When I Was 9: The Stolen Joy Of Black Girlhood

Found on: forharriet.com, by Kate Kenzie Photography

For most of my adolescence, I was considered an “overdeveloped” girl. As a young girl, with my father’s height, and my mother’s hips attached to my being, I was declined my right to conventional girlhood — to be a girl before the weight that comes with womanhood, and consensual sexual endeavors. Genuine girlhood, the kind that many black girls are denied, is the right to be a girl, without the unnecessary gender restrictions, that is free to experience the fullness of herself — explore her developing body, mind and spirit without the predatory intrusion of men (or women because sexual assault/harassment is not only from men), and with all the protection from family, friends, and the community. The aforementioned, however, is not something I can say I ever experienced, and I’m sure that many black women can attest to the same sentiment.

When I was 9, I received my first vaginal blood flow. My period had come to me while I was in class at my elementary school. Many of my peers, and teachers weren’t prepared for something like that at the time, so I was sent home. I was told not to be embarrassed despite the fact that there was blood all over my skirt, and legs. Along with being told not to be embarrassed, I was also told to enjoy this introduction to “womanhood” and although I understood the gist of what that meant, I still felt very much like a girl. A girl that could bleed now, but still a girl. I wasn’t ready for womanhood, and I didn’t think that blood made me ready either. I learned quickly though that my opinion on womanhood didn’t matter because under the gaze of the rest of the world, men especially, I was now a woman. I was now a woman, and considered a person to objectify at every given opportunity.

Shortly after Mother Nature made an appearance in my life, so did the rest of the misinterpreted “gifts” that come with her like the more developed body, and the attention of boys. I had always dealt with boys as a girl, but always in the traditional, very toxic, way that boys are taught to interact with girls they like — with bullying tactics, and exclusion. I had hated it, but had never thought much of it. I had never considered that my bullies would grow to be far worse, and I had never thought they would come while I was still a girl, still maneuvering my way through my developing self. They didn’t come as strangers either, but as family members — uncles, cousins, long-time family friends.

It began when I turned 11. My parents were still together, so when we had family gatherings both sides of the family would come out to spend quality time. My mother didn’t have many male family members/friends, but my father did. One day when I was walking back inside during a gathering, I was pulled aside.

“When did you grow to be so womanly o?” Asked my uncle.

I had known this man since before I could fully recognize shapes. He had always been in my life, but at that moment I didn’t recognize him. There was a gaze in his eyes that frightened me, and caused me to take a step back.

“Where are you going girl? Oh sorry. I mean, woman? We need to talk. Let’s talk about how you upkeep this body. You look just like a younger version of your mom. Shapely.” He said.

At the time, I hadn’t realized the reality of what was happening. All I knew was that my body was set aflame in anxiousness. I was in a space, and under a gaze that I did not wish to be. I could not speak for I was worried I would say the wrong thing so I smiled, and quickly hurried to the refuge of my mother.

I had told her what happened, and immediately she looked me up and down, and laughed. She stated that the clothes I was wearing: a simple shirt, and shorts duo, caused the unwarranted seemingly sexual advances. She also indicated that my “uncle” was probably drunk, and mistook me for someone else. When I pleaded and told her how I had felt about the him, and when I had begged her to be allowed to read in my room instead of engage for the rest of the day, she declined my requests. I was to change. I was to cover myself. I was to understand that this is womanhood, and I am a woman now. I was completely unprotected, as many black girls are. I was unprotected because I was thought to be the perpetuator of these advances rather than the victim. All the responsibility was on me to not allow these advances to occur, and none was on the black men actually causing them. I was devastated because I knew that if this was womanhood, I didn’t want to be involved with any of it.

After 11, a myriad of tragic events from street harassment to sexual assault happened to me that stole my black girlhood and caused me to fall into a depression that has lasted for years. I often hear people say “I wish I was a kid again” when expressing their disdain for adulthood, but I cannot honestly say I remember ever being a joyful black adolescent that was allowed to be a “simple” kid. Yes, I did have good times. It wasn’t all bad, but majority of my time from adolescence to pre-teens to teens was spent defending myself from all angles, with no one there to defend me, or truly look after me.

My parents were strict but never about the right things. I was taught that my existence was a threat to everyone else. That if I moved a certain way, I would distract those trying to pay attention to other things. I was told that my clothes could never hug my body because I would be a cause for disruption. I was told to never wear make-up because my face would stick-out too much and then people, they always truly meant boys, would be uncontrollable. I was never told of why I would harbor so much attention even though the question of why nobody could seem to pay attention, unless I was bland, burned within me. I was just told to never be too much woman, because too much woman means that I want attention and too much attention was not good because then whatever happens is then my fault. Always my fault.

This is a narrative that many young black girls face. Society teaches young black girls that they are the perpetuators of their trauma. Society teaches young black girls that if a man like R.Kelly approaches you, and manipulates you into sex, that they are “fast” and they shouldn’t have been wanting “so much attention”. Society consistently demonizes the sexuality of young black girls and denies them the right to be young, black, and girl without the need to hide, and shrink in order to avoid sexual trauma. Instead of communities protecting black girls from the predatory gaze of men, black girls are often taught how to be silenced and camouflaged for the sake of accommodating sexual predators, pedophiles, and more. Society teaches black girls that their existence is to be hidden until necessary. We enforce rules onto black girls that are shrouded by the premise of “protection” but are really misogynistic, and patriarchal schemes to demonize black womanhood.

This is a narrative that I fully decline. When I see black girls questioning themselves because of what they’ve been told, I know that they are the least protected. Black girls should be allowed to explore themselves, and be themselves without having to be “cautious” about warranting sexual advances. We should teach black girls about consent, and how to be powerful within their opinions, ideas, and wants. We should show black girls how to spot manipulative predatory men that want nothing but to rob them of the joy that comes with being a black girl, and even further down the line, a black woman. We should teach them how to teach others so that we can create a generation of black girls that are not afraid to exist — that exist fiercely regardless of opinions of onlookers. But most of all, in order for any of this to become a reality, we must protect our black girls, and their right to girlhood because without outside protection, without a community that is adamant about protecting black girls, and woman, our black girls will remain robbed of their joy. Our black girls deserve the pleasure of existing, and learning of themselves before adulthood comes. Not only do they deserve it, but it should be their right.