- Text by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
On 10 September 2017, 19-year-old Kenneka Jenkins was found dead in a walk-in freezer at the Crowne Plaza O’Hare Hotel in Rosemont, a village in Cook County, Illinois. Her friends claim that she had left her phone in the room where they were partying as their group was leaving, so they went back to retrieve it, leaving her in the hallway alone – at which point she wandered off.
Since then a number of videos have been released from the night of her death, and also a wild amount of conspiracy theories. People have been acting like amateur sleuths; online Sherlock and Watson’s – developing stories which read like cut-price murder mystery novels from a back shelf at WHSmith.
In one video, Twitter users chillingly claim, you can hear Kenneka crying out for help. In CCTV of her stumbling around the hotel shortly before she apparently entered the freezer, people have been pointing out shadows and glitches, saying that she wasn’t alone.
It’s all too easy to make fun of these people, or dismiss them entirely. But in doing so, we miss some of the deeper implications behind the black community jumping to find explanations for her death. People die in mysterious circumstances all the time, but Kenneka is a black teenager who died under mysterious circumstances in an era of hyper-awareness, especially from black Twitter and activists in general, about the treatment of black people by the state. In a twisted way, it reminds me of all the support OJ Simpson and Bill Cosby have been given, even when people didn’t dispute their misdemeanours (to put it lightly).
Think back to March, when a viral Instagram post claimed that 14 black girls went missing in Washington DC in 24 hours. Although this proved to be untrue, as some of the girls had been missing for years and weren’t even from DC, what the story did bring to the fore was that there is huge disproportionality when it comes to missing black children in the US. According to the Black and Missing Foundation, 36.7% of missing people under the age of 17 are black. This is terrifying, considering black people only make up 13.3% of the US population.
And beyond the figures which are shocking in and of themselves, just as in the UK, a blonde, blue-eyed child like Madeleine McCann or Ben Needham is going to get far more attention from the media than a black girl.
As put by activist and writer Shaun King: “Thousands and thousands of young black girls and women are missing all over the country, but most people can’t name a single one of them… We don’t see primetime television specials on them. Their images don’t become permanent fixtures on Twitter. Their names don’t get hashtags or trending topics.”
Missing white woman syndrome is a real problem.
The evidence to our mistreatment is all there. A recent study from Georgetown University earlier this year revealed that black women in particular are seen as being less innocent, need less nurturing than white girls, need to be supported less than white girls, and particularly worrying, know more about sex than white girls. We are a demographic that is at a significant disadvantage if we do happen to be exposed to any bad fortune – such as being left wandering the halls of a deserted hotel.
People often don’t see us as in need of help; it was rightly highlighted after her death that Kenneka was reported as being a “woman” rather than a teen in headlines.
The fact of the matter is that when we do die at the hands of the state, people tend to care less – hence ventures Kimberly Crenshaws #SayHerName campaign, launched to bring awareness to the fact that “although black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality”.
So the reaction to Kenneka’s death totally makes sense. It is in direct opposition to the usual treatment black women receive by the public, the state and the media. And while misinformation and wild theories are going to do little to help Kenneka’s family get the answers, and perhaps the justice, they deserve, to me at least, some of these conspiracy theories don’t seem that far-fetched.
Her family’s statement make one thing clear: the truth has yet to come out.
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a journalist based in London. Follow her on Twitter.