Who will protect us? Why I'm still conflicted about guns as a black feminist

My life as a black woman, and a terrifying home invasion, have shaped my complicated ideas about firearms

Published November 5, 2013 11:59PM (EST)

            (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=574754'>RonBailey</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(RonBailey via iStock)

I was 15 years old when my mother and I were robbed at gunpoint. It was 1982. The robbery began with a terrific noise: someone was pounding on our front door late at night.  Instinctively, and one at a time, we moved our bodies away from the door and toward the back of the house. That’s where a second robber kicked in the window and climbed through the open frame holding a gun.  When we saw this, we ran in our nightgowns to the front door with plans to race across the street. Instead we opened the door and faced the man who had sent us scrambling in the first place. While the window-smasher sauntered up from behind, his partner stepped over the threshold pointing his semi-automatic pistol at my face.

This was my first experience with gun violence. I’ve thought about this moment many times, how I was certain that my mother and I would die and how that certainty about a violent death shaped my views about guns.  I'm a black woman, feminist, professor and mother, and my ideas about firearms aren’t neat. But then no one arrives easily at these ideas.

I don’t own a gun but I know plenty of educated black women who do. These are working- and middle-class women, some of them single and some with families, and  statistics support what I see. According to a National Shooting Sports Foundation report, 78.6 percent of retailers reported an increase in the number of women buying guns in 2012. Although a 2013 Pew research report reveals that gun ownership remains overwhelmingly white and male, black women made up the fastest growing purchasers of concealed handguns in Texas between the years 2007 and 2012. J. Victoria Sanders, a black Texan and journalist, reported this trend in a 2011 article detailing the increased marketing of guns to women and Sanders' own journey toward gun ownership.

This movement toward guns seems a rational decision for black women when you consider some of our experiences. Historically, black women have been left unprotected as a matter of law and custom, our bodies designated as commodities, used as “de mule uh de world” as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, and as sites for sexual violence and mockery. In an analysis of 2011 data, the Violence Policy Center reported that black women are murdered at rates three times that of white women and these murders usually involve a gun used by someone that the woman knows. Given these realities, some of us are pragmatic about self-defense. Even when we identify as feminist, as I do, we remain uncommitted to anti-gun feminism that erases our specific experience.

*  *  *

If the roots of our nation’s gun culture, so carefully analyzed in "Guns in America," trace back to colonial expansion, revolutionary wars, militias, hunting and living on the frontier, African-Americans share some of this history. But the roots of black gun ownership originate, also, in black Americans' need to protect themselves against white racial violence.  In her documentation of southern lynching, Ida B. Wells famously wrote, “The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” Wells, along with the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute, gathered and published lynching statistics from 1882 to 1968.  1968 was the not-so-distant past for the black homeowners where I grew up as a girl.

The parents in my neighborhood, born in the 1930s and ‘40s, had migrated to suburban Detroit from the Jim Crow South. They came from places like Danforth, Va.; Atlanta; and Meridian, Miss. Most of the parents in my neighborhood had had some experience with firearms in the South.  As young adults, they had watched civil rights leaders “brutally put down” by guns, as James Baldwin wrote, listing Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Fred Hampton as examples. This generation also witnessed widespread abuses against African-Americans by police officers who carried guns. Such abuses led to uprisings in Watts in 1965, and Detroit and Newark in 1967. In 1966, police abuse in black communities prompted the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland and in 1974 it inspired Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, to make integration of Detroit’s police force a top priority for his administration.

Despite this history, or maybe because of it, my parents were against having weapons in our house at the time of the robbery. We were living then in Southfield, Mich., between 8 and 9 Mile roads.

“Did you and Mom have a discussion about owning a gun before that night?”

“No,” my father says, “not before the incident. We only talked about it after the incident.”

My father’s response reminds me of what a former neighbor told me.  She suggested that her parents believed they were safe once they moved to the suburbs. I wonder if that thinking figured into my parents’ decision not to own a gun. We moved to suburban Detroit in November 1970. Before that we lived in northwest Detroit.

“Did we own a gun in our former house?” I ask.


“Why not?”

“Mmm. Didn’t feel the need for it at that time.”

“What about at your office in Detroit?” I ask.

I remember the elaborate alarm system at my father’s accounting practice on 6 Mile road. He worked there late each night. In fact, that’s where he was the night we were robbed.

“Did you have a gun at your office?” I ask.

“Yes, after the break-in I got a permit to carry a gun and I kept the gun in the office.”

“What type?”

“It was a .45 automatic. I’d drive with it on the passenger seat of my car when I went  back and forth from the house to work.”

“Why did you buy a gun for the office if the break-in happened at home?”

“I bought it for both places.”

“Did you feel unsafe at the office?”

“No, I didn’t feel unsafe.”

“But you started to take a gun there in 1982?”

“Well, I knew that there were break-ins happening in that neighborhood. I wasn’t fearful, but I was aware of what was happening.”

“So you took the .45 back and forth between the house and office?”

“Yes. Your mother didn’t want a gun in the house so I’d bring it home at night but I took it to the office with me during the day.”

My parents’ first decision to not own a weapon probably had nothing to do with feeling safe in the suburbs. In fact, their decision is consistent with statistics on gun ownership in the mid-20th century. According to Pew research, up until 2013, the majority of American gun owners polled reported that they owned guns for hunting. That was the case as recently as 1999. My father mentions hunting as his only gun experience as a boy. By contrast, today the majority of Americans report that the reason they own a gun is for protection.

What finally caused my parents to purchase a gun wasn’t my father’s knowledge of crime near his office. It wasn’t the quiet hostilities of our first neighbors in Southfield, who were white. It wasn’t the harassment by Southfield police officers who routinely hassled my brother when he rode his motorbike in the streets.

My father got his first gun once my parents were victims of crime. But once they had the gun, their fear was what Will Hauser and Gary Kleck, authors of “Guns and Fear: A One Way Street,” call asymmetrical.  In other words, my parents’ fear was not reduced by the sense of protection that the .45 offered. Even though we had a gun, my mother was more fearful in the house than she had been before.  Although the crime happened at our home, my dad began questioning his safety both at home and at work. He carried a gun back and forth in his car.  And we got a shotgun for the house. At first, my father forgets this fact.

“What happened to the shotgun you bought for the house?”

“We didn’t have a shotgun,” he says.

“Yes we did. You showed me how to use it. It was under your bed.”

“Oh, I didn’t buy that gun. Someone gave it to me,” my father says.

He explains that he borrowed the shotgun from a guy who installed security features in our home immediately following the break-in.  He says we kept the gun for a couple of weeks but then he returned it to the owner because my mother didn’t like the idea.  Unlike his registered handgun, which he had to turn in to the state of Michigan when he moved to the Southwest, the ownership and movement of our shotgun happened off the radar.

Although my parents were reluctant gun owners, one of my brothers has always owned guns for protection.  And several of our neighbors owned guns in 1982.

“I don’t know if you remember,” a former neighbor and mother of three says, “but my mom is an ex-cop so, yep, we had a gun. And she still keeps one. She was always careful where she kept it, though. Even to this day, she makes sure it is away when the grandkids come to visit. She always insisted that I keep one. Although I have one, it's not loaded and I’ve never used it.”

She goes on to explain that she will probably take lessons to learn how to handle that gun.

Another neighborhood friend spoke about the two guns that her parents kept in their home. Her parents owned a bar, which required them to carry cash daily. This is the reason her mother kept a .22 and her father a .38. “The guns were for protection,” she says.  “My brother and I never knew where they were and we knew not to touch them or Daddy would tap that ass.” She currently owns a gun for protection of her family.

As a girl I was in both of these homes. I never knew either family owned a gun.

As a young adult, I did know that my best friend’s mother carried a handgun in her purse.  One day, someone tried to snatch this purse in the parking lot at Kmart and my mother’s friend, who is about 5 feet tall, held onto her purse and thwarted the robbery when she pulled out her pistol and shot into the air. We laughed about that incident afterward, but not every gun story I’ve heard has made me laugh. In the '90s, someone I care for deeply spent time in jail for a gun-related death. That same decade, a woman I went to school with lost her eye as the result of a drive-by shooting.

Ironically, the house that my mother and I had planned to run to for safety in 1982 was also a house that did not have a gun.

My former neighbor who lived there says that their family had owned a gun when they lived in Detroit but someone had broken into their house and stolen it. The fact that owning a gun could attract criminals is presumably why her father did not replace it. Her parents, now in their 70s, still don’t own a gun, but my former neighbor and her husband do. She and her husband live in an affluent community, and they take their guns with them when they collect rent from properties that they own.

*  *  *

Does it make sense that my parents’ generation, which lived through Jim Crow, lynching and the civil rights era would be reluctant to own guns, but my generation, which came of age in relative comfort, would feel the need to keep weapons for protection? I think it makes perfect sense.

“There is clearly a false sense of security amongst my neighbors,” my childhood friend, the one who owns rental property, says. She lives in a lakefront community consistently listed by CNN Money as one of the best small cities to live in, with a 2012 median family income of $118,429.  “[My neighbors] open their garage doors when they wake up,” she says, “and leave them up!  I don't get it. Crime happens out here all the time.”

Her feeling of constant threat is familiar to me. I have never felt safe even when I’ve lived in communities that are considered low-crime.  Although my fears might be related to our home invasion, I think they're also related to larger social forces that affected me when I was young. I grew up in the '70s and '80s, when crime was associated with the crack cocaine trade. Deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities forced many mentally ill people onto the streets. President Reagan and his press secretary, Jim Brady, were shot when I was in high school and the film of that shooting played on a continuous loop on network news.  There was the Rambo movie franchise.  And there were also a lot of guns in our neighborhoods.  In 1969 Lyndon Johnson’s commission on gun violence reported that gun manufacture during the first half of the 20th century remained constant, but between 1958 and 1968 it increased threefold.  Unlike our parents, my friends and I have always lived in a society flooded with guns. In 2003, I had a student who described a small arsenal that his parents kept in his home.  I’ve sensed the presence of guns in every neighborhood I’ve lived in over the last 20 years. I’ve heard shooting in celebration of the New Year. I’ve heard people practicing at a nearby gun range.  Sometimes I know my neighbors own guns because they tell me. Sometimes my kids tell me, which is worse.

When I ask my father if he would want me to own a gun for protection his voice rises.

“No, because you have small kids,” he says. “You should fear having a gun in the house more than somebody breaking in.”

My father’s remark is supported by the data: There's a correlation between gun ownership, suicides, homicides and accidental firearm deaths.

In a 1994 interview published in Health magazine, Betty Friedan said that the trend toward gun ownership by women was a “horrifying obscene perversion of feminism.” In "All About Love: New Visions," bell hooks warns us against obsessions with safety, writing that it is madness to have such obsessions without a real threat, and that the need for aggression and aggressive protection of property can mask patriarchal and white supremacist worldviews.  I don’t disagree with either argument. But I can’t enter a conversation about self-defense from a narrow anti-gun position. Not with the statistics about murder rates for black women. Not when people I know have experienced stunning gun violence. Not after 1982.

I still recall what it felt like to plead for my life. I remember the weight of my mother’s body when she collapsed unconscious in my arms. I also remember what I learned when the police arrived that night. They said that the criminals had watched our house and knew that my mother and I were usually there alone at night. It was terrifying to think that someone had been watching us, studying our habits and lying in the cut. Then I looked at the police photos and became shocked by something else. I recognized so many of the faces in the mug shots. Every other photo was a picture of a black boy that I knew. These were boys with whom I went to school and whom I had known for most of my life. Our families were among the first to integrate that city. None of those boys had been one of the criminals who entered our house. Looking at those photos, I recognized a different sort of surveillance, one that I didn’t have language for at the time. This is what intersectionality looks like for me. In the moments after I'm assaulted by two men because of my gender, class and race, I am reminded that these men and I are members of the same oppressed racial group. We share a common historical experience that includes being profiled as criminals.

More than 30 years after a gun was pointed squarely in my face, I have resisted buying a firearm for protection.  But I have not ruled out the possibility that I will. It crosses my mind when the occasional oddball shows up at my door unannounced. If I buy a gun, it will be to protect myself and my children inside of our house, which is on a sloped street at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. I agree with my childhood friend that such communities can deceive us. We admire blooming hollyhock and leaf-blown lawns, but the truth is, violent histories hover over all American streets. “Does your house have lions?” saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk once asked a friend about his new home. Kirk poses a brilliant question. What do I choose as my totem for protection? How will it represent my family, our customs and beliefs, and more important, can any object I choose really save me and mine?

This piece is the latest in a series by feminists of color, curated by Roxane Gay. To submit to the series, email rgay@salon.com.

By Renee Simms

Renee Simms is a writer and visiting professor of African American Studies at University of Puget Sound. She is completing her first novel.

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