It was August, 11, 2010. And it happened to be a uniquely gray day in Newark, NJ. I sat across from Amiri Baraka, the celebrated (and sometimes reviled) writer, intellectual, and cultural critic, in his South Ward home. Nearing the end of our more than two-hour conversation—during which he and the well-regarded black lesbian poet Cheryl Clarke animatedly talked about poetry and community transformation—Baraka bowed his head and his sullen eyes despondently let us know that the following day would be the anniversary of his daughter’s tragic death. We didn’t know. But he remembered.
The grief in Baraka’s voice and sadness in his eyes were matched only by the despair that permeated his home. On the very date that we gathered, some seven years before, his daughter, Shani Baraka, who was 31 at the time, and her partner, Rayshon (“Ray-Ray”) Holmes, 30, were still alive. But when we convened on this later day , Amiri and his family were left only with the haunting memories of the young lesbian couple’s murder at the hands of 35-year old James Coleman, the estranged husband of Shani’s older sister, Wanda Pasha. Coleman tragically shot and murdered Shani and Ray-Ray in Wanda Pasha’s home on August 12, 2003. During the time of the heart-wrenching trial, Amiri's wife Amina Baraka remarked: ''We only want justice, but sometimes it is not always clear what justice is when you are black in this country.''
But the murder of Shani and Ray-Ray illuminated a particular type of everyday violence that is both racialized and gendered, a type of violence that evidences the consequences of sexism and homo-antagonism precisely aimed at black women (who love other women). Shani and Rayshon’s case centered much-needed attention on the violence inflicted upon black women, especially lesbians, by presumably straight black men. We black queer men are prone to committing similar violences, just as well. But what does justice look like for black lesbian sisters, who daily fight through racism and much else while seeking to protect themselves from the violences that are inflicted upon them by their black brothers, lovers, fathers, friends, and others?
When the “Enemy” is your “Family”?
Today, two more families are mourning the loss of a black lesbian couple—this time in Houston, Texas. The bodies of Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson were discovered by a beer delivery driver on March 7 as the driver traveled along the Bolivar Peninsula in Galveston County, Texas. Cosby and Jackson, both 24, began dating in 2012, according to a close friend of the couple. According to autopsy reports, Jackson died from a single gunshot to the head and Cosby appeared to have died from blows to her head and a broken neck.
Shortly after the murder, Britney Cosby’s father, 46-year-old James Larry Cosby Jr., attended a vigil where he was recorded on video stating: “She was like my twin. She looked like me. She acted like me. Her features were like mine. Her hands were like mine. Everything about her was just like me. When she was born, my mama said, 'Boy, it looked like you had that child.' "
He also noted that he would miss his daughter. But James Cosby is now being held in jail as the prime suspect in the ruthless murders of his daughter and her partner.
Cosby, who was previously convicted for sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman, has since been charged with two counts of tampering with evidence and a possible charge of capital murder. According to police, he is the prime suspect after his fingerprints were found on a piece of evidence and blood was found at the suspected crime scene, the home he and his daughter shared with James Cosby’s mother.
Until, and if, Cosby confesses, the family and friends of Britney and Crystal will be left to wonder what exactly motivated a father to murder his daughter and her partner. According to Britney Cosby's mother, Loranda Remer, James Cosby did not fully accept his daughter's romantic relationship.Yet, the pervasive women-hating and women-controlling impulse that is a core facet of most men’s relationships to women in the US, whether straight or not, is a strikingly clear thread in yet another narrative of male-enacted violence.
When reflecting on the very quotidian nature of violence against women after the death of their daughter, Amina and Amiri Baraka wrote the following:
“[H]e murdered our little Shani and Ray Ray because they were Black, because they were women, because they were workers, because they did not live off stocks and bonds and other people's misery. But he also killed them, shot our little Shani and her companion Ray Ray, because he believed they were gay, he hated them because he thought they loved each other and this fake human with the mind of a nasty gob of spit on the floor felt that it was wrong for these two women to love each other, to want to be together rather than with him or with other men, black or white, like him. So this homophobic male chauvinist Negro hated them even more for that.”
Thus, like Shani and Ray-Ray, like Shani’s older lesbian aunt (and Amiri’s sister) Kimako before her, like 15-year-old lesbian Sakia Gunn who like Shani called Newark home, black lesbians Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson from Houston, Texas, were killed by Black men—some of whom were family members. And whether the force that propelled the use of gun, or hand, or knife in the cases referenced above was sexism, misogyny, disdain of homosexuals, or all of the above, the killing of black women, black women loving women, by black men is a clarion reminder that the want for power and the afforded privileges offered to straight/queer/trans men folk—black, brown, and white—has dangerous and violent consequences. Murder is but one.
And we need not memorialize another black woman sister daughter whose blood has been spilled at the hands of a black man.
Watch the interview with Amiri Baraka and poet Cheryl Clarke below: