Margaret Garner—a name unknown to many, encapsulates an early portrait of black female criminality. Garner, an enslaved black female subjected to cruel and frequent attacks on a southern plantation, planned an escape that would eliminate her and her family from the cruelty of her earthly master. She would never reach freedom, and upon her return to slavery induced the transition of her infant child to alleviate her return to the institution that stole her life. As a black female, she did not bear the credentials for a murderer. Instead, she was charged with destroying property and returned back to the inhumane institution of slavery.
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is a beautiful portrait of this heartbreaking story of abduction and affliction and an attempt to achieve freedom, in a world where freedom was simply incongruent to blackness. Conversations regarding Garner’s actions—whether in fictive or factual form, typically label her a murderer— a label initially impossible due to Garner’s status as property. But while times have changed, the negative connotations of blackness have not. While “murderer” was initially incongruent to physically enslaved blacks, Garner was always a criminal–a label that continues to sully the black body. To compartmentalize the black body as a criminal overlooks the black body as bearing the physical and mental bondage of the greatest crime of western “his” story—-slavery.
Garner symbolizes abducted black body pegged biological killer that assumes the white man’s burden–becoming the scapegoat for sins displaced onto the black collective. The criminalizing of the black female body is of course a strategic act of deflection from society’s true criminals. It also illustrates that he or she who controls the language naturally assumes control over how inhabitants come to conceptualize the conjured words. The criminalizing of the black female body remains attached to the angry connotation that accompanies black female identity—a connotation that severs the black body from a much deserved empathy, instead warranting for black female incarceration, capital punishment, and enabling the western world to deprive black bodies of resources needed to thrive as a collective demographic.
The post will reference the criminal cases of Mitchelle Blair, and former death row inmates, Ruby McCollah and Andrea Hicks Jackson, black women who compose manifestations of Margaret Garner—and together compose a collective portrait of abused black female body compartmentalized as criminals .
Andrea Hicks Jackson
Andrea Hicks Jackson was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting police officer Gary Bevel. Frustrated that her car would not start, Jackson flew into a blind rage that leaves officer Gary Bevel dead. Jackson shot Bevel after he attempted to arrest her and place her in the back of a cop car. Jackson was abused at ten years old, and had recently left an abusive marriage. Her psyche, rattled with negative treatment from men, cast a prevalent stone in her mental deterioration which would ultimately leave Gary Bevel dead. A car that does not start is frustrating indeed, but hardly worthy of extensive damage inflicted by Jackson. Jackson’s behavior reflect mental illness not evil–and she should have been offered help, not placed under arrest–but the police system does not train the men in blue to handle the blues of black folks, but to batter them instead. It is this very ideology that paints black females like Ms. Jackson as evil, not in need of guidance and help. This evilness is solely reflective of western labeling of black female bodies as innately angry, and therefore beyond reproach or rehabilitation. In failing to provide the resources needed to rehabilitate a woman broken by years of sexual and physical abuse, it is the system that killed Gary Bevel, not Jackson. It is also worth mentioning that Gary Bevel was a young black man, that if not used as a pawn to bring down another black person, would experience a similar fate at the hands of white men.
The issue of sexually assaulted black females who ultimately commit murder is far from
an isolated occurrence in the contemporary world. Mitchelle Blair, a black woman who in 2015 was sentenced to life in prison, faces conventional consequence for the overt crime of child murder. The system of course overlooks the crime of child innocence bludgeoned by a coerced sexual act. The consequence of life in prison and public labeling as yet another “angry” black woman, reflects a world unwilling to acknowledge a victim triggered by past trauma. As a victim of sexual abuse who heard that a similar act was being cast upon her youngest child by his elder siblings, Blair attempted to murder the deed of rape and in a traumatic haze was unable to distinguish the villains who stole her innocence, from her own children. Furthermore, Blair is not an angry black woman, but a woman who needed protection, a woman that needed help. In the systemic denial of basic human needs, it is a cruel expectation to require a person to even know how to provide all that they have been denied. Blair, like so many other black female bodies, needed rehabilitation to function at the height of her ability. Instead she was handed enough stress to eventually push her over the edge, to which she would bring others down with her as a survivor’s attempt to get up from her seemingly inevitable demise.
Prior to the ignored trauma of Blair and Jackson was Ruby McCollum, a wealthy black woman living in Live Oaks, Florida. McCollum was the wealthiest black woman in town, but her life was not without the tragedy that commonly befalls the black body. A business partner to Ruby’s wealthy husband and town doctor, Dr. C. Leroy Adams, although beloved by many, sexually and physically abused Ruby McCollum for years. A shot doctor, Adams gave McCollum a paralyzing dose of drugs to could exude complete control over her body in their coerced sexual encounters. Instead of accepting that town hero Dr. Adams not only consistently raped a woman, but a black woman, in the segregated south, many argued that the two engaged in a consensual affair. The racist reasoning surfaces upon reversing the race and gender of the involved parties–to which no one would offer the same rationale due to the implied hyper sexuality of black men. Dr. Adams simply resumed the behavior of his ancestors, in an entitlement to control of the black family from between the legs of a black woman. Adam’s act of savagery resulted in two pregnancies for Ruby, one she named Loretta and the other she miscarried shortly after her arrest.
Caught between an embittered husband soured by the burden of having to raise another man’s child as his own in order to maintain his lucrative business, and a racist rapist who demanded that Ruby birth another one of his children, Ruby sought to end her miserable state and fatally shot her abuser—only little did she know, the abuse was merely beginning. Ruby would be sentenced to die, a ruling overturned when she was deemed mentally unstable. She was re-sentenced to life in an asylum where she was tortured for over two decades. Although eventually freed in 1974, McColluh holds hands with her ancestors in the immense tragedy that consumed her life. For providing her own karma to the man who robbed her of her conjugal sanctity, dignity, and freedom, Ruby was issued a living death to deter other members of her race from such courage. Ruby McCollah and Andrea Hicks Jackson are both black women who were initially sentenced to death and eventually re-sentenced to life in prison, their physical imprisonment mirroring the undiagnosed and unseen mentally imprisoned women that populate the black collective. Collaboratively, both women illustrate suffering as a way of life for blacks who mirror the tragedy of their ancestors in lives supposedly so far removed from past agony.
A Similar Portrait
McCollah, Jackson, and Blair symbolize the trauma induced by sexual abuse. They illustrate the misfortune that accompanies both the acquiescence and articulation of pain. Yet, instead of portraying these female bodies as sullied by crime, the western world labels them angry and evil— two attributes mastered by whites and implemented as a means to nurture a severed black psyche. To examine the post emancipation “criminal” in juxtaposition to Margaret Garner, betrays crime as an exclusive concept limited to the pseudo elevation of whiteness. Garner, as property could not commit murder, only destruction of property. Similarly, contemporary blacks are only conspicuously tried for murder, as their true “crime” is being black in America.
Gary Bevel was an institutionalized black body caught in the crossfire of a systemized black woman retaliating against the very system that failed her. Blair was a black female caged in the prison of a western world, broken down by systemic disregard–her children bore the consequence for society willing to aggravate not heal the gaping wound of cyclical disenfranchisement. Dr. Adams was an unapologetic criminal shot in consequence for his actions. Had others like him suffered a similar, or deserving consequence, the already waning population of whites would be dramatically decreased. The deaths of both men, matter only symbolically to the western gaze, which criminalizes the black body instantaneously.
Ida B. Wells and “Other Horrors”
Ida B. Wells, one of the earliest and most renowned black journalists, exposes the falsely criminalized black body in documenting white cruelty from 1892-1903 as part of an anti-lynching campaign. Wells’ writing paints gruesome and disturbing images of black families and individuals executed without morality— exposing a collective truth that remains consistent with white treatment of black bodies. She writes extensively about the many blacks murdered in spite of mental illness (referenced in the text with the word ‘imbecile’), affording whites a scapegoat for their crimes or to provide a clear route in robbing blacks of their resources. In Southern Horrors and Other Writings, Wells wrote:
The only excuse which capital punishment attempts to find is upon the theory that the criminal is past the power of reformation and his life is a constant menace to the community. If, however, he is mentally unbalanced, irresponsible for his acts, there can be no more inhuman act conceived of than the willful sacrifice of his life. (Wells 88)
To substantiate this claim, Wells references Hamp Biscoe, a black man driven mad by white men seeking to seize his land. In retaliation for actions provoked by white avarice, white men fatally shoot Biscoe and his wife—his dying teenaged son disclosing the story in the moments before succumbing to fatal wounds. The Biscoe case mirrors Garner’s case and the twentieth and twenty-first century black female victims of white supremacy driven to insanity by boundless systemic adversity. Whether murdered like Mr. and Mrs. Briscoe, tortured in an insane asylum like Ruby McCollah, or given life in prison like Jackson and Blair, the black female body faces inhumane punishment for actions provoked by the western world.
American crime as it pertains to the black body is a western farce implemented as a means of population control and social dominance. Whether compartmentalized as a violent offender solely tamed by the cage of a jail, or the hyper sexual whore who seduces a public figure only to murder him in cold blood, these cases amidst others conveniently buried in the selective western gaze, paint a disturbing portrait of the extent whites go to alleviate the burden of collective responsibility.
The criminalized black female body illustrates how melanin disqualifies the black female from being treated as a woman. Western conceptualizing of mental illness solely extends to whites, mainly white women, as does sexual assault. Due to the preconceived notions of black female sexuality, the black female body is seen as a sexual assailant, not an assault victim–so black female victims of rape are rarely acknowledged let alone treated or properly rehabilitated. Instead, they are sent back into the world to be “strong black women” who do not even speak of the immense tragedy cast onto their bodies as children or young women.
Examining the treatment of the criminalized black female body, betrays a pattern of injustice thrust upon a womanless figure violated, systemically vandalized, and abandoned by feminists, oppressed sociopaths and others who view her face as twisted in a bitter expression, her voice as nagging and harsh, her tears as a staged attempt to appear victimized, and not the residue of body stained by racist intimations and muffled under an identity created solely to verify a white ascendancy.
In short, as long as the angry black woman caricature precedes the black female body, the world will continue to spin under thumb of white men.