Note: bell hooks’ name is purposefully not capitalized, as she wants to “place focus on her work rather than her name, on her ideas rather than her personality.”
On June 3rd, 28-year-old British-Nigerian actor John Boyega delivered an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter march in London, in which he called for Black men to honor, respect, and protect Black women: “This message is specifically for Black men. Black men: We need to take care of our Black women. They are our hearts. They are our future. We cannot demonize our own.”
I, like so many other Black women, was so excited to see a cis Black man, let alone a celebrity, take a moment to recognize our existence in a movement from which we are so often erased—a movement which was, ironically, founded by Black women yet only seemed to advocate for the lives of cisgender Black men. But as I listened to John Boyega speak with such sincerity, with such earnestness, as he urged Black men to care for rather than demonize us—as Black women have not been afforded the privilege of being treated with care, especially Black women of a darker hue—despite myself, I became hopeful that the lives of Black women would finally, finally matter in this movement.
This hope was short-lived.
A Black woman’s murder is the only one we turned into a meme. I’m never gonna forget that.
— Adeninsola (@eyilanke) June 29, 2020
I cannot find the words to convey just how psychologically demoralizing it is to witness the bastardization of Breonna Taylor’s call for justice in the name of quirky ironic humor and clout chasing.
On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old E.M.T and aspiring nurse, was shot to death in her apartment by Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) plainclothes officer Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and detectives Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove. The Louisville officers were executing a “no-knock” search warrant related to a narcotics investigation and used a battering ram to enter her apartment shortly after midnight. She and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were roused from their sleep by the ruckus. Walker, believing the intruders to be burglars, fired a non-lethal warning shot in self-defense, and in response, the officers fired more than 20 bullets into the apartment. Taylor was shot at least eight times and was pronounced dead at the scene. No drugs were found in her apartment.
Breonna Taylor’s story languished for three months until it caught national attention in the wake of the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, which was also at the hands of police. Floyd’s murder sparked protests calling for racial justice all across America. Taylor’s name was shouted in the streets alongside Floyd’s, but eventually quelled to a mere whisper. Her name stopped trending on social media, and the LMPD were not held accountable for their actions. Her case was at a standstill and on the brink of being erased from public consciousness.
This erasure is endemic to our racist, sexist socialization that conditions us to believe that Black women are to exist on the margins of both womanhood and Blackness as: pillars of strength, wellsprings of support, insatiable Jezebels, cantankerous Sapphires, and as fodder for jokes. This phenomenon is misogynoir, a term coined by Black, queer writer and activist Moya Bailey, to name the specific combination of anti-Blackness and misogyny that Black women experience simultaneously.
Our complex human experience is ignored and, as a result, the ways in which Black cisgender and transgender women are uniquely victimized by police are overlooked. In the words of cultural critic, feminist theorist, and writer bell hooks, “No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have Black women.” This erasure of violence towards Black women started with the institution of slavery, as slave owners raped enslaved women with impunity. Since enslaved women were considered property, slave owners were given carte blanche to brutalize them however they pleased. State-sanctioned violence against Black women is as American as apple pie.
In an effort to resurface Taylor’s story back into public consciousness, Twitter users began using the phrase, “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” as a non-sequitur punchline in an attempt to draw attention to her case by way of viral engagement. This text-based Tweet, for example, sets up the viewer to think that they are reading an innocuous shrimp and grits recipe but then abruptly segues into Taylor’s call for justice: “The secret to making shrimp and grits is to start by peeling two pounds of shrimp. Make a stock with the shells in a carrot, celery, and onion reduction. Finally, use that delicious stock as the base for your grits and arrest the three police who murdered Breonna Taylor.”
However, when used as a punchline, the calls to arrest Breonna Taylor’s murderers are ultimately defanged; it is simply an easily digestible memeified catchphrase.
“I’m really mad about the Meg thing. I’m really mad about Breonna Taylor. I’m really mad about Toyin. I’m really mad about Atatiana. I’m really mad that Black women are, by and large, assumed to be able to just endure. Even in death.” – Mrs. Grotke
With every post, retweet, and double-tap, Breonna Taylor is reduced to a mere fad, fleeting and, in time, forgotten. The positive intent behind these memes does not make them any less mired in misogynoir; it does not make them any less of a force of dehumanization. I refuse to let Breonna Taylor be commodified, capitalized off of, and discarded.
Every breath Breonna Taylor took on this Earth mattered. Every strand of hair on her head mattered. Every single heartbeat mattered.
Breonna Taylor matters.
I am tired of the bloodshed of Black women being mined for comedy gold. I am tired of tepid responses instead of outrage. I am tired of hoping that maybe they’ll simply say our names because they belong to human beings, not because they’re hashtags. I am tired of being told to make a meal out of the bones thrown our way.
It has been more than 150 days since Breonna Taylor’s murder, and none of the officers involved have been arrested. The memeification of Breonna Taylor only serves to disseminate and desecrate her name with no regard as to providing actionable ways to dismantle the system that led to Breonna’s Taylor’s death.
It is ironic that the memeification of Breonna Taylor is a product of the very same misogynoir it is attempting to combat. What began as a rallying cry demanding accountability for Taylor’s death became nothing more than a perverse kind of rick-roll, both trivializing her murder and disrespecting her memory. Ultimately, the memes prove to be a disingenuous self-serving exercise in performative wokeness that only reaffirms the idea that the lives of Black women do not truly matter.
If you truly want to advocate for justice for Breonna Taylor, rather than meme her memory into oblivion, sign petitions—e.g. Fight for Breonna, Justice for Breonna Taylor, Color of Change – #JusticeforBre—contact Louisville officials, donate to Breonna Taylor’s family and the Louisville Community Bail Funds, and/or rally or march in protest.
(image: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images)
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