In recent years, thanks to social media and the political climate in America, we have created an image of Black women as saviors—Black women who stand up for democracy and save us from our worst selves. Women like Stacy Abrams and many other organizers throughout the South stand out as one of the most recent examples.
This image of Black women is really not far removed from the Mammy archetype. Mammy was the first Black woman that white folks could allow themselves to “see.” She worked tirelessly in service to others, was selfless, and always did for others; she never put herself first, and was devoid of anything appealing outside of her “heart” for service.
While Mammy in Gone with the Wind was a fictional character, the truth is that far too many people of all hues see certain kinds of Black women and think “selfless and eager to be of service to others.” The Mammy archetype is so strong that millions have convinced themselves that former first lady Michelle Obama would be a wonderful president, despite the fact that she has made it clear that she has no interest in politics, nor in saving us.
When we aren’t expecting Black women to save us, we often expect them to be magical beings who do extraordinary things. Things that other women of other races are never expected to do or achieve while operating under various burdens of life and weights of society. Women who face adversity and turn it into a magical tale and perhaps help others long away. While the Black Girl Magic tagline was a statement of empowerment for Black women—created by a Black woman—it also begs the question: “What if you don’t have any Black girl magic?”
What if you are broken? What if you’re not a helper-type person? What if you have no “magical” talent?
Are you even worth anything then to most of society—as just a Black woman?
I find myself sitting with these thoughts as the media reports come in that Carlee Russell, the 25-year-old Black woman who allegedly disappeared on an Alabama highway, may have made up the story. For 48 hours, all across social media, people were looking for Carlee, who reportedly told a family member that she saw a toddler on a highway—and then disappeared. Leaving behind her car, phone, and wig.
Alabama law enforcement has reported that now that Carlee is home, there is no indication that she was abducted as she claims. Furthermore, her own Google search history indicates that she was searching terms like Amber Alert, one-way bus tickets, and the movie Taken. All likely indicators that this was disappearance was planned.
While I don’t trust law enforcement—because it’s not as if they are above lying, especially for racist reasons—all indicators seems to point to Carlee having not been abducted. Which, for many across the internet, has led to a rather loud multi-racial chorus—including many Black women—declaring that Carlee is an awful person for lying. Also complaining that her alleged disappearance will make it harder for Black women and girls who do really go missing, because no one will believe them or look for them.
Which, to be honest, has historically already been the case. Resources for missing Black women are not expended at the rate they are for white women.
Slow down, people.
First, a Black woman who lies should not affect how the cases of other Black women and girls are treated. I’m not even sure I believe police were looking that hard for Carlee, especially before her story started appearing everywhere and pressure began to build. And when have police or other institutions in society needed an excuse to not take Black woman seriously or to ignore them? Let’s not overstate how much her actions are going to affect things.
Second, why aren’t we asking a root question: What was going on with this young woman that she felt she needed to lie? When white people “snap” or make up a crime, there is frequently talk of mental illness, or getting them help, or trying to understand their motivations. Can we step back and give this Black woman the same consideration?
No one at this point without direct knowledge of her mental health is qualified to say that Carlee is suffering from mental illness. However, as a collective body, after the last several years, most of us are not as well as we could be. How could we be? We went through a global pandemic, economic upheaval, accelerated global warming, and more. There is a lot going on. We also know that loneliness, as the US Surgeon General recently reported, is on the rise and there is a general climate of unwellness that envelops all of us.
One young Black woman probably fakes an abduction, and she is deemed so awful that she is worthy of collective wrath and the assumption that her actions will reflect poorly on all Black women.
That’s a heavy burden and an unfair assumption. Especially in a world where individual white people, particularly white women, have on many occasions created tales of imaginary Black and brown men committing crimes—like stealing their kids and killing them—to cover up that they themselves had done these terrible deeds.
White America has a rich history of blaming imaginary Black and brown people for all sorts of awful things or even killing Black people for imaginary crimes. Yet we still treat white people as individuals, not as representatives of their entire demographic. Meanwhile, a Black person must be a representative for their entire demographic when they don’t act in ways that we deem acceptable. Does that make sense to you? Of course not; if it does make sense to you, there’s something wrong with you. It is just one of the many manifestations of how racism plays out in our psyches and how we dehumanize people.
Subconsciously, we all have been led to see the best in some people and assume the worst in others, often along a racial fault line.
Carlee is not and should not be representative of all Black women and girls because of her actions, particularly when this was one of the few times a missing Black woman’s story got ample coverage. Why don’t we take away the point that regardless of whether her abduction was real, the push to find her turned her up quickly?
The fact remains: Black women and girls who go missing have never gotten the same media attention that their white counterparts get. Carlee feigning her abduction does not detract from that reality nor should it.
It is because we are conditioned to see Black women as so strong that we balk at the idea that a Black woman could be in crisis, struggling, or broken. It simply doesn’t cross our minds. It’s eerily reminiscent of how so many medical professionals still insist on believing Black people feel pain less than other races—and giving them less pain management—when there is no evidence of that at all.
While none of us are qualified to assess Carlee’s mental health from our homes, the fact is that emotionally and mentally healthy people might tell a small fib, but they rarely fake their own abductions and create imaginary toddlers on an interstate. They might lie to skip a day of work or avoid some onerous task, but faking an abduction? Leaving behind their car, phone, and wig? Those are not the actions of someone in a good place.
Whatever is going on with this young woman is worthy of our compassion and empathy, not our scorn—and most certainly not our armchair analysis. Prayers and resources were not wasted as some are claiming. She is home. Maybe she needed to know that she mattered.
The fact that so many cannot simply be happy she is alive speaks to the insidious nature of racism and how even internalized racism within Black people operates—how it tells us we aren’t allowed to be broken and fucked up.
Carlee doesn’t owe millions of strangers anything. She may owe her family and loved ones answers, but this young woman doesn’t owe me or you a damn thing. If anything, all I can think is that old saying, “There but by the grace of God go I.” Yes, a Black woman lied. That lie is neither a reflection nor indictment on all Black women. But depending on how you have responded to this story, it might be an indicator of how wrapped up you are in ideas that grew out of racism.
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