Nonfiction

Bringing the Girls Back to Themselves.

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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.

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Nonfiction, Race

How We Lost 200 Black Girls in 12 Days.

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Editor’s Note (4/17/15): This post has been edited to omit the name, missing person’s photo/press release, and city of the missing person referenced in the first paragraph, at the request of someone identifying themselves via email as the formerly missing person.

In Virginia, an apple-cheeked girl with a Minnie Mouse bow in her hair has been missing since April 23. She is 14, bespectacled, and was last seen in an outfit fashioned of head-to-toe heather gray. Her name [has been redacted] and she is black, and because she is black, the national public was only informed of her disappearance via Twitter — a full five days after it occurred.

We are feverishly retweeting for her. But by now, we have to wonder what our retweets are worth.

The first hours after a child goes missing are the most critical. Every passing minute takes with it small sips of our optimism — and we are the only ones who even bother with optimism, we who can look into the faces of black and brown girls we don’t know and see something of ourselves.

We are all we have. Daily, we make each other’s empathy enough. We spread it thin and wear it raw. We tear it and pass the scraps down the aisle. But we always seem to learn of what lurks too late. We protest and our wails ring tinny ’round the choir stand. By the time our dissent projects, evil has already gained colossal ground.

I do not believe many disappearances are sudden. They are fastidiously planned, painstakingly executed — and even when the grown, hulking captors are not quite as clever as the welterweight girls they take, they wield the advantage of forethought. Often, they have watched and waited, perhaps walked with or ridden with, texted, even fed, the children they intend to steal. The children — the innocents — even those with the sharpest of wits and the bravest of faces — are simply no match.

Of course we do not expect them to be, though one would never know it by how slowly the public acts when the children who’ve been taken are black and brown.

By the time they take our girls, the captors have also studied the rest of us, long enough to know how we — their parents, their communities, their government, and their media — will respond to losing them. They know whether that response will pose a threat; in turn, they act only as brazenly or covertly as necessary.

In the northern Nigerian state of Borno, close to 200 schoolgirls are missing. They were taken at night, but their captors, all members of the extremist group Boko Haram, could just as easily have attacked by day. It would seem they have been building to this. Boko Haram slaughtered 59 schoolboys in February. They have razed entire villages. And now, they are stealing and selling and ravaging teen girls by the hundreds.

Because the girls are black and halfway around the world, I (and likely much of America) first learned of them via social media, after they had been in the capture of rapists and murderers for a 12 full days. And it is only the constant, viral pressure of people who can compel themselves to care that their increasingly harrowing journey is now being covered by international media.

But few are sure what is accurate to report — and that is by design. Alexis Okeowo writes at The New Yorker that Nigerian military nakedly lied about having recovered “most of the girls” in the hours following their disappearance:

A day later, the military retracted its claim; it had not actually rescued any of the girls. And the number that the government said was missing, just over a hundred, was less than half the number that parents and school officials counted: according to their tally, two hundred and thirty-four girls were taken.

In truth, the only escapees were young women who took matters into their own hands and, aided only by adrenaline and auspice, ran.

If it is the number of girls who are gone that staggers us Americans — if we cannot fathom armed gunmen driving 234 girls deep into the forest and keeping them for weeks without even the mildest risk of retribution — it is only because we have not been paying close enough attention.

Bad men (and bad women) do not become this brazen overnight. Centuries of history, both personal and public, embolden them. History whispers: Violence subdues opposition. Apathy is an ally to evil. Governments that do not move swiftly to apprehend those who steal and torture their citizens will move too slowly to catch us. Big guns and ample ammunition intimidate even the most loving of parents — and if they are not turned away by the rumor or sight of our weapons, we need only use them. Every silent day deepens a disappearance. 

It is possible to lose hundreds of black girls at a school in a single night for much the same reason that, every day, here in America, 400 black children are reported missing: historically, too little has been done about it. And when we move it is with the torpor of slowly waking giants.

Our children deserve better than they’ve gotten — and perhaps insurgents and kidnappers understand this better than we do. If they are leaning against a towering legacy of inaction, we can only fight back by toppling the tower. We can only win by being quicker than they are. We must cycle through online awareness and outrage faster and transmute that momentum.

The girls in Chibok were taken nine days after the fourteen-year-old went missing in Virginia. Thousands of black children have disappeared here and abroad in that short time — and the critical, most early hours of searching have since been lost. The names of many will remain forever unknown to us; the faces of others will only reach the eyes of those with Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook accounts. To the extent that any large scale action is being taken on their behalf, we are advancing it, with our shares and retweets and reblogs. We are digitizing the door-to-door flier and amplifying untelevised Amber Alerts.

But there is more to be done, far more than hand-wringing and haranguing one another about how little society cares for the black and brown. We care for each other — and we have managed it while jointly enduring our own horrors. Care has gotten us through chattel slavery. Care sustained us through an underground syndicate of unreported lynchings. Care has led to reconciliation decades after genocidal slaughter.

We care for each other. It is imperative that we continue to. There is as much power in sustaining that care as there is in any insurrectionist’s plot to eradicate us. Often, it is all we have. But it burns. It has been known to light fires under dictators, known to turn enslavement camps to ash. Care is an oil that never fails to ignite.

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