Posted in Nonfiction

Carrying Jada: When ‘Standing With’ Isn’t Enough.


Two nights ago, I sat in our bedroom on the third floor with the window open. You were already asleep. The night breeze carried the voices of a cabal of teen boys walking beneath. There is a steep grassy hill behind our building. I never take you to play there. The earth is uneven and I don’t trust the improbability of a long hard tumble. But I’ve always found it a beautiful space, open and green among the brick, steel and concrete, tree-lined, flowering branches blushing white and pink each spring with the promise of growth. It is usually quiet there after nightfall, or it has been during most of the 27 years my grandmother has lived here. But things are changing. The boys were raucous but stealthy, their voices at once overloud and vanquished altogether.

“She got HIV or something. She might got HIV!” One called out.

“She probably got HIV, yo!” Another chimed in, chuckling. “I don’t trust that!” Their chorus of noises rose up to our window like a mist.

I have seen these boys or ones like them. There are no fewer than five when they’re walking through our complex during the day, sagging their skinny jeans, scratching their scalps under tall, untended fades. It’s their eyes I always remember, the furtive way they dart at my face when I’m driving by. The eyes say: do I know you or do you mean me harm?

But this isn’t a binary question. “Or” is the wrong conjunction here.

The boys under the window know the girl about whose sexual health they’re speculating. They know her, are negotiating her worth to them, are laughing. And then they are moving on.

But they’ve left blight in the air. With the casual cruelty of their cackles, they’ve colored each other’s opinions about her with innuendo. It isn’t clear to me if they even know that it is moot to denigrate a woman for contracting a disease she has likely gotten from a man. If it were right or useful or logical to measure morality by one’s illnesses, it seems whoever infected her should be the person yelled about in the town square. Do not have sex with that dude! they should be yelling. At least not without adequate multiple forms of contraception!

Even in 2014, only women are called “loose” in voices that carry. It need only be uttered about us once, in relative anonymity, and the way we negotiate the maze of our days must be altered. We take the stairs. We get to class early. We sit where the whispers are not hot and bearing down from behind. We defend ourselves when we shouldn’t and go it alone when there should be a hedge of homegirls rushing to our aid.

Changing course is no longer enough. Today, casting lots about a young girl’s sexual history, while walking in the summer night under the neighbors’ open windows, is practically innocuous by comparison. At least they are not bragging about having roofied her. At least she is not with them, unconscious and being dragged across the storm-dampened grass as one of them raises his cell phone and gets grainy night video of her. At least they are not pausing on the hill to upload the footage as she lay inert between them. At least I didn’t wake the next morning to a viral trend about the girl the boys behind my building made their punch line.

But there are other girls, other unchecked, overpowering boys, whole communities that reward them for viral shares and social pacts of silence. There are older people, parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles willing to whirl toward the girl when the boy’s name is well-known, willing to grit at those horrified girls, “You know boys act like this. All men want one thing. They are not above unspeakable acts to get it. Nothing is beneath them. What were you thinking?”

What were you thinking?

I do not often write about girls like Jada. I do not closely follow the criminal cases of boys like those who raped and recorded a girl in Steubenville. But I also do not know how not to carry these girls close. I don’t know how not to think about how profoundly both they — and the staggeringly bankrupt boys who laugh while trying their damnedest laying waste to them — have been failed by generation upon generation of rape-enabling. There is no court that can train it out of them, no verdict that translates to justice.

Toward the end of my first year teaching community college in Baltimore, I assigned my students two readings about Amber Cole, a local 14-year-old videotaped against her will while performing sex acts on boys that she knew. The six students present in my class that afternoon, all developmental English-level readers and writers, snickered, feigned offense at the subject matter, scoffed loudly at certain points. But eventually they struggled through the essays.

The time had come for us to discuss. Because we were all black and from Baltimore, because the girls were just three or four years older than Amber themselves, I expected them to empathize with her. I had this naive notion that we would rally in defense of her, if the boys in class did not.

In truth, no one defended her. In truth, one girl said, “I’d rather my daughter come home pregnant at 14 than be all over the Internet like that.” Her friend turned to her in disbelief. “A baby is for 18 years!” she said. “The Internet is forever,” the first girl retorted.

I didn’t know how to recover the conversation. Class ended, and they didn’t wait for me to verbally dismiss them before skittering off, onto a campus and into a world that would offer them no more love or support or absolution than they offered the girl we’d just discussed.

The next semester, in another class of students just as small, I brought up Trayvon Martin and one of my most promising young men said, “I don’t get what the big deal is about him. Boys die here every day and the world don’t rally for them.”

I looked to the other students, anticipating dissent. None came. I had no ready argument, either. But I know now that I should’ve said, “They should.”

They should.

We think it is rape culture or gun violence that will define us as a fallen civilization. But it’s the indifference that will do us in. It’s our fierce commitment to independence — emotional, cultural, financial, spiritual — as our most prized and noble value that dooms us.

We are nothing without each other, nothing if all we can manage is protecting our own children, nursing our individual grief, urging others to be more like someone else who was “independent” enough to “move on” and “dust herself off” and “get over it.”

We look at a little girl like Jada and we call her brave for speaking out against her own ongoing violation. She whose small body has withstood a behemoth of trauma is now expected to be publicly strong enough to fight an Internet meme proliferating faster than her own words can carry.

It is foolish to think that by devoting a few tweets or blog entries over a news cycle we are truly standing with her. It is foolish to think that standing with someone online or in a city hall or by a courtroom telecast on TV is affecting longterm change. I am often of the mind that girls who’ve gone through what Jada has don’t need us to stand with them. They need to be swept off their feet, hoisted onto our backs or shoulders, and carried. We carry the Jadas of the world by teaching their peers, that it is their own inability to empathize with her, their own voracious appetites for cell phone footage of active crime scenes, their own shrugging in the face of others’ tears that eggs their friends on. We carry her by emphasizing to young women and young men already embroiled in these dark, embittering battles that their is us and them when it comes to rape. You are not better if it has not happened to you. You will not be praised for never having done it or for leaving the scene as it’s about to occur and keeping silent about the terror you sensed there, afterward.

We carry her by resisting the urge to find the exact moment of the night in question that she could’ve had made a different choice, that she should’ve been back home, that she should’ve decided to sequester herself in her bedroom until the world stops producing boys who believe women are soulless slabs of sexual objectivity.

We carry her not with outrage, not by calling for blood, but by memorizing her face, memorizing the faces of the boys we pass every day, looking them all in the eye. Holding their gaze holds us accountable.

We carry her by understanding that not every rapist will be dissuaded. This means that, during our lifetime, we will not see a world entirely rid of messaging that enables or people who defend them. So we also carry her by focusing on those capable of change rather than those who willfully choose to label depravity as fraternal bonding or fun.

Even this feels lacking when I look at this girl’s crestfallen face. She is all but weightless on our shoulders; the opposite of burden. But lifting her is something. Dear Lord. It’s a stutter-step.

Posted in Nonfiction

Bringing the Girls Back to Themselves.

It’s been 26 days.

Today, I am looking at my knees in a series of photographs from yesterday. They are, like my elbows, slightly darker than the skin around them. Somehow both knobby and amorphous, they are fleshy hinges without much definition. Sometimes they ache at random, now that I am over 30. They are not the only joints that grow angry and ache for days. They are not even the most painful. But an aching knee makes me feel oldest. It is an ache-as-emblem, reminding me of what has been and what is to come. I am happy with them now, but I could not have said this 20 years ago.

In middle school I worried over the darkness of my knees and elbows (and my lips, which have always been naturally brown, rather than pink). People attach their own connotations to this kind of brownness: you smoke; you’re roughened; you’re unscrubbed. The other girls I knew had liquid skin, no bumpy interruptions or rough notes, nothing suggesting wear or coarseness. They did not look like they’d been crawling. Their knees and elbows did not suggest they knew a world of scrapes or scabs or groveling.

One of them, a friend, once told me that if I rubbed lemon halves on my elbows, it would exfoliate any dry skin that may have been altering the elbow’s “natural” coloring. She did this once a week herself, she said. “It works.”

But I never tried it. At 13 I could not fathom weekly beauty regimens. I did not feel beautiful, so the practice didn’t seem worth it.

Such superficial concerns, worry over knees and elbows. I spent too many afternoons wondering if, in 20 years’ time, they would be covered in folds of extra flesh or whether they’d support the long brown stalks models flaunted as they clopped across runways.

But these seem the appropriate worries of a fairly unfettered youth. We wonder if we will ever be fully sorted out and how our sorted-out selves will function. I’d like to believe that sense of mystery can be universally understood, even if not experienced. Sometimes, I imagine that before the schoolgirls in Chibok were taken, when their bodies were still their own, they too stood alone in mirrors silently taking stock, pinching, head-tilting, appraising their smiles, making secret negotiations with their reflections over how they would and would not let themselves look and behave when they were grown.

They wouldn’t wear bad hair — whether purchased or scalp grown — wouldn’t get too skinny; wouldn’t let any baby weight keep clinging long after the babies had stopped, wouldn’t leave home without plummy lipstick and kohl ringing their eyes, would never go anywhere without a touch of gold at the wrist or neck.

Not if I can help it, they’d whisper aloud.

Or maybe there were no wouldn’ts at all. Maybe there was only the most important would: they would be happy with themselves, however they would be.

The future, afar off, should leave room for such negotiations. It should be built of lofty looks and high thoughts and a long stretch of years to plan how to reach them.

School was only one step. But for them, it was such a monumental one.

By the time I reached high school, I had stopped obsessing so over knees. I’d tried to stop centering looks at all. A mediocre student, I was too worried over whether I would be able to go to College. College was always invoked in hushes at home, the capital C all but visible whenever the word was uttered, and it stood to everyone’s reason that if I went and I excelled, the superficial would begin to take care itself. I’d be earning enough to pay for any adornment I’d need: the professional multi-degreed woman would subsume the gangly adolescent inside.

I do not know how misguided it is for me to think of myself at their age as I think of the Chibok girls. But it is the way I contextualize the enormity of their loss. I weigh it against what I worried over, what I hoped for, and I see that those markers of adolescent identity — which seem so frivolous, when we’re old enough to see what we have become — are the things that hold us together, the traits that give an account of who we are.

It is not the names of the girls I’ve wanted to know during their 26 days of captivity. I have wanted to know what they were studying, which of them planned to defy her father’s wish that she become a doctor and to instead pursue dance or a life in letters or a career in aviation. I have wanted to know which ones loved pressing the pads of their fingers into their natural hair so much that they encouraged others to do the same, just to feel the joy of it. Which ones longed to fall in love? Which had been harboring unexpressed crushes? Which worried over the roughness of her knees or the shape of her lips or the sharpness of jaw and elbow?

And which of them cannot, at this point, remember any of this about herself anymore? Which has been indoctrinated, convulsively ill, brutally assaulted? Which wonders if anyone is coming? Which has such tenacious parents she cannot fathom any outcome other than being rescued by them? Does word of their nation’s women in protests, if it has reached them at all, serve to shore them up? Does it reaffirm the import of women’s education? Do they hear in the battle cries the sounds of the grown selves they can still become?

I have no end of questions.

Yesterday, Mother’s Day, I cuddled with my daughter and took a ton of pictures. We photograph ourselves and each other, endless snapshots for which she has grown poised and expectant. She has been watching me as I’ve slowly reclaimed the parts of myself that felt so misplaced after motherhood: the body confidence, the brain whose thoughts seemed permanently covered in postpartum haze. She loves to look at these pictures later. She is studying something of herself in them. She is looking back and forth between herself and me.

Right now, I am how she understands womanhood. But there will come a time when she defines it for herself. No mother wants those definitions marked with unmerciful violence, with traumas for which even she has no frame of reference. No mother wants her daughter robbed of healthy adolescence, of the luxury of long, unhampered years to see what the end will be.

I want those girls found and recovered, but I have no delusions about what long-term captivity and torture does to the psyche. I know what it is capable of erasing. More than rescue, I want them to retain their memories of themselves in the life before. I want them to look at themselves 20 years hence and marvel at how much the woman before them embodies what they’d imagined for themselves all these years ago, in dormitory mirrors. In my imagination they will glimpse their degrees on the walls behind them and allow themselves private, daily shudders at what they were forced to endure to earn them. And they will face the world without fear of dark fates, for they know they possess what is needed to stare the darkest down.