Last night, in the long hours of the evening, I wept for the life and loss of 19-year-old activist, Oluwatoyin Ruth Salau. I thought about my tumultuous upbringing both as a West African-Black American girl in America. I thought about my time as a runaway on the streets of Pittsburgh, PA., about the times I mistook friendly faces for friends. I thought about how I could have been Toyin, a girl fighting for the togetherness of her people while forced to fight her people, alone. I watched video of her proudly proclaiming her stance in support of the preservation of all black lives, if only she’d grown up in a community that echoed those sentiments.
Running from abuse at the hands of nuclear relatives, found herself relying on the kind gestures of members of her community to navigate her inopportune independence. Where she sought protection, she was preyed upon, where she sought shelter, she instead suffered additional assault. And when she demonstrated the audacity to demand that the man who violated her be brought to justice for his violence, she would pay for her persistence with her life.
Toyin was failed too many times. First by the Nigerian community, to whom her ethnic identity belongs. One that comes with a culture often caught red handed playing in the patriarchal cookie-jar of perpetuating and imposing harsh treatment on young girls and women. And again, by the Black community, to whom her national identity belongs as an American-born Black woman. And Black America’s continuous conversation surrounding the mistreatment of it’s women and girls is hardly it’s best kept secret.
She was failed by Black women, as many of us have sold our souls for the perks of patriarchy, seeing sisterhood as competition and abuse as socialization. And she was failed by Black men, many of whom having convinced themselves that the callous indifference they feel towards Black women is subtle, unseen. It’s not.
It’s not only seen, it’s said, supported, stylish, celebrated. And Black girls can’t compete in a culture that has deemed their sacrifice a sacrament. If no one will make it their mission to protect and defend Black women, not even the men who profess to love them, then Black women, we must do it on our own, and do so as though our lives depended on it. They do. I wrote this with hope that young Black girls and Black women everywhere would read it and reconsider the diatribe through which we’ve all been socialized. One where we prioritize the protection of the people around us, while often falling victim to lifelong relationships without reciprocity. Someone needs to save Black women, so be it if it has to be us. This is the Black girl’s guide to staying alive.
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Step 1: Bare Arms
And I’m not talking tank tops in summer. If you take away nothing else from the first step in this five-step guide, take this first word with you:
Women, trans women, and girls have the right to secure and safe space.
And guess what?
Its’ time we actively defended that right.
I can recall as a young girl, waiting on the school bus in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes accompanied only by the fickleness of a full fall moon. At the intersection of Perrysville and Charles Street, two of Pittsburgh’s notorious North Side roads, I stood every morning in my uniform and knee socks waiting for the city bus to take me a third of the way to the wealthy side of town where my private school was situated.
Waiting anxiously in my uniform skirt, I sat silently as men of all ages shot their sexual advances in my direction. Some “respectfully”, or as respectfully as you can sexually coerce a six grader. Others more aggressively, without filter or forethought. My sisters and I, whom academic scholarships sent in different directions around the city, rotated the busy bus stop every weekday. Sometimes sharing our stories with one another, often not telling a soul.
As we grew older, the encounters grew more graphic. Cars slowly crept to a crawl, car windows slid into door sockets as our onlookers moseyed up to make their intentions known. We weren’t the only prey. Other girls endured an equally egregious environment. Bystanders made no mention of the ordeals, often kept quiet as the men attempted to lure us to their Lincoln’s.
“They’re out there looking for fast little girls that think they’re grown”, my mother would remind me.
“And if that’s not you, then you have nothing to worry about”.
It took years for me to realize that my mother, like many others, had been infected by the poison of patriarchy. Unfortunately, her acclamation to an environment that reinforced to young Black girls that safety was bought with good behavior, made me more susceptible to abuse at the hands of male members of my community, who were rarely held to such a standard.
It took years for me to realize that my mother, like many others, was infected by the poison of patriarchy. Unfortunately, her acclamation to an environment that reinforced to young Black girls that safety was bought with good behavior, made me more susceptible to abuse at the hands of male members of my community, who were rarely held to such a standard. While we were chastised into chastity, convinced that adult men grew powerless in the presence of our sixth grade sexiness, we watched young girls go missing from winter formals and arts festivals, reinforcing to us that the difference between life and death was our demeanor.
Long gone are the days where we equip young Black girls with nothing but well wishes to ward off the advances of predatory people, even if those people are Black. And gone are the days where we excuse wounded Black women wounding Black girls and other Black women. We should be taught to protect ourselves at the same time boys are being taught to target us. We should equip young girls with the knowledge to know what constitutes abuse, and then support them and each another to sound the alarm when abuse occurs.
We should arm ourselves against any ideation that says the burden of being treated humanely is on us. And while others are still figuring out what that means, we should arm ourselves physically, so that our livelihoods don’t continue to suffer from willful ignorance in the interim.
Protection comes in many forms:
No matter the method, it’s imperative that Black girls and women everywhere equip themselves with the ability to act as though they were their own first line of defense. In many instances, they will be.
Step 2: Sisterhood is Survival
When a community is under attack, solidarity is its’ most tactical tool. Unfortunately for Black women, solidarity has proven somewhat of a struggle, especially when it comes to the conversation on Black men. Much like racism rewards those of us who agree to operate within the confines of its’ oppressive structure, patriarchy has it’s prizes, that prize being male affirmation. And because patriarchy socially rewards women who participate in systems that subjugate other women for the sake of the “greater good” (i.e. the pleasures of heterosexual men), this puts all women in a significant state of danger. Including patriarchy’s “willing” participants.
Solidarity, at its core, requires the suspension of all participation in all parts of patriarchy by all female and female identifying persons, including the parts of patriarchy that personally benefit us. This means no longer seeing sexual assault as something to be earned or avoided. It means avoiding the inclination to see abuse by men as karma visited upon morally “corrupt” women, ending the narrative that narrows our purpose to portals of pleasure or pain.
But most of all it means severing the stronghold sexism has on sisterhood. Choosing to serve as safe spaces, as opposed to skeptics towards one another, deciding that every woman is worthy of peace and protection, including the ones patriarchy appears to prefer.
(This part is particularly hard.)
I will not put other women down in an attempt to elevate myself.
I will look out for my sister, I will not invite danger her way, even in the midst of conflict.
I will speak up for my sister, particularly those of whom, to this day, remain voiceless under the weight of a wicked world view.
I will support my sister in her endeavors because her success is my own.
I will communicate my displeasures and concerns to my sister with respect and clarity, giving her the space and support she needs to receive something constructive from my careful criticism.
Sisterhood also says:
I will hold my sister accountable instead of ignoring unhealthy behavior, particularly the kind that damages the self and/or threatens the wellbeing of other women and young girls.
I will put on the back burner any sisterhood or social affiliation built on the basis of exclusion and/or elitism, recognizing that there is no womanhood where we’re not all welcome.
Now with that said, sisterhood is something we’ll need to redefine for ourselves. By definition, the word refers to the state of being a sister, often used to describe the non-romantic relationship between two or more, often related, female or female identifying individuals.
Our sisterhood is somewhat different. Although no familial connection connects us, we are linked by a common interest, which is the prospect of a peaceful existence. In order for us to see the soundness in sisterhood, it’s imperative that we operate with an awareness of the very real rationale behind our relation.
Step 3: No More Mr. Nice Guy
Is someone in your life suffering from “Nice Guy Syndrome”?
Are you sick and tired of your loved one proudly proclaiming, “World’s Nicest Nice Guy”, just about every chance he gets? Is your male friend constantly complaining about how women fake interest in friendly men, only to turn around and chase the playboy? Have you fallen victim to patriarchy’s version of Punk’d, the faux friend trap? Chances are you have. Haven’t we all.
The nice guy is no less infected with the ideals of patriarchy. His methods might seem sincere, his approach may even feel like real friendship, but at his core, he identifies with the ideology that says physical contact and sexual gratification are the utmost to gain from any interaction between a man and woman.
Men who identify themselves with this label often occupy the stance that they are owed interaction with women due to their less than threatening demeanor, that friendship just for friendships sake is failure, that a display of basic human decency should counter a woman’s lifelong lived experiences.
At age 15, I ran away from home. In a split second, I decided that I was safer on the city street than I was under my mother’s mortgage, and so I sat silently at the back of the bus as it bolted past my stop. There wasn’t a woman in my family I could call for help, a word of encouragement, or a safe place to crash. They had all been through far worse, they’d lament, it only made them stronger. And the men in my family had no means with which to offer anything. Go figure.
For a moment, I regretted the decision not to confess to my school counselors where my black and blue bruises came from or explain to them how a lip gets busted on a biweekly basis. I believed it my burden, the recurring coldness of my mother’s character. It wasn’t all her fault. Who had time for softness when duty constantly called for strength? I didn’t want my mother to go to prison, or wherever mean moms went, (and they were all kinda mean where I came from). I simply couldn’t withstand the physicality of her punishments. And so I figured I would remove myself when it became too painful to stay. And it had.
At the end of my Tracfone phone list was a nice guy I knew from my summer job, an older guy who ran a community organization for kids. He offered me a space to crash, no strings attached, no payback necessary. Performing empathy upon hearing my ordeal, he would be the first to do so. I rerouted my ride to his family home, where he stayed with his aging mother and a few relatives. No one seemed to notice that I was there. At first, I thought that was a good thing. But after about 48 hours, his tone became contorted. Jokes turned into jabs and jabs into jeering. Have you had sex, he wanted to know. What about oral? Anal? As thing grew more menacing, it was evident that the nice guy nuance had worn off, I had obviously outstayed my exchange.
Unlike Toyin, for whom home was no longer an option, I knew my parents were looking for me. And as I weighed my worries, I was able to choose the pain I knew over the potential one that I didn’t. Toyin had no such option. Her only option being the helping hand of a man who proclaimed himself a good one, a man we know to be no such thing.
The nice guy notion is a farce, a figment of patriarchy’s projections. You owe no one for their niceness because you are not currency. You don’t owe your time, your energy, or even your pleasantry, and that goes for male family members too, quiet as its kept.
No means no, even when you ask nicely. And if someone is only nice in the hopes of being awarded intimate access, that’s not moral, that’s manipulative.
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