The Baltimore Black Girl Scowl: A Reflection on Street Harassment

Photo credit: Deposit Photos

by Ashley "Ashfronomenal" Daniels

It's amazing how the undergraduate experience can reveal just as many personal lessons, as scholastic ones. Most of my freshman year at Bowie State University, we would have various programs around campus designed to "bring the Bowie women together." They were pretty good efforts, but what made them even better is they often involved food. It was during one of these programs that I would have one of those lasting personal lessons. I had missed dinner in the cafe because a nap after class seemed way more important, so I decided to hit up one of these events to grab some free pizza. It was the typical “girl talk” session, bringing girls from Philly, New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Prince George's County, New Jersey and other places together to discuss their first year cheers and jeers. As we all ate pizza, cupcakes, chips, and drank soda, a girl from P.G. asked a question that I didn't realize would eventually be so poignant.

"I have a question for the Baltimore girls. Whenever I see y’all walking across campus, y’all always have such a mad look on your face. Why do Baltimore girls scowl like that?" Without any hesitation or thought, a fellow Baltimore student answered the inquiry: "To keep people from bothering us." The other girls from Baltimore—both freshmen and upper classmen—agreed with the response, sharing their own experiences of when they wear the scowl.

This was eleven years ago. Let's flash forward to today.

Recently, the Internet has been abuzz over a recent video released by an anti-street harassment group called Hollaback. The one-minute video has been condensed, and documents a young woman walking down the streets of New York for 10 hours and her various encounters with men on the street. Some of them call out to her. Some of them get really close in her personal space. Two walked along side of her for a few blocks. The video has sparked an ongoing national debate from both men and women—regarding the realness of street harassment, if anything should be done about it, and if women are just overreacting?

I will admit that this "social experiment" does have its flaws. I'm not feeling the narrative of this lone, non-Black girl going through the streets of New York, being pounced upon by mostly men of color. (The editors of the video have admitted they edited out all the white men who also harassed her.) It definitely gives off a prejudiced vibe, further perpetuating the “Brute” stereotype—hyper-sexualized, hyper-aggressive, and unintelligent—that has plagued our Black men for centuries. Furthermore, street harassment happens beyond the sole urban settings this video focuses on. I would have been interested to see an uncut full-length video of the walker going to other places as well.

But with all that being said, the video does bring up important issues of about street harassment and reminds me of my own experience of why I developed my scowl, as a way to ward off unwanted comments and advances from men.

I first developed my scowl when I entered the 9th grade. The summer before school started, all incoming freshmen were required to attend an introductory program for a few weeks to prepare them for their first year of high school. With my mother working on the Westside all summer long, the only way for me to get there meant I had to hit the bus circuit. It wasn't an uncommon thing, as this is what most kids attending Baltimore City Public Schools did. Once I got on the bus or the subway, I was safe. It was getting there that was the challenge.

It started with the cars honking. Me, being oblivious to this kind of attention at all of 12 years old, didn't know what was going on. At first I thought it was just angry drivers signaling to others to get out of their way. I didn't start to catch on that something was different until I noticed I would always hear the honks whenever I walked down the street. Observing the drivers, they mostly came from adult men who would smile with the cheesiest and creepiest looks on their faces. I honestly had no idea what to make of it—no 12-year-old would or should. Feeling confused as to maybe it was something I was doing wrong to warrant this kind of attention, I started to be more cognizant of what I was wearing. In the dead of summer heat, I would walk down the street in a sweatshirt or loose fitting t-shirt in hopes of solving my problem. Unfortunately, the cars kept honking anyways.

The catcalls followed the honking, particularly on the days when I had to meet my mother at her job. I would feel the stares of groups of guys looking my young body up and down. I would hear the whispers of "Damn, girl!" as I hurried to the door, hoping it would shut behind me fast enough before they said their suggestive, "Hello." Some of these guys looked around my age; some of them were not.

This went on for a few weeks up until school started. I didn't tell my mother that all this was happening mainly because I didn't know it was an option. Listening to similar accounts from the other rising 9th graders at school, this was a common thing we just had to deal with—a twisted rite of passage, I guess. Some liked the attention, others didn't. But it was from those experiences where I learned the only weapon we had to get through the day on our daily journeys throughout the city: the scowl.

The scowl is a quintessential piece of Baltimore and Black Girl bravado at its finest. It's a slight scrunching of the eyebrows to match the glaring, cold stare of narrowed eyes; a tightness of the lips emitting all vibes that you are not to be fucked with on that day. For the most part, men would respect the scowl. You did have your select few that would request you to "smile" or still try to violate your personal space. The scowl still didn't stop them from checking you out, but it did give a sense of protection no matter how false.

Coupling my personal experience with the overall experience of this video leaves me with many mixed emotions, mostly because I see the situation through different perspectives. As the little Black girl in Baltimore going to high school, I feel empathy. I understand the struggle of women in city streets all too well. While I am very familiar with what the statistics say regarding women and rape in that 51% of the reported perpetrators were intimate partners as opposed to 13% being strangers, that still does not relieve the anxiety I feel walking down the street wondering if this will be the day I become part of that 13%. Needless to say it does not help to have known people and to hear on the news about the bad experiences of catcalling resulting in women being verbally berated, physically assaulted, or murdered by men whose advances they rejected.

My empathy then leads to frustration as a grown woman living in D.C.: Why should I have to live my life with this kind of anxiety on an almost daily basis? Why can't it be understood that the root of the problem is not in all "hellos" from men, but the ones with heavy sexualized overtones? Why is it when we discuss these kinds of issues the conversation is never around the need for a society that stops objectifying women, but rather the need for women to conform to an objectifying society?

As a scholar studying Black Politics, I feel skeptical. Why is this particular issue a thing right now—and why is the focus on a White-looking woman? It's interesting how there is now attention to such issues in the age of gentrification when such problems existed in these same areas heavily populated with Black and Brown girls and women facing the same issues. As articles have reported, both Black and Latina women are most likely to endure street harassment at higher rates than any other race of women. Growing up in this environment, this really wasn't breaking news. But where was the uproar and outcry for us? Where was the help for us to feel more empowered and to know that we had a right to walk down the street unbothered? Where were those organizations to arm us with more than a cold stare and a shoulder? Why do we care now? Such questions will probably never be answered, but all I can do now is ask.

At 29 years old, when I think of my scowl I am reminded of the poem, "We Wear The Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar. For Black Girls, the scowl is our mask. It is designed to protect us from the situations where the subtlest of “hellos” can lead to the most brutal of physical and sexual attack. It is a defense mechanism. I guess if I were to remix the poem to fit this situation, it would go a little something like this:

she wears the scowl
because it knows
it matters not
the clothes she chose
her makeup, her hair
her shoes, her rings
on the street, she's not a person or place,
but a thing

the coldness of her stare
the tightness of her lips
she silently must remind herself
she's more than between her hips
she hopes to be unbothered
with a bothered look on her face
so she can journey peacefully
and they won't disturb her space

she battles through lust-filled energies
creepy glares, honks, and howls
a daily struggle to which i know
why the Baltimore girl scowls

Ashley Daniels ("Asfronomenal") was raised in Baltimore, Maryland and currently lives  Prince George's County, Maryland. She is a PhD student majoring in Political Science at Howard University. You may visit her blog here.

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