She is somebody

BY Keisha Bell

Sadly, women have been the victims of sexual assault since before biblical times. On plantations, black women were routinely victimized in this way. Today, we hear that “sex sells.”

Question. Are you buying it?

From music videos to car advertisements, we have seen women objectified to enrich someone else’s bottom-line. What message is society telling our girls and our boys about our girls? Are you truly appreciating and valuing her intellectual capacity, even when it is present in black and brown skin? What happens when she fights back?

Meet Joan Little, the first woman in United States history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault. Little was born in 1953. She was the oldest of 10 siblings and was forced the care for them. The pressure was too much. She often rebelled and was a regular runaway.

Joan Little VisionaryIn 1968, and pursuant to her mother’s request, Little was declared a truant and ordered to the Dobbs Farm Training School. By the time she was 20, she had acquired a series of arrests. Still, her intelligence had been noted by her social worker who offered her encouraging words. What if her intellect was celebrated? How different would her life have been?

While Little was in a jail in North Carolina, she was sexually assaulted by a jail guard. She was 21. He was 62.

The guard’s body was found lying face down on her bunk, naked from the waist down. He had been stabbed in the temple and heart areas with the same ice pick he used to force her to comply. It was obvious that sexual activity had taken place. Unfortunately, the jail guard did not see Little as anything more than a sexualized object.

Little was charged with first-degree murder. The charge in North Carolina carried an automatic death sentence.

Because, at that time, North Carolina was home to over one-third of all the death penalty cases in the United States, anti-death penalty and prisoners’ rights advocates were extremely interested in Little’s case. Since the jail guard was a white man and Little is a black woman, both civil rights activists and feminists were also extremely interested.

Keisha Bell

Keisha Bell

Little acknowledged that she killed the jail guard, but she stated that she did so in self-defense to the sexual assault. The widespread interest in Little’s case captured the national media and the Joan Little Defense Committee raised over $350,000. People believed that she is somebody.

Question. Do you believe it?

Keisha Bell is an Attorney, author, and public servant.

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