“Can you do me a favor? Can you say Joy Lane? She’s the reason that this is about to happen to you.” -Steve Stephens as he shot and killed an innocent man in cold blood.
Steve Stephens was a “good guy” and a “nice guy”. That didn’t stop him from murdering an innocent, elderly Black man, Robert Godwin, in cold blood in an attempt to get an emotional reaction from his ex-girlfriend, Joy Lane. Godwin was 74. On Easter Sunday of 2017, Stephens rode around Cleveland, Ohio broadcasting on Facebook Live, lamenting about how his ex-girlfriend, who had left him due to his extreme financial insecurity and gambling addiction, had “driven him crazy”.
Motives stated by Stephens for his completely random, unprovoked violence were that he was struggling and out of options. In another Facebook Live video, Stephens listed his motive for the violence in his own words. He stated that he was a case manager at a mental health facility and helped other people with his problems, but no one was there to listen to his problems, not even his own mother. He said that he had been with Joy Lane for three years and that she had “driven him crazy”. He also alleged that HE was the one that had broken up with her (this was untrue) and that SHE was the one that started making him gamble. Stephens committed suicide just two days later in Erie, PA as police closed in on him.
As terrible as the crime itself was the community reaction to this horrible crime spree. Everyone had an opinion about the crime while Stephens was on the lam. There were calls for Joy to “go to him”, a clearly violent, abusive, armed man on a murder spree. There were judgments of her appearance, comments about how she wasn’t attractive enough to warrant a murder spree. Comments completely blaming Joy for her decision to leave Steve. There was the blaming of Stephen’s mother for not listening. There were the conversations about “mental health in the Black community”, which seemed to serve less as a genuine dialogue builder and more as a scapegoat or cop out to not hold Stephens and his toxic masculinity responsible for the crimes he committed. Especially considering he was lucid enough to record, broadcast, and state in full awareness of what he had done and why. He was also lucid enough to contact several friends and family members afterwards for support and to gloat.
While the community response was varied, very few were analysis of Steven’s inability to deal with rejection. Very few placed accountability for Steven’s actions with him and him alone. Many of the responses revealed some real problems with the Black community and how we navigate intra-communal sexual politics.
Black Women are not Acceptable Sacrifices on the Altar of Black Male Ego
Stephens was very deliberate in using Joy Lane’s name throughout his crimes. He even went as far as to publicize her place of work. He was clearly aware that his actions would cause increased scrutiny of her and he relied on public pressure and outrage about his crimes to make her feel sympathy and regret her decision to leave him, a clearly violent gambling addict. And, for the most part, that was successful. Social media flooded with judgments and criticisms of HER. It was flooded with things SHE should have done or said to help him manage his rejection. Some even implied that because Stephens was a “good man” she should have stuck through it all and worked it out.
This idea is one that is far too common in the Black community. Our idea of what makes a man “good” is far, far too skewed. The bar is set so low that pretty much all a man has to do is be employed and present and that is supposed to be enough for a Black woman to be happy. Never mind if he’s an addict who’s financial issues are negatively impacting you and your children. Never mind if he’s emotionally unstable and prone to violence.
The overarching myths of “good” Black male scarcity and Black female unworthiness create a storm of confusing messaging to the Black community about healthy romantic relationships. The general message to Black women is that “good” Black men don’t exist and, that if they do, they don’t desire Black women. The general messaging to Black men is that “good” Black men are scarce and rare. This creates a social environment where Black women are expected to cling to any bare minimum Black man for dear life and it is a trap.
Black women are expected to give of themselves emotionally and physically for the advancement of the ego, maturity, and financial station of adult Black men, a service very rarely reciprocated or compensated. Joy Lane and Steve Stephens are an extreme example of a pervasive issue that exists as a macrocasm in the Black community. Black women are expected to risk their very literal lives on the altar of Black male ego.
Black Men’s Issues are Very Rarely Their Own Faults; Internally or Externally
Mental health in the Black community is a complexed and nuanced conversation when one considers that mental health support is cost and time prohibitive- and money and time are scarce among the impoverished. It is even more nuanced when one considers that those who are assigned male at birth are hardly little space to express any emotion but anger. Those who can’t express emotions never learn to cope with those emotions. All of this considered, the person responsible for healing your trauma is yourself. Steve Stephens, like R Kelly, like many other Black male abusers, rapists, and murderers all have access to mental health care to repair themselves if they so desired.
Steve Stephens worked as a caseworker and was abreast of all resources a person in need of any form of assistance could acquire. Beechbrook, his former employer, provided resources to outpatient counseling according to their site. Most employers are required by law to have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) designed to help with issues of behavioral health. Steve Stephens had allegedly been struggling with his gambling addiction for years- and it led to a bankruptcy two years prior to the incident and massive debt even after the bankruptcy.
At no point did Stephens take advantage of the resources at his disposal to heal HIMSELF. Instead, he placed the burden on Black women (his mother and girlfriend) to repair. The idea that Black men are a special kind of broken that can ONLY be fixed by a good woman staying by his side and dealing with whatever bullshit he throws her way is another that is also macrocosmic in the Black community. Stephens, at one point, even made the claim that he was the one that broke up with his ex (untrue) because SHE was the one that was flawed somehow. He, an adult male, blamed his MOTHER for not listening. He, a member of a Black fraternity (Omega Psi Phi), at no point turned to his BROTHERS or himself for help. It is always the fault and responsibility of Black women.
As someone who is trauma-informed, I am aware that discounting the influence of trauma in mental health is incredibly intellectually dishonest and arguably irresponsible. However, it is also intellectually dishonest and irresponsible to discount the influence of the social conditioning of Black people assigned male at birth in Black male violence. Black women are, after all, dealing with many of the same issues as Black men with the addition of being influenced by external sexist violence and intra-communal lateral violence and abuse at incredible rates, usually at the hands of these self-same men. Despite this- Black women do not turn to violent crime and abuse at the same rates as Black men to vent their frustrations and trauma.
There is something to be said about the fact that Black women are victims of more internal and external violence and the perpetrators of less of this violence and trauma statistically. Black women are reared, from very young to heal themselves. Black men are taught to count on Black women to coddle them. That is the difference. Black men doing their own emotional labor instead of counting on Black women to fix them will progress the community in immeasurable ways.
If we want to have a serious dialogue about mental health in the black community, we have to stop being reactively dismissive and more proactive.
Black Women are Valued Less Than Black Men
“In the Black community, dick is God”- Kathy M Henry
One thing that struck me most about the demands or calls for Joy Lane to submit herself to be slaughtered by Steve Stephens or the idea that she was more deserving of violence and death for wronging him by rejecting him than Mr. Godwin, was how little concern the community has for Black women. Joy Lane’s life mattered less than Mr. Godwin’s, less than a murderer. She was innocent, yet people were hardpressed in the desire to believe that she must have done SOMETHING that warranted her to be sacrificed to Stephens. The questions about her attractiveness and if she was “worth” him being hurt. The willingness to discard her. The insistence that SHE was somehow responsible.
How little we value Black women left an impression on me. We give Black men, especially those who have done serious harm, mercy, understanding, and compassion beyond the realms of rationality. We have become so collectively traumatized by being forced into positions to protect Black men from external violence due to things that they have not done, that we have forgotten how to hold Black men accountable for the things that they have actually done. In the midst of it all, we have completely overlooked the fact that Black women need mercy, understanding, and compassion as well. We have completely forgotten that Black women are struggling with the same exact issues. We have completely forgotten that Black women need protection.
Instead, we raise the wolves then throw Black women to them. Steve Stephens was not a “good guy” he was a wolf in bare minimum clothing. In the Black community, however, we are reared to believe that these are one and the same and it is a fallacy that makes Black men like him a danger to himself and the community at large.
Steve Stephens is dead now, but the issues illuminated by his entitlement and violence remain.