Earlier this week, I was dismayed to learn that a young Black woman in Louisiana had allegedly been set on fire by a group of White men, who then vandalized her car with the letters “KKK.” Details were both horrifying and scarce. While we covered it in brief here, I was awaiting more information about the crime in order to either write or assign an appropriate response.
Though there was little additional news reported about the alleged attack on Sharmeka Moffitt, I began to notice a common thread in the discussions taking place about it across social media: while many were saddened, infuriated even, others were skeptical that the 20-year-old had been attacked at all. And these were Black people, many of them women, who hesitated to accept the possibility that these events had taken place as Moffitt described. While most of us are quite familiar with the cases of Tawana Brawley and Crystal Gail Mangum (the accuser in the Duke Lacrosse fiasco), I would not say that two notable incidents where a Black woman’s accusations of assault at the hands of White men in a 19-year period should be used as the standard-bearers for our response when a sister says that she’s been brutalized. Susan Smith hasn’t become the nation’s go-to image when a White woman claims a crime took place at the hands of a Black male, after all.
The scrutiny of Moffitt’s claims by my fellow laypersons, so unlike the responses observed when a White woman has made headlines for allegedly being the victim of some heinous crime, brought to mind my issues with the coverage and response to the Trayvon Martin killing. A judge has allowed George Zimmerman’s defense team to access the late teen’s social media and school records, as if poor grades or cyber-thugging would somehow be a possible factor in a killing that took place at the hands of a man who never knew Trayvon as a student or a Facebook friend. Even in death, this Black victim has to be proven innocent enough to be just that: a victim.
All this swam through my mind as I continued to mull the best way for EBONY.com to take on the Moffitt case without presuming to know any more than we did: a Black woman comes forward and says she’s been brutalized by White men. She’s got burns across more than 60 percent of her body. The news media has been relatively quiet. Details are scarce. What to do with this? When I read this powerful piece via the Crunk Feminist Collective, I reached out to their editor and received permission to run the essay here, which seemed like a great way to bring attention to the case while we awaited more information.
Before the story was set to go live this morning, I learned along with the rest of the world that Sharmeka Moffitt had not been the victim of a hate crime and that, according to police, the severe burns on her body and the damage to her car were her own doing. I’ll spare you any details on my own emotional, spiritual, intellectual response to this info, again finding the reactions of others to be more “newsworthy.” Again, there was horror and dismay, but there was also a strong current of “I told you so” from those who’d thought of Brawley and/or Mangum from the moment the story came to their attention.
Even with Moffit’s claims being disproved, I still maintain that the appropriate response when we hear of such allegations is not one of disbelief or distrust. Black men and women have to fight to be seen as worthy of being victimized in the eyes of the media, the police and the courts. At home, unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, shouldn’t our first reaction be one of compassion? I maintain my agreement with the CFC’s question: why are we so slow to outrage when Black women are the alleged victims? The non-response to the death of Rekia Boyd, which took place not long after Trayvon Martin’s killing, is a sad example.
Can we allow ourselves to at least engage the possibility of these claims? What is it about our own people that makes us as skeptical as folk outside the community when we hear stories like this? Do the three (three!) high-profile cases of Brawley, Mangum and now Moffitt somehow represent what is most common when a Black woman says she has been attacked? Do we not have enough actual evidence of brutality against Black women in this country, from our arrival here on to the present day, to allow them the space to even be possible victims? Most allegations of rape and assault are not false. So why do the few instances that aren’t true become the metric by which we react to new claims?
As for Sharmeka Moffitt, don’t be angry with her. Don’t point to her and say, “That’s why real victims don’t get any justice!” Something is severely wrong with her. While mental illness may lead one to commit a crime, it is not a crime to be mentally ill. Burning your own body to a crisp is a far cry from falsifying a rape or harming someone else and placing the blame on an innocent party. Instead of outrage for her, channel your thoughts toward her physical and mental healing.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com’s News and Lifestyle Editor; follow her on Twitter: @jamilahlemieux