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Session 215: Black Women & Serial Violence

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

The true crime genre is one of the fastest growing, but it is incredibly telling who’s stories are told. This has become yet another space where the stories of Black women who are victims are largely ignored, particularly those of darker skinned Black women. This erasure perpetuates the myth that Black women are not targets of serial violence, leaving cases unsolved and communities shattered. To share about the important work she’s done to shed light on Black women victims of serial violence, today we’re joined by Dr. Terrion Williamson. Dr. Williamson and I chatted about how she began to research in this area, why Black women, particularly sex workers, are often targets for serial murder, the inequalities with which Black women victims are covered in the media, and the impact that these crimes have on communities.


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Session 215: Black Women & Serial Violence

Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 215 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get into the episode right after a word from our sponsors.


Dr. Joy: The true crime genre is one of the fastest growing, but it is incredibly telling whose stories are told. This has become yet another space where the stories of black women who are victims are largely ignored, particularly those of darker skinned black women. This erasure perpetuates the myth that black women are not targets of serial violence, leaving cases unsolved and black women further marginalized. To share about the important work she’s done to shed light on black women victims of serial violence, today we're joined by Dr. Terrion Williamson.

Dr. Williamson is an assistant professor of African American and African Studies with appointments in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, and American Studies. Her research and teaching specializations include black feminist theory, 20th and 21st century African American literature, black cultural studies, media studies and racialized gender violence. She and I chatted about how she began to research in this area, why black women (particularly sex workers) are often targets for serial murder, the inequalities with which black women victims are covered in the media, and the impact that these crimes have on our communities. If there's something that resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession. Here's our conversation.

Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Williamson.

Dr. Williamson: Thanks so much, I'm really happy to be here.

Dr. Joy: I wonder if you could start by telling us a little bit about how you began your area of research. Can you share a little bit about how you found yourself studying violence against black women and specifically serialized murders?

Dr. Williamson: Certainly. I am from a little city called Peoria, Illinois. It's not a suburb of Chicago; it's about two, two and a half hours south of Chicago and between 2003 and 2004, nine black women were murdered in my hometown. By the time I got to grad school in 2005, the person who was doing the killing had been caught and had confessed to murdering eight of those nine black women. He would eventually be convicted in 2006 for murdering eight of those nine women. The one woman whose murder he did not confess to, that is still considered an open case although many people think that he was also involved in that murder.

Although I hadn't been deeply involved in the case as it was happening in my hometown, I had become increasingly concerned about it. It was just sitting with me. How does this thing happen in my hometown? (Particularly once we found out who the killer was.) I grew up at a time and a moment and in a place where the sort of cultural common sense was that serial murder was not something that happened to black folks. It wasn't something that black communities had to be concerned about, and certainly there was no such thing as a black serial killer.

“There's a bunch of things black folks do but this is not one of them.” That was the kind of understanding I had grown up with so at the time that these murders were happening, part of what I was dealing with was how do I make sense of what has happened in my hometown? What are sort of the conditions under which this happens? And that's what led me to start researching violence against women and serial murder more generally.

I certainly did not go to grad school thinking that that's what I would do. At my dissertation, I do include a chapter about what happened in Peoria but when I started doing my research into the Peoria case, I went into it with all of this anger and frustration and concern. One of the things I was concerned about was the fact that it seemed like no one outside of Peoria knew anything about it. And I thought, how does something like this happen? Nine black women in a city that has fewer than 116,000 people, in the span of 15 months–it's a huge number. How is it that this is not a thing everyone is talking about? And I thought it was a bit of an anomaly. It seems strange to me at this point in my career and my life to have thought that, but I really did.

Only to find out as I started doing my research that what had happened in Peoria was not an anomaly. It was in fact something that had happened over and over and over again throughout the country–where black women were the sole or primary targets of serial killers. In most cases, we're talking about black women who have been killed by... the killer is a black man. The Peoria case, what was anomalous about the Peoria case was that in that case (which is pretty rare) the killer ended up being a white man. But that is atypical.

So otherwise what I'm seeing are these cases in which communities of black folks, in which black women and girls in particular (especially), have been the targets of serial murder. And so I have been doing research and collecting stories about serial murder for a number of years. Now that I have my first book done that I published an anthology a couple of years ago now, I'm in a place where I'm really diving down into the work and writing a book that’s specifically about black women and serial murder, especially within the Midwest.

Dr. Joy: I'm glad you touched on that because my next question to you was going to be: in your research, had you found that this was an anomaly? And it sounds like that is not at all the case.

Dr. Williamson: No, it's not. At this point, I know of more than 80 cases of serial murder that specifically involve black women as victims throughout the country, since about the mid to late 1970s. There are a few cases that people in the audience may know a little bit about, may have heard about–Lonnie David Franklin, for instance, who gets talked about as the Grim Sleeper. But otherwise, these cases by and large go by without people knowing very much at all. And so that was the thing that as I began my research all those years ago, that was really striking for me.

Dr. Joy: And I'm wondering if your research has uncovered why that might be. I mean, I think we both can suspect a lot of why that is, is that black women (of course) as victims are not given much humanity even as victims, and so it is very likely that when we are the victims of crime, we are overlooked. But I wonder if there are some larger things that you've kind of uncovered in your research?

Dr. Williamson: I definitely think that part of the reason we don't know about these cases, we don't hear about them, is absolutely because of who the victims are and who the killers are. What I should also say is often in these cases (not every time, but most often) we're talking about black women who are involved in street level prostitution and sex work. We are also often talking about black women who are involved in other kinds of underground economies and/ or are drug addicted.

So take those things together, I think you and I understand why it is that there's not much attention that gets given to these cases. Because the idea is that, you know... Part of what I've heard folks say is like, well, this is sort of just what comes with the territory. If you're going to be involved in kind of “lifestyle” then this is just what happens to you. The idea being that we shouldn't spend a lot of our time or resources or energy or care on women such as these because, essentially, they sort of asked for it.

The other piece of this is that the ones who do the killing are very often involved in the same kinds of underground economies as the women are. They are also very often drug addicted, we're talking about people who come from low income black communities. So you have this sort of double whammy of both victims and the offenders who are the kinds of folks who don't show up as people who get national news stories written about them often. So I think that that's a big part of it.

And I think part of the sort of narrative around this also has to do with how black communities talk about these cases. What I have found certainly was the case in Peoria and it tends to be the case most of the time, is that local black communities where this murder is happening are very much involved in trying to find who the killer is. They will rally around family members, they will try to get the attention of law enforcement, they will press on government officials to do something. But there is also this sort of element that sneaks into these cases of what you're talking about–basically intra-racial violence, and that can be hard to approach.

So the idea that what you're often talking about is black women and girls who have been the victims of violence against black men can also be hard to talk about. Often it can be hard to think through and part of what I'm trying to do in my work is not talk about this in terms of something like “black on black crime” which I actually don't even believe in. But to talk about what's happening to black women as an extension of the kinds of violence that we talk about when we name what happened to, say, George Floyd.

Which is to say that the violence that black men are subject to in the streets, that we talk about so often, the various forms of violence that they are subject to comes home to roost. And that the sort of conditions or possibility that lead to the murders of, not just black men but we talk about in particular black men, also result in harm to people across the gender spectrum– especially black women and girls. And that the way it shows up is very often in the form of sexualized violence.

Dr. Joy: I was wondering if you could say more about like why black women who are engaging in sex work tend to be targets for serial killers.

Dr. Williamson: Well, for one thing, they're more vulnerable because they're just easier to gain access to. We're talking about people who just the nature of... some of them may call work, sometimes it's sex for drugs transactions, sometimes it's survival sex, they're more likely to come into contact with the people who do the killing. So the privilege of certain kinds of income, class privilege, educational privileges, the various kinds of privileges that we have even as people of color, sort of affords us more protection.

Because as a consequence of how they live their lives, the ways they mobilize or the forms of violence that they have been subject to in the past, etc., they end up in situations in which they are much more likely to be vulnerable to these kinds of harm. And also, as a consequence of that, they're much less likely to be taken seriously as victims of any form of crime or violence. I'm still researching this but part of what is becoming clear is that women and girls who are victims of this kind of harm often have been victims of other kinds of sexualized harm prior to their deaths.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. I would love to get more of your thoughts about this whole idea that the true crime genre (I mean if we're thinking about like just in podcasting) is one of the most popular kinds of genres. But of course, it all tends to be very white focused and so I’d love to hear your thoughts about like why that is and how that has come to be.

Dr. Williamson: You're absolutely right. Like the true crime podcasts, I'll be straight up, I listen to a lot of it myself because part of it is I'm trying to understand how people narrate stories and I'm trying to see what it is people are interested in and engaged with. And I think true crime as a genre, for better or worse, the places where the work that I'm doing gets most often taken up is within the realm of true crime. And so I've been interested in thinking about that genre.

So what do we see in the true crime genre, up to and including podcasts? The fascination with the killer. Why the killer does what they do, where they come from, their psychology, etc., etc. What we're seeing within the realm of podcasts and more contemporary forms of media, I would say you are seeing more attention being paid to victims. But I think from what I've been able to tell is that those victims, like so much of media (from the beginnings of time where we're talking about stuff like this) is that it's often a focus on white women. A focus on younger white women, a focus on younger, more attractive, more middle-class white women–often but not always what you see to be sort of the central narrative in true crime.

So, again, what's different about what I'm trying to do is less attention to the person who does the killing, more attention to victims and more attention to a diverse range of victims. And trying to do the work of destigmatizing how we talk about and think about sex work and prostitution because so many of the victims we're talking about, that's what they are engaged in or have some relationship to. What you also see happening in true crime is a fascination with the whodunit. I think this thing about like solving the crime or figuring out who the person is who did it, is something that attracts a lot of people, for reasons I understand.

However, in my work I'm less concerned about the whodunit aspect. I'm concerned to the extent that I don't want any more people to be harmed and so we have to know who is doing the harm so that they can stop doing the harm but I'm less interested in this sort of mystery element of it. Again, because what I want to do is think about how this harm that's being done is connected up to all these other intersecting systems of oppression, which include incarceration, which include poverty, which include (particularly in the context of my work I'm doing on the Midwest) sort of industrial decline, economic decline. I want to think about these cases as being connected up to that.

Some people will have heard, especially now because there's a podcast about this... There's a podcast about what gets talked about as the Atlanta Child Murders, that series of cases that happened in which you had something like 20-plus people who were killed. Most of them were young boys but we're also talking about young men, so between 1979 and (I think) 1981.

And so that case at the time got a lot of attention, it's gotten more attention in recent years because there have been a couple of documentaries and television shows and also a podcast that was done not too long ago. And so during that case, James Baldwin has a book that’s sort of a long form essay called The Evidence of Things Not Seen and one of the things he says, he's reflecting on that series of murders, and he says something like “it's sort of an act of cowardice to blame all of these murders on one person.”

So what those of us who know something about this case know is that there is someone who has been incarcerated for that series of murders, Wayne Williams. He was convicted of killing two of the male victims, young men victims in that case, but has been suspected of doing all of the murders. And basically, what James Baldwin is saying is whether or not one thinks that Wayne Williams did it, it's an act of cowardice to try to put this on any one particular person, even if one person did it. Because the fact of the matter is, what is it that enables a Wayne Williams to exist?

What is it in our own society, in our own culture, that has allowed for the development of a person who may or may not be Wayne Williams? Whoever it is, whatever person or people are preying on these victims. And so part of what he does in The Evidence of Things Not Seen is he's putting that series of murders into this larger socio economic context of the moment to say: there's all kinds of fingers that can be pointed but it's not enough to just point the finger at the monster and then say, “there they are, we're done.”

And so in my work, I think it's really important to think about that as one of the sort of grounding elements of the work that I do. I'm not interested in just pointing the finger at a person so much as I am in its larger context.

Dr. Joy: That sounds incredibly spot on, thank you for that. More from my conversation with Dr. Williamson right after the break.


Dr. Joy: As you think about the ways that the stories are told, what kinds of language are you kind of finding that's used for victims? And does some of this overlap with the ways that like black people aren't afforded innocence?

Dr. Williamson: Oh, that's a good question. You know, this question of language has been one that I've had to deal with and think through quite a bit and I'm still wrestling with. There's still language that I think will evolve even in the work that I'm doing currently. I have to constantly think about this. One reason is a lot of the cases I'm looking at happened within, say, 70s and 80s and that kind of thing. There's often a lot of talk of prostitutes sometimes without any names being attached to who they were and I've thought a lot about how to deal with that.

So the work that I do in my book, Scandalize My Name, in that last chapter, is called In The Life. Because I found in the life to be a term that was more useful for talking about the people who I was talking about. In the life is a term that gets used in several different contexts. It gets used by black queer folks for instance, but it also gets used in the context of these underground economies. People who were involved in sex work were sometimes talking about being in the life. And I found that to be a more useful way of talking about the people I talk about, so I often will talk about them as being in the life. Or I talk about them as being involved in prostitution, not sort of using the noun as a descriptor–they are prostitutes.

And even the language of sex work, for instance, can become difficult. One of the families that I talked to in the Peoria case, two of the daughters of Brenda Irving (who was the last victim in that case) talk about their frustration with the way their mother was talked about as a prostitute or even a sex worker as if... They're like, this was not her job. This was not what she did as a job. There were various things that she did for work, including at one point in time she owned a restaurant. So there are many things she did for work but they were like this is something she did off to the side. She was still a mother to us, she was still a grandmother to our children, she was still very actively involved in our lives.

And so the way that their mother got reduced to a prostitute was really difficult, continuing even nine years after their mother's death, which is when I initially sat down to talk with them, was still something that I think was really painful. And I think in a lot of cases, you see that, the pushing back against that. The other thing that happened in the Peoria case, and I think I know it has happened in other cases, is the use of mug shots as the only sort of visual that you have of who the victims were. In the Peoria case, the women I talked to said, listen, we tried to give the newspapers other kinds of images that they can use but they continued to produce and reproduce these mug shots.

So there's a way that the victims consequently become criminalized, referring to them only as prostitutes. Even the language of sex worker can do it, even though that's a language that we find more acceptable. And I sort of talk about prostitution (I just want to say this) as distinct. Prostitution is a form of sex work; sex work is the sort of umbrella term. And I do talk about street level prostitution because I want to be clear what we're talking about. We're not talking about someone who is an escort or a call girl or who's a dancer, and I want to be clear about that because there are varying forms of vulnerabilities to harm based upon where one works.

So that's why I talk about street level prostitution. I want to be clear about what we're talking about because I think there are definitely people within sex work who will talk about the agency they have sex workers. But when we're talking about street level prostitution, we're often talking about sex for drugs, we're often talking about survival sex, so we're talking about something distinct. And so the language of prostitution without some other context, the use of the mug shots, all of those things do the work (even without saying anything else) of criminalizing victims. And so what happens? Well, it doesn't matter as much what happens to them.

The other thing I wanted to mention about my work and where it emerges from that is related to this question you've asked about language... Dr. Bradford, maybe you'll remember in 2007, there was this whole dust up around this radio host Don Imus. So this is after the offender in the Peoria case has been convicted, I am at the early stages of my graduate work and just starting to like formulate a project involving what happened in my hometown. Don Imus, the “shock jock” comes on to the radio after the Rutgers-Tennessee women's basketball game and says, talking about the Rutgers team, he says those girls are some “nappy-headed hos.” And that causes an understandable uproar. He temporarily loses his job, has to apologize because he uses this term to refer to these black women on the air.

What happens as part of that fallout is you hear all of this, the way that people run to the defense of the Rutgers women and I want to be really, really, really clear. There is no problem with defending the Rutgers women, they deserve to be defended, and what Don Imus said about them was not okay and needed to have been taken down.

I remember, I was working on this project and what I kept sitting with was the ways that people kept saying, well, you know, it's a disgrace for him to talk about these women in this way because they're not nappy-headed hos. That's not what they are, they are college educated, they are successful, they are athletes, they get good grades. All of these things that they have done, which none of which I think was wrong or unfair to say.

But in the “they're not that,” so like I'm sitting there at this moment where you have all of the people on sort of cable news and all the different editorials, who are speaking out against Don Imus and using this language (in order to sort of defend the women) who are talking about all the ways in which they are not nappy-headed hos. At the moment that I’m sitting with the deaths of all of these black women, none of whom are nappy-headed hos, let's be very clear about that. But if there is any sort of population of women who gets more closely related to that jacked up term, it is women who have been involved in sex work and the pictures that get used to identify them in the newspaper and in the media is mug shots.

So I'm sitting with all of this death and all of this violence against all of these black women, including women who come from my own community, including a woman who I knew personally, who I understand in terms that have nothing to do with that thing that Don Imus said, yet this sort of pushback against “they're not that” seems to do this other kind of work. It's not intentional, of course, but it's what made me start thinking about even the discourse that we use. Even in cases you think about, you know, the young person gets shot and killed in the neighborhood–well, they were an honor roll student and they were... But what if they weren't an honor roll student? Does that mean that we care less about them? Does that mean that we love them less?

And so as a consequence of that moment and thinking about how we talk about the people we talk about, is also trying to think about how to destigmatize. I don't try to spend a lot of time saying, “Well, these women weren't actually prostitutes. They were X, Y, and Z.” I try to enlarge the picture, I try to give a fuller context for their lives. Because, no, none of them were just one thing but I also want to destigmatize how we talk about prostitution, sex work, drug use, and all of those kinds of things, so that we understand that they are also part of the beloved community. Or at least they should be.

If we’re really serious about talking about freedom and liberation and care for black folks, they must also be part of the beloved community. And so it's not enough to just say, well, these women are not that and so we care about these women. But the women who aren’t, meh, maybe we don't pay as much as much attention to them. So your question of language I think is deeply, deeply important to how we think about these cases, it’s deeply important to the work that I'm doing. And I think even in the ways in which we use language, it's critically important for us, even on individual basis, to be thinking about how we use language and their relationship to the people who ought to be part of our communities.

Dr. Joy: Yes, thank you so much for that. And I'm wondering if you have seen a difference in how white victims are covered. You know, so even white women maybe who are engaging in sex work and may have concerns with drug abuse or drug use, is there the same issue of using their mug shots and talking about them specifically as prostitution or sex work? Or is it different even then?

Dr. Williamson: You know, one of the reasons I'm hesitating is because just in terms of the research I've done, I have really focused on black women. So there's not a whole lot I can say about folks who are not black women because I haven't attended to that as much. But what I will say just for now, thinking about this and what I've seen, is that any people who are involved in prostitution, sex work, etc., there's a particular kind of stigma that attaches to them and to their cases. But what happens when you're talking about white women is that there's a fuller... I mean, this is the case with so many things. There's a fuller picture of who white women are.

So yes, there are white women who are also involved in sex work, in prostitution, who are murdered. Matter of fact, serial murder in general, that is typically who we're talking about. Whether we’re talking about black women or non-black women, we're often talking about people who have been trafficked and are involved in the sex work. And again, it's for reasons that I talked about before, that they're just much more vulnerable because of where they're located, the things that they get involved in, etc.

But when we're talking about white women, like yes, there are those cases that get some coverage. And even then, I don't think get enough coverage. I don't think we attend carefully enough to the lives of women who are most vulnerable to serial murder, in general–across gender, across race. But you also have JonBenét Ramsey, like you also have these other cases. Like you have a richer sort of picture of who white women are in general, but who white women are as victims as well.

So I think it hits differently and as a consequence, sort of the attention (from what I've been able to tell) the attention that's paid to serial killers, a lot of the cases I've seen have involved, say, white women who are college students. You know, that kind of thing so that there's a sort of wider sense of who the victims are. But to be clear, I think all of these cases need to be attended to more carefully and my focus on black women and girls as victims is not meant to say that these are the only victims. Only to say that there has been so little attention paid to these victims that I think it's really important for that to be the focus of what I do.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. More from my conversation with Dr. Williamson right after the break.


Dr. Joy: Dr. Williamson, you have talked about community quite a bit throughout this interview and I just wanted to kind of go back to that and talk about, one, the personal impact this has had on you as a researcher, given that you knew one of the victims. But also, you talked about like how this has a ripple effect in the community because a lot of times the community is really involved in like figuring out who did it. And the families that are left to grieve, like are they even afforded any space to grieve in all of this?

Dr. Williamson: Part of the reason I'm so invested in this project is because of how essential community is. And part of what these cases have shown me is that it really calls out the lie that black folks don't care about other forms of harm other than police violence. Like any time there's another police killing, it's like “you're mad about this but what about what's happening in black communities?” And the fact of the matter is black communities have always cared about...

Dr. Joy: We are paying attention to multiple things at a time.

Dr. Williamson: Absolutely. We have always been concerned about forms of violence that happen within their communities and that is absolutely the case here as well. So to speak to the question about the personal impact, this is not what I thought years later I will be doing. I went to grad school at a moment when like reality TV was really on the rise, I wanted to write about like black reality television and actually I do write about reality television a little bit.

But this became the work for me. This became the really central part of the work that I do because attending to the case of those nine black women who were killed in my hometown meant attending to my hometown. So when I was in grad school, one of my professors was someone some folks will know. This really dynamic, amazing scholar named Robin Kelley was my professor who was a historian. And one of the things he said to me, I'll never ever forget him saying as I started working on this project was: What are the things that you are never supposed to know about Peoria? What are the things that are the consequence of your being there, things that are sort of hidden from view from you?

And so what it meant for me to talk about these women meant talking about the place I come from. A place that, honestly, I hadn't really seriously thought about, you know. I'm from one of these cities it's like there's not a whole lot going on there, it's been named multiple times as like one of the worst cities for black Americans, there are all kinds of disparities of different forms. And so when I went away to college, it was like let me go and be gone. And it took this happening for me to really start to understand my city more, understand where I come from, and then reconnect to the really deep, passionate love I have for that place and those people.

Because it forced me to go back and attend to all of the conditions of life that were happening there. Why is it that most of these women who were victims come from the same side of town, you know, the black side of town–the south side where I come from? Why have all of us been touched in some way by poverty? Why have all of us been touched in some way by “failing schools”? Why have all of us been touched in some way by over-policing and under-policing? You know, what are the sort of commonalities there? What make the differences in our lives? How are our lives shaped?

And so it also meant going back and talking to people from my hometown and getting a different feel for what it means to be there. There's different ways how doing research on your own community can be tricky but it has also given me such a deep and abiding sense of care because I've been able to see the kinds of connections or the ways that communities come together in the aftermath of cases like this. But, but, but, also all of the sort of complex things that happen. Because it's all not “we all come together, we’re a unified front.”

No, no. There's all kinds of fissures that also happen. There are people who are frustrated because X person stood in as the expert, but they really weren't around when things were happening, or certain families got to stand in and have a voice and other families did not. There are still lots of ways in which the communities are complex and fraught as well but that is part of telling a more complete story of a place, which is part of what I'm trying to do through this work.

And so the other part to the other piece of your question about community that I also want to mention is that there are various groups that have come together, some of them very unofficial. One or two groups came together in the aftermath of what happened in my hometown. I'm not sure if any of them ever had official titles but in some places, they did have titles. In the case of Lonnie David Franklin (the person who gets named the Grim Sleeper, who might be the case that more people are familiar with) there was a group called Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders which was started by the activist and radio host Margaret Prescod in Los Angeles, and emerged as those murders were happening within the 80s but continues to exist today.

And when Lonnie Franklin came to police attention and ended up being convicted in 2016, they did a lot of advocacy around that case and I was able to go out during one of the actions that they had and be part of just trying to raise attention. And even all these years later as you're talking about people who were largely killed, most of them were killed in the 1980s–there's still so much healing that needs to occur. And so the kinds of actions that they've been involved in or work that they've been involved in, in terms of thinking about memorialization and healing, that that organization has done. And there are other kinds of organizations like that.

And one of the organizations that I really want to talk about is the Combahee River Collective. It’s an organization that was founded in Boston and they wrote the statement which at this point is known as basically the Black Feminist Manifesto. That's largely what they're known for, is writing that black feminist statement. But there was a series of murders at the beginning of 1979, 12 black women and one white woman were murdered, mainly in the Roxbury and Dorchester areas of Boston in the first five months of 1979. And Combahee River Collective was one of a number of organizations that did an extensive amount of advocacy around those murders. And one of the really critical things for me that came out of that work is that they refused to make those murders just be a consequence of, say, racial harm.

So one of the ways that it was being talked about initially, was you had community leaders who were talking about this sort of as a racial crime. And now it seems bananas that we would think about it in that kind of way but Combahee River Collective was like, oh, no, no, no, this is not just about race. We must understand that this is also about gender and that these are intersecting things and we have to talk about them as related. And one of the things that they say, they put together this pamphlet in order to get out information about what was happening in the cases, but also information about how women could be safer.

And then information about how they talked about that series of murders being a thread in the fabric of violence against women. Which is to say, this is not a one-off case, which is what some of law enforcement was saying. They were like, listen, these women are being killed by people they know, this is what happens in black communities, what do you expect us to do? And they were like, no, what's happening to these women in Boston is a thread in the fabric of violence against women. Which is to say so then in that pamphlet, they give all of these statistics about domestic violence rates, for instance, and other forms of harm to say: if we're going to talk about harm against women, we have to think about how this is also an extension of those kinds of harm.

That is to say, one, this is an intersectional issue, this is not just race but it's race and it’s gender and it’s class, and, and, and... And we have to think about these things as related. But also to think about this as connected to other forms of harm, other forms of violence and how the work that we're going to do as a community and as an organization is to say that we are committed to uplifting our entire community. And thinking about this slate of murders that has happened here means that we have to think about all of these things together, and that's critically important. And that's become really important to my work and so I want to shout out Combahee River Collective because the work that they did in 1979 continues to be instrumental in how I think about my own work in the current moment.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, thank you for that. I wonder if there are any other resources that you'd like to share that might be helpful for people wanting to kind of learn more about this kind of work or that have been helpful for you?

Dr. Williamson: I mentioned James Baldwin's The Evidence of Things Not Seen. It's about the Atlanta case but it’s also I think the way that he narrates what happened in Atlanta is critically important for how we might think about these cases in a deeper context. Another really important text to come out of what happened in Atlanta is Toni Cade Bambara’s novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child. Toni Cade Bambara is a black woman writer, this is like her magnum opus and it's a novel but it's a novel that's based in reality and I think is another way of giving a picture. I don't think there's any other text I've read that better gets at the kinds of trauma, the kind of hurt, the kind of fear and terror that occurs in a community when something like this is happening. So I think of that as a resource.

And I go to something like a novel and literature because one of the questions I often get asked is how I do this work, how I sustain myself through this work. And I have found literature touches me and speaks to me in a particular kind of way. And there's also an essay that Audre Lorde wrote. Audre Lorde was involved in some of the sort of commemorative events in Boston in that case that I was talking about earlier that the Combahee River Collective was involved in. And she wrote this long form poem called Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices.

I've recently written about my own sort of coming to that poem. It's a brutal poem, like it's really getting at the sort of visceral painful way, effects of these cases on black women and black communities. But at the same time, it was a place where I saw somebody putting into language what it feels like to do this work, what it feels like to hear these stories of the really brutal ways that black women and girls are violated and come to harm. That is something that I have found has been a sort of useful text for me to engage with.

There's a podcast called Through the Cracks. I'm really sorry I can't remember right at this moment, the name... It's a black woman who is the host of that podcast. Very often, podcasts that engage with these kinds of cases are by black people and so I think this was important for that reason. It tells the story of this one young girl who went missing in I believe the DC area. And it is not a resource that's exactly about what I do. Part of the issue is there's not a lot of resources that's about what I do, but it's also a way of understanding how people can narrate these kinds of stories. And I think one of the things that podcast does well is gets at telling a sort of larger narrative of what happens. How a young black girl ostensibly comes to harm in the way that she does. So those are some of the things that I attend to on my work.

Dr. Joy: Thank you, we'll definitely make sure to share those with the audience. So where can we stay connected to you? What is your website as well as any social media handles you'd like to share?

Dr. Williamson: I am not a great social media person! I'm working on it, hopefully I'll do better in the future. However, the website Black Midwest Initiative is where you can find some of the things that I do. I'm really interested in the collective work and so The Black Midwest Initiative, you can find them at It’s me and a bunch of other people who are invested in telling these under-reported, under-studied kinds of stories and narratives. So you can also see some work there.

I would also like to say if there are people listening to this who have been touched by these kinds of cases, who have a story to tell about being a family member or a community member who has been involved in a serial murder case or knows something about these serial murder cases, I am definitely looking for people to talk to. I want to hear your story. So I do hope people will reach out, I can leave my work email address so people can reach me that way. But I definitely know that there are many, many more stories out there to be told and I would love to be able to be part of telling those stories.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. And if anybody wants to, email us at if you want to be connected to Dr. Williamson, and we can definitely forward those to you.

Dr. Williamson: Absolutely, please do.

Dr. Joy: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with us today, Dr. Williamson. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Williamson: I really appreciate being here and I really appreciate you for shining a light on these cases. It’s so important.

Dr. Joy: Absolutely, thank you. I'm so glad that Dr. Williamson was able to share her expertise with us today. To learn more about her and her work or to check out the resources that she shared, be sure to visit the show notes at And don't forget to text two of your girls and tell them to check out the episode as well.

If you're looking for therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at

And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Thank y'all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

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Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here