Years ago, a girl from our block was kidnapped on her way home from a popular after school program. She was my cousin’s best friend. Had never been out past dark. Her mother, teachers and neighbors searched for her. Our mothers did not let us, were worried we’d be taken too.
Three weeks later, she walked through the front door bruised with key in hand, newly bowlegged and dead-eyed. She’d been taken to San Francisco by a man she didn’t know but had seen around the way. He forced her into a sex trafficking ring.
Before we “found” her/ before she came back home, her mama went to the police station 18 hours after the last time she’d seen her. The police said the girl had probably run away or was out with some boy. Told her mother to fill out a report and go home. That she’d probably beat her there. They never followed up. When ABC news reported the story, they didn’t speak her name once. She was 15.
On Friday September 15th, 19 year old Kenneka Jenkins visited Crowne Plaza Hotel in Chicago for a party. Her body was found in a freezer early Sunday morning after her mother, Tereasa Martin, who had made 3 visits to the hotel prior to the discovery, pressured hotel staff to do a thorough search. Before Kenneka’s death, she’d been raped by multiple men in the same room where her friends partied, drank alcohol and played music. She was set up. They masked her cries for help over the loud volume of the music.
During 2 of Ms. Martin’s visits to the hotel, information regarding Kenneka’s whereabouts were not released. Though Ms. Martin had let the staff know that her daughter had been reported missing and that she believed her daughter was on the premises, she was told to go home.
“One after another referred her to Missing Persons, to Juvenile Court, to her neighborhood service center, to family counseling. She was a customer come too soon to the new store, stock not yet in, sales personnel being interviewed, Sonny an item not unpacked yet, the price sticker not licked and stuck on.” -Toni Cade Bombara, Those Bones Are Not My Child
When Black children go missing, their parents become eye witnesses and lead suspects simultaneously. They are interrogated, lied on, surveilled and scrutinized by police. Often times, friends and family are coaxed and/or outright blackmailed by the police/ state into saying negative things about the “suspects” and the ways in which they’ve interacted with and raised the missing person(s).
The combination of grief, anger, paranoia and guilt coupled with no (official) search parties and lack of media coverage lower the chances of finding a missing Black child. For poor Black families, the lack of accessible, trustworthy resources committed to outreach efforts to find their lost loved ones is typical, intentional and heartbreaking. For the missing child whose disappearance is not taken seriously because their parent(s) is single, Black, poor, fat and/ or not perfect, this could mean death.
Society says that Black children are incapable of innocence. They are immediately and always plotting, always sneaky. Forever up to something. Never children.
Black communities fight back against this narrative by leading their own search parties, following up with leads and identifying networks that are committed to finding out more information. These communities hold planning meetings that do not rely on/ expect the state to prioritize their cases. In the process, their collective and individual capacities are built up and enhanced.
I am not a dead and dying girl (yet). There’s a sort of luxury, protection and distance in writing and still being here. Of having the ability to imagine what parent, child, family has gone through without ever really knowing.
As I write this story, I remember not to beg for these children’s humanity. I struggle with not highlighting their innocence and need for protection. Black parents, Black children and Black people in general deserve to be believed the first time. Every time. Even when the world has snuffed the “goodness” out of us. Especially when we are not reliant on presenting ourselves as good in order to be separated out and prioritized against the “others”, which really translates to the ones that deserve to be taken and/or killed. Or at least the ones whose disappearances we feel ambivalent about.
Black parents and Black children need support. Prevent Black disappearances by taking Black parents seriously, not by asking where “so and so” was or saying things like, “Well if they had a father/ mother, this wouldn’t have happened.” Consider how many have drowned because their families were not listened to. Because their advice and expertise was not honed in on.
Trust Black children. Trust in their ability to name their experiences, their instincts and their capacity to offer up new strategies.
Black people are resourceful as fuck. Let’s use as many tools as we can to continue to bring our babies home. Identify your networks and communities. Role play, outline survival tactics and create alternative plans. Hold monthly self defense workshops. Arm yourselves.
May we honor the generations before us that have and continue to fight for an acknowledgement of our children’s humanity after they were/ are murdered, abused and targeted. May we pull from that strength and continue to build a movement that maintains and nurtures a place for mourning in the present and future wars to come. Hug and fight for those who have had to sit in courtrooms and beg for a puddle of their children’s identities to remain intact. Those who were put on trial even after witnessing death and destruction.Those who in the end moved towards civil suits against the officer(s) who killed their children because the “justice” system failed to indict.
I do not have the words yet for the women who set Kenneka up. None for the men who raped her. These all too common stories of literal and metaphoric deaths, betrayal, silencing and evil that Black folk have to navigate on a consistent basis. The anger and deep sadness of it. I wonder how many of us would still be alive if we and/or our families were believed. Black existence must be taken seriously and handled with great care.
We can do this.
“Runaway. How heroic it sounded in her daddy’s mouth. Hopping boxcars, running north to make a way for those who would come later, who’d leave stoop labor and cramped quarters and the bow-bent life spent under the weight of billy clubs, whips and guns. Runaways who made a place to stand up straight in. How soured ‘runaway’ had become of late in the mouths of strangers who would not budge from swivel chairs and air-conditioned offices. But in the face of the heart-stopping anguish of parents whose children had been murdered, how it glowed again with hope. Runaway. Not snatched, not choked, not dumped, but run away. Run away, Sonny. Rail line, hot line steal away home.” Toni Cade Bombara, These Bones Are Not My Child
What was Kenneka like?
Did she have a favorite food?
A favorite color?
A favorite scent?
What was the last loving thing she heard?
Has her mother had space to grieve her daughter’s murder, rape?