Sentencing CeCe – when the teacher is Transgendered and Black

Kamaria Muntu
4 June 2012, 23:56 GMT

It’s been a while now since I read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that CeCe McDonald will not get justice. It’s been a while since I read – “Upon sentencing before District Judge Daniel Moreno, McDonald, 24, of Minneapolis, will be taken into custody by the state Department of Corrections and housed as a male ‘because he is being housed as a male with Hennepin County’ corrections spokeswoman Sarah Russell said Monday. ‘We will intake him as a male at St. Cloud prison‘”.

Him!?!. Jesus! You pray and pray, and at the end of it all, you can only ask for strength. Yet I still have hope, because I owe so much to CeCe and all the Black Transwomen I’ve been learning from this past year. I must admit, I initially had difficulty calling myself a siswoman (‘sis’ speaks to the solidarity and sisterhood between cis and trans women). After all, I was biologically born as a woman – why should I have to qualify my identity? Even as a Black feminist, I’m ashamed to admit that I had not thought about the reality of transwomen very much. It’s an evil world out there, and as a Black single mother with cash-flow issues, who is dedicated to art and social justice and additionally has a healthy disdain for patriarchy – my own enemies are more than a few.

But I believe that understanding begins in the Spirit and finds its home in the heart. I believe that when you open your eyes and finally know the living pain of another – you can never, ever turn back or away. And this kind of truth extends far beyond cerebral postures of hip activism and political correctness – beyond the jargon of diversity and inclusiveness, because I am crying now for CeCe. Because I know in my soul that she is every Black woman. And now she is one of the six hundred percent increase in Black women in the prison industrial complex, (except insanely assigned to a man’s facility while the state decides her gender). And to say that this is unfair is to say so little – for it is abundantly clear that the slave-catchers are on a roll.

I think about the Sophia character in Alice Walker’s “The Colour Purple” – who was thrown in prison and brutalised for standing up to a white woman in defence of her children (insisting they would not grow up to be anyone’s maid). Walker’s illustration of the hostile “Jim Crow” environment, and the price If any Black woman dared to defend herself, is as resonant as it was in front of that Minneapolis tavern where CeCe McDonald and friends were attacked that fateful night in June. Tragically, CeCe along with so many others, even in post racial America, still have to experience this harsh reality.

The decision that CeCe will not do the rest of her time at home amongst loved ones means that Swastika donning, now deceased Dean Schmitz with a documented white supremacist history, was in his right to verbally degrade and abuse CeCe McDonald. It means that the racists were in their right to terrify and sexually belittle her… that even after being sliced with glass by Schmidt’s ex-girlfriend, CeCe had no right to value her Black body to the point that she would defend herself by whatever available means she possessed.

In her work,” Black Sexual Politics: African American, Gender, and the New Racism”, Patricia Hill Collins states “Because violence flows from social injustices of race, class, gender, sexuality and age, for African American women and men, eradicating violence requires a new Black sexual politics dedicated to a more expansive notion of social justice.”

It certainly does need expanding. And in that expansion we may find that what transwomen currently experience in the way of trauma and sexual violence mirrors the experiences of Black women’s continued degradation and devaluation in colonial societies present and past. In pre-civil rights America it would have been unheard of for a Black woman to accuse a white man of raping her, let alone asking the legal system to hold him accountable for it. “When and Where I Enter”, Paula Giddings’ comprehensive history of Black women’s struggle for equal rights in America speaks to a mythical and distorted sexual status conferred upon women of African descent.

“Black women [were] described by English slave traders as “hot constitution’d ladies,” possessed of a “lascivious temper,” who had an “inclination for White men—”

Presently, Black women born as women are by no means out of the woods when it comes to sexual violence, and there are not many safe spaces where they may tell of their abuses –

In “Sexual Politics” “….being routinely disbelieved by those who control the definitions of violence…encountering mass media representations that depict Black women as “bitches”, “hoes” and other controlling images, and/or experiencing daily assaults such as having their breasts and buttocks fondled by friends and perfect strangers in school, the workplace, families, and/or on the streets of African American communities may become so routine that African American women cannot perceive their own pain.”

Indeed the now infamous cases of the strippers that were abused by the collegiate Lacrosse Team, Tawana Brawley, the Wappinger Falls teenager who accused six white police officers of raping her, dumping her body in a garbage can and smearing her with excrement. all speak to the “routine” of modern violent assault on the Black femina body and psyche.

However, in these instances, Black men, Black women and the community at large, feeling an overall affront to race, came forward to sound a loud protest against the perpetrators in advocacy of these women and Tawana Brawley (who was just a girl.) In neither case did Black women receive justice from the prosecutorial powers of the state. Yet, they were defended by many vocal elements of the African American community who sent a clear message – it’s not OK to rape and abuse Black women.

Perhaps it is this backlash that the transwoman is garnering; harsh reactions to the inability to abuse all Black women at will without censure. Perhaps these racial and sexual predators are taking advantage of the hostility and invisibility surrounding Black transwomen, the hatred in their own communities that often do not recognise them as Women – and refuse to accept them as part of our Black community, history, continuity and family. Like the enslaved Black woman who could not utter a word when old master crept into her quarters with his pants hanging down. Like the young sister in domestic service who bit her lip, enduring her punishment because she had to feed her babies, an atmosphere of secrecy surrounds the transwoman who like pre-civil rights Black women are thought of as sub-human fetishes that cannot be truly molested.

Sexual Politics refers us to journalist Leon Dash as his interviewee recounted the reality of sexual abuse in the segregated south in the award winning Rosa Lee’s Story.

“You could tell they wanted something. They would all come out there, come out there in the field while everybody was working and they’re looking at the young girls. Her mouth. Teeth. Arms. You know, like they’re looking at a horse. Feeling her breast and everything, the white men would get to whispering”.

Years ago when I was living in Atlanta, I would frequent a local thrift shop where transwomen, (people often referred to these women as cross dressers then) would come in. I would watch them with my two small children by my side, as they picked through racks of clothing. Sometimes they seemed deliciously happy, other times not. As a poor young mother it seemed that neither of us had the funds to get our look together as we might have desired.

There would come a time when the Black “cross dressers” would go missing in the Ashby street area, an area where many transwomen lived at the time. The media would refer to them as prostitutes and “street women.” In one television news story, a reporter would interview white transwomen and cross dressers in an upscale drag/entertainment club. The spokesperson for the mostly, if not all white establishment put quick distance between the entertainers at the club and the missing and murdered women of Ashby street. Her attitude in response to a query about being fearful in the wake of the murderous atmosphere was dismissive – her inference was that she and other women in the club were not trash like the Black transwomen of Ashby street.
Further, when I expressed my outrage to a Black male activist friend in terms of the racist nature of the news story, his response was “Sister the masses of Black people ain’t down with that freakish stuff.”

Far too many Black transwomen are living in silence and fear. And the insecurity that many may have about their appearance is similar to that of the Black siswoman in a society that has designated both as much less beautiful and authentically Woman than the real woman who is white. In this feeling of ugliness, unworthiness, and self denial, violence proliferates. Feelings that people may deem sis and transwomen undesirable as women may render us too afraid to make accusations against our batterers or even defend ourselves. For instance, how often do you see women of African descent as the face of sex trafficking outside of activist circles? In mainstream publications; the face of trafficking is usually Russian or Eastern European.

As siswomen we cannot continue to let our sisters’ blood-curdling screams go unheard in the alleyways of our contempt. They must not continue to be the dirty little secrets of men who do not miss a Sunday in church. Nor must they be relegated to sex work if this is not their choice. The Black community has always upheld the highest standards for education and achievement. This should be no less the standard for our transgendered sisters and brothers. CeCe was studying fashion before her nightmare began.

None of us is immune to the evil of supremacist paradigms, to the pornography of rendering the human as other. Ms McDonald is a young woman who has touched us all deeply, teaching us to raise questions about how we see what we see. We must remain steadfast in our determination for her return to a safer and more enlightened community.

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