Of Monsters and Saviors, or Black Women in The United States

Breonna Taylor was murdered over 150 days ago by Louisville police officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove, but Kentucky’s attorney general has yet to file charges. The state’s refusal to prosecute represents a long history of Black women’s dehumanization in the United States, but Taylor’s murder and the lack of justice for her death presents a quandary during a time when politicians, television producers, and everyone in between call for Black women to save the United States from the clutches of evil.

Although seemingly separate occurrences, it is important to hold both these truths together because the simultaneity of both events creates the narrative that Black women are both society’s monsters and society’s saviors. We are the monster — nasty, mean, and disrespectful in the eyes of the regular townsfolk, but we are also the people who are constantly being asked (or told) to save America from itself. This metaphorical site of tension between monstrosity and superheroine is a position that many Black women know well.

In fantastic literature, the monster is the embodiment of difference, a dangerous form who creates fear and anxiety for the hero and brings chaos to society. The monster’s otherness is appealing, making it hyper-visible, but its otherness also imposes a distortion in the balance, so it must also be policed and simultaneously rendered invisible. It is not allowed to defend itself. It does not have permission to journey beyond a delimited area determined by the hero’s society. It cannot enjoy its culture because it’s too different from the hero’s way of life.

The monster trope, although centered in fantasy literature, is essential because the treatment of Black women in fiction mirrors our treatment in the real world. In a 2018 study, researchers found that Black women are disproportionately objectified in relation to their white counterparts and “implicitly associated with both animals and objects to a greater extent.” That is, Black women are more likely to be branded as things, more akin to item and beast than human. We are the embodiment of otherness, bringing disorder, terror, and dread in our wake. We are the hyper-visible in a system that craves our invisibility. Just like the monsters in the fairy tales, we must be put down.

When Black women are considered monstrous or bestial, it is easier to accept our extermination and the subsequent dismissal of the monster slayers. It makes the murders of Breonna Taylor, Shelly Frey, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Mya Hall, and Aiyanna Stanley Jones among numerous others easier to digest because the heroes of this story — the police officers — have successfully eliminated the threat. It explains why police brutality against Black women and girls continues to exist as an addendum to the larger fight for social justice. It explains why Black women’s pain is memeified rather than acted upon. Still, while many people in the United States position Black women as society’s villains, they also call upon their metaphorical monsters to save them.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, phrases like, “Black women will save us” and “listen to Black women” emerged as mantras of solidarity that highlighted Black women’s fight for social justice. After losing the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia, numerous outlets asked if Stacey Abrams could save American democracy. In Alabama’s 2018 senate race, Black women voted in droves to keep Roy Moore out of office, and media outlets praised Black women for saving Alabama from itself. On July 19, 2020, television producer, Julie Plec, states in a deleted tweet “I believe black women are going to save us all and I am sorry to put that pressure on you…I hope you understand that me seeing you as a hero is not meant to add to your anxiety.” Of course, Black women’s fights for justice prove that we want to be heard, that we want to eliminate injustice to create better futures for ourselves and our communities. But, being heard only when summoned and being asked to consistently put our bodies and minds on the line to save a country that’s proven time and again that it despises us is another form of dehumanization. It positions Black women as martyrs for the betterment of society. It is dehumanization disguised as praise.

While Black women are disproportionately murdered, we are also asked to stop society’s murder of democracy. While Black women fight for our lives and the lives of our people, we are simultaneously asked to fight for the life of all humanity. While Black women wish to speak out against injustice, we are called nasty, mean, and disrespectful for refusing silence and taking up space.

We are the monsters who are more beast than human. We are the saviors who are expected to fix the institutional violence we didn’t create. We create fear and anxiety in all who wish we would just be silent and remain invisible. We create hope in all who expect us to be beasts of burden for the betterment of humanity. This is the site of tension in which many Black women sit every day of our lives.

But when monster and savior are the only options, when do Black women just get to be human? When do we get the chance to say, “no, fix it yourself?”

I write about Black women and girls, speculative fiction texts (books, film, tv), and social justice. Follow me on Twitter @SR_Toliver.

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