Healing the Scars of Black Girl Violence

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by Tiffanie Drayton @DraytonTiffanie

Two Black teenage girls recently died, struggling to defend themselves against violent attacks from fellow Black girls. 17-year-old Ta'Jae Warner was jumped and beaten to death while walking her 11-year-old brother to the store in the daylight-filled streets of Brooklyn and 16-year-old Amy Joyner sustained a head injury that claimed her life after a brawl in the girl’s bathroom at Howard High School of Technology in Delaware.

As a 26-year-old Black woman who has not only been a witness to but a victim of violence within the Black community, it pains me deeply to be forced to revisit the horrors of those teenage experiences, and also to reconcile them with the vicious reality Black girls like myself faced and continue to face. A reality ridden with aggression, anger, fear, and exacerbated by feelings of helplessness from existing in a society that constantly disregards the physical and emotional well-being of young Black girls. A teen experience so precarious that I was both a victim of violence and a perpetrator of it.

In my early childhood, I spent the vast majority of my time roaming the suburban streets of a diverse East Coast town, with predominantly Italian and Hispanic families, where my mother immigrated alone with her three children from Trinidad and Tobago. She worked hard to provide and for that reason, the streets-- and the children of them-- were my best friends. While my mother sometimes worked into the wee hours of the night, she knew we were protected; our neighborhood offered the security of friendly officers riding around on bikes with short pants during the summer, or other parents who would be sure to look out for us kids.

That all changed when my mother decided to move to an urban, mostly black neighborhood, after realizing she could no longer afford to live in suburbia as a single parent when I was 10.

While the environmental change was immediately palpable—the vast home-lined streets turned into a dilapidated apartment complex, where greetings were not friendly smiles but harsh, unwelcoming stares—it took quite some time for me to understand that I was no longer existing in the same psychological space. That I would have to adopt a survival mentality and survival could sometimes mean life or death.

“Who you looking at!?” a 5-year-old little Black girl questioned when I glanced and smiled at her on my way to the neighboring grocery one day. I lowered my eyes and figured she was a strange, hostile anomaly.

And then the fights started.

I wish I could even remember what we ever fought for--for the most part, I don’t. Maybe about a boy? Or perhaps I "tried too hard to look cute" one day. What I do remember distinctly was the pressure to perform.

“Just hit her!” onlookers would scream.

“Ya’ll gonna fight already?” they taunted.

I never really wanted to fight. Raised in a home with pretty much no violence-- my mother never hit her children and seldom yelled or screamed in anger-- the idea of wanting to hit someone else was foreign to me. But I knew that I had to in order to protect myself. I felt like a magnet for violence-- it followed me everywhere. On the school bus. At the playground. By the neighborhood pool. At school. In front of my own home.

When 50 teens, ranging from 10-18 years of age, showed up in front of my family’s house for an impending fight in which I was supposedly a headliner, that was the first time I ever reached out for help. Supposedly, I was hanging out too frequently at the neighborhood pool with a boy who was "taken", and word spread through the complex that he liked me, to his girlfriend's dismay. I had yet to ever even have a boyfriend at that point in time of my life, so I was absolutely confused.

"You gunna let some little light-skinned girl think she can steal your man?" I heard one of the girls castigating the other girl who was to fight me.

"Imma fuck that bitch up," she responded, angrily.

My mother was at work and cellphones were not yet popular. So after the mob began to launch rocks through our windows, my siblings and I agreed we should call the police.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency,” a female voice questioned.

“There are some kids outside trying to fight us and they are throwing rocks through our windows,” I pleaded.

“Do you see any weapons?” the emergency dispatcher questioned.

“No, I don’t think so,” I answered.

The response? The sound of a click and eventually dial tone.

Frantic, we decided the next best option was to call the only uncle we had in the vicinity. He explained that he was too busy to come to our aid. This would become the norm. I never had any adult intervene on my behalf when I was threatened by violence. My school forced me to sit on the very same bus where children jeered at me or tried to instigate fights with me, after I started walking to a neighboring complex to catch the bus there and avoid those confrontations. Police never came when called. My mother never addressed the bruises on my face or body. Violence became a way of life and there was no one to protect me, but me. I felt lonely, isolated, fearful and confused-- those feelings eventually morphing into anger and rage.

“She’s a fucking hoe; I don’t know why anyone would want to be with her!” I taunted another girl, in front of a large group of children, as her boyfriend stood nearby. We fought that day, as other children watched on. I slammed her to the ground, punching her in the face as she pulled my hair.

And just like that, I could’ve been Ta’Jae Warner, Amy Joyner or any one of their assailants. Like so many young Black girls, my future could’ve been stolen from me because of violence, misplaced hurt and the loss of innocence and childhood. According to The National Center for Victims of Crime, Black youth face disproportionate rates of victimization and exposure to violence:

“Evidence suggests that Black youth ages 12 to 19 are victims of violent crime at significantly higher rates than their white peers. Black youth are three times more likely to be victims of reported child abuse or neglect, three times more likely to be victims of robbery, and five times more likely to be victims of homicide. In fact, homicide is the leading cause of death among African American youth ages 15 to 24.”

The initiative further explains that exposure to such violence makes Black children more likely to act out or suffer from a host of debilitating ramifications:

“Youth exposure to victimization is directly linked to negative outcomes for young people, including increased depression, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, homelessness, and poor school performance. Youth victimization increases the odds of becoming a perpetrator of violent crimes, including felony assault and intimate partner violence, doubles the likelihood of problematic drug use, and increases the odds of committing property crimes.”

And, like myself, many Black children are left without support from institutions or family when threatened with or exposed to violence:

“Youth who are victimized during the complicated transitional period of adolescence may experience serious disruption of their developmental processes. These effects are worsened when youth perceive institutions as unwilling or unable to help or protect them, and adults’ failure to intercede confirms youth victims’ sense that they must cope with an unsafe environment by themselves and leads to delayed reporting and recovery for youth.”

For far too many Black children, recovery is not an option. Some of the physical and emotional scars left from being a victim of or witness to violence may fade with time. Others do not. And these are not merely physical wounds, but wounds of the heart, soul and spirit that are left untreated, eventually festering and ulcerating, corrupting the body and mind. It is this deep hurt, pain, fear and anger that took the lives of girls like Ta’Jae and Amy and the freedom of their assailants.

While we mourn the loss of these two beautiful young women whose lives were tragically stolen from them, we must also mourn the loss of our children’s innocence. Look into the eyes of our youth and see and feel the violence that has been seen and felt. When will we be able to protect them from it? Until we can, the Black community will continue to lose it’s children to violence. And we-- the adults, parents, leaders of institutions-- are at fault for that.

Photo: Ta'jae Warner - left; Amy Joyner - right

Tiffanie Drayton is a regular contributor to For Harriet.

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