UN Working Group for People of African Descent Testimony on Mass Incarceration’s Impact on Black Women & Girls

On Tuesday January 26th, 2016 I  testified before the U.N. Working Group for People of African Descent at their NY Factfinding Mission. Her testimony was about how Mass Incarceration impacts Black Women and Girls. This Factfinding mission is apart of the decade for people of African Descent whose ancestors were taken into the transatlantic slave trade. Find my testimony below:

My name is Onleilove Alston and I am the Executive Director of PICO-Faith in New York, which is the New York affiliate of the PICO Network, the largest faith based organizing network in the world, additionally, I led A Women’s Theology of Liberation for the network. Faith in New York is a federation of over 70 multi-faith and multi-race congregations representing over 80,000 New Yorkers. Our vision is to build a New York where ALL not some of New Yorkers live in dignity through ending mass incarceration, fostering economic dignity and gaining comprehensive immigration reform. I want to welcome the delegation and thank you for traveling to the US to assess to state of People of African descent.

Personally, I was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn one of the seven neighborhoods in New York that sends the highest numbers of people to New York State prisons. As a young woman who experienced homelessness and foster care (which is a pipeline to prison), the intersections of race, class and gender caused me to be targeted by police. While most of us are aware of the New Jim Crow against Black men and boys Black women and girls are silently facing police brutality and sexual assault and raising incarceration rates. In July 2015 alone five Black women died in police custody and their names are:

Sandra Bland

Kindra Chapman

Joyce Curnell

Ralkina Jones

Raynette Turner

 

What many do not know is that Black women of child bearing age are entering prison for the first time at extremely high rates. Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many  don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”

The implicit bias of colorism also affects prison sentences. Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. Mass incarceration is showing that we can no longer ignore colorism in our communities.

Furthermore, since 2013 there have been multiple incidents of visibly pregnant Black women being beaten by police. One such woman was Brenda Hardaway a Rochester, New York resident who was slammed to the ground by cops while crying “you’re going to kill my baby” this is one of five incidents of pregnant women of color being beaten by the cops that I have encountered in my work this year. While the New Jim Crow was coming through the front door and removing black men from our communities, it was also going through the back door and quietly removing black women. We are unaware of the impending crisis that the incarceration of Black mothers, daughters, and sisters is going to cause in our community, quantitative data is needed to further study the impact of mass incarceration on African-American women and girls.

Suggested Questions

A. Culturally-Competent, Gender & Race Informed Criminal Justice Services-What efforts have federal, state and local governments made to ensure the availability of: a) trainings for law enforcement professionals focused on cultural and gender competencies and b) resources to attract Black women into criminal justice and legal professions?
B. Legislation-what federal, state or local legislation has been passed to a) ensure that gender-based police violence is prosecuted to the full extent of the law and b) ensure that African-American girls that are sex trafficked are given support services and not incarcerated as sex workers?
C. Disaggregate Data-Does the federal, state and local governments collect data categorized by race or ethnic origin that is disaggregated by gender-identity related to police misconduct?

 

Suggested Recommendations

A. That the Department of Justice, as well as state and local governments be required to collect data concerning police brutality categorized by race and ethnic origin that is disaggregated by age and gender-identity.
B. That the U.S. Department of Justice partner with Domestic Violence and Women’s Organizations to host local Truth Commissions on gender based police violence against Black Women with a commitment to enacting policy changes that are generated from these commissions.
C. That U.S. Department of Justice, state and local police departments should:
• Provide culturally-competent, age appropriate and gender informed criminal justice services.
• Collect data concerning the role that theimplicit bias of colorism plays on arrest and sentencing and provide recommendations for law enforcement and legal staff at the local, state and federal levels to counteract this bias in sentencing and arrest.

Dark AND Lovely: The Call to Love the Black Woman’s Body

This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church for the “This is My Body Series”

  

Prayer for Black Women Who Have Died in Police Custody

Divine creator thank you for this day and this meal, bless all the hands that prepared it from field to plate. Bless each person here and give each woman present a divine revelation that she is fearfully and wonderfully made and that her body as it stands now is a gift from you. God of Sarah, Rebecca and Leah we confess to you that we have been silent when the lives of Black woman have been abused by the systems of racism and sexism. We confess that we have diminished the mothers of creation, while worshipping an idol constructed by our biases. Forgive us for not standing up when in July 2015 five Black woman died in Police Custody, we call out their names now:

  • Sandra Bland
  • Kindra Chapman
  • Joyce Curnell
  • Ralkina Jones
  • Raynette Turner

God please comfort the friends and family they left behind and help us as the church to take a bold stance against the societal sins that caused their deaths. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight oh Lord my rock and my redeemer. May your Holy Spirit enter this place. Amen

Scripture Song of Songs 1: 5-6

I am black but beautiful, 
    O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
    like the curtains of Solomon.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
    because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
    they made me keeper of the vineyards,
    but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
    where you pasture your flock,
    where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
    beside the flocks of your companions?

When we think about the Black woman’s body we see even within our scripture translations that there has been an attempt to diminish it’s beauty because most English translations of Song of Songs 1:5-6 will read I am black BUT Beautiful while in the Hebrew the verse can read I am black AND beautiful, the Hebrew word can be translated BUT or AND yet Bible translators due to the implicit bias of racism choose BUT beautiful which is an apology for Black beauty as opposed to I am Black AND Beautiful which is an unapologetic celebration of Blackness. So the scripture should read: 

I am Black AND Lovely
    O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
    like the curtains of Solomon.
Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
    because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
    they made me keeper of the vineyards,
    but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
    where you pasture your flock,
    where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled

    beside the flocks of your companions? 

 

Since encountering colonial powers the Black woman’s body has not been afforded the respect or curtesy that the White woman’s body has been afforded.   

Pregnant African Women Brenda Hardaway Woman Beaten by Cops in Rochester, NY

http://youtu.be/kFRTNHA5mbg

 What does it mean that according to research the average Christian in the world today is a woman of African descent and yet in America the average person entering prison for the first time is a Black woman of child bearing age? What does it mean to have prolife Christian activist who are silent when Black pregnant women are beaten by cops? To date there have been multiple incidents of visibly pregnant Black and Latina women who were beaten by cops the most recent being a 8 month pregnant woman who while being hit by the cop was told you better be happy I didn’t make you lose your baby! 

The dark woman’s body is deemed sinful even in our criminal justice system. Villanova University researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12% less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. The study took into account the type of crimes the women committed and each woman’s criminal history to generate apples-to-apples comparisons. 

Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education show that from 2011-2012 , black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12% compared with a rate of just 2% for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. Researchers say that within minority groups darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones.


The dark woman’s body is deemed sinful, yet the oldest human remains were of an African woman named Lucy by anthropologist, the mother of humanity is dishonored yet our sacred text tell us to honor our mother that our days maybe long in Exodus. This dishonor and disregard is indeed sinful and yet throughout history Black woman have risen up and declared their beauty and power, the most recent example of this were the three black women that started the Black Lives Matter Movement and Bree Newsome who didn’t just talk about the confederate flag but removed it while reciting scripture and declaring her faith in God! My body and the body of my sisters is indeed beautiful, holy and whole, made in the image of God and as my ancestor Sojourner Truth declared:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them. Amen!

Questions for Reflection: 

  • Is Dark skin a sin?
  • In what ways do the sins of racism and sexism intersect in our faith communities?
  • How can men be allies to women facing sexism? 

Proud Black Mary

The Black Madonna can be found thoughout the world especially in Europe, but also in India, America and of course Africa. The Black Madonna represents motherhood, Mother Earth, Life, Death and Lady Wisdom(referred to in the Biblical book of Proverbs). The Black Madonna’s lap represents nurturing which is why many of her depictions show Jesus on her lap. Furthermore, she is a mother to the oppressed, marginalized and the poor which is best shown in the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Sadly many of these Black Momas were buried, hidden in the basements of churches and cathedrals or even “whitened”- ironically when they were whitened many European Christians would demand that she be painted black again. Some say Black Madonnas were blackened by candles burning nearby but some religious scholars attribute this theory to racism. There is proof that many Black Madonnas were created to be Black, but as the transatlantic slave trade picked up the Black Madonna was made in a white image so that European Christians could enslave, rape and dehumanize the Black woman without guilt. Today an interest in the Black Madonna has reemerged and my hope is that this will inspire Black women to look to the Black Madonna as a divine mirror reflecting the dignity, natural beauty, wisdom, love and power that we should display as Black women.

For more information on the Black Madonna read:

Return of the Black Madonna by Rev. Matthew Fox, Ph. D

Interfaith Marian Pilgrimages- The Black Madonna

The Magnificat or Song of Mary Luke 1: 46-55

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