arms subtly positioned as if silently beseeching the attention of an imperceptible audience.  

Born in Philadelphia, Holiday (considered one of the most influential female musicians of all time) spent much of her childhood on the streets of Baltimore’s Fells Point—then an impoverished community in the southeastern section of the city, while the west side (where the statue now stands) once thrived as the city’s principal entertainment district.

Whether by design or chance, that supporters of a campaign heralded by the hashtag #SayHerName—whose charge it is to advance the often ignored accounts of black women whose lives have been blighted by harassment, assault, and death—would mobilize at this location perhaps foretells of promising transformations to come, when the names of those women and girls are remembered with the same resonance as those of black men.

 

MEETING AT HOLIDAY'S STATUE is particularly meaningful when considering the fact that the Pennsylvania Avenue effigy for many offers a nod to the little black girl from across town, who herself endured poverty, childhood sexual victimization, and institutionalization (before she’d reached the age of twelve). Holiday battled said strictures, the systemic racist structure that bore them, and subsequently transformed into an accomplished artist, who, during her heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, regularly performed in the preeminent concert halls and nightclubs of the day—some of which, block after block, lined the corridor where she is now memorialized.

(Photo: Phyllis M. Croom)

The site of Baltimore's Royal Theatre, once the Baltimore equivalent of New York's Apollo Theater, sits just beyond the gaze of the Billie Holiday statue on Baltimore's west side.

Much has changed from an era when Holiday (also known as “Lady Day”) and other African American luminaries graced the stages of such Pennsylvania Avenue venues as the Sphinx Club, Club Tijuana, the Bamboo Lounge, or the epic Royal Theatre, the Baltimore equivalent of New York’s Apollo Theater. Had it not been razed 46 years prior, the Royal would today sit just beyond the statue’s wistful gaze.

Long departed too are even the faintest allusions of the thriving black middle class that once bolstered this community. No longer are the streets a mosaic of popular nightclubs or restaurants; there are no viable chain supermarkets, schools, or notable health-care facilities. The most accessible full-service pharmacy, a CVS just over a minute’s drive away, now sits in ruins, a newly boarded-up shell with a pall of smoke still clinging desperately to the air around it, weeks after it was pillaged and burned.  

In a community not unfamiliar with the sight of abandoned and burned-out hulls, the Pennsylvania Avenue CVS looms as a raw reminder of the domestic unrest that rocked Baltimore following the police killing of Freddie Gray in the final weeks of April 2015. With the world watching in somber consternation, and inner-city communities around the nation galvanized in support, riot-geared police, mobilized National Guard soldiers, wafting smoke, and screaming sirens created an eerie backdrop to the tense demonstrations threatening to engulf the city.

The catalyst for the Baltimore uprising was yet another part of an unsettling pattern of apparent misconduct and violence in community policing. Just as with the protests that ensued the 2014 decision by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, not to indict a white police officer accused in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black man, activists and community residents in Baltimore took to the streets following the death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who inexplicably sustained fatal spinal injuries while in police custody.  

Even as six Baltimore police officers have since been indicted in Gray’s death, the tense debate around questions of police malfeasance in struggling communities of color yet grows. As does correlative public discourse surrounding the much broader issues of urban poverty and the insufferable conditions faced by those conscripted to the margins of society.

And so it seems a grim paradox that a neighborhood functioning as host to this recently rededicated memorial for a black woman who courageously fought against all odds, and a neighborhood once home to one of the most consequential cultural scenes in the region, now reigns as the epicenter of violence, poverty, and despair. Equally disquieting is the fact that many of the residents that live under Holiday’s imploring pose, are, some 100 years after her birth, constrained by the same degradations that she battled as a child, as well as the violence, drug addiction, and resulting criminalization that she confronted in her adult life.  

Yet even as this icon, whose brilliance is enduringly ingrained in the fabric of modern music, and whose tragic history today echoes in the lives of countless black women, surveys the scene, one might be forgiven for assuming, by virtue of the headlines, that the fate faced by Freddie Gray awaits only black men.

 

THE IRONY OF HOLIDAY'S sculpted presence in the midst of a black community’s nightmare rests less in the existence of such occurrences in a society rife with them, but rather in the idea that the plight of girls and women of color remains largely ignored, even in the midst of such a grave educational, economic, social, and public safety crisis that exists within this and other poverty-ridden communities across the country. The discourse surrounding these patently collective urban experiences is focused singularly on the mistreatment of young black boys and men.

Along the sizable base of the Holiday statue are sculpted several motifs. Among them is the depiction of a black child at birth, its suspended umbilical cord embodying a lynched man’s rope. Designer James Earl Reid wrote of his creation that his message, and what he believed was “the message of Billie Holiday’s songs, is that the black man is in trouble and at risk from the day he is born until the day he dies.”

It would seem that even the great lady, who once said, "Anything I do sing, it's a part of my life," isn't exempt from being erased from her own narrative.

And yet, Reid’s assessment, albeit misogynistic,is predicated on some rather disturbing statistical evidence. Black males are undeniably positioned on the wrong side of “most.” That is, they are most often suspended from schools, most likely to have the lowest rates of high school and college graduations, and most expected to live 14 fewer years than their white male counterparts with a college degree.  

Unquestionably, black men are among the most unemployed, have the most involvement in violent criminal activities, and sustain most of this country’s prison industrial complex. Moreover, as recent events have shown, one need only invoke the names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice to be reminded that all too often, when black males cross paths with white policemen, they are also most likely to end up unjustifiably dead. However pernicious, the dots connect themselves: Black males are in trouble.

But so are black girls and women.

To the minds of many, the yawning racial divide in education, income, wealth, and justice is a malady best illustrated by the beleaguered lives of black boys and men; in the media and in public policy, the face of an embattled community is that of the black male. And if the surplus of research into their lives, or public policy measures such as President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative (a $200 million private and public enterprise designed to address the challenges and elevate the life circumstances of boys and young men of color) can be used as a barometer, the assumption is that merely addressing the virulent conditions they face (to the exclusion of their female counterparts) is the surefire solution to vitalizing inner-city communities of color as a whole.

Not surprisingly, making the case for strategies and interventions that will similarly enhance the life choices of black girls and women is frequently thwarted by an abysmal shortage of exhaustive information detailing the conditions confronting them. It’s a hurdle made all the more challenging by the conviction among some racial justice advocates that injecting the concerns of black girls and women into conversations surrounding the plight of black males is subversively divisive. As if the establishment of a patriarchal multimillion-dollar initiative reverberates with accord.

The erasure of girls and black women from the public policy landscape is scarcely an anomaly in the black woman’s experience. Black girls and women, both within their own communities and society at large, have long existed in the public imagination as what feminist Michelle Wallace some 35 years ago characterized as the “black superwoman.” These purported super-heroines are the long-suffering mothers, sisters, aunts, and friends who, although trudging day after day through the trenches alongside their imperiled fathers, sons, and brothers (while concurrently experiencing a whole other brand of suffocating gender-specific inequities), nonetheless warrant less consideration because they’re thought to be shielded by their sublime powers of strength and resilience.  

It is these mythic capabilities, according to conventional lore, that will carry them through—at least, one guesses, until that irksome problem with black males has been alleviated. These same apocryphal attitudes discharge researchers and policy-makers of the responsibility of chronicling and advancing the life experiences of black girls and women. But more particularly and certainly in the case of community policing and private violence, it further reinforces a global belief that relative their male peers, black women too are superhuman and thereby a threat to be demoralized and controlled—even at the risk of their lives.

Inarguably, this was the insidiously lethal perspective of lone gunman Dylann Roof as he faced a group of nine black parishioners, (six of whom were women) during a Wednesday evening bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17. Purportedly conjuring the crudely timeworn pretext of preserving white women from the depraved black man, Roof nonetheless trained his gun first on the eldest woman and, pausing only to reload, mercilessly gunned down each congregant, one by one.

(Photo: AP/Stephen B. Morton)

Adriana Boyd participates in a June 20 march in honor of the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

Obama, in a well-received eulogy for one of the more prominent of those killed, rightfully questioned the killer’s awareness of the history of the black church. Could Roof have also known of its traditions—that midweek prayer service, a pared-down form of Sunday worship, is attended primarily by the most devout, by church elders, and by women? That in the historically masculine hierarchy of the black church, the sanctum of bible study (or prayer meeting as it is sometimes called) has endured as one of but a few places where black women could ascend from obscurity to bear witness and, in keeping with Matthew 11:28, “lay their burdens down”?  

Perhaps the gunman was unaware of this long-practiced tradition, but the order and selection of his victims nonetheless lays bare his firmly held conviction that the six black women he murdered (Myra Thompson, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Cynthia Hurd) were as abhorrent and expendable as the three black men he massacred and those he yearned to eradicate universally. Through his racist rage, the six black women he murdered were, ostensibly, and yet predictably, deemed unworthy of the same protections as the white women he’d pledged to protect.

No measure of rousing hymns or dynamic rhetoric about our optimism for “John” and “Jemal” (to the exclusion of Judy and Jelissa), or about stiffer gun-control laws or the immobilization of a reductive flag will obfuscate these facts and the carnage that supports them.

In 1939, when writing of her own youth Holiday penned, “God Bless the Child,” which in part reads:

“Them that's got shall have. Them that's not shall lose. So the Bible said, and it still is news.”  

And it still is news.  

 

EARLIER THIS YEAR, a report issued by the African American Policy Forum uncovered an array of alarmingly underreported facts. Authored in large part by noted legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the pioneering report revealed that black girls, like their black male counterparts, are also suspended from schools in numbers disproportionate to the suspensions of students from other racial groups. Black girls, Crenshaw reported in “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” were in fact suspended at six times the rate of their white female peers, and unlike their counterparts, girls of color often find their schools as perilous as the communities in which they live, leading them in many cases to reject school entirely.  

Also key among the report’s findings is the impact of long-practiced policies of “zero-tolerance” policy disciplining in inner-city schools—policies that mete out stiffer penalties to black girls at earlier ages, and far more commonly, than to their white female cohorts. The penalties effectually drive black girls out of schools and onto a path of either unemployment or low-paying jobs, and in many cases, incarceration. Regrettably, it would seem that unlike most systems, the school-to-prison pipeline does advocate gender inclusivity. And even supposing that girls (who are arrested for fewer serious offenses than boys) weren’t, as other data suggest, the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population, these outcomes would still prove discouraging.  

And the scenarios for black women are no more favorable. According to the ACLU, women are the fastest growing group among the adult prison populace—with black women, who comprise only 13 percent of the female population overall, accounting for 30 percent of those imprisoned. And although not widely reported, it is likewise the case that when black women cross paths with white authorities, they too are assaulted, injured, and slain.

In a recently released report titled “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” Crenshaw and co-author Andrea Ritchie outlined a troubling and yet little-publicized pattern of racialized state violence against black women. The report (which spurred mass demonstrations of support across the country) found that black women are consistently profiled and monitored for offenses such as prostitution, drug crimes, and other poverty-related transgressions. And, while little data exist to provide a precise estimate, the number of incidences involving black women assaulted or killed by law enforcement is on the increase.  

The media spotlight has been all but dim on the murders of women like Michelle Cusseaux, who was shot through the heart by a police officer who claims he feared that the 130-pound, five-foot-five Cusseaux was going to kill him or take his gun after she allegedly threatened him with a hammer. Officers, aware that Cusseaux was mentally ill, were dispatched to her home to check her “welfare.” Nor has their been much coverage about Mya Hall, a young transgender woman from Baltimore, who was slain when officers opened fire on a car she was traveling in after she and another woman mistakenly took a wrong exit onto a federal facility.

(Photo: Phyllis M. Croom)

The memorial for famed jazz singer Billie Holiday is erected at the corner of Pennsylvania and Lafayette Avenues, on the west side of Baltimore. On May 21, 2015, the statue served as a meeting place for a rally protesting violence against black women—a nationwide campaign that used the hashtag #SayHerName.

The “Say Her Name” report further illuminates through these and other heartbreaking narratives that while few may know or even bother to invoke their names, black girls and women are in crisis. One such story involves Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old Cleveland woman who was thrown facedown onto the pavement and restrained by an officer with his knee in her back after the officer was summoned to the woman’s home by her family. The police were slated to escort Anderson (who suffered from bipolar disorder) to a nearby hospital for a voluntary psychological evaluation when she changed her mind about going. Although the police report plainly states that she resisted nonviolently, Anderson died on the street where she was flung, and according to witness accounts, was left lying there for a prolonged period of time—clad in only her nightgown.

In these unsettling times, one is reminded of Martin Niemöller’s elegiac warning: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist…then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Whether as agents of the state or simply of hate, “they” still intrusively come—into our lives, our homes, and our places of worship. Nowhere are we safe. And still we refuse to honestly speak to the trespasses or to acknowledge the trespassed.

 

AND SO SHE STANDS, on the west side of Baltimore, a fixed reminder, a mighty monument to a giant of a woman in a broken community that has forgotten her sacrifices, and a society that still chooses to ignore them. One can’t possibly know, of course, but one imagines that Holiday’s message, for any interested in listening, is that her greatness came at a hefty price. The margins that sought to confine her, that she’d bravely resisted all 44 years of her short life, that battered her body and bruised her soul, still managed in the end, as she lay dying in her hospital bed, harassed by the F.B.I. and under arrest for drug possession, to outdistance her.

As we struggle to demand equity and to have heard the names of all the black girls and women who live and die confined to the shadows in this country, of the many, I will say her name: Billie Holiday. 

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