Some years ago I read a poem by Toi Derricotte called “On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses.” I could not get the imagery from the poem out of my head for days. I was moved, angered, distressed and ultimately inspired to action by Derricotte’s words. The poem begins with these stanzas:
Mowing his three acres with a tractor,
a man notices something ahead – a mannequin –
he thinks someone threw it from a car. Closer
he sees it is the body of a black woman.
The medics come and turn her with pitchforks.
Her gaze shoots past him to nothing. Nothing
is explained. How many black women
have been turned up to stare at us blankly.
I am reminded of the poem again today as I have been following the coverage of the disappearance of 17 year old Phylicia Barnes. Ms. Barnes went missing during the Christmas holidays in Baltimore. Phylicia is a beautiful, smart, honors student. By all accounts, she brought joy to her friends and family.
As her mother pleaded for help in finding her child, her voice was silenced by a lack of media attention to the story. A few local media outlets carried the story but a Baltimore police officer suggested that if Phylicia had been white then perhaps her disappearance would have garnered even more media attention and helped in the identification of a suspect:
“I think the question has to be asked. It’s not my position, I don’t know what goes into these decisions, but this is Baltimore’s Natalee Holloway case,” said Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. Holloway, then 18, disappeared in 2005 while on a high school graduation trip to Aruba. Her remains have never been found.
Guglielmi said he and “the commander of the homicide unit had been prepared to go on CNN’s Nancy Grace but got bumped for an hour-long report on a missing Texas cheerleader,” The Baltimore Sun reported.
“Day two, day three, when we were putting information out about Phylicia’s disappearance, we were talking about birds falling out of the sky in Arkansas,” Guglielmi said in an interview with CNN, The Charlotte Observer reported. “And this girl’s in danger. And she needs help. And it was very frustrating for my office to see an anemic response from our national media partners.”
Here again poet Toi Derricotte’s words are instructive:
in weedy fields, off highways,
pushed out in plastic bags,
shot, knifed, unclothed partially, raped,
their wounds sealed with a powdery crust.
Last week on TV, a gruesome face, eyes bloated shut.
No one will say, “She looks like she’s sleeping,” ropes
of blue-black slashes at the mouth. Does anybody
know this woman? Will anyone come forth? Silence
like a backwave rushes into that field
where, just the week before, four other black girls
had been found. The gritty image hangs in the air
just a few seconds, but it strikes me,
a black woman, there is a question being asked
about my life. How can I
protect myself? Even if I lock my doors,
walk only in the light, someone wants me dead.
Am I wrong to think
if five white women had been stripped,
broken, the sirens would wail until
someone was named?
Is it any wonder I walk over these bodies
pretending they are not mine, that I do not know
the killer, that I am just like any woman –
if not wanted, at least tolerated.
Part of me wants to disappear, to pull
the earth on top of me. Then there is this part
that digs me up with this pen
and turns my sad black face to the light.
So the question remains whether we value the lives of young women of color in our society. Michel Martin examines the issue in a piece she did at NPR titled “Missing Girls Shouldn’t Be Missing From the Media:”
So why isn’t her disappearance a bigger deal? She’s pretty. That shouldn’t matter but apparently it does when it comes to media coverage of missing persons. And she’s African-American. And that shouldn’t matter but apparently it does too. CNN’s Don Lemon covered this story and wrote about it on the CNN blog. He said he had heard about Felicia Barnes’s appearance on social media when he was on Christmas vacation and friends and others started asking why the authorities are not getting more help from the news media and spreading the word.
The Baltimore police, interestingly enough, are among those raising the question of whether Felicia’s race has something to do with the lack of urgency with which her disappearance has been treated by the media.
African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population, but estimates from different organizations and the Justice Department suggest that black children account for 34 to 42 percent of all missing people under the age of 18. What is happening to those children?
Violence is constant in the lives of young people across the U.S. However young people of color are disproportionately impacted by violence in all areas of their lives. They deserve our attention and also our advocacy.
For those who are interested in learning more about the Phylicia Barnes case, NBC Nightly News did this story a couple of weeks ago: