“Black women have always been vulnerable to violence in this country and have long been judged as having “no selves to defend,” writes Mariame Kaba, founder, and director of Project NIA, in a 2019 op-ed for The Guardian. The piece opens with the story of Celia, an enslaved woman who killed her rapist enslaver, Robert Newsom. In the context of Missouri law, Kaba tells us, enslaved women like Celia could not claim defense because the state considered them property.
Despite the end of slavery, the judicial system criminalizes Black women who claim self-defense, even in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws on the books. While Kaba details the accounts of formerly incarcerated victims of gender-based violence Marissa Alexander and Cyntoia Brown, statistical evidence indicates over-policing of Black women and girl victims of gender-based violence.
The justification for the imprisonment of Black women and girl victims often rests on controlling images – racist ideologies of femininity that masculinize or other Black women as hypersexual, aggressive, or subservient. The controlling images that emerge in the policing and incarceration of Black women include the Jezebel, the Sapphire, and the welfare mother. A recent Critical Sociology article by Terressa A. Benz, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Oakland University, illuminates how the Sapphire controlling image, which characterizes Black women as angry and aggressive, emerges in the media narratives surrounding Siwatu-Salama Ra, a Black woman who attempted to defend herself in 2017 under Michigan’s Stand Your Ground (SYG) self-defense law.
The Angry Black Woman and the Failed Mammy
Benz argues that in the case of the criminalization of Ra, the controlling images of the Sapphire as an angry Black woman worked in tandem with a lesser-known controlling image – that of the “failed mammy.” Although the mammy is an antebellum construct, the stereotype has evolved into a collection of tropes that condemn Black mothers. The notion of the failed mammy characterizes Black mothers as bossy, lazy women whose pregnant bodies serve as incubators for future criminals. Further, it promotes the notion that Black mothers lack morals and fail to raise and discipline their children properly.
Benz asserts that these controlling images contrast with the colorblind racism embedded in the writing of SYG laws, which emerge from a pro-gun discourse that codes vulnerability in white femininity. In contrast, the Sapphire controlling image characterizes Black women as dominant, aggressive, and fearless. Thus, it renders Black women undeserving of sympathy and lacking the necessary fear to invoke SYG safeguards. The legal system and media thus treat Black women defending themselves as criminals rather than victims.
Benz emphasizes that the Sapphire and failed mammy controlling images not only other Black women but also characterize them as a threat. Therefore, when Black women defend themselves, the court sees their behavior as a violation of cultural codes, which lays the groundwork for their imprisonment despite SYG law.
The Case of Siwatu-Salama Ra
“The women that find themselves in prison receive very little compassion. And especially if you are a pregnant mom, your punishment is almost tripled,” says Siwatu-Salama Ra in a 2019 interview with Geez magazine. In 2017, an ongoing conflict between Ra and another Black mother escalated when the woman filed a police report against Ra, claiming she had threatened her with a gun. A concealed carry permit holder in an open carry state, Ra told Sarah Cwiek the woman had weaponized her vehicle “literally going back and forth with this car, putting it in reverse and fixing herself to come at us again” in a 2018 interview for Michigan’s 91.7 NPR station. Cwiek writes that out of fear RA “pulled her unloaded, licensed firearm from her car and pointed it at Harvey and her daughter” in an attempt to defend herself, family, and her home.
Although Ra filed her police complaint, only she received a felony assault charge. Later, despite provisions within Michigan’s Stand Your Ground law, a jury found Ra guilty of a firearm felony, a charge with a mandatory two-year sentence. Ra was in her third trimester when incarcerated. “As a prisoner, you’re treated like a third-class citizen where they can justifiably poison your water,” says Ra, the daughter of environmentalist Rhonda Anderson, in a 2019 interview with Earth First Journal.
In 2019, the Michigan Court of Appeals chose to reverse the jury conviction on the basis that the use of non-deadly force afforded different circumstances of self-defense than did deadly force. Indeed, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Hathaway had incorrectly instructed that Ra had used deadly force.
Controlling Images and Black Women’s Failed Claims to Self-Defense
According to Benz, the Michigan legal system portrayed Siwatu-Salama Ra as the Sapphire incapable of fear and a failed mammy in need of paternalistic discipline:
At every stage of this case, Siwatu-Salama Ra was treated as the threatening other, the Sapphire who was incapable of fear and a failed Mammy who was an irresponsible mother in need of paternalistic discipline. The controlling images of the angry Black woman and the failed Mammy worked in tandem to criminalize Ra, excluding her from the necessary vulnerability needed to invoke SYG protections.
– Benz (2020:1103)
Ultimately, Ra’s story illustrates how the legal construct of self-defense aims to protect white manhood primarily. As a result, Black people, already othered as criminal threats through controlling images such as the brute/thug, do not get the presumption of fearfulness or need for the protection afforded white people who defend themselves under Stand Your Ground laws. Indeed, in the case of George Zimmerman, we saw the notion that a Black child in public warrants “suspicion” provides enough basis for justifiable homicide. In contrast, Stand Your Grand laws serve as yet another way to criminalize and publish Black people for daring to protect and defend themselves.