Student view: Letter to an unwavering soul

In a letter to Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, Carter School master’s student Ashlee Cox addresses how Black women have been systematically dehumanized in the United States even as they have given so much to their communities and country.

This letter was written as part of Cox’s work in the Carter School’s Race and Conflict (CONF 721) course taught by Charles L. Chavis, Jr. (Assistant Professor) and Ajanet Rountree (Graduate Teaching Assistant) during the Summer 2020 term. The views expressed in the letter are the student’s own.

The legs and torsos of people gathered for a protest are pictured. At knee height, person holds a protest sign that says

Throughout the summer of 2020, millions of people gathered across the U.S. to protest police brutality against Black people in the United States. One such victim of police brutality was Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, who was shot multiple times and killed in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13, 2020, by former police officer Brett Hankison and current officers Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove when they raided her apartment with a “no knock” warrant.


Dear Tamika Palmer,

I write this letter to bring forth solace and light during a painfully ambiguous time. I have watched you on the world stage with grace and tenacity as you demand justice for your daughter, Breonna Taylor.  

I marvel at your ability to keep your heart and spirit lifted during a difficult time of grief, anger, and confusion. Your valor and determination to achieve justice are unmatched, and I honor you and your unwavering strength. You are a true testament of a mother's love and the most authentic depiction of a Black woman fighting for justice and equality. It is innate, it is in your blood, and it is an ancestral gift to persevere during the darkest times.

Your strength is anchored in the Black women who came before us, who fought diligently and selflessly for their family and freedom. I know these words will not serve as a spellbinding or spiritualistic cure to your agony, but I write this letter to say I am with you. Not only am I with you, but I hope this letter sustains your faith that one day, Black women will be seen, valued, and respected in this country.

It’s been over 200 days without justice for your daughter.

On September 23, 2020, a Kentucky grand jury determined two of the three police officers involved in the death of an innocent and precious soul would not face any criminal charges.

The remaining police officer will only face criminal charges for wanton endangerment of the tenants residing in the neighboring apartments. No charges were brought forth for the murder of Breonna.

I have been ruminating in outrage and frustration. There are so many questions and not enough answers. Your daughter's senseless death is a painful reminder of the lack of legal and social protections granted toward Black women. Our trauma, experiences, and stories are deemed afterthoughts or merely invisible. We are invalidated when we speak up about our pain and suffering and then cast off as the “angry Black woman.”

Frankly speaking, I am angry, and I know you are too. Black women are no strangers to police brutality, yet these atrocities rarely make it to mainstream media. After the slaying of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, we have seen police brutality mainly paired with Black men. The shootings of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner all rightfully sparked national outrage and generated massive protests against the constant killings of unarmed Black men. More recently, we have seen this with the execution of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, two unarmed Black men ruthlessly killed by White men who did not see value in their humanity.

The relationship between Black men and the police dates back to the abolishment of slavery, where White men created discrete mechanisms to continue the system of slavery. Black men were targeted for petty crimes that would place them in jail and into forced labor on plantations, in factory mills and coal mines.

This dynamic of state violence towards Black men has remained center stage; however, it has not only been directed at Black men. Black women have also suffered greatly at the hands of police and systemic violence, but the cries of justice for Black women are too often overlooked.

Michelle S. Jacobs highlighted this crucial and undeniable reality in her 2017 article, “The Violent State: Black Women's Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence,” in which she writes:

“Black women’s interaction with the state, through law enforcement, is marked by violence. The police murder Black women. They are assaulted and injured by the police. They are arrested unlawfully by the police; and finally, they are tried, convicted, and incarcerated for defending themselves against nonpolice violence. State violence against Black women is long-standing, pervasive, persistent, and multilayered, yet few legal actors seem to care about it.” (p. 41)

A case similar to Breonna's death is the killing of Atatiana Jefferson, who was fatally shot by a police officer in 2019 while babysitting her eight-year old nephew. Atatiana was unarmed and in the comfort of her mother’s home when a police officer shot her through her bedroom window under the suspicion of burglary.

Like Breonna, Atatiana had dreams of going to medical school and entering into a field of service to others. Yet her dreams were cut short due to the inexplicable notion that Black women automatically are perceived as threatening. Fortunately, the police officer who killed Atatiana was indicted for murder, but there is still justice due for an appropriate criminal sentence.

I cannot help but wonder what makes Breonna’s case any different. She was harmlessly sleeping in the comfort of her home when her life was taken. Why does justice seem unachievable in a country where all people are created equal?

This question continually lingers at the forefront of my mind as I struggle with America's contradictions. Black women—with all our glory and enriching contributions to family, culture, and history—should be regarded as human and treated with dignity.

“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” This resounding quote from Malcolm X still rings true today.

The prolonged inaction and contention surrounding Breonna’s death stretch back to the formation of this country. For hundreds of years, Black women have sat at the nexus of racism and sexism, starting with chattel enslavement, which inflicted grossly inhumane treatment upon Black women.

In her 2016 article “From Slavery to Jane Crow to Say Her Name,” Nishaun Battle explores how Black enslaved women were punished in a way that invalidated their womanhood. She elucidates how this treatment manifests in modern-day society as well:

“White male privilege allowed White men and women alike to ignore the abuse of Black women as they focused on economic growth, for which they depended on the womanhood of Black women, most notably their forced physical and sexual labor” (p.113).

Black women were constantly beaten and raped by their slaveholders as a means to produce more slaves. It is astonishing to learn that this country's very existence would not have come to fruition without Black women. Yet, we remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Furthermore, Battle highlights the disproportionate rate at which Black women’s lives are taken in punishment for alleged crimes as compared to White women, focusing specifically on the period between 1840 and 1850. According to Battle’s research, “thirty-eight (38) Black women were executed, compared to six (6) White women and one Hispanic woman. While several of their stories are not described in detail in the literature, the nature of their crimes, such as poisoning and arson, could lead one to deduce that they were likely a result of resistance against slavery” (p. 117).

I believe these disparities have been so cemented into the fabric of American society that they have shaped the perception of the Black woman. There are many stereotypical images of Black people that developed during the period of slavery that were then accepted into the language of legislation and went on to govern judicial action (see Jacobs, p. 46).

As Jacobs unpacks in her writing, throughout U.S. history, Black women were perceived as women with low moral character who engaged in lying, promiscuity, and aggressiveness. In addition, “Whites believed that Black women did not have the same delicate constitutions that White women had and that they were more suited to work as beast of burden” (Jacobs, p. 50).

When stereotypes have been handed down from generation to generation, they give way to dehumanization and erode the core of womanhood. I recall watching the video of the 2015 traffic stop between a Texas police officer and Sandra Bland. She recorded the incident that would later lead to her death. I think the most striking part of the video is how the officer was violently engaged with Sandra. The officer pulled a taser out and demanded that she step out of her vehicle without explaining why. He was unnecessarily aggressive even as Sandra remained calm and collected.

She was arrested, and three days later, she was found hanging in a holding cell. Her death was ruled a suicide. We will never honestly know what happened to her, but it is evident in the video that her humanity was met with no regard. I would be curious to know if the same treatment would have been bestowed upon a White woman in this case. The likelihood is very low, since White women are not presented in this society as a threat to Whiteness.

Another example of state violence against Black women can be seen in the treatment of Chikesia Clemons, who was arrested over a disagreement about plastic cutlery at a Waffle House. It is infuriating even to have to type something as ridiculous as that, but this is our nation’s reality. Chikesia was pushed to the floor as two White male police officers hovered atop of her. One officer even stated, “I’m about to break your arm.” Historically, White male conservatives have invested in the status quo of keeping women and people of color in their place like children. Anyone who challenges this existing structure is subject to retribution.

I do not share this information to dishearten your spirit but to shed light on the egregious structures in place that enable the systematic dehumanization of Black women in this country, because understanding our history allows us to shape a more informed and inclusive society.

It is time that we, as a country, trace the roots of dehumanization towards Black women and correct the sins of our past. Black women have served as the backbone of the family, birthed and led social movements, united communities, and protected our men and children from racial violence and discrimination. With all that Black women have given, the degradation of our humanity leaves our community fragmented and deprived of opportunities for growth.

What is a cell without a nucleus? What is the Black community without Black women? Nothing.

I will close this letter the same way I started it, with light. Despite the darkness of our past, I genuinely believe your daughter’s life will not be in vain. Breonna Taylor represents hundreds of Black women who did not get justice, whose stories have fallen to the wayside and have been forgotten. What we are witnessing right now is a movement of the masses where people of all races, ethnicities, and religions are speaking out against the atrocities against Black people. This leaves me hopeful, and I pray it does the same for you. The world is watching, and we will see to it that justice is served.

With love and light,

Ashlee Cox

Cited Readings

Battle, N. T. (2016). From Slavery to Jane Crow to Say Her Name: An Intersectional Examination of Black Women and Punishment. Meridians, 15(1), 109–136.

Jacobs, M. S. (2017). The Violent State: Black Women's Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence. William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, 24(1), 40–100.