Why Black Women and Girls Like Relisha Rudd Go Missing

ItIt was the moment I first heard the number of missing Black women and girls in America. The year was 2019, and I was at a symposium on Black girlhood. At that time, I didn’t know the total number of missing people in the U.S., but 64,000 felt This is alarmingly high. After some digging, I discovered that Black women, and girls, comprised more then 30% of missing women and girls in the U.S. Yet, only 15% percent of U.S. girls are Black. It was true to my belief that the numbers were disproportionately large and alarmingly high. This data shocked me to the core. The number of people who were still missing was something I didn’t know. In 2021, it was greater than 90.000.

In the past year we’ve had a national conversation about “Missing White Woman” syndrome, the phenomenon of missing white women and girls being overrepresented in media coverage, and consequently, public outrage and investment compared to missing Black, Indigenous, and other women and girls of color. This is something many people are aware of. This is a crisis that has been ignored by most people. The erasure, silence, and lack of collective attention resounds as profoundly violent and yet another example of the vast chasm between who does and who doesn’t care about the lives and livelihoods of Black girls and women.

But it’s not just about the media coverage itself. We continue to be unable as a society to examine. We are asking whyNearly 100,000 Black girls and women are missing at the moment. This is despite their being unable to tackle deprivation and marginalization as well as criminalization. I identify these conditions as unlivable living, a Black-life-centered riff on gender theorist Judith Butler’s concept of unlivable lives, because far too many of us are relegated to a life predisposed toward premature death.

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My first book was published in 2017. The Rebirth of Black Womanhood: Colored No more in Washington, D.C., about Black women who made the nation’s capital the country’s first major “Chocolate City,” to Relisha Rudd. Her name was 8-year-old Black girl, who vanished in Washington, D.C., March 1, 2014. No one has ever found her. I began my love letter to my hometown by Saying Her Name, a practice popularized by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea Ritchie and the African American Policy Forum in an attempt to shed light upon violence against Black women and girls. It was the least I could have done. I wanted her name alongside her D.C. foremothers, who would’ve fought for her and did fight to create a world in which Black girls didn’t go missing. It was against all odds that Relisha would ever be found. I believe that it still is true. It was a fantasy that a small Black girl would see her name in the book, and know someone cares. People would also be able to google my story if they pick up my book. If the dedication is true, it would encourage readers to also Say her Name, even if for only a short moment.

Relisha would bring me to tears every time she was photographed. It was almost as if she were my mother. My childhood home was also close by her. When I was growing up, the homeless shelter in which she resided didn’t exist. This building belonged to D.C. General Hospital. It was established in 1806 as Washington infirmary. In 2001 Anthony Williams, former D.C. mayor, controversially shuttered the historic hospital. The de facto universal medical care provided by this legendary hospital was available to all D.C. residents, regardless of their income, status, or ability to pay. It was the place that people went to when they were shot, stabbed, or overdosed growing up. This was Triage in a society that had been reduced to living below the poverty line.

To this day, conflicting reports abound regarding what happened in the weeks leading up to and immediately after Relisha’s disappearance. But there’s a good chance you haven’t followed this story, maybe haven’t even heard about it. While there has been an investigation going on for years about the disappearance of an eight-year-old Black girl, the news never got big. It was actually barely covered by media outlets that were geared towards Black audiences and social media posts outside of the metro area, which includes D.C. and Maryland.

Jonquilyn Hill, a Howard University graduate, launched a podcast called “The Podcast” on WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C., March 20, 2021. Through the Cracks, in which she reexamined Relisha’s disappearance and the failures of multiple social safety nets in the life of this young Black girl. Last year Relisha’s story was also covered by Geeta Gandbhir and Soledad O’Brien in their four-part HBO series Black and missing. It is encouraging to see the ongoing effort in unraveling this complex story. However, I am still waiting for the day that we will be able to answer the fundamental question of Relisha Rudd’s fate.

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It is difficult to express the love I feel for Relisha. Her story wasn’t exceptional per se in D.C. or in the U.S. more broadly, but it hit me exceptionally hard. Even as the worst-case scenario becomes more and more likely as years fly by, I can’t help but circle back to her. We have the greatest tool in fighting the pervasive harm that we do to Black girls and women. I am trying to share her story as often as I can.

Relisha’s story unveils many of the ways that nonspectacular, everyday injustices and inequities rooted in systemic and unrelenting deprivation slowly but surely erase or kill us. We are all gone, thousands disappearing without trace. It is amazing to see how common and consistent our quotidian experiences are with anti-Blackness misogynoir and capitalism. The poor Black girls and women are often unhoused and underfed and hypersurveilled. They also feel valued and considered worthless by the criminalizing and marginalizing powers. If you make someone feel less, it makes them more vulnerable to harm in the future.

Relisha’s disappearance occurred within a web of death-dealing practices that affects tens of thousands of Black girls every single day. Gross negligence and non-enforced policies that were aimed to ensure the wellbeing of D.C. General Shelter residents, as well as failures of agencies such the Children and Family Service Agency and the Children and Family Service Agency to put the welfare and well-being needs of Black families before criminalizing them. Systemically, she was victimized by decades of anti-poor, anti-Black, anti-family policies that ravaged poor Black communities in the nation’s capital and across the nation via the hypercriminalization of poverty and addiction.

Relisha is an example of what we cannot ask for in order to help her survive. It would have been helpful if there were less death-dealing factors in Black girls’ lives. She had to endure them all in her lifetime. Unlivable living was her constant companion since the time she was born. The bright-eyed and brown-skinned little girl lived in poverty and anti-Blackness. It was only when something spectacular occurred—Relisha’s disappearance—that a woefully small number of people even came to know all the ways we failed her.

Source:America, Goddam, Violence, Black Women and the Struggle for Justice

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