I is viscerally reminiscent of the first time I heard that there were at least 64,000 missing black girls and women in the United States. It was 2019 and I was attending a symposium focused on black youth. At that time, I didn’t know the total number of missing people in the United States, but 64,000 felt alarmingly high. After some research, I discovered that black women and girls make up over 30% of missing women and girls in the United States. And yet, black women and girls make up only 15% of the American female population. My suspicions that the number was disproportionate and disturbing were unfortunately correct. The data shook me deeply. I had no idea so many of us were missing. In 2021, the number was over 90,000.
Over the past year, we’ve had a national conversation about the “missing white woman” syndrome, the phenomenon of the over-representation of missing white women and girls in media coverage, and the consequent outrage and public engagement with missing Black, Indigenous and other women. and girls of color. But it’s something that many of us were all too aware of. Too few people outside of loved ones of missing people, local community organizers and a handful of black-led organizations are sounding the alarm about this crisis. The erasure, silence and lack of collective attention resonates as deeply violent and yet another example of the vast chasm between who cares and who does not care for the lives and livelihoods of Black girls and women.
But it’s not just about the media coverage itself. As a society, we continue to fail to examine Why nearly 100,000 black women and girls are currently missing, failing to address the deprivation, marginalization and criminalization they face. I identify these conditions as an unlivable life, a black lives-centric riff on gender theorist Judith Butler’s concept of unlivable lives, because far too many of us are relegated to a life predisposed to untimely death.
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In 2017, I signed my first book, Colored No More: Reimagining Black Femininity in Washington, DC, about the black women who made the nation’s capital the nation’s first major “chocolate city,” to Relisha Rudd. She was an 8-year-old black girl who disappeared in Washington, DC on March 1, 2014 and was never found. I began my love letter to my hometown by saying its name, a practice popularized by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea Ritchie and the African American Policy Forum in an effort to shed light on violence against women and girls black. It was the least I could do. I wanted her name alongside her DC forebears, who would have fought for her and fought to create a world where black girls wouldn’t disappear. Against all odds, I hoped that one day Relisha would be found. Honestly, I still do. I fantasized about this little black girl seeing her name in a book and knowing someone cared. I also thought that people who picked up my book would see its name and maybe Google its story. Ideally, the dedication would also compel readers to say his name, even if only for a brief moment.
Every time I saw a photo of Relisha, tears welled up in my eyes. She seemed to be my relative. She also lived near my childhood home. When I was growing up, the homeless shelter she was staying in didn’t exist. The building was part of DC General Hospital, which was founded as the Washington Infirmary in 1806. The legendary hospital, which was controversially closed by former DC Mayor Anthony Williams in 2001, provided de facto universal health care to the uninsured, homeless and poor. , and marginalized DC residents. Growing up, I knew this because people in the hospital would go if they got shot or stabbed or overdosed. It was triage for a community relegated to an unlivable life.
Shamika Young, left, Relisha’s mother, and Shamika’s godmother, Kinnicia Williams, attend a remembrance celebration for Relisha Rudd at the Deanwood Recreation Center in Washington, DC on February 27, 2016.
Marvin Joseph—The Washington Post/Getty Images
To this day, conflicting reports abound regarding what happened in the weeks before and immediately after Relisha’s disappearance. But chances are you haven’t followed this story, maybe you haven’t even heard of it. While the investigation has been going on for years, the story of an 8-year-old black girl who disappeared never made national news. In fact, it barely received coverage outside of the metro area, including DC, Maryland, and Virginia, media geared toward black audiences, and social media posts.
In March 2021, Howard University graduate Jonquilyn Hill started a new podcast on WAMU 88.5 in Washington, DC titled through the cracks, in which she looks back on the disappearance of Relisha and the failures of the multiple social safety nets in the life of this young black girl. Last year, Relisha’s story was also covered by Geeta Gandbhir and Soledad O’Brien in their four-part HBO series. black and missing. I am encouraged by the continued investment in unpacking the many truths of this hurtful story. But I’m still waiting for the day when we can fully answer the question: what happened to Relisha Rudd?
Read more: Black women have always been pioneers of social change. Why are they so often relegated to the margins?
Words fail to capture the closeness I still feel with Relisha. Her story wasn’t unique in itself to DC or the US more broadly, but it hit me exceptionally hard. Even though the worst-case scenario becomes more and more likely over the years, I can’t help but come back to her. Amplifying the full stories of missing black women and girls is one of our best tools to fight the perpetual harm we deliver them to, and I try to tell her story whenever I can.
Relisha’s story uncovers many ways in which unspectacular everyday injustices and inequalities rooted in systemic and unrelenting deprivation are slowly but surely erasing or killing us. Thousands of us disappear without a trace. What is spectacular about this reality, however, is the frequency and consistency with which everyday experiences with anti-Blackness, misogynoirism and capitalism manifest in our lives. Poor black women and girls are homeless, foodless, overwatched, under- and unemployed, and seen as useless or worthless by those with the power to marginalize and criminalize. When you exhaust someone, they become more susceptible to other forms of harm.
Relisha’s disappearance occurred amid a web of murderous practices that affect tens of thousands of black girls every day. She has faced gross negligence and unenforced policies aimed at ensuring the well-being of DC General Shelter residents as well as the failure of agencies such as the Child Services Agency and the family to prioritize the welfare of poor black families over the impulse to criminalize them. . Systematically, she has been the victim of decades of anti-poor, anti-Black and anti-family policies that have ravaged poor black communities in the nation’s capital and across the country via the hypercriminalization of poverty and drug addiction.
What we ask of girls like Relisha to survive is impossible. I guess diminishing one of the devastating lethal forces in the lives of black women and girls might have helped her. There was just too much in his life. Since the day of her birth, she has endured an unlivable life. Anti-darkness, poverty and misogynoir have placed this girl with bright eyes, gaping teeth and brown skin on the margins. It wasn’t until something spectacular happened – Relisha’s disappearance – that a very small number of people even learned about all the ways we had let her down.
Adapted from America, Damn: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice
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