Sister, They Are Killing Us: A Black Feminist Response to State and Sexual Violence

Black women are being murdered, violated and maimed. It’s hidden in plain sight—even as they are leading our current-day social movements with fierce intention.   

A Black teenager was found dead in Tallahassee, Fla., on June 13. Her name was Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau. A 19-year-old Black Lives Matter organizer, Toyin was kidnapped hours after tweeting about being sexually assaulted by a man before her lifeless body was found, along with 75-year-old woman Victoria Sims.

And while it wasn’t the crushing weight of police brutality that took her life, her death sheds light on the normalized violations of sexual violence and police brutality that many Black women have long faced as they fight to save their own lives and those of the people in their own communities.

Sister, they are killing us.   

A man murdered Toyin only one week before two Black trans women—27-year-old Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in Philadelphia and 25-year-old Riah Milton in Cincinnati—were both brutally killed.

Three months before, plain-clothed officers murdered Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old Black emergency medical technician as she slept in her home in Louisville, Ky.  

Eight months before that in October 2019, Fort Worth police shot Atatiana Jefferson in her home as she played video games with her 8-year-old nephew, who witnessed the fatal shooting.

Two years earlier in 2017, Seattle police killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four and domestic abuse survivor who had mental health issues. She was murdered in her home, and in front of her three children.

One year before that in 2015, police officers tasered 37-year-old Natasha McKenna to death in Fairfax County jail as she was experiencing a mental health crisis. In that same year, Detroit police murdered 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones with a single bullet to her head as she was sleeping during a raid.

Sister, they are killing us.

For Black women like Toyin and Breonna, the intersection of both sexual and state violence means that they bear witness to their own violation as they are framed as unworthy of outrage, mass mobilization and undeserving of protection and care. 


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Their lives and deaths emphasize that both sexual violence and police brutality are reproductive justice issues that deserve more sustained attention in mainstream feminist movements. Black women have long known that any fight for freedom cannot solely focus on abortion access and women’s oppression without adopting a conscious anti-racist feminist stance.

This plan of action must be one that intentionally addresses Black women’s holistic health concerns including their right to life, to give birth, to parent, not to parent, and to live, learn and work in sustainable communities.

A #SayHerName display at the Skyline Music Series in Milwaukee in January 2014. (Joe Brusky / Flickr)

In a piece for The Times, Brittney Cooper details the perennial exclusion of Black girls’ experiences with state violence. Describing how Black women are often viewed as an afterthought in matters of police violence, Cooper notes, “In a world where the pains and traumas that Black women and girls experience as a consequence of both racism and sexism remain structurally invisible and impermeable to broad empathy, these killings recede from the foreground quietly.”

Collectively, these women are examples of what we already know about Black women’s experiences of racially gendered violence and sexual violation.

Before her tragic death, Toyin appropriately pointed out the contradictions Black women face as they fight these twin battles.

Yet long before Toyin’s observations, in 1977, a group of Black women formed the Combahee River Collective (CRC) to mobilize an anti-racist and anti-sexist movement that advocated for socially and economically marginalized Black women. CRC’s mobilization against white supremacy and sexual violence included their “SIX BLACK WOMEN WHY DID THEY DIE.” campaign, which responded directly to the predominately white “anti-violence” against women campaigns that often excluded Black women’s unique concerns.

CRC addressed the dangers of murder, sexual assault and domestic violence that Black women face as they navigate daily social and structural survival.

These legacies of intersectional feminism teach us that race, gender and class-based inequities heighten Black people’s vulnerability to soul-crushing violence as it undermines their quality of life. They show us how Black women have long engaged political work in ways that connect anti-racism to gender and reproductive justice to foreground their bodily autonomy as they fought for racial equity. 

They remind us of the paralyzing logic of fighting for racial justice and liberation while society is at war with you.

Sister, they are killing us.    

The psychic, emotional, physical and mental labor that accompanies breathing while Black and female extends from the streets to hospitalsthe classroom to the jail cell.

It means confronting the relative indifference toward Black women survivors of sexual violence—which fit into the long history of the lack of concern for Black women’s demands for bodily integrity.  It also involves the active mobilization of racially and economically marginalized women.

An example is civil rights and anti-rape crusader Recy Taylor—a Black woman who was abducted and raped by six white men on her way home from church. Her story, in many ways, paved the path for the intersectional activism of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign.

And even as these legacies we inherit have guided me as they likely did Toyin, I mourn the heartbreaking reality that nobody was there to protect Toyin.

Sister, they are killing us.

I remain broken by the soul wrenching truth that Breonna’s life and labor were considered disposable as her death was devalued in a country that criminalizes black existence, even in the afterlife. 

Breonna was a so-called essential worker, like so many Black women in health care who have been risking their own lives to save others. But that didn’t matter. Ten rounds of shots were fired into Breonna’s apartment during a botched raid by police bearing a no-knock order.

She was sleeping. They struck her at least eight times as she slept beside her boyfriend. Sleeping. While Breonna’s images circulate now, there were no major headlines or protests after her killing.

Sister, they are killing us.   

I continue to say the names of Toyin, Breonna and so many others. And with every #SayHerName, my heart murmurs. My soul seethes with pain. And with every breath taken, life cut short and backs broken by the weight of an anti-Black (woman) world, I remember just how anti-Blackness is deeply gendered and classed.

There is a special kind of violence that is reserved for Black women. One that is ordinary, omnipresent and pervasive as it cradles our slow death.  

Sister, they are killing us.   

I hear the loud silences of many social movements and feminists who have watched as they kill us. The rage feels strangely familiar. Black women’s violation is as American as apple pie and our mourning is a cherished pastime.

We cannot breathe in peace. We cannot breathe.    

Sister, they are killing us.


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About

Jallicia A. Jolly a PhD candidate in the American Studies department at the University of Michigan as well as a predoctoral fellow at Amherst College and Yale University. She works on HIV/AIDS, Black women's health and activism, and reproductive justice. Her writing has appeared in Rewire.News, HuffingtonPost, Black Youth Project, UMichigan's National Center for Institutional Diversity and For Harriet.