Saturday, December 30, 2023

Holding Space for Niani: Killer Cops, Domestic Violence and the War on Black Women



Niani Finlayson

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On December 4th, twenty seven year-old Niani Finlayson, a mother of two young daughters, was shot and killed by L.A. County Sheriff’s (LASD) deputy Ty Shelton in Lancaster, California. Finlayson had called 911 after she was injured by her boyfriend during a domestic violence dispute. It is also alleged that Finlayson was trying to defend one of her daughters against abuse by this individual. The LASD claims that Finlayson was wielding a knife and threatening to stab her boyfriend when police arrived at the scene. Commenting in a multimillion dollar lawsuit filed against L.A. County, Finlayson’s lawyer stated that, she “was not threatening anyone when deputies shot her in the back from behind a glass door”. Body camera footage released this week shows that Shelton shot Finlayson only three seconds after he arrived. Finlayson’s 9 year-old witnessed her mother’s murder.

As Black women domestic and intimate partner violence survivors, we know all too well that this unspeakable tragedy could have happened to any one of us. Nationwide, Black women have disproportionately high rates of domestic violence victimization and are more likely to be killed by a partner, relative or friend than are non-Black women. In the U.S., Black women are also 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a partner, ex-partner, relative or friend than are non-Black women. In the City of Los Angeles, Black women comprise 25%-33% of all domestic and sexual violence victims, though we are only 4% of the population. These experiences make Black women and girls more vulnerable not only to assault and community violence, but also to victim-blaming, criminalization, abuse, and murder by police when they seek assistance from law enforcement. Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than are white women. Black women domestic violence victims are more likely to be arrested when they contact law enforcement for help in a domestic violence dispute. Known as “dual arrests”, this travesty involves the concurrent arrest of the assailant and the victim in a domestic violence dispute. Racist/sexist stereotypes that criminalize Black women and girls as violent, out of control, and culpable for their own victimization, drive this disparity.

#Standing4BlackGirls Women’s Leadership Project Black women’s survivors’ speak out for Niani Finlayson @ L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. on December 27th

Finlayson’s senseless killing underscores why deploying violence disruptors and mental health intervention specialists who are not law enforcement is critical. In 2020, Shelton shot and killed sixty one year-old Michael Thomas in another domestic violence dispute. Shelton was not prosecuted for the killing and the officers involved in the call had not been assigned body cameras. Shelton’s continued presence on the force belies recently elected Sheriff Robert Luna’s claim that he is committed to purging “bad apples” in a department rife with killer cops and serial abusers.

In condemning this unconscionable atrocity, and expressing our condolences to Niani Finlayson’s family, we are calling on Sheriff Luna to fire Ty Shelton and deploy trained first responder violence disruptors and crisis intervention specialists during domestic violence calls, rather than armed deputies. We are also calling for the immediate prosecution of Shelton by District Attorney George Gascon. 

Finlayson’s experiences, like those of other Black women domestic violence victims, also underscore the urgent need for prevention education and resources in L.A. County and city schools for all genders. Domestic and intimate partner violence prevention is only superficially discussed in middle school and high school health curricula. When domestic violence is discussed, the coverage is piecemeal and not culturally responsive to the lived experiences of Black women and girls. When the Women’s Leadership Project conducts Black feminist violence prevention education outreach in high schools, we constantly hear from Black girls who have been groomed, abused, and victimized on social media and in real time. Nationwide, Black girls across sexuality have few safe spaces to seek refuge in when they are at risk of abuse or have experienced abuse. For many Black women and women of color, early experiences with abuse are a leading predictor of later in life abuse.

L.A. County spends billions on police and prisons, yet continues to underfund restorative justice and healing justice alternatives. The County’s pledge to a “Care First” budget has yet to reap structural gains or benefits for Black L.A. youth. And the underfunding of community youth spaces only compounds the record levels of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide that Black girls, queer and gender expansive youth are experiencing.

Niani Finlayson’s murder tragically exposes the way the intersection of police state terrorism and gaps in social welfare protections imperil Black women, Black families, and communities. Finlayson’s mom Tracie Harris stated that she was pursuing her dreams to become a nurse and create a children’s app.

You can support her family and young daughters by contributing to their GoFundMe. You can also demand the firing and prosecution of Ty Shelton by contacting Sheriff Robert Luna and District Attorney George Gascon.

The #Standing4BlackGirls coalition and Women’s Leadership Project provide mental health resources, youth leadership development, and advocacy for Black girls and BIPOC queer youth in Los Angeles.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Black Voters' Dangerous Dance with Trump 2.0


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Word to Black voters seduced by Trump — he thinks you come from sh — thole nations, is itching to deport you, and believes Black men are wild criminals who deserve the death penalty. This past weekend during a campaign appearance, Trump proclaimed that immigrants, specifically from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, are “poisoning the blood of our country”. Unfortunately, these tip of the iceberg atrocities might not sway some gullible Negroes. If early swing state polls are to be believed, the nation is hurtling full speed ahead toward a second Trump administration and Black voters are playing a key role. According to the New York Times, after surveying 2500 voters, “A Democratic advisory group…found that voters in the Democratic base of ‘Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQ+ community, Gen Z, millennials, unmarried and college women give Trump higher approval ratings than Biden.’” Further, “Black voters are more disconnected from the Democratic Party than they have been in decades, frustrated with what many see as inaction on their political priorities and unhappy with President Biden, a candidate they helped lift to the White House just three years ago.” Most alarmingly, “22 percent of Black voters in six of the most important battleground states said they would support former President Donald J. Trump in next year’s election…(while) 71 percent would back Mr. Biden.”

Even taking into consideration the notorious unreliability of early polls, these numbers are jaw dropping, terrifying, and enraging. Trump’s swaggering anti-Blackness, white supremacist outbursts, and fascist policies on everything from racial justice, policing, abortion rights, climate change, job creation, public education, student loan forgiveness, and anti-poverty programs would obliterate any modicum of socioeconomic gains that African Americans and people of color have achieved. Case in point, Black poverty rates are at approximately 22% in the U.S. The 2021 Child Tax Credit, which was implemented under the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, cut poverty to 5.2%. Nonetheless, the GOP and right wing Democrat Joe Manchin voted against renewing it, and the poverty rate shot up again in 2022. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “The poverty rate for children more than doubled from a historic low of 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022, erasing all of the record gains made against child poverty over the previous two years. Progress made in 2021 in narrowing the glaring differences between the poverty rates of Black and Latino children compared to white children was largely reversed.” Earlier this year, unemployment rates among Black workers fell to historic lows, narrowing the racial gap between white and Black workers to 1.8% (Black unemployment rates have since risen again).

This is not to cosign Biden, nor to excuse the rank imperialism, militarism, and neoliberalism of his administration. The Biden administration’s bankrolling of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza and the Palestinians is an odious human rights violation which has further eroded progressive Democratic support. On the domestic front, faced with rising consumer prices, mounting debt, erosion of Black generational wealth, and skyrocketing rates of Black homelessness, many African American voters are disgruntled with the administration’s piecemeal efforts to reddress these disparities. But Biden has shown no willingness to step down to make way for a younger successor. And the likelihood that a viable one could be drafted at this stage in the game is slim to none.

The reality is, a second Trump administration would be apocalyptic for Black folks and people of color. Trump has already promised to reinstate his 2017 Muslim ban executive order, institute mandatory deportations, repeal the 14th amendment guaranteeing birthright citizenship (which was instituted to confer citizenship on enslaved African Americans), and permanently hijack the Supreme Court and lower federal courts by packing them with Christian fascist Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett clones who will torch the last remnants of constitutional protections for vulnerable communities.

In addition, last week, one of Trump’s lackeys announced that Trump 2.0 would launch a no holds barred Justice Department assault on members of the press who “helped Biden rig the election”. Trump’s threats underscore how Tea Party era anti-immigrant fear-mongering and white nationalism have come full circle in a nation where his supporters gleefully lap up his lies, villainy, and corruption and beg for more. In this please-pee-on-us-and-call-it-rain scenario, Trump, as he predicted years ago, has become impervious to legal challenges, impeachments, indictments or public shaming. At this historical juncture, the sad, insane but naked truth is that (barring a viable alternative) Biden’s reelection is the only thing that stands between democratic civil liberties and civil rights and a complete descent into fascist rule.

Yet, the seeds of Biden’s slide with African Americans are also exemplified by the moral conservatism of some Black voters. Black viewpoints on LGBTQ+ rights are one bellwether. A Black woman voter who was polled in the Times survey stated that, “Biden has not followed through on his campaign promises on immigration (and she) worries that Democrats have gone too far in their embrace of L.G.B.T.Q. issues (while) faulting them for books used in public education that she believes are too sexually explicit.” Similarly, in a recent L.A. Times article, columnist Mike Madrid frames the erosion of Democratic support among Latino voters along demographic and ideological lines. As immigration from Spanish-speaking countries declines, native born Latino constituents are less likely to identify with the liberal-centrist issues that define the Democratic Party’s base. According to Madrid, this demographic has moved “away from the aggrieved immigrant narrative favored by Democrats and toward an assimilating, working-class identity that mirrors its non-Latino counterparts.” Madrid’s supposition that Latinos are rejecting the Democrats’ “grievance-based” politics downplays the continued relevance of social and economic justice in a nation in which approximately 17% of Latinos are at the poverty line and face significant institutional racism and discrimination in every sector. And, while Latinos are more likely to share the religious conservatism of white evangelicals, they are also able to claim white identity on legal forms — a privilege that Black folks don’t have.

Indeed, Black folks’ drift to Trump is downright suicidal, given the high stakes. What, exactly, do Black Trumpites see him delivering to Black communities, other than trickle down Reaganomics on steroids, the complete destruction of anything resembling equity in the public sphere, and the gutting of social welfare, health care, infrastructure, and educational policies that have historically provided redress to communities of color? An old Twilight Zone episode chillingly illustrates Black fascination with Trump. In the episode, the devil, disguised as an innocuous looking everyman, is locked up in a monastery. Despite the warnings of the monks, a visiting traveler releases him after he sweet talks the man into believing he’s been unjustly imprisoned. Mayhem ensues, and the visitor, mired in regret, spends his entire life trying to hunt down and trap Satan for good. This is a piker’s analogy for what the potential “resurrection” and liberation of Trump, on the watch of a disaffected and amnesiac electorate, would do for the nation and the globe.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Books that Save Lives: The Oasis of Black Queer Young Adult Literature


By Sikivu Hutchinson

When I was in elementary and middle school during the seventies and eighties, there was virtually no literature that captured the lived experiences and identities of Black queer children and teens. I was a serious reader, a nonconformist daydreamer, and a fixture at neighborhood libraries where I could load up on everyone from Virginia Hamilton to PT. Travers to Richard Steptoe to Sharon Bell Mathis and Judy Blume. The imagined and imaginary worlds that children’s authors conjured — and the libraries that offered space to read, reflect, and explore these worlds — could be a source of refuge from bullies, violence, and society’s intolerance of “weird” Black girls who defied soul killing gender norms.

In the midst of white supremacist book bans, community and school libraries have become battlegrounds and oases. As backlash against African American studies and LGBTQ+ affirming curricula intensifies, the works of Black queer Young Adult literature authors Kacen CallenderJacqueline Woodson, and George M. Johnson are lifesaving revelations. Over the past year, LGBTQ+ communities have been bombarded with toxic legislation that prohibits gender affirming care for trans youth, bathroom access for trans students, and acknowledgments of queer families (buttressed by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that allows businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ+ customers). In the midst of this firestorm, Black queer literary world-building illustrates the transformative power of literature, providing access to imagined spaces which affirm marginalized communities and experiences. Johnson’s 2020 “memoir-manifesto” All Boys Aren’t Blue has been slammed by the Religious Right and placed on numerous banned books lists. Woodson’s 1995 novel The House You Pass on the Way is one of the first to sensitively portray the inner life, family, and friend relationships of a Black lesbian girl. Callender’s trailblazing novels King and the Dragonflies (2020) and Felix Ever After (2021) provide moving portraits of Black queer and Black trans teens and tweens navigating love, grief, heartbreak, identity, and creativity in school communities that range from hostile to supportive.

The twelve year-old protagonist of King and the Dragonflies is confronted with multiple sources of trauma. Throughout the novel, he mourns the death of his older brother with whom he had a deep bond. To cope with his grief, he imagines that his brother is one of the many dragonflies that he sees in the bayous near his home in New Orleans. His grief and uncertainty are compounded by his parents’ inability to deal with their own sense of loss. When a gay acquaintance at his school runs away from home to escape abuse at home, he becomes a secret ally to the young man, gradually realizing that he is queer as well. Callender, who identifies as non-binary, is adept at inhabiting the inner life and mindset of middle school youth questioning their identities amidst the upheaval of puberty. Their characters are achingly realistic, introspective, flawed, and vibrant. In Felix Ever After, Felix is an aspiring teen artist who has recently transitioned. His support system includes several “ride or die” friends who surround him with love. In Callender’s worlds, chosen family take precedence over blood relatives. Relatives are secondary characters who provide a snapshot of the complex spectrum of family acceptance and safe space. Felix and his father navigate a fragile relationship that is exacerbated by his mother’s desertion. Throughout much of the book, Felix’s dad refuses to use his chosen name and pronouns, even though he pays for Felix’s surgeries and tries to make time to check in with his son. Similarly, in a gut-wrenching scene between King and his father, in Dragonflies, King notes: “I’m glad that he loves me no matter what but it still hurts that he has to think about the fact I’m gay — (and) that he can’t accept me for who I am.” For Black queer youth, parental ambivalence can be devastating. It is for this reason that safe spaces at school are paramount. Callender’s portrayals powerfully illustrate the insidious impact anti-blackness, homophobia, transphobia, and gaslighting have on Black queer and gender expansive youth who have few safe spaces. A 2019 survey conducted by the National Black Justice coalition and GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Student Education Network) indicated that Black students who are involved with campus affinity groups (such as BSUs and GSAs) are more likely to stay in school. This is especially critical given the national push in conservative school districts to “out” LGBTQ+ and gender expansive youth to their parents and undermine their relationships with trusted adults on campus.

In his autobiography All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson highlights how seeing examples of Black queer life and experience were lifesavers for him. Unlike the protagonists in Callender’s novels, Johnson’s immediate and extended family was unequivocally supportive of his identity and journey. He is especially indebted to his grandmother, who affirmed his right to be different despite the big generation gap that separated them:

“My grandmother had always seen the damage that happens when children who are ‘different’ aren’t nurtured and loved the same way other kids are…I often think about what it would be like if the world existed with a ‘Nanny’ in each family. Why was my Black queer experience one of unconditional love when others have become the standard of hate and familial violence? Family dynamics is a topic that comes up often in LGBTQIAP+ culture. ‘Created family’ is a system in which friends from many walks of life create extremely tight friendship circles in an effort to ensure a familial type of environment for the many who are not accepted at home.”

Johnson’s bookish, introspective “coming of age” self is nurtured by Nanny’s encouragement of his creativity and stylistic nonconformity. In an early scene in which he expresses interest in cowboy boots (much to the bewilderment of some family members), Nanny cosigns his “quirky” choice by buying him a pair. Throughout the book, he credits Nanny with providing him with the social-emotional foundation he needed to withstand and resist homophobia in the Black community and anti-Blackness in white America. In his introduction he notes that, “This book is an exploration of two of my identities — Black and queer — and how I became aware of their intersections within myself and in society. How I’ve learned that neither of those identities can be contained within a simple box…In the white community, I am seen as a Black man first — but that doesn’t negate the queer identity that will still face discrimination. In the Black community…it is the intersection with queerness that is used to reduce my Blackness and the overall image of Black men.”

By the same token, Callender’s Felix Ever After hones in on how these intersectional struggles impact Black trans youth who are often rendered invisible in school curricula and community support systems. As a Black trans boy dealing with his mother’s abandonment and his father’s ambivalence, Felix seeks refuge in close relationships with school peers who also encourage his artistic vision. Callender offers a rare portrait of a trans teen who is on the brink of graduating, going to college, and pursuing his calling as a visual artist. At the beginning of the novel, Felix is victimized by a transphobic troll whose identity is shrouded in mystery until the end of the novel. Felix fights back against the troll’s cyberbullying on Instagram. When the troll asks him why he’s “pretending” to be a boy, he counters, “I’m not pretending to be a boy. Just because you haven’t evolved to realize gender doesn’t equal biology, doesn’t mean you get to say who I am and who I’m not. You don’t have that power. Only I have the power to say who I am.” (125) The deadnaming and misgendering Felix experiences are common forms of trans-antagonistic abuse that silence and victim shame trans and gender expansive youth in schools and on social media. Even though Felix has a loving, devoted best friend named Ezra, he is wracked with doubt about his lovability. In a moving scene with Declan, a school nemesis who he has developed an Instagram crush on, Felix comments that:

It’s like every identity I have…the more different I am from everyone else…the less interested people are. The less lovable I feel, I guess. The love interests in books, or in movies or TV shows, are always white, cis, straight, blond hair, blue eyes. Chris Evans. Jennifer Lawrence. It becomes a little hard to convince myself I deserve the kind of love you see on movie screens. (219)

The isolation that Felix experiences is underscored by escalating attacks on the very existence of trans youth. As with Johnson’s memoir, Callender’s books are lightening rods for fascist backlash. Living in the more “liberal” context of New York, Felix believes that he has been largely insulated from the brunt of national vitriol faced by youth in the Midwest and the South. His acknowledgment of privilege is cautionary for LGBTQ+ communities outside of the Bible Belt. Over the past year, conservative school boards in California (which has some of the strongest pro-LGBTQ+ policies in the nation) have jumped on the homophobic bandwagon, spearheading bans on LGBT affirming curricular materials, sponsoring outing policies, and cosigning the anti-queer propaganda and violence of right wing parent groups.

Johnson was partly inspired to write his memoir by Toni Morrison’s saying that if “there is a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” Reflecting on being ostracized in elementary school, he writes, “And then there was me. A little queer Black boy still very unsure of who he was. I buried myself in schoolwork and hid behind my books. What I didn’t have in friendships, I could always find in stories.” (132)

Ultimately, the spaces of radical reimagining that YA queer fiction and “memoir manifestoes” open up can be a lifeline and an inspiration for Black queer kids and families. As fascist movements continue to surge, literature is still a powerful antidote, allowing us to “define ourselves for ourselves” (to paraphrase Audre Lorde) in rebuke to the terrorism of an Orwellian age.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Shelter from the Storm: On Epidemic Sadness and Trauma Among Girls and Queer Youth

  #Standing4BlackGirls rally in South L.A. 2022, Photo by Isaac Barrera

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, the 19th century abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs entitles one chapter, “The Trials of Girlhood”. In it, she describes the ritualized sexual violence that enslaved Black girls were subjected to during the antebellum period. Upon turning 15, Jacobs noted that, “No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress — in either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.” For Jacobs, the fact that these atrocities were committed against Black girls under the guise of Christian morality was another brutal contradiction.

Flash forward to the twenty first century, and Jacobs’ experiences with rape culture’s trauma continue to reverberate for Black girls and femmes. According to a new CDC report, “57 percent of girls and 69 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual teenagers reported feeling sadness every day for at least two weeks during the previous year. And 14 percent of girls, up from 12 percent in 2011, said they had been forced to have sex at some point in their lives, as did 20 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual adolescents.” Nationwide, Black girls have some of the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence victimization, with nearly 60% experiencing sexual abuse by the time they turn 18.

When I was growing up in the eighties, there was virtually no language to support Black girl survivors like me, much less a national platform or movement. It was “understood” that sexual harassment, sexual violence, and teen dating violence were just part of the “trials” of being young, Black, and female. It was understood that the “trials” of being a Black boy superseded and took precedence over Black girls’ trauma. Black folks did not take to the streets en masse to demand an end to sexual and domestic violence. And, beyond slavery, and misogynist, victim-blaming rap and rock lyrics, there were largely no mainstream portrayals of Black girls’ experiences with sexual violence. Influential texts such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide when the rainbow was enuf were rarely taught in middle school or high school settings. This erasure was compounded by the fact that white women sexual violence victims were almost always the lead protagonists in soap opera dramas and infamous “after school specials” that once dominated network TV.

In the 8th grade, I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and was riveted by the narrator Celie’s voice. Her poignant questioning and unapologetic affirmation of her own truth amidst the pain of rape, abuse, and abandonment powerfully illustrated how writing could provide healing space. Decades later, I was well into my thirties when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s searing indictment of sexual violence, colorism, internalized racism, and segregation is as potent today as it was during the seventies when it was published. As seen through the eyes of middle school Black girls, the story of The Bluest Eye is at once tragic and triumphant. Triumphant because it hints at the complexities of Black female agency in the midst of generational trauma. The only difference between the girlhood trials of Morrison’s protagonist Pecola Breedlove and those of contemporary Black girls is the Internet. If Pecola “existed” today, she’d be cyberbullied into silence, gaslighted about her trauma, branded as a race traitor, and told to pray it away.

According to the CDC’s Kathleen Ethier, “Of every 10 teen girls that you know, at least one of them — possibly more — have been raped…And so, not surprisingly, we’re also seeing that almost 60% of teen girls had depressive symptoms in the past year.” The report confirms that these levels are the highest reported in a decade. Moreover, “1 in 3 girls had seriously considered attempting suicide, which is up by 60% over the last decade. (And among) teens who identify as LGBTQ+ more than half reported experiencing poor mental health…(while) 1 in 5 had actually attempted suicide in the past year.” From 2003–2019, suicide among Black girls increased by 59%. The biggest increase occurred among 12–14-year-old girls.

The report was based on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey , which was given to 17,000 teens in the fall of 2021. Nationwide, girls across ethnicity are experiencing record levels of violence, much of which is normalized as a kind of rite of passage and exceeds what males are experiencing. This casual, routinized violence silences scores of Black girls, young women, and queer folks. As one of my 10th grade students put it, the violence that girls experience is so normalized that many don’t even know how to classify it. Being called out of one’s name or being slapped on the butt can easily progress to being pushed, grabbed and pressured to have sex. Victims struggle to be heard and validated, often going against the grain of school cultures where violence against girls and female-identified youth is not taken seriously. Because sexism and sexual violence are not deemed to be a public health crisis, Black and BIPOC girls face rampant denial that it is important. This lack of priority is reflected in the language used to describe, demean, sexualize, and police Black girls’ behavior.

In many schools, sexual and reproductive health are taught once in health classes, typically during 9th grade. Mandatory prevention education all four years of high school would have a critical impact on curbing high rates of domestic and sexual violence among teens and young adults. For example, a 2021 study showed a significant link between mass shootings and domestic violence. From 2014–2019, 59.1% of mass shootings were DV-related. In over 68% of mass shootings, “the perpetrator either killed at least one partner or family member or had a history of DV”. Granted, mass shootings only account for 1% of gun homicides in the U.S., yet their public and psychological impact is immense. At the same time, the everyday gun homicide that occurs in communities of color rarely receives the same media attention, and Black women and girls pay the steepest price.

How many Black girls have to die or psychologically languish before our communities mobilize to end the epidemic levels of gender-based violence and homicide they are experiencing? Free accessible therapy, arts-based healing, youth leadership support, and community-building opportunities and literature circles featuring Black feminist, BIPOC and queer books can provide coping resources for and safe havens from the unrelenting violence Black girls, femmes of color and queer youth experience in their everyday lives. Regular check-ins from engaged adult mentors on the hopes, aspirations, fears, and dreams of youth with anxiety can also be healing. Depression and sadness shouldn’t be normalized as the “constant companions” girls and queer youth carry with them. Black feminist, womanist and anti-racist humanistic interventions can and should be the prescription for long term mental health restoration for our youth.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Medical Apartheid in Inglewood: Justice for April Valentine


Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Reverence for white pregnant women, white motherhood, and the maintenance of white families are an integral part of American national identity. Built on a white supremacist standard of care that favors, privileges, and uplifts white bodies as the “invisible” norm and standard of humanity, Black folks are automatically dehumanized in these systems.

April Valentine, photo by Valentine family

On January 10th, April Valentine, a 31 year-old African American young woman who was pregnant with her first child, died at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood after complaining to nurses for hours about numbness in her legs. Over the past two weeks, her family and hundreds of supporters from the community have gathered at the hospital to protest her death and call for justice. Valentine gave birth to a baby daughter named Aniya before she passed away.

Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

Valentine’s cousin, Mykesha Mack, has been leading the protests at Centinela. She described her cousin as a warm, loving person who had a special passion for helping children. At this Saturday’s demonstration, she lamented that Valentine, “Couldn’t wait to be a mother, and she was robbed of that. She could be your sister, your daughter or your cousin. This is a human rights issue.”

Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

The family maintains that Valentine’s regular doctor was not present when she started to experience distress and didn’t come for hours later. They also criticized the facility’s old equipment and expressed dismay that Centinela is one of the only hospitals in the Inglewood area, serving a predominantly Black and Latinx working class community. This week, they will meet with Second District Supervisor Holly Mitchell and District 35 Senator Steven Bradford. They are also requesting that California Attorney General Rob Bonta launch a state investigation into Valentine’s death. Mack has also recommend that supporters show up to Inglewood City Council meetings to provide public comment and press for accountability.

Mykesha Mack, Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

According to Google reviews from former pregnant and parenting patients who were treated at Centinela Hospital, Valentine’s experiences were not unique. As one former patient wrote, “This is the worst hospital to have a baby. I got the worst care from an admitting nurse…She was very rude to me. She kept putting me down about my health issues and weight. When it was time to transfer to another room, she kept telling me to hurry up so my baby won’t be born on the floor. She also told me not to scream because I will scare other women. She treated my husband horribly like he was a stranger. Even told him to go outside to ask if I was being abused. I think she did that because my husband is black.”

Another patient who was 36 weeks pregnant related that she encountered rude and unprofessional behavior which made her feel unsafe. The staff member she dealt with “made comments on my personal life. Instead of helping me she was more judgmental. I wasn’t even seen by a doctor and was not provided a wheelchair.”

The anti-Blackness that these women experienced appeared to be normalized within the culture of this facility (another Black male patient also complained about racist behavior from staff and numerous posters expressed outrage about delays in treatment). Mistreatment of and disdain for Black patients is baked into the American medical establishment. High rates of maternal morbidity among Black women attest to systemic failures not only at the level of inpatient care but also at the prenatal level.

According to the CDC, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. The 2020 rate for white women was 19.1 deaths per 100,000 live births. Lack of access to overall quality healthcare due to the intersections of poverty, racism, and anti-Black misogyny, as well as underlying chronic conditions (such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity), and the “implicit bias” of health practitioners are leading factors in these disparities.

One solution that has been implemented with success is providing Black women with doula support. “Doulas offer guidance on pain or complications ahead of delivery and help clients navigate hospitals and doctors. Continuous guidance from a doula has been cited as one of the most effective interventions in easing pregnancy. Doulas offer guidance on pain or complications ahead of delivery and help clients navigate hospitals and doctors”.

Doulas are an important intervention, but preventive education that challenges racist/sexist perceptions about Black women is also critical. Centuries of anti-Black misogyny have constructed Black women as subhuman breeder/Jezebels who are immune to pain, less “feminine” than white women, and thus not worthy of care or protection. As Hannah Nikole Jones notes in the 1619 Project documentary, “All these centuries later, false beliefs about Black women’s pain and their humanity still impact the reproductive health care they receive and the consequences for black women and their children.”

As of this date, Valentine’s family has not received any information or correspondence from the hospital about the circumstances leading up to her death. Valentine’s horrific and unconscionable experience underscores why the U.S.’ medical apartheid regime continues to pose a clear and present danger to Black women, communities, and families.

Action Steps:

· Supporters who would like to donate a virtual gift card to April’s baby can contact or donate to the GoFundMe for Aniya.

· Community members can also contact the following elected officials who represent Inglewood residents directly:

o Representative Maxine Waters @repmaxinewaters or
 Senator Alex Padilla @senalexpadilla or 310–231–4494

Supervisor Holly Mitchell @hollyjmitchell or
 Inglewood Mayor James Butts @mayorjamesbutts or 310–412–5111

· Community members can also call Prime Healthcare, the owner of Centinela Hospital, and demand that Dr. Prem Reddy step down at 909–235–4366.

· Inglewood City Council meetings are held on Tuesdays at 2pm. Info on how to provide public comment

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Abortion is Economic Justice: Reproductive Freedom and the Midterms


#Standing4BlackGirls 2021 rally: Photo by Isaac Barrera

 By Sikivu Hutchinson

This morning, I listened to an abortion procedure on NPR and it was a powerful thing. A patient at a Michigan clinic had consented to having her procedure recorded. She wanted to underscore its life or death importance in a climate where Michigan citizens will vote next week for an amendment that would enshrine abortion rights into the state’s Constitution in rebuke of a 1931 law whose enforcement would impose a total ban.  The recording was also a beautiful f-you to the white Christian nationalist fascists who want to destroy pregnant peoples’ right to bodily autonomy and economic self-determination. It was a bird flip to ignorant commentary from a male voter on MSNBC who recently dismissed abortion as a “luxury” that was far less important than inflation as a midterm election priority.

To this individual and others like him; repeat after us—abortion access is not a luxury or a vanity item for suburban white women. It is lifesaving, it is health care, and, safe, unrestricted access is critical to the wellbeing and economic justice of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. Abortion was ranked as the number two concern among Latinx voters in a National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) poll and is a leading issue among Black voters. Approximately 8 in 10 Black voters disapprove of the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June.

Since then, women and pregnant folks across the nation have had to travel from Midwestern and Southern states for abortion care, often risking their health, jobs, financial status, and sanity. The extreme personal risk required to travel to sanctuary states for abortion care should be placed within the context of a nation that has no universal child care provisions, disgraceful Black maternal mortality rates, skyrocketing child poverty rates (which had temporarily fallen due to the Child Tax Credit, waylaid by Senator Joe Manchin), and a massive wealth gap between white, Black, and Latinx families.

A GOP takeover of the House and Senate after the midterms would deal a devastating blow to human rights in the U.S. Over the past year, SCOTUS’ singular mission to decimate church/state separation, abortion rights and worker protections has been one of the most virulent examples of Trump’s lasting legacy. The GOP threat of a national abortion ban makes passage of amendments like Michigan’s and California’s Proposition 1 essential.

Proposition 1 would enshrine the “fundamental right” to abortion and contraception into the state’s constitution, preventing future administrations from restricting access to folks seeking reproductive care. It would further cement California’s status as an abortion and reproductive health care sanctuary state. Over the past few months, the state has proactively moved to shield pregnant folks traveling to the state for abortion care from surveillance and prosecution. It has encumbered funding for more clinics and services, as well as expanded protections for trans youth.

California Republicans have vilified Proposition 1’s vagueness about “viability”; claiming that the law would permit late term abortions well beyond the 24-week viability line delineated by the Supreme Court under Roe. Doctors have pushed back on these characterizations, arguing that “viability” is a loaded and essentially meaningless term when considering the diverse circumstances of an individual pregnancy.  In May, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists removed the term viability from its guidance on abortion. As NPR notes, “The group explained that the term has become so politicized that it barely has any medical meaning anymore, and deciding whether and when to have an abortion should be left to the patient and doctor.”

That said, opponents of Proposition 1 have invoked the same dangerous anti-abortion propaganda that help enshrine theocratic power, policing, and control over women, queer folks, their families, and communities. Fortunately, 71% of California voters support Prop 1 but knowledge about its existence and implications remain limited among the very Gen Z youth it would provide the most protection for now and in the future.

Indeed, political education about the importance of unrestricted abortion and reproductive care is especially critical in a state where the “fundamental right” to abortion may be solidly protected but access is still inequitable across race and sexuality. For example, although Black women are more likely to utilize abortion care than non-Black women, Black girls across sexuality are more likely to experience victim shaming, blaming, intimate partner violence, gun violence, homelessness, low wage employment, and other physical, economic, and social pressures when they become pregnant. They are less likely to have access to a culturally competent medical provider while also shouldering the burden of being caregivers and breadwinners at an early age. The high rates of sexual and domestic violence victimization among Black girls make them especially vulnerable to disparities in access to and information about birth control, STI and STD prevention resources. Moreover, the prevalence of domestic and intimate partner violence among Black women overall puts them at greater risk of maternal and child homicide in situations with abusive partners.

The battle over reproductive rights and reproductive justice is a clear and present danger to BIPOC socioeconomic mobility. For far too long, full bodily autonomy has been the province of an elite few. Elite control of bodily autonomy is the foundation of white wealth in a capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, colonialist, heterosexist, and ableist society. Gen Z BIPOC futures depend on dismantling these regimes of power, authority, and control. 

In a post-Roe society, state constitutional amendments for reproductive freedom are a key step towards reparations.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Rainbow on the Highway and Preventing Suicide Among Black Girls



                        #Standing4BlackGirls 2021 Rally, Leimert Park, L.A., Photo by BlueGreen


By Sikivu Hutchinson

“I was driving the №1 Highway in northern California and I was overcome by the appearance of two parallel rainbows. I had a feeling of near-death or near catastrophe. Then I drove through the rainbow and I went away…I put that together to form the title.” Ntozake Shange.

Poet, playwright, and activist Ntozake Shange’s 1975 “choreopoem” play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was a landmark artistic acknowledgment of the mental health toll racism, sexism, and domestic violence take on the lives of Black women. Shange reportedly considered suicide four times before writing her seminal work. Her play was only the second Black woman’s production to be featured on Broadway (after Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 smash A Raisin in the Sun). Decades later, Black female suicide is still a third rail taboo in Black communities.

It is not difficult to see why. How many times have Black folks heard that “Black people don’t” do certain things because only crazy, pathological white folks do these things? How many times have Black women, in particular, heard that running to the church, god, Jesus or faith are the most acceptable antidotes to depression, self-doubt, and suicidal ideation because “god won’t give you more than you can handle”? How many times have Black girls been gaslit into believing that staying “prayed up” will make the pain and trauma of abuse magically go away?

As an atheist and abuse survivor who has struggled with depression and suicidal ideation, hearing the litany of things “Black people don’t” do sends my bullshit detector into overdrive. The truth is, moralizing about Black conformity hinders direct engagement with the mental health risks and challenges we face — especially when it comes to addressing the dramatic increase in suicide among Black girls. Aspiring psychologist and 19-year-old college student Ashantee Polk notes that, “Suicide is simply not talked about in our communities. So many Black women and girls of all ages are dealing with mental health issues. They’re overlooked because we are supposed to be ‘strong’ and we’re supposed to be able to endure what we go through.”

The prevailing stereotype is that Black girls are superwomen in training; strong, ultra-resilient, 24/7 caregivers to everyone, and responsible for lifting up others at all costs. Fist-pumping memes and affirmations that extol “Black Girl Magic” and “Black Women Saving the World” may actually obscure the gravity of Black female depression. And, despite increasing attention to Black women’s victimization, Black men and boys are frequently prioritized in national discourse around violence and self-harm. Picking up on these cues, Black girls often see that creative Black women, or Black women who don’t conform to gender norms and expectations, are marginalized, demonized, and ridiculed. The prevalence of these messages is precisely the reason why rising rates of Black female suicide remain under the radar.

According to Time magazine, “Suicide rates among white people in the U.S. declined from 2019 to 2020, contributing to a 3% overall drop in suicide deaths in that time period. But there were no statistically significant declines in suicide rates for Black Americans or other Americans of color; in fact, for some racial or ethnic groups, rates increased from 2019 to 2020. Among Black youth and young adults, in particular, suicide rates have climbed steadily over the past two decades.” From 2003–2019, suicide among Black girls increased by 59%. The biggest increase occurred among 12–14-year-old girls.


What is happening in this age group? Normalized sexual violence and sexual harassment play a big role. Racist/sexist social media targeting, as well as an overall lack of protection for Black girls experiencing gender violence in elementary and middle school, are also factors. From a very early age, Black girls are subjected to a steady drumbeat of anti-Black misogyny in mainstream media and music. Glued to phones and tablets, Black girls are oversaturated with toxic imagery that brands them as bitches, hos, and thots, along with a constantly evolving array of sexists, colorist, body shaming, and victim-blaming epithets. According to the Black Futures Lab 2019 census, African Americans overall are also more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than non-Black folks (with a significant portion represented by Gen Z and Millennials), thus, constant exposure to homophobic and transphobic imagery and language are major stressors for Black youth.

In addition, the pandemic has been especially traumatic for Black girls who must shoulder the burdens of caregiving, schoolwork, jobs, and surviving rampant sexual and domestic abuseRising rates of gun homicide among Black girls and women attest to this toll. Although homicide rates rose by 30% nationwide, rates for Black women and girls increased by 33%. Writing on this issue in the Guardian, Lois Beckett and Abene Clayton note that these stats represent “a sharper increase than for every demographic except Black men, and more than double that of white women.” Living in communities where gun homicide, domestic abuse, and police violence are pervasive, there are often few outlets that provide safe spaces for Black girls.

High rates of suicide and homicide are symptoms of the same structural inequities and vulnerabilities. As Essence magazine notes, “According to the American Psychological Association, African American teenage girls surpass their White and Hispanic counterparts in suicide attempts…” Yet, some of the subject experts cited in Essence, Time, and other publications do not explicitly highlight how racialized gender disparities inform increasing suicide rates among Black girls (a 2021 Therapy for Black Girls podcast featuring Drs. Jeanette Wade and Michelle Vance is an important exception). Instead, they consistently identify racial injustice, trauma, and poverty as the most salient factors.

This is problematic. If evaluations of Black female trauma are not intersectional then prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery become even more difficult. Culturally responsive resources and safe spaces that are specifically (and unapologetically) tailored to meet the needs of Black girls are critical. Queer safe spaces such as GSA clubs have been proven to provide youth with greater motivation to stay in school, graduate, and go on to college and careers. Similarly, gender and racial justice-oriented campus and community organizations that promote civic engagement, activism, mentoring, wellbeing, professional development, college readiness, and career paths can provide safe spaces to combat depression and isolation among Black girls in particular and Black youth in general.

In a statement decrying the rise in Black adolescent suicide, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends “advocating for increased investments in programs that build a more culturally competent and minority-representative pediatric health care workforce”. Truth be told, the majority of Black youth receive mental health care at school from social workers and counselors when they receive it all. In many school districts, access to a psychiatric social worker is a crapshoot due to high student-to-practitioner ratios and policies that stigmatize Black youth as violent and criminal. This is why wellness initiatives that provide Black girls and Black gender expansive youth with therapy from culturally competent, BIPOC womanist, feminist, queer-affirming, and trauma-informed practitioners are an essential element of suicide prevention care. Informal friend, family, and mentor networks that “lead with love’, compassion, and joy” can provide Black girls across sexuality with opportunities to vent, reflect, and connect around shared life experiences are critically important.

Suicide and suicidal ideation among Black girls should be responded to holistically, utilizing a multi-pronged approach to wellness that ensures elementary, middle, and high school-aged Black girls don’t bear the brunt of normalized misogynoir and adultification. As 20-year-old Women’s Leadership Project peer educator and activist Jadyn Taylor argues, “We cannot handle everything the world throws at us, including prejudice, gender inequality, and stereotypes, with a smile on our faces and a pat on the back. We need mental health care and a system set in place for young Black girls struggling with depression. If we cannot speak about our mental health issues at home then where are we supposed to get help for free ourselves? Start paying attention to Black girls and listen when we speak because we may be begging for help without saying ‘Help’”.

*On Saturday, July 16th, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will transition to 988, offering 24/7 mental health crisis support nationwide

Mental Health Resources for African American Girls and Young Women

Black Girls Smile

#Standing4BlackGirls Wellness Initiative, provides free individual therapy for Black girls and gender expansive youth in L.A. County. The founding organization Women’s Leadership Project is a Black feminist mentoring and civic engagement program for BIPOC girls of color and LGBTQ+ youth

Wellness Action Recovery South Carolina-based suicide prevention nonprofit fun by Black female suicide survivor Fonda Bryant

Sadie Nash Leadership Project provides award-winning experiential social justice education to over 500 young women and gender-expansive youth in New York City and Newark

Therapy for Black Girls provides national resources for therapy, counseling, and outreach in addition to a mental health blog and podcast

What’s Missing from the Conversation about Black Women and Suicide with Dr. Jeannette Wade and Dr. Michelle Vance, whose work centers on suicide research & intervention among Black women and girls.

Secular Therapy with Suandria Hall

How to Talk to a Child Who is Struggling