For an investigative reporting project I worked on for a class last October, I interviewed Jim DeRogatis, who reported on singer R. Kelly’s abuse of Black girls for more than 20 years. Revisiting that conversation now, I am left with one haunting question: what is the age of innocence for a Black girl?
To the convicted Kelly, who wrote and produced singer Aaliyah’s Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number when she was 14, teenage girls are ripe for ruin. In his eyes, they are not bright children dreaming of brighter futures. They are merely objects, their light subsumed by his lust. As a girl, I watched my own light be denied and distorted in the eyes of grown men who watched me with shameless scrutiny. When they asked for my age, I emphasized in a small voice that I was only 12 or only 16. I thought that my youth would insulate me. I realized that, to some guys, it eroticized me further. In this society, the question of innocence does not apply to Black girls. And in this society, when a Black girl’s age is raised, it ain’t nothing but a number.
Malcolm X famously proclaimed that the most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. I would include Black girls in that assertion. To be a Black girl in this country is to perpetually feel either too seen or unseen. We are denied innocence in our youth and dealt violence. The social media hashtags celebrating our joy, our magic, our melanin imply that we must constantly affirm and insist upon our humanity. I wish these hashtags could save me. I wish the shirts advocating for “All Black Girls” could guard me against the leers that greet me on the street. But despite their best intentions, they do not. I still shudder inside when a dark-suited stranger speaks to me sweetly. And while other young women might suffer the same panic, the added menace of misogynoir makes a sexually charged situation all the more sinister for Black girls. At random moments, I think of the many missing and murdered Black girl stories that my mother sends me. They remind me of my how unprotected I am. They remind me of the dark fears and fierce blues bottled up inside a Black girl’s body.
I would sometimes walk alone around my suburban neighborhood in South Carolina when I was 11 years old. While out strolling one afternoon, I passed by lovely brick houses perched on neat streets and several acres of wooded land. I always observed the woods because my friend Courtney had claimed them as her clubhouse. As I continued walking, I encountered a white man strolling down the street. I saw no one else but him. At that moment, I dreaded the adjacent woodland’s rolling hills and imposing trees. When faced with a stranger, this land I loved to roam turned quickly into a common place to cast a little girl’s corpse. I thought of Caylee Anthony, a white girl whose body was discovered in the woods in 2008 and whose death outraged America quite like the disappearance of travel influencer Gabby Petito. But would people scour the earth for a Black girl? Would the world erupt over someone like me? The answers lie in the bleak statistics on missing children in the United States. 70,754 Black girls under age 18 were reported missing in 2020, according to the National Crime Information Center. At any time, I could be included among a similarly grim number. Later, when the stranger on the street asked which house I lived in, I lied and pointed to the one closest to our location. After that, I only remember my fear fading and him leaving in a friend’s white truck.
What does safety look like for a Black girl? A world where we do not feel burdened by our Black female bodies. I would have loved to have played a little more, laughed a little more without worrying about the consequences of my skin or my shape. In a better world, Black girls can skate down the street and double-dutch on concrete without searching out the suspicious men. They can be fun-loving and full-bodied and still be seen as precious little girls. Mostly, I hope that Black girls today can live without the fear that I carried throughout childhood and adolescence. The fear of a guy subjecting you to shame with just a stare. The fear of being abducted or abused and the world not batting an eye. Black girls deserve to feel light only, love only. Black girls deserve to be free.
Zeniya Cooley, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.