A History of Violence
Treva Lindsey ’00 on her new book, America, Goddam.
In 1963, after the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and of four girls during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama, Nina Simone wrote the iconic protest song “Mississippi, Goddam” (“You don’t have to live next to me; Just give me my equality”). In 2022, professor and historian Treva Lindsey ’00 took that baton and published America, Goddam: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice. Just as Simone was compelled to address the “relentlessness of violence, spectacular death, and also resistance,” Lindsey said she too felt compelled. “The title is a nod in both framework and mission” to Simone’s song, Lindsey told Head of School Bryan Garman at a recent Conversation With Friends event.
What’s more, Lindsey brings some of today’s most identifiable protest memes to bear on historic moments like the16th Street Baptist Church bombing, reminding the reader, for example, to #sayhername. The “four girls” killed that day in 1963 are not yet remembered by their names: Carol, Cynthia, Addie, and Denise (and also Sarah, who was injured but survived). “Who were they before they became part of the narrative of violence?” asked Lindsey. She wanted to know the women and girls in these narratives—their favorite songs, changes in careers, if they liked cupcakes. “I wanted my approach to be life-affirming,” Lindsey said. “The violent event is one moment in the long arc of an entire life.” She then mentioned Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a child who was shot by a Detroit police officer in 2010 (during a raid on the wrong apartment). “Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed at 7, which means for seven years, she meant everything to the people in her life.”
Lindsey, who received her PhD at Duke and who now teaches at Ohio State, said that she wanted the book to be “ethically aligned with the Black feminist tradition of the way we do this work,” because that work resonates with the frequency of her own life. An archive of violence against Black women, starting on slave ships and extending to violence just down the street, can be “so overwhelming, there are times when all you can say is ‘Goddam.’”
To that end, America, Goddam blends history, theory, and memoir to avoid being a compendium of agonizing statistics alone. And because Lindsey was “in proximity to violence personally”—she was sexually assaulted by a police officer—using the memoir form creates “an auto-ethnography that allows me to begin to process and name the ways those kinds of violations and harms affected my own life.” It also builds intimacy with the reader.
Becoming a student at Sidwell Friends in the 1990s, she said, was “eye-opening.” By moving between two worlds—Northeast DC or Prince George’s County set against the upper Northwest Sidwell Friends neighborhood—she saw clearly the distinction between how her community was policed and the way the Sidwell neighborhood was policed. “I felt protected and served in the context of Sidwell,” she said, “versus criminalized and targeted in my own community.” She knew that if kids at Sidwell Friends partied on the weekends with drugs and alcohol, for example, they would “at best get a citation,” whereas the kids in her home neighborhood would face life-altering consequences. “Sidwell,” she said, “magnified the different logics that undergird policing.”
But the most difficult chapter to write was about intercommunal violence. She wondered how to “write about that without pathologizing or demonizing cis-gendered males.” So she wrote into it. The book details her fear that her work “will be used against a population.” And yet, Lindsey said, “the book demands accuracy,” noting that Black transwomen in particular (90 percent of whose murders are attributable to Black men) deserve an accurate portrayal of their own archive of violence.
“Just because you are a minority doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming marginalizing influences,” Lindsey said. Society is anti-Black, anti-women, anti-trans, anti-fat, and more, she said, so internalizing those structures is easy to do. The real questions are: “How do we divest from these systems? How do we stop waging harm against ourselves?” Rather than simply casting blame, Lindsey said, her book is a “deeper structural analysis that’s rooted in the intimate and the interpersonal.”
That intimacy is clear on every page—notably because she wrote it for the audience she is “accountable to”: Black girls and women, not for the tenure committee. But just because America, Goddam is not an academic tome, it is still rigorous. “I care,” she said, “and that care demands the rigor.”
Rigor and something else: In a book about the profound violence inflicted on Black women and girls, Lindsey offers hope. “I wanted the book to be joyful and affirming,” she said. “I’m practicing the freedom that I want Black women and girls to live in, which means the points of pleasure and the worlds I want to see and create.”
To view the full Conversation with Friends, click here.
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