The trope of the strong Black woman is not only false, it’s dangerous. Black women, more than anyone, need to practice self-care.
For almost eight years, I was a prosecutor in Baltimore. I worked with police, victims and witnesses to enforce a system of laws I believed protected people from violence. Or, provided justice and closure to victims and their families. Naively, I included myself, a Black woman, in the group of persons I believed the law protected.
I have always known, intellectually, that the American legal system was built upon the inhumane enslavement of people of African descent, and that policing was the result of efforts to maintain chattel slavery. But working through that history — from slavery to modern-day crime — involves dismantling entrenched narratives. For example, narratives asserting that our criminal justice system now works to protect all people, equally. In reality, the American legal system has repeatedly failed to protect Black women. It has failed to hold accountable those responsible for causing our bodily harm and death.
On Sept. 15, 1963, four Black girls — Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Denise McNair, 11 — were murdered when a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A known member of the Ku Klux Klan, Robert Chambliss, was charged with the murders and buying dynamite, but he was initially convicted only of possession of dynamite without a permit. It wasn’t until 1977 that he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.
Tiffany Jeffers (Photo: Justin Kulp)
On March 13, police in Louisville, Kentucky, entered a home to execute a search warrant. During the execution of the warrant, police fired more than 20 rounds, killing Breonna Taylor, a Black woman not named in the warrant. The grand jury indicted one officer for wanton endangerment for shots fired into an adjacent apartment where property damage occurred. Recently, it was revealed that the state attorney general declined to present homicide charges against the officers. Jurors have publicly disclosed that they felt there was sufficient evidence to pursue more serious charges, but that the prosecutor denied them the option to do so.
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At two critical periods of racial unrest, this system found criminality in the possession of dynamite and the firing of bullets that damaged property, yet failed to find any wrongdoing in the killing of four Black girls and one Black woman. With 57 years separating these incidents, the narrative remains glaringly clear: Misdemeanor offenses have a higher priority in the American criminal justice system than the bodies and lives of Black women and girls.
Law practitioners and scholars are gatekeepers of the legal profession — a profession that aims to uphold the rule of law and promote justice. As a law professor, I consider it a privilege to influence the next generation of lawyers.
However, as a Black female law professor, I find myself vacillating between two realities. First, recognizing that our legal system was built on the dehumanization of an entire race, making it incapable of ever achieving its true potential. Second, appreciating the brilliance and ingenuity of the American rule of law, and believing that if implemented with care, it can do more good than harm.
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But there is another more insidious issue that I face. Dealing with the trope of the strong Black woman. It pervasively insists that Black women are able to withstand pain, turmoil and danger — while masterfully accomplishing a multitude of professional tasks.
Black women in law work to maintain a legal system that offers no justice for the Black women wrongfully killed by police. Lawyers take an oath to uphold the Constitution. But the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause has been denied to Black women like Taylor and many more — including Sandra Bland, found dead in a Texas jailhouse three days after a confrontational traffic stop by a white state trooper in 2015. Black women in law devote their lives to a system that seemingly provides nothing in return.
This year, I have questioned how I can teach my students to implement the laws of a system that consistently and blatantly fails to protect the lives of Black women. In the classroom, denying this failure furthers the stereotypes that Black women’s pain, suffering and lives do not matter. If I do not explicitly acknowledge my own humanity, I cannot expect a system that has repeatedly failed Black women to do so.
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After it was announced that there would be no indictment for Breonna Taylor’s killing, I made the following statement to my students. I was raw and exposed. But my choice to be vulnerable in the moment was incredibly empowering and healing.
“Today, I will teach and I hope you will learn. But please do not misinterpret my choice to proceed with the task at hand as evidence of strength. Today, I will teach you from a place of weakness. Black women are not impenetrable. Black women do not possess super powers. Black women are not magic. We are human. Breonna Taylor was human, and her life, stolen without impunity, mattered.
“My heart is shattered. I am hurting and broken. But my coping mechanism is speaking truth to power. I choose to not squander the enormous privilege I have as a lawyer and teacher of the law. So, I will teach you well. I will write. I will speak. I will advocate. But I will also grieve and I will rest. I will take care of myself. I will give myself permission to be human.
“Because the law consistently fails to protect Black women, this is truly the only way for me to ensure that my life matters.”
Black scholar-activists like Audre Lorde have long asserted the importance of radical self-care. Black women in law must embrace this practice as the next phase of the movement. Vulnerability is a powerful tool in the fight for justice. Eliminating the burden of responsibility to repair this flawed criminal justice system is critical in deconstructing the harmful narrative of Black woman as fixer.
Engaging in self-care reinforces our humanity and sends a clear message that we are unwilling to sacrifice ourselves to repair a system we did not break. Because our lives — and not just our work — matter.
Tiffany Jeffers is associate professor of law and legal practice at Georgetown Law.
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