The Briar Patch | Venerating our Black girls
- Published: March 10, 2022
Venerate — as in to hold sacred
An MLK Day essay from a young lady named Corinne Totty, an 11th grader attending Yellow Springs High School, gave me the courage to finally speak up about the silent suffering that some Black women, including myself, bear in this community. Thank you, Corinne.
In her essay published in the News on Feb. 10, Totty describes “an excruciatingly heavy weight on my shoulders.” She goes on to describe what it felt like to be called the n-word by one of her classmates when she was in the second grade. In this community. She discusses the microaggressions she’s experienced, including having her hair touched without her permission, and “being bullied for wearing cultural hairstyles or dealing with racism from the white side of her family.” I encourage you to read it, along with the other amazing MLK essays from our students that were coordinated by teacher Jamie Adoff and were recently published in the News.
Totty continues to describe how these experiences impact her sense of self and ability to express difficult emotions. “When I remember these experiences, I get angry. All these emotions experienced rise to the surface. I want to scream and yell, but then I am seen as an angry Black woman. I want to cry and break down, but then I do not uphold the stereotype of a strong Black woman,” she writes.
Totty is describing generational trauma that is specific to Black women, and she’s not even out of high school.
She goes on to say, “My heart aches for the little Black girl inside who wanted to feel beautiful in her own skin. My heart aches for the little Black girl who wanted to wear her hair naturally the way it comes out of her head without the fear of being bullied.”
Totty comforts the little Black girl that is hurting, that still resides within her, affirming her existence and her experiences. Totty calls on those who’ve paved the way for strength — mentioning Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. She tells the little girl there is hope — “I want to hug the little Black girl and tell her she doesn’t need to straighten her hair to be considered beautiful by the white kids. I want to tell her to be unapologetically herself and embrace her culture in any way possible. … I want to tell the little girl that one day, she will believe all those things about herself, even if she can’t see it now. I want to tell that little, shy, Black girl that one day she will find her voice.”
And she will. Because almost word for word, I was that little Black girl, too, and I eventually found my voice.
When I read her essay, the little girl that still lives within me recognized her little girl, and sobbed for her pain. Big, huge, heaving waves of sorrow, outrage and frustration gripped my body. “This abuse is still happening after all this time in this so-called progressive community?” I marveled, though I really should not have been that surprised. Because sadly, this, in many ways, several decades later, remains my experience as a Black woman living within the social structure of Yellow Springs.
When I was a very little girl — somewhere around second grade — my teenage cousin from Chicago came to visit. She took the time to do my hair in a style that all the little Black girls in the city were wearing. When she finished, my hair was gorgeous — think Penny from “Good Times” — and I was so proud of how I looked that day. Then I went to school. And a little white boy harassed me and made fun of my hairstyle, while other kids laughed at me. By the time I got home, I was furious. At my cousin, not the little @#$% who terrorized me.
Growing up in this community was confusing. My mother and her friends — both men and women, all older — would tell me that I was an intelligent, even elegant, beautiful girl. But who believes old people when you’re young? I wanted acceptance by my peers. While I was growing up, when I left this area, traveling with my parents to visit family in Chicago and other places with large African American populations, it was like I was in another world, and it was validating. I didn’t feel invisible like I felt here. But my experiences in the social structure of dating in this community growing up didn’t reflect that at all, and frankly, still don’t. Speaking from a cis-hetero perspective, I didn’t date here growing up; I don’t date here now, and not out of choice. I’ve never dated a boy or man who grew up in this community.
When I was in high school, I thought it was because of colorism — I am a darker brown-skinned woman. On a school bus on my way to school, I overheard a Black boy say he hated Black girls.
Can you imagine what that felt like, hearing that coming from someone who looks like you? And, in many ways, I internalized that hate directed at me. I thought there was something wrong with me.
Black women in this community are not a monolith — there are plenty of us who had different experiences within the social framework of this community. However, as I started sharing with other Black women who grew up here about what I experienced, many of my friends mirrored similar painful stories of invisibility and abuse back to me — and we were all different complexions, some identified as both Black and bi-racial.
A 2010 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology abstract that described two studies called “Prototypes of race and gender: The invisibility of Black women” recently caught my eye. Authors Amanda K. Sesko and Monica Biernat wrote: “We suggest that the relative non-prototypicality [emphasis is from the authors of this study] of Black women’s race and gender results in their ‘invisibility’ relative to white women and to Black and white men.”
The studies addressed whether “Black women go ‘unnoticed’ and their voices ‘unheard,’ by examining memory for Black women’s faces and speech contributions.”
The authors said that, in their two studies, the photos of Black women were not recognized at the same levels compared to white women and men and Black men; and that “statements said by Black women in a group discussion were least likely to be correctly attributed compared to Black men and white women and men.”
The authors go on to state that “the importance and implications of invisibility as a unique form of discrimination are discussed [in their article].”
Well, what the heck does non-prototypicality mean? According to a definition from vocabulary.com, prototypical means, “representing the usual or quintessential version of something. The prototypical example of a superhero, for example, is a muscular man in a cape.”
The online version of the Collins dictionary states: “If you say that someone or something is a prototype of a type of person or thing, you mean that they are the first or most typical one of that type.”
Even the introductory description of the two studies gives me pause, given that all humans that walk this planet have DNA that can be traced back to one Black woman in Africa scientifically named “Mitochondrial Eve.” I call bull#$@. We are the prototype.
When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Yellow Springs and in fact, I never thought I would be back here. What saved my life was attending the HBCU women’s school, Spelman College, where I had the opportunity to experience the loving embrace of sisterhood without the racialized trauma of microaggressions of being straight up ignored. My dating world opened exponentially; I’ve experienced loving relationships along the way.
What drew me back here was caregiving for my aging mother. But it’s hard to be here sometimes. And lonely. Yet, coming full circle, I suppose, offers a chance at healing. I am heartfelt in my resolve to help facilitate a generational healing process — and I say this to Corinne Totty and other young Black girls attempting to navigate these shark-infested social structure waters in Yellow Springs. I see you. I venerate you. You are not invisible, you are heard and loved. To the mothers of our Black girls, of all ethnicities. I see you too, and if there’s anything I can do in support of your efforts to raise these brilliant daughters of yours, please let me know.
To Yellow Springs, a reminder of what I wrote in last month’s Briar Patch: “If we are serious about re-establishing higher levels of diversity as a community, I believe that the recruitment of Black women with families is paramount, but also challenging, given the current cultural climate of Yellow Springs. This community, for many of us, remains a challenging, often hostile community to be a Black woman in.”