My grandmother’s mantra to her daughters was, “just remember, you are a lady.” When my mother’s oldest sister, the first Black woman to enter the convent school, was taunted by classmates, she was reminded she was a lady. My grandmother would wake up early in the morning and do all the chores so that when her daughters’ friends came by to walk with them to school, she would be sitting at the table, dressed perfectly, as if the maid had just left, like a lady. In all the humiliations and oppressions of colonialism, pawning the possessions to eat, scraping for school uniforms, my grandmother insisted, “you are a lady.”
And when my grandfather’s women one after another knocked on the door of her house and asked for him, she never made a scene. She was a lady. When he met women in the park across from the home, taking my mother with him as an excuse to go outside, she never breathed a word. She would turn her head, and salvage her dignity by pretending she never saw what was happening.
At my sister’s wedding, my 92-year-old aunt approached her. Leaning in, she gave my sister advice. “When he has other women, just remember, he put the ring on you,” she said. “Remember, he might be running around with them, but he’s coming home to you.”
This is what our elders knew about survival, and what they taught us. They never dreamed of leaving marriages, whether there was infidelity, whether there was abuse, whether he disappeared, whether he sold all her jewelry, whether he took a hammer and broke down the kitchen wall, whether he made her get out of bed and scrub the floors all night, even when he hurt the children.
Being married was respectability. It was an accomplishment. Is it any different now when we live in a culture that tells us Black women are unmarriageable, that we can’t get or keep a man? We live in a culture where even Michelle Obama is called an “ape in heels,” and Leslie Jones is bombarded by Harambe memes. We are called ugly. When you type in “why are black women” into Google, the automatic fill returns, “so angry.”
Ugh, Black women. “Why do black women’s hair not grow?” people ask Google. God, it’s like they’re not real humans.
Even Beyonce is cheated on. And she stays with her husband. Rihanna is beaten by Chris Brown and gets back together with him. Ray Rice is caught on tape knocking out his fiance Janay, and she marries him. Whitney Houston tells Oprah Bobby Brown spit on her, but she took her vows seriously and didn’t think she should leave.
One time I overhear two Black women I know talking. One of them says how she wishes she had finished school earlier. Then she casually adds, “but I guess it’s kind of hard when your father’s raping you.” And the other woman says something to the effect of yes, everyone knew that, and then they move on, as though nothing unusual is being said. One time I am sitting with a bunch of Black women, and a man’s name comes up, and offhand it’s mentioned to one of the women, oh, remember when he threw you down the stairs. And we move on.
We live in a culture where Black women in particular have been conditioned to accept violence against us as normal. Where a mix of being told we deserve it, that we better take what we can get, that we are not desirable, that we are our pain, that to struggle is our destiny as Black women, has conditioned us to see abuse as just part of the deal of being a Black woman.
When we are represented at all, we are so often represented as the receptacles of violence. Our most popular cultural narratives, from The Colour Purple to Ike and Tina to Lemonade are about the abuse or trials we suffer from men. We are celebrated for being strong, for enduring. We are so strong we don’t feel pain, the slave masters told us. We are so strong we don’t have feelings, don’t need mental health care, can’t be vulnerable.
Your grandmother sounds so strong, people say, when I tell them how she was a lady.
We also live in a culture where Black single mothers are blamed for the problems of the community. Where we blame shootings on single mothers. Where we call Black single mothers welfare queens. Where we say, maybe those women should stop having babies then. Where the “pathology” of the Black community is blamed on households without a father, and Black women are told if they raise a child without a father in the house, then everything is their fault. So is it any wonder then that Black women might be more scared of leaving their marriages than dying in them, when every message tells Black women that to be an unmarried woman is to be a shame and threat to the world?
In the documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Dr. Beverley Guy-Sheftall points out that “Generally speaking, black people do not believe that misogyny and sexism and violence against women are urgent issues … we still think that racism, police brutality, black male incarceration are the issues that we should be concerned about.”
We also come from strong traditions of “not washing your dirty laundry in public” as my mother would say, where community and family survival depended on not drawing attention to yourself.
When Black children are 40 per cent more likely to be investigated for abuse and neglect than white children, and where Black families are disproportionately broken up by mass incarceration, and where Black people are more likely to be victimized by police and other state authority figures, it’s understandable why Black families don’t seek interventions.
How do we address violence in our communities when everything we do is scrutinized and treated as “evidence” of our pathology, our savageness, as “proof” of us being dangerous? How do we address violence when so much violence is done upon us by racism? And so we live in communities where violent men are celebrated, and where women are shamed. Communities where men “in the game” are allowed to take up positions in the community, but the women they exploit and victimize are stigmatized, gossiped about, and treated as “hos.” To be clear, the same things happen in white communities, to white women — but white women aren’t also burdened with protecting white men from racism.
How do we address male violence in our communities when we know that Black men are already treated as threatening and animalistic? And where Black women are treated as “angry,” “having attitude,” and “deserving it.” Where Black teen girls are told they looked adult so it was okay. Where Black youth are given adult sentences and disproportionately sentenced to youth jail. Where Black boys and girls are removed from schools at three times higher rates than white kids, and criminalized early.
None of us were in the Desmond house, and we cannot know. I cannot speak for her, and she is almost nowhere to be found in the coverage. I cannot comment on the realities of her life, and I wouldn’t want to. All I know is when I hear how she was counselled by her family to stay in her marriage, how she said people wouldn’t be telling her that when she was dead, how she was told to stick with him till death do us part, I know how familiar that is. I can think of all the women I know in my family who, if it were me, would tell me the same. “You made your bed,” they would say, not because they didn’t love me, not because they were ignorant, not because they didn’t want me to be safe, but because that was the script they knew for survival.
Except, of course, those abusive relationships so often kill us. Statistics from the United States show that Black women are three times more likely to die from intimate partner violence. As usual, Black people don’t exist in Canada, so there aren’t any statistics on us. In the list of murdered and missing women that gives race, the 11th entry presents a woman with a Ghanaian name whose race is listed as “unknown,” suggesting that the list is not accurate for tracking Black women. In Antigonish, where we are told Lionel Desmond tried to seek help, Ottilia Chereka was murdered by her husband in 2011. She was reportedly trying to leave her marriage.
Almost all the coverage has been about Lionel Desmond and why he did it. There has been next to nothing about Shanna Desmond and who she was, her life, her accomplishments, her struggles. This erasure is, sadly, infuriatingly, the norm for reporting on family killings.
Elizabeth Renzetti, writing in the Globe and Mail, points out that “women killed by their spouses are not casualties in someone else’s story.”
A narrative has sprung up that almost entirely erases the three victims of his crime. Indeed, it makes Mr. Desmond as much of a victim as the women he killed…
…In all the talk about PTSD – which is a pressing problem in this country, especially for women and men who have served in the military – another set of letters has been almost completely forgotten: VAW. That stands for violence against women, and it is also a huge problem – and one that is largely under-reported, except at the beginning of December each year, when the country gathers to remember the 14 women murdered at the École Polytechnique in 1989. We light candles, shake our heads, and move on.
We move on despite the fact that one woman in Canada is slain every six days by her intimate partner (67 women were killed by their partners in 2014, and 16 men by theirs.) According to a report from the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, in Ontario alone last year, 26 women were the victims of “femicide” – with the suspects charged in their deaths being boyfriends, husbands, relatives or acquaintances. The challenge, which is not adequately funded or addressed, involves protecting these vulnerable women before they are beyond help. Shelters are often overflowing, and affordable accommodation is almost impossible to find for a single woman accompanied by children.
We cannot know what happened in the privacy of the Desmonds’ house in the weeks and months before the killings, but some chilling details could have sounded an alarm: Mr. Desmond wrote on his Facebook page that he was sorry for his “jealousy toward my wife” and “being over-controlling.” They were living apart. Ms. Borden said in her CBC interview that she told her sister to stick with her suffering husband, and Shanna responded: “You’re not going to be saying ‘Shanna, Shanna’ any more when you find Shanna dead.”
If we make this tragedy solely about Lionel Desmond and PTSD, we lose sight of the underlying problems of family violence, which are even more deeply hidden by shame and fear. As Ardath Whynacht, a sociology professor at Mount Allison University, told CBC Radio: “There were four victims that day and we’re talking only about the services that could have helped him, and not, for example, services that might have helped his spouse be safer, in trying to leave that relationship and get space.”
Almost all the focus in the coverage in the killing of Shanna Desmond, Aaliyah Desmond, and Brenda Desmond has been on Lionel Desmond and PTSD. Numerous articles have addressed the lack of funding for health care for veterans, a provincial review of St. Martha’s and mental health service availability in the province, and Desmond’s attempts to get help. And those things are a tragedy, and a terrible failure.
In the public and media narrative on the case, there has been no information given on where victims of domestic violence can seek help. There is no review of domestic violence services in the province or the overcrowding of shelters. In April, the third annual Shelter Voices survey reported that “on one day last year, 234 shelters had to turn away 305 women and children — almost three-quarters of the women and children seeking shelter that day —because there was no space.” 73 per cent of women seeking shelter space are typically turned away in Canada.
The shelter report cites Statistics Canada homicide data showing that a woman is killed by her current or former intimate partner an average of every six days in Canada. Death threats “are far more common,” the paper said. “Women seeking shelter from abuse are often doing so out of a very real sense of terror for the lives and safety of their children and themselves.”
Of the women at shelters on that typical day, 110 had been threatened with a gun. Pregnancy also raises the chances of extreme physical violence, the report noted. Shelters were aware of 148 pregnant women who were assisted on the snapshot day.
An internal Status of Women report last year noted that rates of violence against women have not diminished over time, and that gender-based violence remains “pervasive” in Canada. It found that aboriginal women and those in the North are particularly affected.
The federal budget allotted $5.2 million to Nova Scotia for affordable housing to support victims of domestic violence. $3 million of that money is going to replace Bryony House, the largest shelter in the province at 24 beds. Rural women are typically underserved, and of course, many women never reach out for help or support at all, especially when leaving means abandoning your life, your possessions, starting over again with nothing.
Over and over again we see the pattern of “humanizing the (usually) male predators and murderers of women while the achievements and life stories of their victims are ignored.” Women who speak up against gendered violence are threatened and insulted. Ardath Whynacht, after speaking with CBC radio, received threats in her inbox. Another woman contemplated writing about the murders and domestic violence on her blog, but mused that she “had to decide if she wanted to deal with the rape and death threats.” Because, naturally, the way we disprove violence against women is an issue is by threatening violence to women who speak about it. This silencing of women ensures that women’s stories do not get told, and that women’s lives continue to not be valued.
Black women are subject to a double-erasure. Black women victims are doubly invisible, because of their gender, and because of their race. Our stories are habitually untold and our lives are unvalued.
We are used to not seeing pictures of Black women in the news. We are used to not hearing about Black women’s accomplishments. We are used to thinking about race in terms of Black men, and gender in terms of white women. We are used to seeing Black women and girls thrown away. Black women’s lives do not matter. Certainly Black women’s mental health, Black women’s trauma, Black women’s safety, are not worth writing about.
Imagine if Black women responded to our trauma by killing people. Imagine if every Black woman victim of sexual and physical violence got a gun.
In the Essence Magazine study on PTSD, it is called the ‘invisible crises.’ The study revealed that about 30 per cent of the African Americans who responded had symptoms of PTSD, which is shockingly higher than veterans of war. And one third of the African American women in the study had PTSD resulting from sexual assault, violence and psychological trauma.
Hell, Black women can’t even write articles about race without being accused of “wanting to kill all white people,” but actual men who kill Black women get a mass outpouring of empathy. I will get more hostility for “making this about race” than men get for killing three women.
And so, our grandmothers, our aunties, our elders, they told us, since we don’t have value to society, we must have respectability. We must have a man. We must follow our vows. We shouldn’t cause a fuss. We should suffer in silence. We should think about the child. We should be strong. We should pray for brighter days. We should take comfort in being a lady. We should remember he put the ring on us, or as Beyonce has it, “a ring on it.”
Just don’t tell us we are not welcome in the world, and then wonder why we stay. Don’t show us our lives are worth nothing and then wonder what happened. Don’t erase our stories and lives and then wonder why our suffering is invisible. Don’t say you don’t see race and wonder why Black women are unseen. Don’t forget to mourn us, and make us a footnote, and then wonder why we die. And don’t shame or judge Black women when we do the best we can, the best we know, when it was never us who made it hard for Black women to survive in the world in the first place.