Zora Neale Hurston’s most celebrated novel Their Eyes Were Watching God begins with Janie, the story’s protagonist, being overwhelmed by nature—the bees that buzzed around her and her own body’s buzzing. Janie found her pleasure, and a kiss from a boy, and doing so made her grandmother Nanny (the woman that had raised Janie) frantic. Although she was just a child, Nanny meant to marry Janie off, because she understood that once “womanhood” began to seep from Janie’s skin, she was in danger.
Nanny recognized that Black women’s bodies were not safe alone in the world, and she believed that if Janie’s body belonged to a man, it might mean some kind of protection for her. Hurston’s message about the savagery that Black women’s bodies experience at the hands of men in the beginning of her novel is clear—Nanny’s, Janie’s mother’s, and then Janie’s.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937. We are still trying to figure out, like Nanny, like Zora, how to keep Black women’s bodies safe. We are still talking about Black women having freedom, and autonomy, and a damn say in who has power over them, in 2016.
Janese Talton-Jackson, a beautiful 29-year-old woman, a mother of three, a f*cking human being trying to exist in a world that constantly told her (and tells those of us like her) that there is no safe space for our free bodies, was stalked and shot and murdered in the street by a savage man who could not accept that she was not interested in him.
Men can be savages.
This is the lesson that Nanny tried to teach Janie, and that my mother tried to teach me when my breasts began to bud, and even before I got my menses. I remember, distinctly, being 12 years old and curious about my developing body, and how my mother shamed that curiosity and demanded I cover up. Like Nanny, my mother became anxious about how my hips were spreading and how my round butt was beginning to resemble hers. She smelled my womanhood on me. And she didn’t know how to keep me safe.
I recall feeling as if I disgusted my mother as I, and my body, grew. I now realize it wasn’t me that she was disgusted with, but what she knew about men—the ones she grew up around and the ones whose inappropriate gaze she would begrudgingly witness as we’d go grocery shopping or to the mall.
I have been subject to harassment by men, and in danger, since I was that 12-year-old child.
I stopped having “not all men” conversations with male friends some time ago. A younger me, one who had seen and heard less about the sexual and physical violence Black women face—from the Daniel Hotlzclaws to the R. Kellys to the Charles McKinneys of the world—would reason with brothers to understand why Black women avoid small talk with them, don’t smile politely on command, and won’t “give them a chance” when approached in public spaces. They couldn’t and still can’t stomach the truth: that Black women live in a constant state of terror as we try to maneuver through our everyday lives, not knowing if our lack of “niceness” (which really means submission) will cost us our lives.
We don’t know which men to trust. All foreign, unknown men are savages, and if that angers the men reading this message, then good. This message should anger men. Men should be outraged that they can’t be kind to a woman at the gas station, or at a bar, without her wondering if they are potential rapists or murderers.
If you think my premise is extreme, take the time to talk to the women in your lives, the women you love, about the moments of horror they’ve experienced at the hands of strange men, of predators who are never acknowledged as such.
Ask women how many times they’ve been grabbed aggressively by men who only want to compliment them, or get their phone numbers. Ask them how many times they’ve faked smiles, or have lied about having boyfriends, because they were afraid to say “no.” Ask women how many times they’ve been catcalled, or followed, or cursed out (or assaulted) because they “curved” some random dude.
Ask them, men.
After you hear women’s answers, decide what you are going to do to make Black women, those women you say you love and want to protect, feel safe. Figure out how to address the kind of brutal, murderous, toxic masculinity that makes men feel entitled to women’s bodies. Check in with women in public spaces whom you believe might be being harassed. Check your boys when they call women “hateful bitches” because those women don’t want to be kind when saying they’re not interested.
Understand that Black women don’t owe you smiles, or amiability, or any. damn. thing. because your maleness makes you believe they do.
Mostly, #sayhername, Janese Talton-Jackson, in your conversations about freedom and Black lives mattering. Because we are dying, and sometimes Black men are killing us.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.