by Sam Holmes

I will never forget the noise that my mother made when she first saw it. We were navigating the streets of New York on a busy Saturday in 2011, running late for a hair appointment. She was walking so briskly that I struggled to keep up. But then she stopped dead in her tracks and made a sound of absolute disgust. I looked around, trying to figure what would make my mother risk being late for an appointment. Then I saw the massive billboard with a black child and the words “The Most Dangerous Place for an African American is in the Womb.” As a girl, I didn’t understand the message: I could think of hundreds of places that I felt unsafe as a black child. To me, volcanoes, tigers, and heights seemed much more threatening than a womb. It’s been two years since that day, but I’ve only just realized how truly problematic it is.

I’ll start off with the most obvious issue with this billboard: shaming black women for controlling their own bodies in a culture that treats them like objects. This objectification is not exactly a new development in western culture: it dates back to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade where enslaved black women were viewed as objects by slave masters. In the eyes of these men, black people were nothing but items to be sold.  Countless slave women were raped and abused by men who would not give them freedom or acknowledge their biracial children. In the 19th century, Saartjie “Sara” Baartman was treated like a zoo animal as she was put on display throughout Europe because of her body. People marveled at the ‘exotic’ African woman and viewed her as an unusual object instead of a human being. Even after she died in 1815, Europeans continued to put her naked body on display.

During the 20th century fight for civil rights in the United States, African American women were still caught in the cross section of societal hatred and shocking sexualization. Recy Taylor, Betty Jean Owens, Frances Thompson, Lucy Smith, Gertrude Perkins, and scores of other African America women who raped by white men in the Jim Crow era could attest to the danger of a culture  that led to such crimes being rampant. All of these women lived in an environment where they were told that they were not worthy of employment, adequate health care, education, having families, political representation, the list goes on and on. The physical scars were terrible, but the emotional scars were horrific as well. Very few victims received justice, sending a clear message that black women’s bodies were worthless and anybody could violate them without consequences. At the same time, white women were put on a pedestal of purity. If  black men and boys even glanced at a white woman, they could be arrested, beaten, or even killed for ‘threatening’ her purity.

And this attitude has endured for centuries. The mentality that black women do not own their own bodies was present when black women were forcibly sterilized in North Carolina throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is there when people obsesses over the legitimacy of influential black women’s pregnancies. It is there when powerful men attempt to discredit Michelle Obama by drawing attention to her butt. And it was there in the billboard that stopped my mother in her tracks, the one that suggested that black women were a threat to their own children.

Clearly society likes to objectify African American women while simultaneously shaming them for their sexuality. Basically, black women’s bodies are only acceptable when other people are controlling them. Growing up surrounded by these messages causes a lot of confusion and anger—I can vouch for that. I live in a world that tells me how to act, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of “acceptable” behavior. Every day I see women who look like me face consequences no matter how they act. From a young age, I learned that I was in a perpetual lose-lose situation.

So here’s the simple solution: stop. Stop portraying black women as one-dimensional highly sexualized objects. Stop degrading young African American mothers when they do not receive proper reproductive health education. Stop ignoring hundreds of years of history. And don’t plaster an accusatory anti-abortion billboard five blocks away from a sign that shows a half-naked black woman.