The legacy of nappy-headed hos

Filed under: African Americans,Criminal Justice,Opinion,Racial Equity,Women |

By Terrion L. Williamson,

Remember Don Imus? Remember how upset we were a few years back when the wretched shock-jock and his pals took to the airwaves to dis women of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, after they just missed winning the NCAA championship, referring to the black team members as nappy-headed hos? Remember how incensed our leaders were about that ugly comment and how, as a consequence of hurt feelings and damaged egos, we called for Imus’s head on a platter?

Remember, also, what we said in our defense of the Rutgers women? You know, how those women didn’t deserve to be disparaged because they were, in the words of their coach, C. Vivian Stringer, “young ladies of class and distinction, articulated, gifted.” Remember how we rallied around those women because they seemed to stand for something we believe in — hard work, dedication, intelligence, uplift. Remember that, because they were, literally and symbolically, our daughters, sisters, cousins, friends and neighborhood talent we cheered on to victory, we did not want to have their images sullied by the likes of Imus and crew?

Yes? Ok.

Remember ever discussing whom the real nappy-headed hos were?

The question is not meant facetiously, its answer has very real consequences. The Imus brouhaha, though it’s now several years in our national past, still resonates very deeply for certain communities of black people, and not just for the most obvious reasons. The real take-away of the whole debacle was not that bigotry is still alive and well in the early twenty-first century. We didn’t need Imus to tell us that. The legacy of the Imus incident is the way we responded to it.

In loudly proclaiming the Rutgers women were not deserving of being called nappy-headed hos, we were silently suggesting that there are women who are. While it’s easy to proclaim in hindsight ‘no, no, that’s not what we meant’, history bears this out.

Remember Brenda Erving or Laura Lollar? How about Pamela Greer, Shaquanta Langley, or Joyce Mims?


Erving and Lollar were two of at least eight women murdered between 2003 and 2004 in Peoria, Illinois by Larry Bright. In 2006, he confessed to the murders and was sentenced to life in prison. Greer was the victim of Shelly Andrew Brooks, who was found guilty of murder in 2007 after being charged with killing seven black women in Detroit between 1999 and 2005. In 2000, Andre Crawford confessed to raping and murdering ten women, including Langley, in Chicago between 1993 and 1999; he was convicted in 2009. And, Walter Ellis was charged last year with murdering Mims and six other black women in Milwaukee.

Of course, it’s difficult to remember women we never really knew. And, a major reason we never knew much about these women is they and their fellow victims were, almost universally, economically depressed black women known to have been, or suspected to have been, involved in prostitution and drug use.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases. There have been numerous cases throughout the country of black women, most of whom were involved in prostitution, being murdered by serial killers. Many of these cases have yet to be solved, and none of them have received significant attention beyond substantially under-supported efforts of locally based grassroots organizers.

Clearly, the old convenient scapegoat, the media, deserves some blame here. Take for instance, the recent Grim Sleeper case. On a day when Lonnie David Franklin, a man who allegedly killed at least ten black women and one black man over the course of twenty-plus years, was due to be arraigned in a Los Angeles courtroom, his case was overshadowed on major media outlets. Not by the verdict in the Oscar Grant case, which was itself, largely overshadowed.

The much anticipated decision about where basketball star Lebron James would play next season took precedence over both the police slaying of, yet another, young black man and the murders of ten black women. To the extent that certain media outlets are concerned about the Grim Sleeper case, it seems to be primarily because of emergent and controversial DNA technology used in apprehending Franklin.

Or, it is fueled by macabre infatuation the American public seems to have with serial killers. Concerns about who these murdered women were, who their families were, or what their lives were like, all seemed to have been wrapped up in a few tidy words: young, black, poor, prostitute.

Although we can most assuredly point a finger at the media, those fingers pointing back at us can hardly afford to be ignored. In our haste to trumpet our achievements and herald our success stories– we too often forget about our other kin.

But this is a matter of life and death. If we had made as much noise about the women who were going missing and turning up dead in places like Peoria as we had the Rutgers women, perhaps their murderers would have been stopped sooner. And, if we valued prostitute women victims as much as we do collegiate victims, perhaps we could begin to mobilize a wide-scale political effort calling to task police complacency, ineffective government policies and media neglect aiding in the ongoing femicide of prostitute women and women of color.

Scores of black women have been murdered or gone missing in this country and our leaders don’t come running. We don’t demand government accountability, take the media to task, or mount protests on a national scale. But, whether or not they ever attain college degrees or obtain lofty titles, these black women who live their lives at the margins are also our mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins and friends. And, they are just as worthy of being defended, loved, respected and mourned.

And that alone is worth remembering.

Terrion L. Williamson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.


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One Response to The legacy of nappy-headed hos

  1. Pingback: Serial Killers and “Nappy-Headed Hos” : Ms Magazine Blog

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