On 23 June 1855, after enduring five years of sexual violence, Celia, a 19-year-old Missouri enslaved woman, killed her master, Robert Newsom. Newsom was a 60-year-old widower who had purchased Celia when she was 14. On the day of her purchase, he raped her on the way to his farm. Sexual control of enslaved women by white owners was critical to the perpetuation of slavery, and these owners relied on routine sexual abuse as much as they did other forms of brutality.
By the time she killed Newsom, Celia already had two of his children and was pregnant with a third. She had started a relationship with one of Newsom’s male slaves, George, who insisted that she end her sexual “relationship” with Newsom if they were going to continue theirs.
Celia approached Newsom’s daughters and implored them to ask their father to end the sexual assaults. But no one could protect her, so she confronted Newsom herself when he came to force yet another unwanted sexual encounter. She clubbed him to death, then burned his body in her fireplace.
Her court-appointed lawyers suggested that a Missouri law permitting a woman to use deadly force to defend herself against sexual advances be extended to enslaved as well as free women. Despite their vigorous defense, the court disagreed: it found that Celia was property, not a person. But, while Celia was not considered a person under the law and could therefore not be raped, she did have enough agency to be judged a murderess and punished for her act of resistance. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. After an appeal of the case failed, Celia was hanged on 21 December 1855.
Black women have always been vulnerable to violence in this country and have long been judged as having “no selves to defend” – a term I devised and named an anthology on the subject after. When Ida B Wells began her anti-lynching and anti-rape campaigns a few decades after Celia was hanged, in the late 19th century, she was determined to expose the myths that black men were rapists and that black women could not be raped. Wells insisted that black women were entitled to state protection – and the recourse of self-defense – as a right of citizenship. In 2018, this right still proves elusive.
What has changed since Celia’s time?
Alexander’s tortuous journey through the criminal punishment system began in 2010, when she was confronted by her estranged husband in her home after having just given birth to her third child, a little girl, nine days earlier. Alexander used a gun that she was licensed to own and fired a single warning shot into the air to ward off her abusive husband, who admitted in a subsequent deposition to having abused every woman he had ever been partnered with (except for one).
For this, a jury found her guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon following a 12-minute deliberation. It was that deadly weapon charge that prosecutors used to recommend that Marissa be sentenced under Florida’s 10-20 law to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. The judge, who had previously ruled that Marissa was ineligible to invoke the “stand your ground” defense because she didn’t appear afraid, said that his hands were tied by the law and ratified the 20-year sentence.
While self-defense laws are interpreted generously when applied to white men who feel threatened by men of color, they are applied very narrowly to women and gender non-conforming people, and particularly women and gender non-conforming people of color trying to protect themselves in domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Black women have been excluded from definitions of “respectable” and/or “proper” womanhood, sexuality and beauty, influencing how their right to bodily autonomy – and agency – is viewed.
In 2017, there were 219,000 women in US prisons and jails, most of them poor and of color. In 2014, according to the Sentencing Project, black non-Hispanic females had an imprisonment rate over twice that of white non-Hispanic females.
Sociologist Beth Richie has suggested that a key to responding to women in conflict with the law is understanding their status as crime victims. Multiple studies indicate that between 71% and 95% of incarcerated women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner. In addition, many have experienced multiple forms of physical and sexual abuse in childhood and as adults. This reality has been termed the “abuse-to-prison” pipeline.
These numbers are high because survivors are systematically punished for taking action to protect themselves and their children while living in unstable and dangerous conditions. Survivors are criminalized for self-defense, failing to control abusers’ violence, migration, removing their children from situations of abuse, being coerced into criminalized activity and securing resources needed to live day to day while suffering economic abuse.
On 6 December, the Tennessee supreme court issued its decision stating that Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16 for killing a man who had picked her up for sex in self-defense, must serve at least 51 years before becoming eligible for parole. People across the US were once again outraged as her case returned to public attention, and some have been moved to demand that the governor, Bill Haslam, commute her sentence before he leaves office on 19 January 2019. The governor is said to be considering clemency in her case, which is, unfortunately, not an exceptional one. There are thousands of Cyntoia Browns unjustly locked in cages in every state. We have to address the systemic and cultural issues that contribute to the criminalization of survival as we work to #FreeCyntoia and all of the others currently behind bars. One hundred and sixty-five years ago Celia was killed for defending her bodily autonomy. Cyntoia Brown shouldn’t die in prison for doing the same.
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