Black Women & The Death Penalty

Earlier this year I was apart of a dialogue on the death penalty for Religion & Politics  The Table Dialogue where various faith leaders write responses on a pressing social issue from the perspective of their faith tradition.

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Never Murder.  –Exodus 20:13 (God’s Word Translation)

As an African American woman who identifies with the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith and who has found a theological home in womanist theology, my religious tradition informs my views of the death penalty in general and as it affects Black women in particular. As a follower of Yahshua (Jesus), the Ten Commandments are still very relevant to my life and shape my ethics. I do not separate the message of the Gospel from the cultural context that Yahshua was born into. In light of this I still observe the Sabbath and when I read in Exodus 20:13 that “we should not murder,” that applies to my brothers and sisters who are incarcerated as well. As a practical womanist theologian who works against mass incarceration’s impact on Black women and girls through the PICO National Network’s Live Free Campaign, which works to end mass incarceration and police brutality, I am grieved by how the intersections of racism, sexism and classism collide to send my sisters to death row. Do we see these women?

As a woman I am inspired by the account of the Egyptian enslaved woman Hagar, who after being unjustly cast out of the home of Abraham and Sarah with her son, encounters the “God who sees her” (Genesis 16:13). Like Hagar, African American women in the criminal justice system are usually unseen and unheard, especially those who are on death row. According to academics Harry and Sheila P. Greenlee, “The percentage of women of every race receiving death sentences is less than their percentage in the female population, except for African American and Native American women. The percentage of African American and Native American females receiving death sentences is more than double their percentage of the U.S. female population. Interestingly, this finding is not true for the other women of color.” It should also be noted that Native American women face disparities in the criminal justice system as well, and this reflects the ongoing injustice faced by the general Native American population since the inception of the United States, which prospered due to the stolen land of Native Americans and stolen bodies of Africa. Theologically I believe that sin is not only individual but also social and is embedded into the very fabric of American society. The United States’ original sin is racism, and the death penalty is just another reflection of this sin. Theologically we mustsee the millions of Black women and girls who are abused by the criminal justice system, whose lives end not only in murder on death row but also while in police custody. In July 2015 five Black women died in police custody and their names are:

Sandra Bland

Kindra Chapman

Joyce Curnell

Ralkina Jones

Raynette Turner

I would challenge advocates against the death penalty to expand their work to include advocacy concerning those who die in police custody, because in my opinion this goes hand-in-hand with the death penalty: One is formal, another is informal, but both are murder by our criminal justice system.

As a faith-based organizer I know that what must be done about the death penalty in general, and its impact on Black women in particular, is that we need to get organized. But this organization should be led by African Americans because we are the ones most affected by the injustice of mass incarceration. Ending the death penalty has to be a part of a holistic campaign to reform our broken, profit-driven mass incarceration system. African American women must organize against the death penalty in all its forms—whether it’s a sister sitting on death row for ten years or Sandra Bland who died in police custody. We have to organize with prophetic public actions, standing not for but withwomen on death row, because the most powerful movements are led by those closest to the pain.

We also must organize by withholding our money and our votes. According to the Nielsen Company study entitled “African American Consumers: Still Vital, Still Growing in 2015,” African American buying power is 1.1 trillion. According to the “Buying Power of Black America” report by Target Market News, “the purchases made by Black women are the single biggest influence on the growth of African American spending.” With this buying power we can begin to boycott those companies that utilize prison labor and those companies that invest in private prisons. According to my colleague Margarida Jorge, national director of the Women’s Equality Center, African American women are the most consistent voters for the Democratic Party. With this voting power, we should demand of all political parties, but especially the Democratic Party, that our support be tied to candidates willing to stand against the death penalty. According to research from Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in his book From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, the average Christian in the world today is a woman of African ancestry. Black women not only have buck and ballot power; we have the power to influence the Christian church to take on the issue of ending the death penalty. For non-Black women allies the death penalty affects all of us and your voice as an ally is extremely important in supporting a movement to end this sinful practice in our criminal justice system. We all must get organized to build a groundswell that says the death penalty is unacceptable in our society. We all must see those who are on death row because they are our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, friends, and neighbors. It is only when we see the tragedy of a criminal justice system that murders rather than reforms that we will create a society that honors the lives of all.

Onleilove Alston, M.Div., MSW, is a native New Yorker and Executive Director of Faith in NY, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, where she leads A Women’s Theology of Liberation, training women of faith to organize through a gender lens rooted in their faith. She tweets@Wholeness4ALL

Also In
The Discussion

Capital Crime Calls for Capital Punishment

By J. Daryl Charles

The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty, as Pope Francis Implores

By Joseph A. Fiorenza

For Mormons, a Contested Legacy on Capital Punishment

By Patrick Q. Mason

– See more at: http://religionandpolitics.org/2016/01/19/lets-reform-our-broken-criminal-justice-system/#sthash.tjxLcEFr.dpuf

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? 

‘Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)’

PrayerRallyforTM

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14

Revival is defined as: Restoration to life, consciousness, vigor, strength, and repentance (emphasis mine)http://dictionary.reference.com

Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control.”-Sabrina Fulton mother of Trayvon Martin

Saturday night as I was waiting for the subway to take me from the Upper Westside of Manhattan to Harlem I overheard an African-American cop tell his co-worker that George Zimmerman was not convicted of any charges. The face of his co-worker who was an African-American woman dropped and she silently turned towards the tracks to look for the next train. The scene was disturbing to me because I saw the powerlessness in both cops faces which is disheartening since these are “New York’s Finest” and yet with their badges and city issued authority they like many African-Americans were reminded of our powerlessness in a system that was founded on devaluing African life. As I sat on the train heading uptown I was outraged by the verdict but not surprised. When I arrived home I had to tell my African roommates from Tanzania the news and we had a long discussion about the case and one of my roommates stated “I guess we can only get justice from God.” My African roommates like myself are followers of Jesus who have had evangelical conversion experiences yet we know that our faith cannot save us from white supremacy. The Sinful fact is that though the Apostle Paul proclaimed in Galatians that: “we are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28) this oneness has not occurred in our daily realities.

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A Caution In Pursuing the Common Good

I hope all is well as we attempt to settle into spring, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote about the notion of the “Common Good”. Be Blessed!

In the Summer of 2008 I interned in Washington, D.C. at Sojourners a progressive Christian advocacy organization that focuses on economic justice, creation care and immigration issues. The founder of Sojourners Rev. Jim Wallis recently released a book on the notion of a “Common Good” and I was invited to read and respond to it earlier this week at the New York City launch. As I was thinking about the notion of a “Common Good” I started to examine if the “common good” would be good for non-white people or if we were taking the common standards, beliefs and customs of white America and making them good for all. In the post below I give a caution for pursuing the “Common Good” which was shared on Huffington Post and Sojourners: Common Good Forum. See the post below:

Social speech bubble,  Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com

Social speech bubble, Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com

Whenever I hear the term “common good” I think of Thomas Paine’s infamous pamphlet Common Sense, which challenged the British government and the royal monarchy, but did not challenge the institution of slavery. As an African-American woman I enter the common good conversation cautiously because I know that in our society we have a habit of taking what is good for Western hegemony and making it the standard for everyone else.

As we pursue the common good, let us remember what was once considered common and good during earlier points in American history: chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and institutionalized sexism. To truly come to a common good, we need to honor a diversity of voices and challenge our assumptions about what is common and what is good. Our default is to take what is good for our culture, gender, or community and make it the common standard for all. I have experienced being invited into organizations that were aiming to do good in the world, but an expectation existed that I would be silent about my unique concerns as an African woman. I know that denying my reality can never be good for my spiritual, physical, or social well being. Read the entire post here

Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) on Religion & Revolution

stokely-carmichael-civil-rights-activist-resigned-as-prime-minister-of-the-black-panther-partyKwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael famous SNCC organizer, Pan-African and firebrand speaks on the role of religion in liberation. A highlight of this speech is that according to the Bible Jesus never stepped foot in Europe so he could have been any color BUT white. Additionally, Ture outlines the many contributions Africa has made to world religions in general and Christianity in particular such as monotheism and the monastery.

Many do not know that Kwame Ture seriously considered becoming a preacher as a teenager. I actually think this calling was fulfilled just outside of the church walls in struggle for African people. May this mighty warrior rest in peace!

Advent: The First Baby Shower Unites Women on the Margins

Polish Black Madonna & Child

Polish Black Madonna & Jesus

On Christmas 2010 I received a great surprise, my reflection on Mary & Elizabeth (in the Gospel of Luke) was posted on NPR’s On Being Blog-this blog is for Krista Trippet’s wonderful Radio show on faith, spirituality and culture. On Being was formerly know as “Speaking of Faith”.  Read the blog below and don’t allow the myths of this season to distract you, take this time to center, reflect on 2012 and prepare for the New Year!

This Advent I am reminded of the meeting Mary had with Elizabeth to announce she was with child. Though this could have been a time of anxiety for Mary, with Elizabeth it became a time of celebration. I playfully call the following account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth the first baby shower:

“Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly, You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed, And why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me? The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears, The babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy. Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!

And Mary said, I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened — I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It’s exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home.”
Click to read the entire post

 

 

Grow Deep Roots in God

Grow deep roots in God and stand firm as your most authentic, loving & courageous self, this is the way to resist the winds that can knock you off divine balance.