How old were you the first time you were told that “fast” girls were always in men’s faces?
I was four. Sitting in the backyard of the house I grew up in. By 8, this house, this sanctuary had burned to the ground.
When my grandmother spat the word, I felt dirty, upset and responsible. I had been sitting on the lap of one of my “uncles” (every family friend was cousin, auntie or uncle). I remember how heavy the rubix cube felt in my hand as she looked at my dress. I stopped swinging my feet back and forth.
I don’t remember anything else about the day, but that moment is still cemented in my belly.
I posted some pictures a few days ago of me before the Sza concert. I was wearing a burgundy, tight fitting dress. A friend of mine helped me pick it out. The public responses I got were encouraging and flattering. The private responses included asking why I’d post pictures of myself with my cleavage out for “anyone to see”. I also got asked what my partner said/ thought, as if he can dictate what I can and cannot do with my image, with my private and public body. As if that is the type of relationship that we have built together.
Rewind to two years ago. The living room—cramped, two couches, a coffee table and an entertainment center with a tv, playstation, and nine family members packed into the space. My grandmother addressing a 3 year old girl who “let” her twin brother lay his head between her legs while she was sitting. Most of us pointing out that she didn’t do anything wrong. When she finally paid attention to the fact that all the other women in the family were calling her out, she responded “She’s sneaky and I was like that as a child. I know what’s going on.”
The huge eyed girl is clear she’s about to be punished. Her round face slightly hidden underneath beaded braids. She is wearing a pink shirt with a flower pot on the front. The words “girls rule” are below. She is quiet and still trying to learn how to laugh out loud.
Everyone in the room looks exhausted and defeated. Like maybe they just won but barely. Or maybe they lost everything. The things that happened between the silences are too scary to mention. My mom tries to change the subject to something lighter. She does things like that.
Fast forward to New Years Eve, 2016. Bubbie, my mama and I sitting on my mama’s black couch that I hate. Bubbie says something about girls being fast and I finally ask her what she means, why she always says that. Why she’s so hard on us.
She tells us about the parties she went to and the nights she doesn’t remember. She speaks about the ghosts underneath her skin and two rapes. Two violations and violences, both at parties, both while she had been drinking. She says, “Well, I was drunk. But the first one wasn’t my fault.” I hold her hand and tell her it’s never her fault. That it’s none of our faults. She closes her eyes.
My mom sits in silence. Part of me wants to jump up and say, “See, I told you. This is why I’ve been pushing our family to have these conversations, there’s always something underneath.” It feels wrong writing this but it’s true. The last few years I’ve been searching for some type of connection and confirmation both that my grandmother is not a monster and that she’s conscious of the impact that her words have on us, on me, on the younger ones. I found no joy in learning that she was raped twice while her friends were drunk and doing drugs, partying. It’s even harder now to revisit this in her death, I feel especially protective of her story. She experienced worlds of loss, abuse and death. Worlds of never being enough. And still, I hear the words she has said to me and other Black girls over the years.
That night we all learned and were able to say definitively that there’s hurt beneath the things we say to people who don’t deserve it. There are ghosts and stories in every room we enter. There are opportunities of connection, love and tenderness if we build a network of trust and protection.
7 years ago I was at Saint Mary’s College visiting a friend for her birthday. We got drunk and the story of me being molested by a babysitter couldn’t leave my tongue fast enough. I remember my mama rallying up the community and holding my abuser, a young Black woman, accountable. We later found out that she had been abused as well.
I don’t remember the night I told the story. I didn’t even trust the people I told it to. And I remember being upset with myself because I’d shared a piece of my story that I hadn’t visited in a long time. I shared a story that has been my shadow for 20 years.
Adults teach Black children (girls, femmes and queer children) in particular to shame each other for their bodies, actions and needs. It’s a type of cruel, ritualistic orientation (and ornamentation) that rattles their minds, bodies and spirits. It also has nothing to do with them.
Black children are not allowed protection. They aren’t consulted with and their expertise is not honored. When they name the things that have happened to and within their bodies, they are rarely supported, affirmed and believed. If they are believed, the assault(s) on their spirits and bodies are often forcibly quieted and not brought up again. They are encouraged to not talk about the things that have happened to them. To forget. And then these children become adults who weren’t given the space to talk about the nonconsensual ways adults have engaged with their bodies. Then these adults get in rooms with other adults and attack, laugh at and shame children for sitting, being, learning their bodies and asking questions.
While the aim to arm and protect children with the knowledge of sexual predators is important, the emphasis on the child’s behavior is misguided and points at a disturbing pattern that exists between the “teachers” experiences as children and the takeaways they deem necessary. This type of hierarchical, student-teacher relationship stifles compassion, connection and trust between the child and relative. It teaches the child to be in a hyper-aware state, not only while the child is interacting with a “male” (we’ll get into the pitfalls of this later) but also serves to reinforce the gap between the child and relative/ adult.
At no point does the child feel safe, protected or honored. After a certain point, this hyper-awareness serves as a marker for folks to either point at the things that were done right or wrong. If the child is abused in any way in the future, they’ll internally victim blame themselves thinking, “I didn’t pay enough attention” and should have seen the “signs”.
A 4 year old can not consent and is not responsible for the abusive, sadistic and pedophilic behavior that some adults display and enact. The responsibility and consequences must be placed on the abuser.
The fact that women, girls and femmes often pass this “code” to each other under the guise of protections points to a larger issue about the conversations we don’t have. At the core of this type of humiliation, communication and inheritance is intergenerational traumas and adult triggers that have not been discussed and/ or interrogated fully.
Referring to a child as fast is not protection. Reminding them to not sit on “men’s” laps doesn’t prevent rape and sexual assault. When we engage in conversations about sexual assault and non-consent as preventable occurrences, we ignore the fact that these things happen regardless of our behavior, age, gender, what we’re wearing, etc. Intergenerational trauma has impacted the way we trust, engage and speak with one another. It is especially present when we discuss the physical and emotional harm we’ve experienced through rape and sexual assault.
Young boys and those socialized as men also experience sexual assault, destruction and violence at the hands of non-men, women and femmes. When/ if they name their assaults, the language changes to “You should be proud that you were man enough to be wanted like that” or “Damn, you had it like that? Lucky.” If you’ve ever heard Lil Wayne talk about his sexual assault, you’ll notice that his story changes based on who his audience is. His story doesn’t change because he is lying, it changes because society has taught him that he was never the perfect victim/ survivor. His story changes because he knows that even as a multi-millionaire he is not believed as a victim, he is always seen as a perpetrator of violence and thus, can never experience harm.
The urges that folks have to silence and shame children especially, says more about their own experiences with trauma than it does about what the child is currently experiencing. We allow our experiences to color and diminish the potential deep connections we can make with children when we are not honest about what has happened and when we do not create space for them to name what has happened to them.
In order to fight it, we must have conversations with children and our family, friends, community about consent and boundaries. We have to talk about our histories and experiences in concrete terms so that we may begin to heal. So that children have safer places to talk about the things happening to and within them. And so that we as adults, get the space to mourn them too.
Towards more conversation and less shame.
For all of the Black babies, children and adults who have been shamed for simply existing.
Don’t dismiss the damage.
Create space for Black children to name their grief, disappointment and anger, especially as it relates to adults.
When and where are children’s experiences and agency honored and protected? Who are you aligned with in these processes?