By Taylor Steele @poetofsteele
Not too far from my Brooklyn home, the annual Caribbean parade took place. I learned the day of that one of my male friends was going, and I asked him why he didn't invite me to go with him. He said it was too dangerous for me. That he had seen women get touched, danced up on without their consent. He said — and this much I knew — that every year since he's started attending, people have been getting killed there.
This year was no different.
There were 2 fatal shootings that night. One was of 22 year-old Tiarah Poyau, a promising college student at St. John’s University. I can only imagine that she went to J’Ouvert as a last hurrah before her semester started that same week. That she dressed up in her island’s colors, perhaps even waved a flag — and for nobody’s attention but her own, but for the simple act of claiming her culture and, in doing so, claiming herself. If only she were the only person who felt they could claim her that night. When 20 year-old Reginald Moise started grinding on top of her, Tiarah told him to get off of her. She was shot in the head for saying “No.” For asserting that her body was hers. That was all it took for a young woman to lose her life. And, sadly, this is nothing new. Especially for Black and indigenous women.
Here are just 3 of the countless cases of (often fatal) attacks on women whose only crime was acting on their autonomy:
28 year-old Nokuthula Thashe was shot by her ex-boyfriend because she turned down his marriage proposal, which wasn’t the first during the course of their 5 year relationship. 29 year-old Janese Talton-Jackson was propositioned and felt up by a man at a bar. Witnesses say she had to push him away from her. When she left, he followed her out and shot her in the chest. 27 year-old Mary Spears was at an event with her fiance when she refused to give a random man her number. After having to get escorted out for continuously harassing her, he shot and killed her.
Often, men complain that, if women weren't interested in them, we shouldn't lie about having boyfriends or give them fake/real numbers — we should simply state that we're not interested. They must not understand the catch-22 of it all.
Because toxic/fragile masculinity means fearing men on sight for what we know they are capable of. And rape culture means knowing that fear is not paranoia or over-exaggeration, but a potential foreshadowing. It also means knowing you’ll probably get blamed for your own victimization. Why did she say “no?” Why didn’t she say nothing? Why not just dance with him? What was she wearing? How much did she drink? Was she being a tease? So, often, we just say yes, or dance, or pretend we didn’t notice the stares or hear the crude comments. We are often choosing what we deem to be lesser of two traumas.
Instead, we should be asking: Why do men feel they can own women? Why do men feel threatened when a woman says she can not be had? How can masculinity be so fragile that having someone tell you no is a violence, and one worth killing over?
What really trips me up is that, more often than not, I see Black women getting assaulted by Black men. I myself have been assaulted by more Black men than any other demographic. Sadly, I know that as a Black woman, I’m not exempt from their violences. I have witnessed the way Black men do not support Black women, in life and in death. No one showed up to march for Rekia Boyd when she was murdered by police back in 2012. Despite the fact that Black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement, and that we are constantly at the frontlines of protests and marches and sit-ins when Black men are victim to police brutality. Black men stay silent.
Instead, they make me wonder if there is a cognitive break or dissonance that occurs when they treat (Black) women as objects. As if they don't know the fear of living in a body that doubles as a target. As if they don't panic at the sight of someone who could cause them harm, could kill them. As if they don't change their behavior, language, clothes, body language to appear less “threatening,” to stay “safe.” Some Black men talk about dressing in suits and pulling their pants up, thinking that will make all the difference to a White cop — one who has already internalized white supremacy, white privilege, and anti-Blackness. This mirrors the way women/trans* women/femmes cover up before we leave the house, because maybe we’ll make it home without being catcalled, followed or assaulted. All of which is flawed thinking; the only people to blame for attacking us, are our assailants — not how we dress, what we drink, how we speak.
It must be displacement, then. They take the fear they feel around cops and about white supremacy and instill it in us, an attempt to feel powerful somewhere.
Though, I suppose I shouldn’t be too confused or surprised. Black women are constantly asked to barter their safety over the safety of Black men. When it came out that writer and star of “Birth of a Nation” Nate Parker was accused of raping a former classmate in 1999, I saw a lot of Black men, celebrities included, profess that we all need to support him. Because he is a Black man, and Black men are getting killed everyday, and we rarely get to see successful Black men. I read that the accusation against him coming to light was both conspiracy and distraction. Because if he was acquitted then that means he didn’t do it, so this is just a plot to keep another Black man down; if he did do it, his many accomplishments are still worthy of more attention than this one mistake.
The young woman committed suicide in 2012. Though there can be no proof that the assault was the reason she did, it wouldn’t be farfetched to think that having her assailants not only go unpunished but go on to become successful artists added to what the victim’s brother confesses was a life of trauma, depression, and addiction.
I know that any of these women could easily have been me. They still can. I’ve rejected and ignored men who have catcalled me, flirted with me, asked for my number, asked to buy me a drink. Once, a stranger on the street told me he loved me, then, when I walked away, told me he would remember my face and kill me the next time he saw me. I have only ever been called slurs, had my lower back caressed, been followed a few steps before they all gave up and left me alone. And I, like Parker’s victim, both live with depression and am a survivor of assault. I am lucky to be alive despite that. And isn’t that sad, that this is luck?
Taylor Steele is a Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based writer and performer. Her work can be found at such esteemed publications as Apogee Journal, HEArt Journal, Rogue Agent, Blackberry Magazine, and many others. Her chapbook Dirty.Mouth.Kiss will be available Fall 2016 on Pizza Pi Press. Taylor is a content writer for The Body is Not an Apology, Drunken Boat Journal, and Philadelphia Printworks. She is an internationally ranked spoken word artist, but, more importantly, she is a triple-Taurus. If you'd like to support Taylor's writing please consider making a donation via cash.me/$Steelewriter.