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Protect Black Women

When I was 12 years old, one of my favorite pastimes was going to the local library. A few of my fellow Black girlfriends and I would compete to see who could read the most amount of books in two weeks (the time we were allowed to keep books back in the day). My goal on this particular day in 1994, was to beat my friend Simone, since she was the fastest reader among our group of friends.

It was a sunny Saturday in the early afternoon, around noon. My mom, a beautiful Trinidadian woman with a mean cooking game was in the kitchen making pelau, a dish made with parboiled rice, pigeon peas, coconut milk and a meat of your choice (usually chicken in our house). Although rice has never been as special to me as pasta, it was one of my favorite dishes my mom liked to make. The goal was to get to the library, get more books to read for the weekend and return home to enjoy my warm plate of fresh pelau.

I was born and raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, before people called it Kensington for props (although the area has always been called Kensington since architect Frederick Law Olmstead who also designed grounds in Central Park, thought it would provide the community with a more "distinct" name). What has always been fascinating about this section of Brooklyn is there are million dollar homes surrounded by various pre-war apartment buildings where you could actually raise families with a decent amount of space at an affordable price (good luck in 2020, though). In terms of class, this would be considered a truly mixed income community, although the million dollar home folks rarely (if ever) interacted with the folks who lived in the apartment buildings. Despite the complexities of class in the community and the silence and self-exclusion by the Hasidic Jews who lived closer to Coney Island avenue, I would say I felt safe growing up in central Brooklyn.

As a young Black girl, I was hyper aware of my Blackness since teachers continuously complained that “Crystal talks A LOT!” as if the very act of me talking was a crime. Unfortunately, my grades (always straight As) provided me with an ounce of respectability to hang on to. Although now in my 30s, I am aware of how respectability politics is really white supremacist gatekeeping. At the time, in my 12-year old mind, I used my grades like the shield that it was, to seemingly protect me from white violence in school. It kept me in the top classes and on the honor roll. As a result, I learned to deal with acts of racial verbal assaults by teachers. The icing on the cake: I also had teachers who really saw me which helped to cancel some of the school violence out in my memory.

Reading books is one of the ways I learned to excel. Always a lover of books, I read early and voraciously. I felt seen in books, alive and deeply creative. My mom would often buy me various books and bring them home after her long days working on 5th Avenue (one of the most expensive avenues in the United States) for a just-about-decent-for-a-Black-woman wage, but unfair pay nonetheless. Since my mom could not keep up with my insane appetite for more and more books, the local library was one of my safe places to explore and discover anything I desired. The freedom of reading whatever I wanted excited me, which is what lead me to the library on this lovely Saturday.

I cannot remember the season, but I do remember wearing a light jacket and jeans, which meant it was either fall or spring. At around 12:15pm, I told my mom goodbye and headed off to the library. Accustomed to making trips to the library alone, this was no big deal. The library was approximately half a mile away from my apartment building, or a 10-minute walk. I decided to walk up Dorchester Road that day, because I loved the views of the homes and the large apartment buildings side by side on opposing sides of the street; it's also the street I lived on. As the air warmed up just a bit, I unzipped my jacket. I was walking at a moderate pace, excited about the new books the library would have to offer, since the new Sweet Valley University series was out. As I approached East 18th Street, I walked past my Auntie Toni’s building, smiling to myself since I knew she would be heading over to our place for some food, soon.

As I was approaching East 17th Street, I noticed there was a large brown station wagon parked on the corner. I had never seen this particular car, so it did seem out of place. By the time I got closer to the car, I glanced quickly to see who was in the car, since it was parked oddly. A man with dark eyes met my eyes and I immediately looked away, suddenly aware of my surroundings. The man was large with a baldhead and he looked calm. I vividly recall he was wearing a brown flannel shirt. I could almost feel his presence although he was inside the car and I was walking. As I slightly increased my pace I heard the man say, “Excuse me, do you know where Coney Island Avenue is?” For some reason, I felt the need to respond. I will never be able to understand why, however, I did. I had never seen this man before. His car was not familiar. But in that moment, on that quiet block with just him and I, I decided it was safe to answer a question within a reasonable distance.

When I looked to the side towards the car again, to tell the man to drive straight up Dorchester Road, I saw that he was masturbating. My heart stopped in my chest and I ran for my life towards the library. I ran until my heart was beating out of my chest and I did not stop until I got to Angelo's Pizza shop which was near the library. I am not sure why I did not run home. In spite of everything that was happening around me, I still wanted my books (I blame this on puberty). I went to the library, almost robot-like, got my books and returned home. I ate my mom’s delicious pelau and I laughed with my family on that good Saturday, never saying a word about what happened that day, about what I saw. I guess I did not have the language for what I saw at the time. I kept saying to myself: Nothing happened to you, Crystal. It could have been worse. He exposed himself. What is the point of thinking about it? And I put that memory so far away in my brain that it would take another 6 years before it came out.

When I was 18 and learning more about myself as a college freshman, I remembered this story and shared it at a retreat designed for the facilitation of powerful and transformative dialogue. I carried this story for 6 years. I felt more violation than pain and I did not know if a crime was committed or if exposing oneself to underage girls is just something else girls are expected to experience. As I try to think about what I was learning about being a loud, smart and seemingly fearless Black girl in the world, a few things came to mind:

  1. My silence did not protect me. The weight of this story was buried but very much alive within me.

  2. We must protect Black girls and women at all costs, not only the ones who are family to us or who we are attracted to, but all Black girls/women.

  3. The sting of silence after experiencing a sexual violation is very much real. We need to create more safe spaces of healing to unpack these experiences.

It has been 26 years since that incident occurred and I have found a way to make sense of the fact that at least I was not physically harmed that fateful day (The use of the words at least speaks to my own unlearning I clearly need more of). I have now shared the story several times with various friends over the years and each time I share I feel stronger, as if my retelling helps expose these offenders who can be found anywhere, anytime, in any hood. What I could not name at 12, I can now name what I experienced at 38: Sexual harassment.

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