Jamea Jonae Harris should still be here.
She should be caring for her beloved 5-year-old son, Kaine, spending time with her cousins, and thinking about her future. But instead, the 23-year-old’s family is planning for her funeral. Why? Allegedly, because she wouldn’t give a man her attention.
Harris was visiting a cousin at the University of Alabama last week along with her boyfriend when a bullet cut down her life. According to her mother in a Facebook post, one of the men accused in the shooting “took my baby’s life because she wouldn’t talk to him.” Darius Miles, 21, and Michael Lynn Davis, 20, have been charged with capital murder in Harris’s death. Miles reportedly provided Davis with the gun that fired the fatal shot, according to court records reviewed by AL.com.
There is no official record of all the women and girls killed for telling a man or boy “no.” Likewise, no one keeps track of how often women and girls are harmed for refusing the advances of someone who finds them desirable. Yet, these stories circulate often enough for us to know just how dangerous it can be for a woman or girl to exercise her agency when a man declares his attraction. Yet, we have still failed to address the problem as a society. We fail because we refuse to acknowledge the danger of patriarchy and how male supremacy leaves so many of us vulnerable.
In a patriarchy, men and boys are taught that their needs and desires matter more than those of women and girls. As a result, men are often left to believe that it is more important that they are respected and deferred to than it is for them to acknowledge the humanity of their female peers. In the most frequent cases, this leads to women and girls being disrespected, yelled at, and chastised by men for not yielding to the demands of the opposite sex. In the most tragic instances, if early reports are accurate in Harris’s case, it leads to death.
Black women and girls are especially vulnerable to this sort of violence. “In 2020, Black females were murdered by males at a rate nearly three times as high as white females,” according to a report from the Violence Policy Center. It acknowledges that while Black women and girls face devastating rates of violence, there hasn’t been much attention paid to our plight. “The disproportionate burden of fatal and nonfatal violence borne by Black females has almost always been overshadowed by the toll violence has taken on Black males,” the report notes. Again, patriarchy rears its ugly head; men and boys apparently matter more than women and girls.
Acknowledging violence against Black women and girls means accepting that Black men and boys are most often the perpetrators of that violence. White men and boys usually harm white women and girls, and so it goes for other populations. However, white people are not grappling with the stereotypes of criminality used to broadly paint Black men and boys. Our community’s investment in denying these stereotypes has often involved looking the other way when our men and boys mistreat our women and girls, finding us more invested in protecting the image of our males than the populations that can be vulnerable at their hands.
The Violence Policy Center reports that most Black women and girls killed by male offenders in 2020 died in incidents unrelated to other crimes and that, most frequently, they were killed over an argument. So what does it mean when women and girls die for being disagreeable, for not going along with what a man or boy desires? It means that we have allowed some of our men and boys to believe their agency over women and girls to be all-consuming, that they are to be deferred to by any means.
The killing of Black women who have rejected a man’s advances is so embedded in our society that in 2020, Essence magazine memorialized 11 Black women who lost their lives just for telling a man no.
Dame magazine also did a deep dive into the thousands of women who have lost their lives because they rejected a man’s advances.
Just last year, Raelynn Cameron, 17, was gathering with friends in a vacant apartment when 22-year-old Javone Duncan began hitting on her. Cameron had told the older man that she wasn’t interested in him, but that didn’t stop him from harassing the teen. After she rejected him, Duncan reportedly pulled out a gun and shot her in the chest.
And the belief held by many is that the onus falls on women and girls to prevent their death by being nicer to their assailant. Because the responsibility of staying alive; or not being sexually assaulted always falls on women. So the patriarchal society would have women believe that it’s their job to protect themselves from their predators and not the man’s job to not prey upon women.
It is important to acknowledge that it isn’t just Black women and girls who are susceptible to violence like that in Tuscaloosa last week. There is nuance to the Black experience that makes it doubly difficult for Black women who exist at the intersectionality of race and gender. We live in a patriarchy within a patriarchy, where our unique challenges within our communities find us more vulnerable to violence. Indeed, the Black community is far from exempt when it comes to nurturing the sort of misogynistic sentiment that would push a young man to take a young woman’s life over a romantic rejection.
If reports are accurate in the case of Harris, then I wonder how Miles and Lynn Davis interacted with women and girls in the past and how many people may have witnessed this treatment.
I would be remiss to mention that as a collegiate athlete, Miles is part of a seemingly protected class of young men often allowed to get away with doing and saying what they please to women and girls.
In the wake of Harris’s murder, many have taken to social media to focus on how Miles — a former D1 college basketball player — has ruined his life. Some have argued that if a bruised male ego was the reason for the shooting, then Miles couldn’t have been involved, considering how “easy” it would be for a man in his position to “get” women.
Many would like to believe that stories like this are unique, extreme examples of the worst human behavior. They’d rather not interrogate the rampant misogyny within our cultures (Black, American, Western, global) that inspires acts of violence like this. But when women and girls speak openly and honestly about our experiences with men and boys, the truth could not be more evident. We are often treated poorly, and we remain in second-class citizen status compared to our male peers.
I don’t know many women who don’t have stories of being terrorized by men, often strangers on the street. There can be a great terror in telling a man “no.” But, from girlhood, we learn to navigate the desires of men and boys as delicately as possible since we do not know how they will react if they don’t get what they want from us. Some will punish us, and others will take it anyway.
Instead of focusing on raising boys to respect girls, we teach girls to contort themselves to survive. As a result, when approached by a man, many young women wouldn’t have said no, like Harris. Instead, they would’ve gone along with what these men wanted to protect themselves or because they didn’t feel they had a right to refuse them in the first place.
At some point, we must start addressing the fragility of male egos and the propensity for violence in the face of rejection that isn’t swaddled in the softest tone. We must acknowledge the failure of a society in which a woman’s safety is conditional on how nicely they can tell a man no.
We have to start being honest about the contempt many men and boys have for women and girls. We must stop burying our heads in the sand and pretending that stories like these are unavoidable tragedies. Boys must be reared to respect girls as their peers, as equally worthy of autonomy and respect, and there must be accountability when they fall short. The behavior of men towards women is so infrequently viewed as a measure of who they are in the world, and this must change.
Men who demean and disrespect women should face the consequences for their behavior, socially, professionally and otherwise. However, this is rarely the case. Famous abusers are often defended by the public, and those who exist in regular society are often enabled by the people around them. The men and the boys matter most, and we demonstrate this over and over again by allowing those who harm women and girls to do so unchecked.
If the world adequately valued women, Jamea Jonae Harris would likely still be here. Perhaps it would not have occurred to the accused young men that she seemingly needed to be punished with death — or at all — for refusing romantic advances. Instead, our refusal to challenge abusive men and defend women’s rights has left a young boy without his mother, a mother without her daughter, and a woman without a life that she had a right to live. Until we are willing to be honest about our broken approach to gender, tragedies like this will continue.