The M(N)STRY: Black Girls and Fugitivity


Remember this song from Ludacris and Mary J. Blige? “Runaway Love” came to my mind last week when the stories of the Missing DC girls started to spread throughout media. One particular story highlighted a young girl who ran away because she felt mistreated in foster family.

Much too often the mistreatment of young black girls are ignored and neglected. Black girls stories go untold. Society, including black culture does not see them as being as much in harm’s way as young black boys. But young black girls are in danger too, including suffering from the risk of sexual assault committed by grown men, boys and even authority figures, abusive and neglectful families, and also receiving higher rates of suspension, expulsion and harsher punishment from schools and police than their white counterparts. For example, this story of Ashlynn Avery, who was attacked by her suspension supervisor for falling asleep in class and then violently arrested.

Black girls are placed in a box of how young girls are expected to act even when those actions are responses to traumatic experiences or health problems (Ashlynn is diabetic). A mixture of racism, sexism/misogyny, and respectability politics puts black girls at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving the help and respect we need. Below is a quote from The Atlantic’s “The Black Girl Pushout,” an interview with Monique Morris about her book, Pushout:

As evidence, Morris offers the historical account of a black teen named Claudette Colvin, who refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in March 1955 before Rosa Parks made history with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Colvin was seemingly an ideal role model against segregated busing—she was an A student who had studied Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Jim Crow racial injustices. Yet Colvin was feisty and argued with the white policeman before getting arrested. She was also working-class, dark-skinned, and pregnant. According to elders within Montgomery’s black community and others, these factors, taken all together, made Colvin unsuitable as a standard-bearer for the civil-rights movement.

This inclination to judge and condemn black girls is also seen in recent examples that sparked national outrage, including Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old Florida girl expelled for a harmless science experiment; Dajerria Becton, the 15-year-old girl tossed and pinned to the ground by a McKinney, Texas, police officer during a pool-party squabble; and Shakara, the 16-year-old girl dragged out of her seat and thrown across a South Carolina classroom over a cell phone.

So when black girls feel they have no one to turn to, what do they do? Sometimes they run.

At a recent Women Writers in Bloom salon I attended, the workshop poet told us her story about running away because of her traumatic family life. She admitted how lucky she was that made it to this point and is grateful everyday. Looking at her, someone who is a talented poet and artist, you would have never guessed that was her background. Other black girls have had similar experiences, running away for their freedom.

On Monday, I went to the New York City premier of Lacresha Berry’s Tubman at Dixon Place. Berry wanted to explore the story of Harriet Tubman in the 21st century. In the one-person play, Berry acts out the parts of a young girl named Araminta, who is a foster child moved from one foster family to the next and suffers from headaches from the abuse in one foster home. Her injury also causes her to have visionary dreams of flight and finding her freedom. But to the various teachers (mostly privileged white women, except the sexist black male dean of the school), she is simply a problem child, stubborn and as the dean says, the stereotypical statement of her and other black girls as “fast.” The only teacher who is aiming to help Araminta is Ms. Berry and through Ms. Berry’s investigation of the teachers and Araminta’s background, we see the larger problem behind Araminta’s actions. Her history of lack of a stable home, abuse, and neglectful and self-absorbed authority figures. Interwoven throughout the story is Harriet Tubman’s own story to highlight that although we praise her today, she could have easily been seen as a problem black girl in today’s world. Much like Ashlynn who fell asleep in class, Harriet’s nodding off would have been reprimanded. Her strong will would lead to attacks from those in power and it did. She was constantly hunted. Even her own husband didn’t join her in her mission. She had to believe in her own desire for freedom for herself, for her future. “Freedom over everything,” as Berry sings.

But who else will join and support black women and girls in their fight and flight for freedom. To where and who can they safely run?

Further Reading:

Lacresha Berry’s Instagram and the AirTubman one to see some of pictures and videos from Tubman

My previous interview with Lacresha

Book: Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber

Book: M. Nourbese Phillip’s Harriet’s Daughter  (Great summary here)

Book: Monique W. Morris’s Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

NY Mag’s Interview with Morris — “How Biased Policies Push Black Girls Out of School.”

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