Remember, I love you always. I distinctly recall reading that the popular yearbook message was the inspiration behind Rilya Wilson’s name and wincing at the irony of it all; that a child whose name was a reminder of eternal affection, died alone and forgotten by an institution meant to protect her. For those who don’t remember, Rilya Wilson was a four year old girl who went missing for two years before the Florida Department of Children and Families noticed. Wilson’s caretaker at the time is believed to responsible for her abuse and death, though her body was never found. Just two years ago, Wilson’s caretaker was convicted of kidnapping and child abuse and sentenced to a total of fifty five years behind bars.
Still, while justice was eventually served for little Rilya Wilson, if we can call it that… and her death brought about several reform laws and sweeping changes in Florida’s DCF; Wilson’s case is not permanently embedded in our collective consciousness like that of Jonbenet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, or Amber Hagerman. To be clear, it is the greatest of tragedies anytime an act of violence is committed against children. But, there is something to be said of the ways in which violence against Black girls is dismissed to the point of erasure.
Nelson Mandela once said that, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” In truth, I can think of no greater shame than our failure to be outraged by institutional violence against Black girls. As sure as I remember Rilya’s story—I remember a similar refrain over a decade later when Relisha Rudd went missing from a homeless shelter in Washington, DC. Like Wilson, Rudd was a child under institutional supervision whose disappearance went unnoticed. Rudd’s alleged abductor was found dead in a Washington park and is presumed to have killed her, though the search for Rudd remains active. I’m left to wonder why faces like those of Rudd or Wilson are never the ones that capture the nation’s attention.
Sadly, erasure is only one of many forms of institutional violence committed against Black girls every day. While the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe’ movements have seemingly been centered on the senseless and tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice- all Black male bodies- it is important to highlight the ways in which Black women, and Black girls especially, experience violence. Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, revealed that his 14 year old sister was tackled, handcuffed, and placed in a squad car with the officer who shot Rice after rushing to his side. The only solace in this case, is that Rice’s sister emerged from this encounter alive. The outcome was not the same for Aiyana Stanley Jones, a seven year old girl killed by police fire during a raid in Detroit. Stanley Jones’ death gained some notoriety, perhaps most notably through a video dedication from rapper J. Cole, but still has not sparked the same national outrage that brutality against Black male bodies has.
Despite the shortcomings of various recent social movements around police violence, or the failures of child welfare systems of the past and present, there has perhaps been no greater failure than that of the world leaders who led the march paying tribute to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks. Much has been said about the tragic and deplorable actions of the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo, and even more has been said about the publications problematic depiction of racist tropes. There has even been outrage expressed at the media’s coverage (or lack thereof) of Boko Haram’s reign of terror in northern Nigeria. What hasn’t been said enough however is that while the attack on Paris was devastating, Boko Haram’s use of ten year old girls as suicide bombers is the ultimate depravity.
Where are the marches for the ten year old girl witnesses describe as being “torn in half?” The state police spokesman stated that, “[they] believe that an accomplice watching from a distance pressed the remote.” Black girls are being used as mules for a terrorist organization and the silence is deafening.
And now, we have the image of Dajerria Becton, being thrown to the ground in a swimsuit with an officer’s knees pressed in her back for “talking back.” Black women know all too well the danger of speaking your mind in a Black female body and being seen as having an attitude. We are collectively transported to times when our communications were policed by supervisors, teachers, or family members as being too angry or aggressive. We can only be grateful that Dajerria has lived to tell her story.
Arnesha Bowers has not. The 16 year old Baltimore high school student was raped, strangled, and burned…. for a laptop and an iPad. While we praised Black male leaders and celebrities for going out to Baltimore during the uprising to presumably calm the mobs of Black rage, will we get a chance to see them do it again for Arnesha? Are we ready to confront men (including Black ones) about their violence against Black women? Are we ready to march and say their names? Is it enough to say, not one more? Not one more Black girl child’s body will perish without outrage.
Every time the suffering and death of a Black girl goes unacknowledged, our society’s soul is tarnished. If Black girls must die, let it not be like hogs, hunted and penned in an inglorious spot. For every little Black girl watching the ways in which we respond to the suffering of young women who look like them—may they be imbued with the spirit that if Black girls must die, ‘they will nobly die, so that their precious blood was not shed in vain.’ There will be books, there will be made for TV movies, and we will march arm in arm across continents so they may always remember that their lives matter. This, the death of countless Black girls across the world, is what happens when WE don’t listen. They deserve better than this.
For Kaylan Ward and Jasilas Wright and 2 year old Adrionna Williams and Rilya and Aiyana and Arnesha and all the Black girls in this world and the next.