#UnderHisEye and the erasure of Black women in the carceral system
Black women don’t need to watch shows like The Handmaid’s Tale to understand the brutality of systematic sexual and reproductive abuses.
This essay contains discussions of racialized sexual violence and mentions r/pe and molestation.
by Mekleit Dix
The Handmaid’s Tale is a wildly popular American Television show based on a novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. It portrays a dystopian nightmare: sterility in women becomes a widespread epidemic resulting in a break down of the modern western social system. A staunchly classist, and tyrannical Puritan-esque system emerges, forcing persons capable childbearing into sexually exploitative servitude. It is a white feminist battle cry.
Its influence can be seen as women don the Handmaid’s distinctive clothing at Women’s Rights protests, court hearings, or use #UnderHisEye on Twitter and Instagram—a reference to the patriarchal, misogynistic surveillance state’s perpetual presence and influence. The show phenomenologically centers the paranoia of white womanhood in a way that continues to be both violent and negligent to the continued plight of Black women. It is a white woman’s fear of the present, the beginning, of what may come—dismissive of the constant real and present danger that is historically bound to Black womanhood within the context of modern western social systems.
In June of 2007, four Black lesbians (two of whom were mothers) were sentenced to prison for defending themselves against a straight man who physically and sexually assaulted them. In the accostment, the man threatened to rape them into heterosexual conformity and almost beat one of the women to death.
The NYPD refused to honor or credit the testimonies of the women who experienced the battery. The media was quick to dub this incredible act of racism, homophobia, and misogyny a hate crime against a straight man. The prosecution referred to them as a gang, masculinizing and demonizing them. Patreese Johnson, who was nineteen at the time of the assault and arrest, was sentenced to eight years in prison for self defense. In a letter, Johnson writes, “Me being black and young, the jury, judge and DA’s minds was already made up.”
The humanity of these Black women was readily erased, and in their erasure the starkness of their brutality is quelled. Their assault took place in the West Village in New York, home of the Stonewall Riots (another epithet of Black queer erasure) and New York University. The spatial environment in which this act of violence occurred was hyper white and historically unkind to queer Black identities.
In addition, the West Village is home to hundreds of thousands of private schools and hubs of tourism. Gentrification and vigilance against othered identities is culturally woven into the West Village. As a result, the community, as well as the judge and jury, refused to validate the terror and sexually predatory nature of what transpired. Black women’s sexually, identity, and safety is manipulated by the lack of agency we are able to exhibit over ourselves in western social systems.
This sexual terror and lack of agency is far worse in the prison system. From 1997 to 2010, one hundred and forty eight women incarcerated at Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla were nonconsensually sterilized. The women were either coerced or completely unaware that they would be undergoing surgery. They were targeted for sterilization if they were already pregnant or considered likely to fall prey to recidivism.
America has had a long and insidious history of sterilizing and sexually abusing women of color, and it continues to be a nightmare faced daily by women in prison. Angela Davis, in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, describes the sexual molestation experienced by Black inmates at women’s correctional facilities. Routinely, male guards would finger Black women to search for “contraband,” and if they were to refuse, they would be sent to solitary confinement (Davis, 65).
In both of these instances the rape, the bodily manipulation, and the degradation of Black womanhood becomes uniform, routine, and clinical. This is because placing a carceral identity on a Black woman becomes the moral justification to strip her of the right and access to both morality and agency. Her rape is a casualty of her misdeeds, her sterility is a public safety precaution. By systemically attaching a sense of moral/social justness to the way she is panoptically policed and brutalized; anything a Black woman does to further protect herself, furthers her crime, and in turn furthers her punishment.
The dystopian fictive state that white women wish to protect themselves from, that fall of modern social structures, is a knife in the back to the lived horror of countless Black women. Yet, instead of making good on this opportunity to be protective and inclusionary of Black womanhood, white women rally around a masturbatory nightmare of being forced into systematic bodily subjugation by men.
In Alabama, a Black woman by the name of Marshae Jones became a victim of the six week abortion restrictions, when she was shot in her stomach amidst and altercation and miscarried. She was arrested and jailed for the endangerment of her unborn child. Thankfully, her charges were later dropped. #UnderHisEye, which was used as a tag for the conversation on social media, centered white women’s paranoid notions that the brutality experienced by Marshae Jones was: 1. Novel, and 2. Would extend to the experiences of financially and socially privileged white women. Again, by centering this fantasy of what could come after white woman’s sexual liberation ontologically erases the panoptic sociopolitical guard that limits and polices the breadth of Black women’s sexuality.
Black women don’t need to watch shows like The Handmaid’s Tale to understand the brutality of systematic sexual and reproductive abuses. We need only remember our sisters incarcerated, our daughters stolen, our lovers who were sterilized, our mothers who were slain, and many other horrific experiences historically attached to Black womanhood to validate our trauma.
Mekleit Dix is a writer and researcher from Los Angeles, California. As a poet she has written a chapbook, entitled, “Of(f) Color”, exploring the contemporary black aesthetic. She is also apart of the upcoming Black Table Arts poetry anthology, “A Garden of Black Joy”. Find them on Twitter and Instagram: @mekluuu