The following essay is part of a series, made possible by the Art for Justice Fund, documenting communities “most harmed by mass incarceration”—especially women and children—“where the promise of change is greatest.” Read the other original essays in this series.
It is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in the year 2019, and at a middle school in Birmingham, Alabama, four twelve-year-old girls are commandeered by the nurse and assistant principal to endure an illegal strip search unsheathing their self-esteem and self-worth. The adults said they were looking for drugs because the group of tweens were “acting giddy.” The adults said the search was within their rights as school officials.
I remember high school. It felt like the most danger we had to be worried about was the peers that wanted to fight you for name for school yard recognition. Today, our school officials assault our kids in the name of professionalism. You can find traces of these vicious acts if you do an online search. Search for the video of the South Carolina school security officer who slammed a Black girl to the ground while she sat in her seated desk. Search for the video of the Texas police officer that slammed the Black girl onto her stomach—knee in her back—as he hogtied her (despite the bikini she wore to pool party). Both these examples of brutal violence are a response to young Black girls who “don’t know their place.” The non-action from our justice system speaks volumes. The silence says: physical violence and spiritual harm in response Black’s girls who pride themselves in standing up for themselves, not following the rules or just being too sassy, is justifiable. When we say the Future is Female or Intersectional Feminist AF or Black Girl Magic or Black Girl Lives Matter or or Black Trans Lives Matter or Protect Black Women at All Cost, the response is loud and clear. Black girls are not safe in school.
In the first month of January 2019, Cyntoia Brown is granted clemency after serving fifteen years for self-defense resulting in the death of a man who bought her for sex. She was sixteen years old and forced into sex work. Instead of the justice system or the social services department tending to the young Black girl who was lost in the system, Cyntoia was admonished and painted to be a monster, for having the gall to protect herself. In a country where Stand Your Ground laws exist, no attorney, judge, or jury found themselves in a place to advocate for Cyntoia’s freedom. Black girls aren’t safe in the justice system.
In the same month, when petitions spiraled through the online platforms for the clemency of Cyntoia Brown, Surviving R. Kelly premiered. This six-part Lifetime docuseries featured the accounts of previously ignored and silenced young girls, now women, who alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Robert Kelly. That same week R. Kelly’s album streams shot up sixteen percent. Black girls aren’t safe in the music industry.
Almost ten years ago, I speak against a young man who is accused of sexually assaulting an underage young Black girl. I am torn. I am not a social worker. I am only a writer with a teenage daughter. Still, I mediate conversations and assist in the creation of safer spaces for art makers and mentees. Every classroom, workshop space, and stage production I participate in becomes a safer space model. I am a part of healing circles, accountability sessions, and community town meetings. I believe younger artists can strengthen their practice as community members if the generation before them addresses publicly the concerns of transformative justice with working models. Some people in the community called me a hater (cheap), or just a “bitter black woman” (boring)–but I was aware of the damage that happens when a wound goes unchecked. How transgressions ignored can become mistaken for excused. And after months of tedious and tumultuous court proceedings, a plea deal was accepted. The young girl, now reeling from an unjust response from the justice system, became a victim to internet bullying. It is years before I see her again. Almost half a decade, I run into the young girl, now an adult. She is peaceful. Even distant. Rightfully so. My face belongs to the landscape of a footpath she barely survived. Even I cannot provide safe passage for a Black girl.
Today, I am somewhere near an ocean, somewhere in Florida, and I am tired of writing about the assault of Black girls. I want to write about the abundance of laughter and the beautiful hairstyles. I want to flourish on the shimmy of Black girl shoulders to her favorite song, or the way she high-fives a sister friend at the coffee shop. I want to undo my own braids and run my fingers through my hair walking down the street–but ain’t no street safe for a Black girl’s joy. There is nowhere I can do this. Nowhere I can find a place to smile completely. My gap teeth showing little darts of light. My eyes closed, basking. This is when I turn to poems. Because I know the sting when our prideful names are mocked until it’s chopped and chipped down, small enough to fit into an arrogant mouth. I know what it means to mentally comb through my own images and witness the whitewashing of my kind of coil. Why else would we taunt the hairstyles worn by Simone Biles, Blue Ivy, or Gabby Douglas? We the daughters of the mammy and the nanny. We the daughters of the enslaved and the freed. We the daughters of the darkest berry aren’t even safe in our own palms. What part of this American dream is actually ours?