Say Her Name, Not Take Her Name

Society needs to value marginalized Black women while alive and not valorize them when they’re gone

A moment of silence at a Say Her Name rally in Chicago (via Pat Nabong for the Chicago Sun-Times)

I learned about the death of Eleanor Bumpurs as a teenager, and this was when I found out that Black women are killed by the police. She resided in the Sedgwick Houses, which is walking distance from where I grew up. The shooting happened before I was born, but hearing about a mentally ill woman being blasted by a 12-gauge shotgun sent chills up my spine.

In the early 2000s, as I sat restriction in a dining room at Pleasantville Cottage School, I saw a lanky, pretty, dark-skinned girl standing by the front door with bags. She had a pensive look on her face and I knew she needed a friend. I asked if I could help the “new girl” with her bags. We lugged her belongings up a long staircase. In between catching my breath, I told her my name. She smiled sweetly and said, “I’m Vernecia, but everybody calls me Neci.”

I howled with laughter when she referred to her bed’s PVC spring mattress as “ghetto”. I gave her the rundown on where to hide contraband, girls in the cottage to avoid, and what staff to watch out for. I invited her to sit at my table during dinner. When I crossed paths with one of the toughest girls on campus who had a soft spot for me, I asked her if she could look out for my new friend too. Neci and I spent almost two years living together.

Credit: Bill Biggart (Protesters outside of the Bronx Supreme Court where Officer Stephen Sullivan stood trial for shooting Eleanor Bumpurs)

I left first and we lost contact for two years until we had a chance run-in while standing under the same scaffolding, trying to get out of the rain. We couldn’t the believe odds of seeing each other at that very moment. She told me she was living with another girl from our cottage nearby. I decided to go with her, and it was a very endearing reunion.

Over the years, I kept in contact with Neci and embarked on my activist journey, which I amplified on social media. In the summer of 2014, she told me she was visiting New York and she wanted to see me. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen and she told me she would be coming back in a few months.

It was in late August 2014, when people on Facebook posted “Rest in Peace” on her profile. I thought it wasn’t real. I texted our mutual friend, where Neci’s death was confirmed. I don’t remember screaming. My sister found me on the floor crying. A couple of days later I found out she was murdered viciously by an Atlanta police officer. The media reported he was an ex-police officer, but he was on active duty when he murdered my friend.

Vernecia Woodard, date unknown (via Facebook)

After the murder of Breonna Taylor, there was an explosion to the #SayHerName movement and the systematic death of Black women became more visible. Not too long ago, ABC’s 20/20 released a documentary about her case and allowed viewers to get to know her as a person. Many viewed this as a victory to long muted discourse on Black women murdered by law enforcement, but I became cynical fast. If Breonna Taylor was still alive, would her existence have value as it does now in death? When I saw women of respectability share Snapchat videos of her vibrantly singing along to music, I rolled my eyes.

I gained access to respectable spaces, and see how marginalized Black women are perceived. As a Columbia student, I heard some Black women complain that they’re constrained by stereotypical notions of Black people. This narrative isn’t my lived experience, but it bothered me. I felt it to imply, that Black women who do act out those said stereotypes day-to-day aren’t good people.

The same people I witness verbally stating that they don’t want to be compared to marginalized Black women — who they believe to act out perceived stereotypes — are the same to vocalize support or speak on oppression marginalized Black women experience daily. They’re deemed too infantile to advocate for themselves, so people who society deems more respectable become an unauthorized mouthpiece.

I thought about how would respectable women view Breonna Taylor if she were in the same vicinity as them. If she wasn’t a publicized death, would they share her Snapchat videos? Would they make small talk with her while out and about in public?

Black women like Breonna Taylor, I knew all my life. They are my friends. I waited in line at the grocery store with them. We stood at the bus stop complaining about the bus’s lateness. We sat in the doctor’s office waiting room making small talk. I watched them grow up to be hard-working people — despite what society threw their way. Anytime, I hear about a Black woman being systematically abused or killed, I think about the Black women I see every day.

I spent a lot of time scrolling through Breonna’s Twitter account. I smiled through the stinging sensation of tears forming in my eyes. It felt real. She could’ve been someone I knew. I look at how much engagement her tweets have now, and feel bitter cynicism. I don’t want to, but I can’t help it.

The death of Breonna Taylor showed how a young woman’s life became public domain. Amplification of her death was needed, but many people were put off by how her death was commodified — even made into memes and punchlines. From Tik-Tok challenges, memes, and even an event called “Breonna-Con”, her tragic death was desensitized. The police officers involved in the incident never had to answer for their actions. Some people excused this exploitation by claiming it was necessary to raise awareness.

A virtual flyer of a Breonna-Con event (via Karen Attitah on Twitter)

It pains me to say that such exploitation wasn’t a foreign concept to me. I had to deal with my own friend’s death being commodified. There’s a known activist collective called NYC Shut It Down, and they’re known to organize direct actions at Grand Central Station focusing on a particular police brutality case. For whatever reason, they chose Neci’s case — without asking her family’s permission.

Naturally, I was distraught and was caused further emotional distress when they used her mugshot on flyers, referred to her as “Veronica”, and a sex worker. What led up to her encounter with the police officer who eventually murdered her, is irrelevant. She was an innocent person who didn’t deserve to be murdered. The flyer was updated but Neci’s name was misspelled.

I confronted them on Twitter, and they said along the lines that I needed to “grateful” that they were talking about her case. I was so disgusted and hurt, I couldn’t sleep for days. I deleted my Tweets and tried to move on.

Erroneous flyer distributed on social media by NYC Shut It Down

I had much to say throughout, and if you are still here reading, I appreciate it. I want society to see women like Vernecia Woodard and Breonna Taylor as a top priority when it concerns protection and opportunity. Just as I have memories of my departed friend that I cherish, Breonna has people who feel the same way about memories they made with her.

If marginalized Black women meet a gruesome death such as Breonna Taylor and Vernecia Woodard, I want the focus to be on the person(s) involved in taking their lives. My friend was blamed for her death by social media trolls, and the activists who supposedly wanted to “raise awareness”, felt marking her with a “sex worker” status was necessary. The same is seen with Breonna Taylor. There was a need to villainize her after she died, to make the police officers appear justified in killing her.

Marginalized Black women should be important while alive, as they are in their publicized deaths. I want Breonna and Vernecia to have their names back. I want them to have ownership of their lives. Their death is only a fraction of their existence. I want the invisible respectability pyramid to crumble.

I’m just fed up.

Merry Christmas Breonna, Merry Christmas Neci.

A boogie-down Bronx girl who knows the importance of reciprocity. An aspiring writer, humanitarian, and reluctant academic, striving for self-improvement.

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