Shelter from the Storm: On Epidemic Sadness and Trauma Among Girls and Queer Youth

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#Standing4BlackGirls rally in South L.A. 2022, Photo by Bluegreen

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, the 19th century abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs entitles one chapter, “The Trials of Girlhood”. In it, she describes the ritualized sexual violence that enslaved Black girls were subjected to during the antebellum period. Upon turning 15, Jacobs noted that, “No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress — in either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.” For Jacobs, the fact that these atrocities were committed against Black girls under the guise of Christian morality was another brutal contradiction.

Flash forward to the twenty first century, and Jacobs’ experiences with rape culture’s trauma continue to reverberate for Black girls and femmes. According to a new CDC report, “57 percent of girls and 69 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual teenagers reported feeling sadness every day for at least two weeks during the previous year. And 14 percent of girls, up from 12 percent in 2011, said they had been forced to have sex at some point in their lives, as did 20 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual adolescents.” Nationwide, Black girls have some of the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence victimization, with nearly 60% experiencing sexual abuse by the time they turn 18.

When I was growing up in the eighties, there was virtually no language to support Black girl survivors like me, much less a national platform or movement. It was “understood” that sexual harassment, sexual violence, and teen dating violence were just part of the “trials” of being young, Black, and female. It was understood that the “trials” of being a Black boy superseded and took precedence over Black girls’ trauma. Black folks did not take to the streets en masse to demand an end to sexual and domestic violence. And, beyond slavery, and misogynist, victim-blaming rap and rock lyrics, there were largely no mainstream portrayals of Black girls’ experiences with sexual violence. Influential texts such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide when the rainbow was enuf were rarely taught in middle school or high school settings. This erasure was compounded by the fact that white women sexual violence victims were almost always the lead protagonists in soap opera dramas and infamous “after school specials” that once dominated network TV.

In the 8th grade, I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and was riveted by the narrator Celie’s voice. Her poignant questioning and unapologetic affirmation of her own truth amidst the pain of rape, abuse, and abandonment powerfully illustrated how writing could provide healing space. Decades later, I was well into my thirties when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s searing indictment of sexual violence, colorism, internalized racism, and segregation is as potent today as it was during the seventies when it was published. As seen through the eyes of middle school Black girls, the story of The Bluest Eye is at once tragic and triumphant. Triumphant because it hints at the complexities of Black female agency in the midst of generational trauma. The only difference between the girlhood trials of Morrison’s protagonist Pecola Breedlove and those of contemporary Black girls is the Internet. If Pecola “existed” today, she’d be cyberbullied into silence, gaslighted about her trauma, branded as a race traitor, and told to pray it away.

According to the CDC’s Kathleen Ethier, “Of every 10 teen girls that you know, at least one of them — possibly more — have been raped…And so, not surprisingly, we’re also seeing that almost 60% of teen girls had depressive symptoms in the past year.” The report confirms that these levels are the highest reported in a decade. Moreover, “1 in 3 girls had seriously considered attempting suicide, which is up by 60% over the last decade. (And among) teens who identify as LGBTQ+ more than half reported experiencing poor mental health…(while) 1 in 5 had actually attempted suicide in the past year.” From 2003–2019, suicide among Black girls increased by 59%. The biggest increase occurred among 12–14-year-old girls.

The report was based on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey , which was given to 17,000 teens in the fall of 2021. Nationwide, girls across ethnicity are experiencing record levels of violence, much of which is normalized as a kind of rite of passage and exceeds what males are experiencing. This casual, routinized violence silences scores of Black girls, young women, and queer folks. As one of my 10th grade students put it, the violence that girls experience is so normalized that many don’t even know how to classify it. Being called out of one’s name or being slapped on the butt can easily progress to being pushed, grabbed and pressured to have sex. Victims struggle to be heard and validated, often going against the grain of school cultures where violence against girls and female-identified youth is not taken seriously. Because sexism and sexual violence are not deemed to be a public health crisis, Black and BIPOC girls face rampant denial that it is important. This lack of priority is reflected in the language used to describe, demean, sexualize, and police Black girls’ behavior.

In many schools, sexual and reproductive health are taught once in health classes, typically during 9th grade. Mandatory prevention education all four years of high school would have a critical impact on curbing high rates of domestic and sexual violence among teens and young adults. For example, a 2021 study showed a significant link between mass shootings and domestic violence. From 2014–2019, 59.1% of mass shootings were DV-related. In over 68% of mass shootings, “the perpetrator either killed at least one partner or family member or had a history of DV”. Granted, mass shootings only account for 1% of gun homicides in the U.S., yet their public and psychological impact is immense. At the same time, the everyday gun homicide that occurs in communities of color rarely receives the same media attention, and Black women and girls pay the steepest price.

How many Black girls have to die or psychologically languish before our communities mobilize to end the epidemic levels of gender-based violence and homicide they are experiencing? Free accessible therapy, arts-based healing, youth leadership support, and community-building opportunities and literature circles featuring Black feminist, BIPOC and queer books can provide coping resources for and safe havens from the unrelenting violence Black girls, femmes of color and queer youth experience in their everyday lives. Regular check-ins from engaged adult mentors on the hopes, aspirations, fears, and dreams of youth with anxiety can also be healing. Depression and sadness shouldn’t be normalized as the “constant companions” girls and queer youth carry with them. Black feminist, womanist and anti-racist humanistic interventions can and should be the prescription for long term mental health restoration for our youth.

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