I find myself writing to you before your birth, even before your conception, as I think about you from time to time.
As a kid, I played house and hair salon. Some girls played with dolls, but I always thought they were creepy; that’s why you don’t have any. We pretended to be mothers long before we even asked ourselves if we wanted to become one. Little did we know, the patriarchy had already begun to mold our minds and subsequently our desires. So I knew your name before I realized I should aspire to more than motherhood and before I began to question the idea of bringing a girl child into an unjust world. Despite all that I’ve learned and all that scares me, I’ve held onto your name. I still get excited at the thought of telling you stories about the women your name comes from. Then there are the stories I’m not so thrilled to share with you—the ones I hope you won’t need. This is one of those stories.
“We need to abolish the Kevin Samuels industrial complex with a quickness!”
I sent that text message to many of my friends after going down the rabbit hole of watching viral videos of men giving Black women their misogynist opinions on dating, sex and marriage. Moments before, I spent the morning trying to resurrect my desire for pleasure. I was shocked by my stillness. An activity that was once so mundane was now unfamiliar. When I didn’t find success masturbating, I turned to Tinder to help reawaken my libido. It had been months since I’d experienced sexual trauma that caused my body to shut down and I was ready to reclaim power over it. But my body did not trust me with its fragility, still. And as I lied in bed, I couldn’t bear to reckon with the fact that I was not ready for sexual intimacy, not even in solitude.
Rather than offering myself compassion, I regretfully turned my attention to Instagram. Just as I was then, you may be shocked to learn that women were turning to a man for dating advice whose guidance consisted of telling women all the reasons they weren’t worthy of attention from men who met their standards. Those who joined Kevin Samuel’s Instagram Lives wanted to know what they needed to change about themselves to attract a man. For the life of me, I could not understand why women would willingly entertain such harmful pedagogy. But as I sat with this question; I realized that I am not much different from those women. I’ve asked myself some of the same questions people take to the likes of Kevin Samuels, and I, too, have centered men in my pursuit of the answers to them.
For years, I’ve struggled to feel beautiful, but I remember the day my confidence really took a hit. I was getting ready for an event. As I debated what to wear, I jokingly told my friend that I hoped to meet a potential male suitor that night. She then brought a mirror to my face and said, “Do you see what you look like? I just want you to see yourself” as she laughed at the idea of me meeting someone. Given that I looked the way I do on any given day, I asked myself repeatedly, is there something wrong with how I look? This was the first time I had felt so ugly that I didn’t want to be seen. So much so that I stepped off the train that night and considered returning home.
You, my dear, may never know what it’s like to lack self-esteem. But you may very well find yourself in relationships with friends or loved ones and maybe even I will try to tell you who you are. And you may wrestle with what to believe. In my experience, it’s never the voice spewing doubt that holds the truth. It’s the one buried in confusion, hiding from intuition; the one that speaks of love. It’s your voice.
It has taken me quite some time to come to this realization because I’ve been too busy asking those around me, why am I so unattractive? Is it my acne, my body, my style, my personality? What is wrong with me? These are the questions I’ve asked myself when I’ve woken up in the morning and the answers I came up with consumed me as I tried to sleep at night. One day, tired of feeling unwanted, unpretty and unworthy, I set out to have a hot girl summer, one I could retell for years to come. Instead, I wound up having an experience I never want to relive.
I can share that something died in me the night I was violated. I don’t know what. But whatever it was, it decided to start its afterlife in my mind. I went through bouts of insomnia. When I was finally able to get sleep, I endured nightmares. I searched near and far for peace of mind. I turned to God, who I couldn’t hear. I wondered if I was just too impatient, if He even existed at all, or if I couldn’t hear him because my self-loathing was too loud. As I battled debilitating loneliness, I discovered why the women I saw growing up in the church were obsessed with Jesus. They must have known what it’s like to feel such loneliness. Perhaps, they too struggle to love themselves. Why would they need to learn to do so if Jesus loves them? Maybe they’re satisfied with His everlasting, unconditional love. Determined not to have Jesus be the sole love of my life, I foolishly went looking for empowerment in men yet again.
I hope you will have so much confidence that you’ll find the idea of anyone disliking themselves ridiculous. So much so, it might be hard for you to imagine that your mother, at the moment of writing this, doesn’t like herself. Most days, I can’t bear to sit with my mind, nor stand the sight of my reflection. I often blame myself for the harm I didn’t stop. But this won’t always be my truth. And the only reason you know me as a confident, self-actualized Black woman is because I made a vow to learn to love myself before I welcomed you to life. It will take a lot of work, a great deal of time and learning to tune out the negativity of others for me to arrive at that place.
During the immediate aftermath of being violated, I experienced more harassment in one week than in my entire time living in New York City. If that wasn’t enough, a concierge at the overpriced hotel I was staying at felt the need to inform me of the news of Bill Cosby’s overturned conviction. To make matters worse, he also told me he believed women these days were bringing stories of sexual misconduct to light for attention and money. Later, on my ride home, my Uber driver blasted R. Kelly. He enjoyed the song so much that I don’t believe he recognized who he was singing to. And that same week, I had an unpleasant reaction to the preventive STI medication I was advised to take following the incident. When I told a friend about the man who followed me and then pressured me into withdrawing money from the bank while begging me to stay single for him, she told me “This is why you shouldn’t engage men who approach you on the street.” Months had gone by since I’d been sexually harmed but I don’t think I felt true anger until that moment.
Throughout my life, everyone has had an opinion on how I should handle unwanted encounters with men. People have told me a petite girl like myself should have never moved to New York. I’ve been told to ignore men altogether. Others suggested I stand up for myself. After every negative encounter I’ve had with a man, someone has told me how I should have handled the situation. I can’t think of a single suggestion that made any of those experiences less uncomfortable, unpleasant or traumatic.
For some of us, before we ever braced a world filled with racial and gender-based violence, we inherited the unhealed wounds of our mothers, grandmothers and ancestors we never knew. Because of that, we haven’t figured out the best way to support each other through our experiences with assault, unexpected pregnancies, breakups or abuse. I’ve been both the person in need of support and the one who’s failed to give it. Through it all, I try to find meaning in everything, sometimes to a fault.
I didn’t want to have experienced sexual harm in vain, so I asked God what I was supposed to learn from what I’d been through. The lessons I found in the midst of crippling grief only stripped me of my desire to live. After learning about man’s capacity to disregard women, I believed I shouldn’t trust them. Then after being hurt by the loved ones I confided in for support, I felt that I couldn’t depend on anyone but myself. And finally, after being told by numerous people all the things I should’ve done to prevent finding myself in a vulnerable situation, I thought that I enabled the person who harmed me. But if I were to accept these so-called life lessons as truths, then I’d never have a healthy relationship with a man. I’d rob myself of community and I would be trapped in a state of shame, guilt and self-hate. So I rejected them and continued to search for a deeper meaning. I never found it. The only thing I gained from this experience was more compassion––for women, survivors and anyone who knows what it feels like to fight your way back to sanity. And maybe there is no profound message beyond that; maybe that it’s okay to simply grieve.