Treat Black Girls and Women with Dignity and Respect

A decade ago, I lived abroad as a J. William Fulbright scholar in Berlin. It was an opportunity to experience how race operates outside the United States and in a major European city. I was intrigued since intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois had lived in Germany, a place that embraced him in ways America, his own country, had not.

As a Black American woman living in Berlin, and as a visiting scholar and professor teaching at a prominent university, I experienced a surprising level of freedom and relative luxury. At airports and customs, I navigated with conspicuous ease, going through the lines for European Union people, with my German visa in my American passport. There were Black people from other parts of the world, namely continental Africa – who resembled me in look and aesthetic; yet, invariably they received a different type of treatment, including heightened surveillance and delays. Their race and nationality mattered.

So, too, did mine. My Americanness offered certain conveniences and unanticipated privileges. However, I had to contend with other dynamics. German men blatantly hypersexualized my Black American female body. I heard “Schlaf mit mir” (sleep with me), or some variation, countless times as I navigated the city, ate at food stands while traveling through S-Bahn and U-Bahn metro stations, or a number of other basic aspects of everyday living.

The extent to which my Black American female body was ascribed promiscuity, sexual voyeurism, and a particular oversexualization had a totalizing effect that reduced me to a body categorically “fast,” dripping with sex, and willing to engage in any and all random sexual encounters. This is no new phenomenon. Rooted and solidified in slavery, Black women and, far worse, Black girls have historically and invariably contended with the skewed and damaging stereotypes about our personhood and assumptions about our bodies.

These dynamics have material and physical consequences. Not only do we have to contend with the assaults — sexual, physical, and psychological, among others — but we also navigate equally deleterious violations: society’s blatant disregard for Black girls.

In 1905, over a half century before Malcolm X’s powerful and oft-quoted assertion that “the Black woman” is the “most disrespected,” “unprotected,” and “neglected person in America,” Fannie Barrier Williams — a notable African American educator, women’s rights advocate, and racial and social justice activist—made an arresting and provocative observation of “the colored girl.” As one who helped found the National League of Colored Women in 1893, Williams’s commentary, even a plea, is just one within a longstanding tradition of Black “race” women, social and political reformers, challenging the status and mistreatment of Black girls and women.

“It is because of this tyranny of race prejudice,” Williams notes, that Black girls are “called upon to endure and overcome more difficulties than” that which “confront any other women in our country. In law, religion and ethics, they are entitled to everything, but in practice there are always forces at work that would deny [Black girls and women] anything.”

And by denying them “anything,” in essence, Black girls and women are practically denied everything.

Williams’s words still haunt us. In January 2019, four Black girls were allegedly strip searched at East Middle School in New York. What initiated the search? The girls appeared to be “hyper” and “giddy.” The school nurse and assistant principal suspected the girls were in possession or under the influence of drugs, and searched these Black female children. This kind of suspicion and surveillance is that vexed and vulnerable precipice, the dangerous terrain, in which Black girls stand. After all, this is no isolated “incident.” There is a long history, as well as a contemporary catalog, of these types of assaults against Black girls — not by mere random folks but, rather, by people with state and institutionalized power and authority.

Consider the Black girl student seated in her school desk in South Carolina whom a school resource officer violently tossed and slammed to the ground. Or allow your memory to conjure and recall the Black girl in a bathing suit at a pool party; a Texas police officer penned her to the concrete pavement with his knee in her back. There are others: Tatyana Hargrove, a Black teenage girl in California whom police beat and allowed their K-9 to attack, while insisting they misidentified and took her for an adult male suspect. Among the egregious or traumatic circumstances is the litany of underaged Black girls, some as young as 14 years old, whom R. Kelly allegedly raped and with whom he engaged in sexual misconduct over decades.

A recent docuseries Surviving R. Kelly showcased this, even as it did not actually expose it. After all, a plethora of survivors, journalists, and witnesses in Chicago, among others, had long publicly revealed R. Kelly’s precarious illicit sexual relationships, predations, and assaults against Black girls and young women. Why, then, do people and society at large turn a blind eye to these deeply troublesome assaults and crimes? It is precisely because it involves Black women and girls, a population that has been historically deemed unassailable and disposable. There is, however, an equally problematic reality across society: they bear the burden of responsibility for their mistreatment and for assaults against their bodies and personhoods. They are unequivocally considered not innocent.

Data corroborates this falsehood. “Across all age ranges,” a 2017 study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality revealed, “Black girls collectively [were viewed] as more adult than white girls.” Moreover, Black girls were also perceived not only as needing less protection, nurturing, support, and comfort than white girls, but also as being “more independent” and knowing “more about adult topics” and “more about sex” than white girls. In part, these perceptions contribute to the “adultification” of Black girls. It locates them within culturally-specific stereotypes and fantasies that sexualize Black women and, far worse, contribute to the sexualization of Black girls. The association of Black girls and women with sex naturalizes the assumption that regardless of their age, sex becomes inherent to the role of Black girls and women.

Such stereotypes and societal disregard partially account for why Black girls and women sit at the epicenter of everything that might go wrong — from sex traffic victims, high infant mortality rates, the disparity in pregnancy complications Black women face, and so forth. Just ask Serena Williams. Even as a global superstar, the brand-new mother had to demand post-partum treatment that likely saved her life. Similarly, scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom recounts her painful, gut wrenching medical experience as a Black pregnant woman, during which she was deemed incompetent. It’s a story with a far less ideal conclusion, ending with an early delivery and the baby’s death.

In her 1976 choreopoem “For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” Ntozake Shange underscores poetically, “somebody, anybody/sing a black girl’s song.” If we heeded this call, the sheer proliferation of assaults against Black girls and women, as well as the disproportionate statistics and history that remain present, would not exist. We would live in a world without appeals to “Bring back our girls.” We would occupy a space wherein calls to “Say Her Name” would cease to have relevancy by virtue of the fact that Black women would not be victims of state violence. We would not need a docuseries to publicly indict decades of male sexual predation. And the experiences of Black girls and women would not be the polarized opposite of white girls and women. To deploy Fannie Barrier Williams’s 114 year-old question: What, then, does the future hold for Black girls? It is time for us to answer this question--not simply in words but through action.

About the Author

Trimiko Melancon is an Associate Professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University, where she serves as the Director of African and African American Studies. Her teaching and scholarly interests and expertise lie primarily in African American and American literary and cultural studies; critical race, gender, and sexuality studies; black feminist theories and criticism; African American and Black German studies; and race, media, and digital as well as cultural production. She is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and co-editor of Black Female Sexualities.