Martha Was Murdered. An Abortion Is Not The Same Thing.
written by Valerie Morales
Martha had been dead for 5 days. It was the kind of news selectively and purposefully omitted from nightly reports: a black woman laying in a bed on the first floor of a Charbonnet house that she built in the 9th ward, her teeth hanging from her gums like wretched flotsam because she fought to save herself. Eventually, the pillow over her face was the end of Martha. Strong Martha. Gutsy Martha. Often, tyrannical Martha. Her breaths shortened and then paused. Everything in the air stopped.
The things you remember. My husband and I on the back patio of a house in Baldwin Hills. If you turned the right way, meaning north, there was the skyline of a downtown city besieged by hate and confusion. Visible was the sorrow. The city had been in flames 24 hours earlier, stores looted, stores burned, gas stations destroyed. Cops from the LAPD were standing still and watching the destruction and it was surreal, their apathy, as if they were actually pleased to watch the desperate chewing off their own skin. They really hate us, I thought.
At one point, Guy came over to me and put his arms around my waist and I lay my head on his shoulder and we didn’t have to say anything. We could see in the distance orange singing the sky. Smoke continued to wreck our throats and turn them into a deep desert. It wasn’t what I was used to on nights like this, not thick and black. I knew it was in my hair but with all the destruction it didn’t seem to matter. It felt as if we were holding each other for a lifetime when it was probably five minutes, which would be the last five minutes of our marriage happiness; everything became a catastrophe after that. But we had those singular minutes to remind us that black love has a purity and it can be real and we need to nurture it when it is so sacred.
The phone rang and Guy let go of me and I followed him into the house instead of staying outside. I needed to be close to him, to not let what we were feeling break. After his hello, I knew from the set of his shoulders and the slipperiness of his hands and how he remained bent over that something had happened. Something terrible.
He turned to me and put the phone down. “My mother has been murdered.”
When I was pregnant for the second time- the first pregnancy ended in a late term abortion- I had started to bleed and my doctor advised me to come to the emergency room. I had come to think of the baby inside as a violin with fragile strings. I knew it was a boy. The violin metaphor seemingly fit, beautiful music on the one hand but strings that can break.
I tried not to get attached. The violin could have a tragic outcome. Born dead. One year earlier, the girl, the one I had not named, died that way. No reason. No excuses. No shame…but shame.
A year earlier, my physician sent me to an abortion clinic to have a late term abortion. I was 24 years old. In the waiting room were teenagers waiting for the same reason I was waiting though not because of a late term abortion. They wanted to terminate their pregnancies. I observed and listened to them talking to one another. Some were in school. Some already had babies. Some were born into a tragic family and were fostered, tossed around like garbage. One girl was having her foster brother’s baby.
These girls of chocolate skin and brown skin and whiskey skin and latte skin found it odd that a group of mostly white men cared about what was in their uterus. But that was the riddle. Those white men protesting abortion didn’t care about them at all. White men have never cared about girls of color, nor about their life outside of the womb. The men claiming a fealty to life really mean white life. It comes out all wrong. Instead of saying outlaw abortion, they want to say don’t erase white boys.
Martha was a rummy dark woman with short legs and a gleaming voice. She taught English. When she was angry at her only child she would write him long letters. Obedience is a black mother’s prose and it consumed Martha. Emotional and reactive, she either called her son on the telephone to cuss or she wrote a long expository letter. Guy would read the letter and then toss it in the trash. Days later, Martha would come back to earth, not to apologize but to acknowledge she wanted to turn the page.
Her father was a landowner in Louisiana and her mother, after four children in four years, was placed in a sanitarium for unknown reasons. Back then, women were dependent upon a family that often didn’t understand the symptoms of postpartum depression and situational sadness, nor the toll that caring for babies and toddlers while also working a job had on the mind. Martha’s mother had sisters and they raised her after her mother was unable to.
Martha fell in love with a Mexican man and had a baby. When they broke up she went to Northwestern for her graduate degree and the baby became ill. During the hospitalization, pediatricians advised Martha her son had contracted polio and it was tearing at the fabric of his left leg. Eventually, Martha and the baby left for Los Angeles where she became a high school teacher and a single mother when it was unheard of not to have a husband. Martha couldn’t even call herself a widow.
I hate it when people say black women are strong. We are not strong, it is the opposite. We are vulnerable and fragile and want to be able to put our head into some man’s arms and have him take away our burden, just for two hours. But that level of intimacy is hard to come by and so black women have to be the star of their own story. They have to be resilient because the other alternatives aren’t pretty. So there she was. Martha with this baby with polio and teaching and active in her sorority and going to church and building a life that was different than almost every other woman she knew. She was a woman alone in the world in the 1960’s and 1970’s and she had to be insistent and she had to be fierce and she drank to cover up the inconsistencies.
Once, when he was a teenager, Martha picked a fight with her son and it was a terrible argument. She hated how things had changed so quickly, that the baby she loved to rock to sleep and hold in her arms was now taller than her, a son who was willing to do everything for her around the house but an extrovert who had a lot of friends. He didn’t know his father and his leg made him the target of bullies and he wasn’t quite sure what masculinity meant and so he had sex with girls he met at parties and he would joyride with his friends. His mother was always in the way. So it was one of those where do you think you’re going mister? arguments when she was visibly upset, so much so she was shaking, and in that moment she thought of her rage and grabbed the first thing she saw, an iron. She threw it at his head and it didn’t miss.
He forgave her.
She was killed in the bedroom she built. The comforter was a month old and it covered her from head to toe when the police broke in. But before that, her killer had the audacity and depravity to move into her house and cook in her kitchen and open the door to his friends who smoked a bunch of crack upstairs and made tapes while they were blasted out their minds. They drove her van and sold off her possessions, one by one, to buy more crack while Martha was dead in the house, her ghost hovering over their insurrection and brutality. Her skin was sinking into the mattress, disappearing one layer at a time, but her ghost lay wait and lay watch.
At the end of the fifth day, the police knocked and then broke the door down. They saw someone running out the back door and one of the cops went on a foot chase. The other opened the first door bedroom and smelled death. There was no need to pull the covers back. The coroner was called. Neighbors gathered; one of them called California and waited while the phone rang, unaware that a man and his wife were out on the patio holding each other, thankful they had escaped the Rodney King verdict disaster.
This is what no one tells you about the first 24 hours. You are paper. The bones you used to trust have softened and crumbled. The eyes are fescue, brown and sullied from winter. Saliva is dried up and the tongue in your mouth is sandpaper. You walk like there is a broken rod in your spine. The wind is blowing inside your lungs, a cold, bitter flow. Your brain is snow.
It infuriates me when abortion is conflated with murder in order to get a response. The appropriation is vile. Ask anyone who has had murder ruin their family. Ask them what murder is and they will tell you. Murder is divorce. And murder is alcoholism. And murder is suicide. And murder is can’t work, can’t sleep, can’t exist. Murder is a pain that never ever becomes a ghost. It lives with you and it haunts you and it derails you and it crucifies you. Jesus said on the cross, “it is finished.” That is murder. The life you had is over and creating a new life is harder than putting one foot in front of the other, or existing from day to day. When someone is murdered, they leave behind a print in the wet dew that remains an outline in the concrete you see every day, every morning, every night. Murder kills the murdered. And then it kills their children. And their parents. Never again will the sum be the whole.
Abortion isn’t that. Abortion is politics.
White men raped slaves. They cared nothing about the women whose legs they mangled just so they could shove their penis inside. They cared nothing about the babies they fathered, the ones born alive or born suffocated and dead. They cared nothing about the half brown or all the way brown babies whose daddies were lynched while citizens boozed it up with glee at the dead man hanging from the tree. They cared nothing about black babies low birth weight, the result of poverty, and black children in school with inadequate books.
White men have never atoned for one racialized moment in their history. They have never confessed. What they care about is themselves.
When the birth control pill was introduced it meant that women could control reproduction. Pregnancies were no longer forced upon us. Shortly thereafter, Roe vs. Wade was settled law. The same group of men who despise abortion also despise the birth control pill. It has nothing to do with loving life and loving babies and it surely has nothing to do with murder.
Men have a pathological need to mark women. They mark women with bruises and they mark women with affection and they mark women with friendship and they mark women with babies. Trafficking in marks matters less than the mark itself. The rape mark is no worse than the love mark which is no less immoral than the incest mark. It’s all equal. Absent empathy, men need to leave a reminder on a woman’s flesh so the world knows they possessed something.
Therefore, abortion is not as simplistic as men want you to believe. Abortion is a threat to masculinity. When a woman has a choice, masculine power is watered down, losing authenticity. Powerful men then propagandize abortion as a last resort.
During Martha’s murder trial, the coroner testified that she fought so hard her teeth broke out her face. As the pillow was being smashed into her she kept turning and the teeth shattered. It was so very hard to listen to the coroner speak about it but I was proud in that moment. Martha was a fighter. She fought for her life. She fought for her life until the very, very end. Her killer was given life in prison without parole.
The state of Alabama wants to give abortion doctors life in prison without parole. They want a physician to have the same punishment as a crack addict who murders a retired schoolteacher, moves into her house, sells off her possessions, and has parties with his friends while a dead body is rotting in a room downstairs. This kind of imbalance in sentencing is indicative of male anxiety and male anger and how far the tail is wagging the dog. In the aggregate, white fear creates delusional thinking. A father can rape his daughter and make a baby but the abortion doctor is the one in prison, not the rapist father.
It feels historical, this instant devaluation of rape and incest. For a certain group of men, violence and non-consensual sex is part of the immoral story they have yet to apologize for.
In 2019, the world is too colored, too brown, too sexist, too racist, too cruel, too tragic, and the logical conclusion is that white babies need to be preserved at all costs and perhaps there is a small opening in the culture because with a conservative court, abortion is a thing. White men are pressing their advantage to get a redo Roe v Wade and they face hostility. But women have to be self aware too. We have grossly misunderstood intimacy. Because men were demure and marriageable and sometimes pliant, we bought into the myth they were egalitarian. But within a certain generation, there hasn’t been progress. Social architects remain.
It happens on the daily that men drop their semen into a woman’s womb, and maybe it redeems them, and maybe it venerates their choices, and maybe it makes them feel necessary. But in this quiet hour, men believe the womb and everything in it it is their property and they have all the rights. For men, the womb is aspirational, its contents far from ordinary. For women, the womb is much more personal and benevolent. It is ours. It belongs to us and only us.