A tale of two missing Memphis women
I took last week off as a vacation with the intent of clearing my mind. I largely stayed off social media and limited my exposure to news, for even those of us in the news business need a ‘‘timeline cleanser,’’ to use a popular phrase.
But no vacation caused me to miss the tragic events in Memphis. I am certain that by now, there’s not a Tennessean who doesn’t know that on Friday, Sept. 2, Eliza Fletcher’s husband reported the 34-year-old kindergarten teacher and mother of two had failed to return from an early morning run near the family’s home.
A suspect was identified based on a video of the kidnapping and identification from acquaintances and by late Monday afternoon, Fletcher’s body had been found and suspect Cleotha Abston Henderson was in custody.
Only 48 hours later, 19-year-old Ezekial “Zeek” Kelly went on a shooting rampage through the Bluff City, killing four people and injuring three.
While Tennesseans, and Memphians in particular, were reeling from the shock of both incidents, conservative news outlets made hay.
Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson unleashed a barrage of criticism on our state and on Memphis, calling Memphis “a city collapsing because of violence,” and a “husk” of a city — “a highly dangerous one at that.”
He played a recording Fletcher sent to her students during the early days of COVID, as she told her students how much she missed them. “You can tell what type of woman she was,” Carlson said, adding that she met her husband in church.
Then, he attacked Gov. Bill Lee, whom he described as “believe it or not, a Republican,” called a “guilty liberal” and condemned Lee’s support for criminal justice reform.
Enough on Carlson. He’s wrong about much of what he said. For starters, Lee is no liberal, although his 2018 campaign promise to focus on criminal justice reform has failed to come to fruition.
Crime is, in fact, a problem in Memphis, but that’s not news. Crime is a problem in Nashville, too, and many other cities across the U.S.
But neither Carlson nor homegrown conservative mouth Clay Travis — who used verbiage similar to Carlson’s, tweeting Memphis “has fallen completely apart thanks to soft on crime policies and the demonization of the police” — have had a single word to say about the young Black women who are kidnapped or go missing in Memphis.
About the same time Fletcher went missing, so did 16-year-old Takirra Milam. Milam was last seen on Sept. 6 at Cordova High School.
I’ll bet you haven’t read about Milam. A Memphis TV station posted a story about her Sunday, a week after she disappeared. I began searching for online news about her on Monday because I remembered a friend posting on social media last week that a young Black woman disappeared around the same time Fletcher did.
But when I searched to double-check the name of the young woman, I found nothing except Sunday’s story. I wasn’t even certain Milam was the young woman I’d been thinking of: I texted a politically savvy Black woman in Memphis to ask her the name of the recently disappeared teenager. Her response was: “Which one? There have legit been several.”
Another political friend in Memphis responded, “Sadly, I hadn’t even heard of it.”
Data from the City of Memphis shows more than 100 people have been kidnapped in the city in 2022, 20 of them between Aug. 1 and today, but I, a regular consumer of Memphis media, have read or seen few details on these.
There’s a disparity in the coverage between white and Black women so well known it’s earned a name: “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” An article from the College of William and Mary defines the syndrome as “an overabundance of coverage that mainstream media outlets dedicate to missing persons cases of White women and its correlating lack of coverage of missing people of color.” The missing white women are sometimes characterized as “damsels in distress.”
And there are a number of reasons for this, including the “adultification” of Black girls. Studies, including one by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, show Black girls and young women are subject to stereotypes including that of being hypersexualized, less in need of protection and the “Angry Black Woman.”
Syracuse professor Carol Liebler laid out the issue in even more stark terms in 2021: “The causes for MWWS are complex and reflective of dominant ideologies of white supremacy and beauty ideals.”
Fletcher does, in fact, sound like a wonderful and caring woman, beloved by her family and friends, and it was no surprise that women across the state organized early morning runs to honor her memory. Her kidnapping and killing was a senseless tragedy.
But the kidnapping of Milam and so many other Memphians is also a tragedy. Will Carlson or Travis speak up for Milam? Will they talk about the type of young woman she is, or what her future promised? Will anyone organize events to honor her?
Ethicists often debate among themselves how lives are valued: Most of us agree there is no way to morally place a monetary value on life, but are some lives valued more highly than others?
There is no doubt that the outpouring of grief for Fletcher and support for her family is warranted. But we also do harm by ignoring the pain of families like Milam’s, as it is almost rote for society to marginalize people of color and to dismiss their humanity.
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