By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
I’ve been writing, speaking, and tweeting about Renisha McBride since her death and I woke up this morning with her on my mind, as the trial of her killer continues this week. I’ve been thinking about how hard it is for black women to find a safe space just to “be” in this world; how hard it is to find a safe place just to be our genuine selves. Home, church, and work can be toxic environments – perhaps even more toxic than the larger society. Where is that space where one can feel loved, affirmed, cherished, protected? Where is that space where one can lay down her defenses and burdens? Where is the place where black women can find sanctuary?
Domestic violence and street harassment against black women are routinely ignored and barely prosecuted. Predators in the pulpit and the streets continue to prey on black women’s bodies and psyches. In the workforce, black women continue to be at the bottom economic rung, despite higher rates of education and training. Over the course of just one week, I’ve listened to a black pastor mock the black women in his congregation for their hairstyles; I’ve heard various celebrities argue that black women bring violence upon themselves; I’ve experienced the hostility of an institution that does not understand or value the contributions made by black women; and I’ve mourned as yet another black woman faces state-sanctioned brutality.
When the church you call home mocks you; when the community you live in blames you; when your workplace doesn’t value you; when the police won’t protect you; and when all forms of public media degrades you…where do you turn for sanctuary? There are far too many days when I feel that I’m stumbling, drunkenly, through the car wreck that is American culture, seeking a place of shelter…hoping just to find my way home. My education, profession, status, income, and background do not matter when all the world sees is an angry or threatening or criminal or trespassing black woman.
Renisha McBride’s killer didn’t know if she were drunk or sober; if she was an excellent student or a dropout; if she was a criminal or a saint; if she was loved and cherished or the bane of her family’s existence. Her killer, who first claims that he shot her by accident and then later changes his claim to one of self defense, didn’t know anything about her, except what his eyes could tell him: a black woman was knocking at his door at 4am. A black woman, whom the attorney for this murderer argues, “could have been up to no good.” Where is there refuge in the world if before you can utter a single word, you have been judged to be “up to no good?”
I don’t have any answers to my questions; I really don’t know how to find sanctuary in this troubled world. I’m grateful for those profound moments of peace and refuge I’ve experienced in conversations with friends; during meals at my kitchen table; or in the shared laughter and tears of likeminded folks. But far too soon, those moments of refuge are gone and I’m left seeking sanctuary and protection for my weary soul. Renisha McBride never found that safe space on the last night of her life. I feel called to work on creating those sanctuaries for myself and for all the Renisha McBrides of this world.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar