“Raisin in the sun, I’ll raise my son to be less cynical.” — Kemba, Caesar’s Rise
Gestational Injustice and Misogynoir
The embodied trauma is twofold, symbiotic; a descendant of a violent lineage of black suffering. While carrying the weight of the statistics to which she belongs, the expectant black mother navigating the legislative terrain of the United States criminal justice system also carries the weight of a citizen-in-the-making; a citizen unborn, plagued by gestational injustice, and bound by the constraints of the prison industrial complex and ever-evolving topology of surveillance. With the state embedded in every private and public sphere within which the expectant black mother travels, there is no escape from the carceral apparatus given the far-reaching grip of the chains of subjugation. What Didier Fassin describes as “paradigmatic punishment” that “most clearly epitomizes the historical shift of the penal thinking from an action on the body to a suspension of freedom” manifests as a site of cruel and unusual human rights violations that make way for a dynamic, phenomenology of structural violence. Prison qua abstract concept and prison qua material phenomenon merge to form a network of sites of punishment and surveillance that provide policy makers, legislators, judges, and other exemplars of state violence with the tools of carceral cartography. At the intersection of race, class, and gender, expectant black mother must attempt to cope with otherness outside of and within the criminal justice system given her intersecting identities. So, too, must the accompanying citizen-in-the-making suffer the consequences of intergenerational tyranny fueled and perpetuated by anti-black, anti-woman sentiments at the hands of a violent state.
Of the thirty states that have fetal homicide laws, twenty-three have laws that apply to the earliest stages of development. In Florida, for instance, the Florida Unborn Victims of Violence Act (FUVVA) outlines the criteria for determining whether or not an individual ought to face criminal penalties for acts relating to offenses against unborn children. The bill defines an unborn child as “a member of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development” and “does not require that an assailant have the intent to injure or kill an unborn child or to know that the woman injured is pregnant”. On March 19, 2016, in a town south of Orlando, Florida, Alteria Woods and her unborn child were shot and killed during a SWAT raid after her partner used her body as a human shield. Despite the tragic deaths of Woods and her unborn child there has been minimal national outrage that one could attribute to the normalization of police use of deadly force or any other number of reasons related to general acclimation to a violent police state. While those circumstances are more than plausible, another reason could be to blame for the lack of outrage about the 1) murder of pregnant black women and 2) cruel and unusual punishment faced by (pregnant) black women under the supervision and surveillance of the carceral state: the normalization of violent misogynoir and dehumanization of black children. Both phenomena also contribute to, what I refer to in my research as, the perpetuation of the placenta-to-prison pipeline.
Law enforcement agents aren’t held accountable when they murder black people. That is not news nor is it a shocking revelation. White fragility and white ignorance work together, buttressed by white supremacy, to ensure maintenance of white power at the institutional, structural, and systemic level. When it comes to police violence, this manifests in fatal ways. In the case of Alteria Woods, for instance, I wonder the following: Are the officers who fired at Woods’ body sufficiently blameworthy for Woods’ and her unborn child’s death? Did they act with criminal negligence that resulted in the death of an innocent, unborn person violating the unborn person’s right to individual liberty, due process, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment? Either way, the lack of attention and public outrage over their murders is a symptom of a much larger problem. Additionally, the lack of attention and public outrage over Woods’ partner’s use of her body as a human shield. Is he sufficiently blameworthy for Woods’ and her unborn child’s death? Did he act with criminal negligence that resulted in the death of an innocent, unborn person violating the unborn person’s right to individual liberty, due process, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment? Was this an example of the violent misogynoir? Zeba Blay reminds us that “sexism within the black community is real, and it has violent ramifications” in their piece Tiarah Poyau’s Murder Exposes The Black Male Fragility We Don’t Talk About. Just as Britni Danielle reminds us that “lack women suffer under the weight of both racism and sexism [and] are often not blonde enough for the nightly news and not male enough for our community to rally around.” Just as Muna Mire reminds us that “Korryn Gaines was the ninth black woman shot and killed by police [in 2016], illustrating clearly that not only does police violence impact black women at a disproportionate rate, but that as caretakers and providers for black children, the risk of extreme trauma and injury—even death—extends to the children of black women too.” Just as Feminista Jones reminds us that “while Black women only make up 8% of the population, 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to Black Women and 29% of all victimized women, making it one of the leading causes of death for Black women ages 15 to 35. Just as Sikivu Hutchinson reminds us that “the complicity of communities of color that look the other way when black women are being terrorized is a lethal enabler.” In the case of 1) Woods’ partner who used her body as a shield and 2) the officers who shot at an innocent Woods’ qua canon fodder, misogynoir takes two forms: intimate and carceral.
It is important to #SayHerName and hold people accountable for their actions that resulted in the deaths of two innocent persons. Alteria was not the first and will, unfortunately, not be the last pregnant black woman killed by police; or the last person killed by police in general. The fact that there are minimal to no consequences for officers who murder and partners who dehumanize is truly criminal. Alteria Woods and her unborn child should still be alive today. This is a tragedy that ought not be buried and hidden beneath the weight of injustice.