13th and the Invisibleness of Black Women

Say our names.

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Acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th was released on Netflix last week. Masterfully produced and directed by DuVernay, it is a poignant documentary detailing white America’s continual, desperate and ever-changing attempts to maintain racial and legal domination over black people.

What has emerged as common knowledge through the Movement for Black Lives is laid out clearly and plainly in the film: Mass incarceration and modern-day policing are mutations of American slavery that mean to maintain the economic, social, political and legal subjugation of black people to support the (white) American enterprise.

Hailed as one of the most important films of the year, 13th evokes the eponymous 13th Amendment, which simultaneously emancipated enslaved Africans and laid the groundwork for their continued confinement and the forced extraction of labor from their bodies through convict leasing, Jim Crow and, more recently, “broken windows” policing and the war on drugs. The abolition of slavery, “except as a punishment for crime,” is an insidious loophole in the 13th Amendment that provides an instructive framework from which audiences can better understand today’s crisis of mass incarceration: The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

13th boasts an impressive slate of organizers, historians, advocates, scholars and formerly incarcerated people who tell the origin story and contemporary impact of America’s hypercriminalization of black people, including the power of media to create narratives about blackness that were so terrifying that even black America took up the mantle to cage and confine our kindred in the name of “law and order.” 

However, the film’s power is tempered by a glaring omission: black women’s stories.

During neither slavery nor Jim Crow nor the deceptively named war on drugs have black women been immune from the hypercriminality imposed on black people. In 2000, black women and men were incarcerated at 6 and 7.5 times (pdf) the rates of white women and men, respectively. 

A pivotal moment in the timeline presented by 13th is Ronald Reagan’s ascendance to the presidency in 1981, when he launched his war on drugs, which was manufactured to decimate black communities and later became the foundation for Bill Clinton’s 1996 doubly horrible crime bill

But by centering the story of the criminalization squarely on black men, 13th invisibilizes the unique conditions that compound and give way to both cis and transgender black women’s experiences in America at the intersections of racial and gender policing.

To date, black women are the fastest-growing prison population, and this phenomenon can directly be tied into the disgraceful war on drugs that effectively criminalized people suspected of trafficking and using drugs as well as their partners, children and parents. Lest we not forget, Alberta Spruill, 57, was killed after New York City police officers broke down her door and threw a concussion grenade into her home while searching for guns and drugs that were not there. 

13th briefly mentions Sharanda Jones, a black woman serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a first-time drug offense, but her story is more common than is alluded to in the film. Black women are often swept into the carceral system either from being targeted by the war on drugs themselves or for little more than their relationship to partners who are being targeted by the state. 

Similarly, when conversations about bail reform and the heartbreaking story of Kalief Browder—a young black man who killed himself after being held for three years at New York City’s Rikers Island jail for his inability to make bail—emerged in the film, important insights into how black women are affected by the lack of access to fair bail hearings failed to be brought to light. Imagine being held in incarceration while waiting for trial because you can’t make bail and being pregnant. Currently, 28 states still enforce “shackling laws” that require pregnant women to be “shackled” by the hands, feet, stomach or all three during childbirth—a practice that has led to stillborn births, birth defects and maternal mortality. 

While 13th remembers Reagan as the chief architect of the war on drugs, many black feminists also remember him as the creator and exploiter of the “welfare queen,” a mythical black woman who defrauded the government for millions through public assistance. The welfare queen, and the conservative lore that surrounded her, gave way to a massive destabilization of welfare and the criminalization of those on public assistance. 

Yes, black men are heavily criminalized and brutalized by police aggression, but so are black women.

We cannot talk about Trayvon Martin and not mention Renisha McBride. We cannot discuss Michael Brown and not say the name of Sandra Bland. Kayla Moore and Alfred Olango are equally important to understanding how black people are affected by state violence.

It is critical that histories of white supremacy in America recognize that as long as there have been black women in America, the anti-blackness of the state has fashioned itself to eviscerate black women just as intentionally as it has black men.

We are more than a brief aside to black men’s stories. We are, and have always been, under attack from the American carceral state. It’s time to tell our stories, too. #SayOurNames.