Last month, during a rally in Union Square, poet Aja Monet took the podium dressed entirely in black, looking somber and resolute like a woman in mourning. A banner fluttered in the wind behind her head as she gripped the microphone, a flag adorned by photographs of the black women and girls who have lost their lives to police violence over the years. “I am a woman carrying other women in my mouth,” she began, her voice forceful and clear. “Behold a sister, a daughter, a mother, dear friend.”
But as Monet reached the crescendo of her poem in which she calls out the names of the dead — Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Jones, Kayla Moore, Shelly Frey and countless others — that voice started to tremble and shake.
“Aiyana Jones. I tripped up on that name because I just thought of this little innocent [girl]. Her life was taken,” Monet, 27, tells the Voice, once again sounding as if she is fighting back tears. She is remembering the 7-year-old child from Detroit who was shot in her sleep during a police raid on her grandmother’s home in 2010. Earlier his year, the charges against the officer who killed Jones were dismissed. “It’s deeper than, ‘It’s not fair.’ We’re not talking about us complaining about what’s fair. We’re talking about this downright cruel injustice that no one wants to address.”
Monet’s performance was part of a vigil organized around the campaign #SayHerName, a movement put together by New York’s African American Policy Forum in the hopes of raising awareness about the female victims of police brutality. While the #BlackLivesMatter campaign has successfully turned slain African-American men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner into symbols of a larger cause, supporters of #SayHerName argue that black women are too often left out of the conversation. The goal is not to minimize the severity of the injustices endured by black men in this country, but rather to expand the discussion and form a more complete and accurate narrative of systemic oppression.
“This isn’t just a black man and black woman issue. This is an issue of humanity needing to wake the hell up,” Monet says. “Black women, Hispanic women, Asian-American women, we are all dying. We are all dying and it is important that we start to talk about why.”
In the 1960s, poetry was an important weapon in the fight for civil rights. Fathered by the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka — and marred, to a certain extent, by instances of misogyny and homophobia — the Black Arts Movement also saw female writers like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez and Audre Lorde produce politically-charged works aimed at elevating public consciousness around race and gender. The youngest writer to ever win the Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam at the age of 19, Monet sees herself inline with this tradition, striving to paint a picture of what it means to be a woman of color in America in 2015.
“I believe poetry is how we begin to decolonize our imaginations,” she explains. “If we can use poetry in that way, then poetry is a genuine form of protest, because it’s encouraging other people to feel the horror of our society.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Monet witnessed first-hand the mounting tensions between the police and the black community in New York City. She remembers the pain she felt watching the heads of young black boys being lowered into the backs of police cars, the anger that rose up when officers would “taunt” her uncle and brother during their patrols through her neighborhood.
“We were more afraid of the police than any other people in our community,” Monet says. “I have a part in my poem where I say I used to think all police officers were born in a jailhouse somewhere in Midtown and that the mayor fetched them on us come morning. That’s a real thing I wrote about my childhood.”
Indeed, some of the most shocking examples of police brutality against black women — as detailed in the AAPF’s recent #SayHerName report — have taken place in the New York City area. There are the stories of Rosann Miller, a pregnant woman who was put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer in 2014; Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66-year-old grandmother who in 1984 was shot in the Bronx after the police were called over an eviction notice; and Danette Daniels, a pregnant black woman from Newark, New Jersey who was shot in a squad car following an alleged “scuffle” in 1997. Those stories span decades and state lines, but few have garnered the kind of media attention needed to spark a lasting movement.
“We all say, ‘I can’t breathe’ and know that we are embodying Eric Garner. We all hold our hands up and know that we’re embodying Mike Brown. We wear hoodies and we’re literally saying, ‘We are Trayvon Martin,’” explains Rachel Gilmer, the associate director of AAPF. “I think what it boils down to is what does it mean to embody black women and girls’ stories in this same way? Can we do that? Can we all say, ‘I am Kendra James’? What would that look like?”
But whether it’s through slogans or speeches, hashtags or poems, perhaps the first step toward change is to simply break the silence, to begin to utter these women’s names and make sure they are not forgotten.
“Speak about them and use the power of the tongue, because if we don’t, we know folks get written out of history,” Monet warns, her voice no longer trembling, but deep and resounding once again. “We carry the secret of our pain. For so many women, we do that, we suffer in silence. But the moment we speak out, it frees us.”