Say Their Names
From slavery to HIV to death by police, the normalization of Black death needs to stop
by George M. Johnson
Alton Sterling. Say his name.
Renisha McBride. Say her name.
India Clarke. Say her name.
(Insert name here). Say their name.
This has become the growing trend America over the past three years as racial tensions reach an all-time high between police and the communities they serve. As the hashtags and buried bodies continue to grow, black people are far too often reminded of our pained history in this country. While fighting the epidemic of “guilty of being black,” we are also still the most marginalized group in the HIV epidemic. To some there is no correlation, but the devaluation of the black body crosses multiple sections of social justice and one must see that they both go hand in hand with the erasure of the black community.
The injustice seen in America surrounding the murders of black lives has reached a boiling point like nothing we have ever seen. Since Independence Day 2016, we have seen multiple black men killed at the hands of police, multiple police officers killed at the hands of a black man and hundreds of protestors marching and being arrested. For black people, this pathology of hate in America is nothing new and our mere existence in this country is in direct correlation with the continued negative treatment of the black body.
We didn’t book a Carnival cruise trip here. Our bodies have had a dollar value since the first slave slip arrived in the Americas. For us, we were bought and sold with a different valuation on each of our heads. Sometimes being sold by “the dozens” as if we were a carton of eggs for mass consumption. We were insured as property, written into the laws of this land as 3/5th of a person, and never intended to be a part of the “we” or “people” in “We the People.” For years we have fought to be known as a whole person, yet every time we take two steps forward, it seems that we take five steps back and become marginalized in some other area. Through the 1800s we fought hard. Slave rebellions, activists, and abolitionists helped us fight for the right to be free. Unfortunately, freedom came at a cost.
We became whole people to only have other rights stripped down and taken away. The pathology of mistreatment from slavery carried directly over into healthcare and we have seen epidemics attack our community in stark contrast to other communities. Tuskegee would be the most known study that directly correlates with the treatment of blacks and health. This syphilis experiment turned tragic, disregarded black bodies as nothing more than lab rats and pawns for majority consumption. Our bodies used as test experiments created a fear that we still face in the community today.
Black folks fear the doctor. We have never had a great relationship with those who are taking oaths to “protect and serve” or “first do no harm” as we seem to always be left out of that list. The HIV epidemic has been no different. When AIDS became the biggest issue in the world, help went to the majority. The black community became decimated and literally had to fight for the right to live and have the services provided to others. From this, organizations like the Black AIDS Institute, Us Helping Us, and so many more became pillars of large demographics that helped galvanize the community to let the world know that black HIV-positive lives mattered and deserved equity and equality in treatment and healthcare. We as HIV-positive people were written off as death sentences, shunned from our own community and ignored by the majority community at large.
This pathology of the reduction in value of the black body has transpired into every aspect of the black lived experience. The correlation between safety on a social level vs. a health level are almost two dogs in the same fight. Healthcare, police brutality, systems of oppression, modern day slavery, are all social justice issues that diminish the civil rights of black people. We have been told that we are “more prone to violence,” “less educated,” and “more likely to be incarcerated” and, for that, our bodies are not deemed worthy of being saved, especially when we are adversely effected in the spectrum of health.
History has shown that black people are brilliant, resilient, innovators, who have been fighting for the right to be treated as the 5/5ths that was given to us so long ago. Whether it be slavery, healthcare, or police brutality, we are tired as a people, but we will never stop fighting for our right to be free. We refuse to let the world devalue our bodies.
George M. Johnson is an HIV advocate who works for Us Helping Us, People into Living. Inc., located in Washington, D.C. He has written for Pride.com, Musedmagonline.com, Blavity.com, Rolereboot.org, and Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @IamGMJohnson.