I am going to tell you a story when I was straight-up scared as a kid, but I need to get you some back story for context first. If you have read my other blogs, you know I spent most of my early life in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
I had a charmed childhood, with a lot of parental involvement and was part of a diverse tight-knit community. I grew up feeling that every adult in our condo unit cared about the well-being of every child that lived there. Nevertheless, this was NOT an ideal time. I was born in 1980 and the landscape in cities especially in downtown areas where there were pockets of concentrated poverty (created during the White flight of the 1940s thru the 1970s) was the heart of the crack/cocaine epidemic, and crime.
My little part of the neighborhood was usually quiet, the adults kept us very insulated, but my church at the time across the street supported the local homeless shelter. That meant there were a lot of people coming and going all the time and sometimes some shady characters. At times, my parents even insisted my actions at church be limited to attending service or volunteering at the shelter (I was on hot coffee and tea brewer from ages 5 to 8). That was not to say that my parents were keen on me being at a Catholic church alone doing anything anyway (a suspicion they held for good reason).
My parents early on taught me a few skills and had rules to make sure I stayed safe:
- I could not stay overnight at anyone’s house that wasn’t immediate family (children of my grandmother only) or my best friend’s grandmother’s (no, I was not allowed to stay at her house. My father distrusted and disliked her father).
- I was not allowed in anyone’s house during the day without my mother having a conversation first with their parents.
- I always carried bus fare and I knew every bus that passed where we lived.
- I had to be in by the time the streetlights came on.
- I was told to always know where exits were when I entered a room.
- Before I could travel solo, I had to have memorized my phone number, my grandmother’s number, our address, and my grandmother’s address.
There would be other things my parents would teach me. The soft spots on the human body if I had to fight off an attacker, what to yell if I needed to get attention and my father also went as far as to teach me how to use a weapon to protect myself when I was old enough to go to school (my mother was not pleased). You may think my parents were over-doing it, but my parents wanted me to never panic is a dangerous situation, but to stop and think first. My parents believed that teaching us to be cool under duress was the only way to protect their children.
Anyway, I was 7 when the “incident” happened. I remember the day it happened vividly. I was allowed to walk to a few places alone at that age. One of those places being the local library, the Shelby Park branch. The neighborhood branch was a few blocks from my house and down the street from my elementary school and acted as an entrance to the local park. I walked to school, so I knew the routes to and from the library well (my crazy father also insisted I switch up which ways I walked to the library every time I went alone).
That particular day, I was returning a bunch of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and a copy of Dracula. Usually, I went to the library alone but that day a few kids in my neighborhood planned on going to the park to play two hand touch football, because they were digging in the grassy common area for something, so they were tagging along.
We had almost made it to the library and just had to cross one busy street and then just go up the block. We hit the corner and there pulls up a person in full clown get-up trying to convince us to get into his truck. Now we were downtown kids, so most of us were street savvy enough to know it was a terrible idea, clown or not. We tell the person no thanks and keep walking. Well the car starts to follow us. So, we did what any kids with good sense do…we ran. I was so happy I had packed those books in a backpack because we ran full speed to the library. Once we were there, we told the librarian and she called the police. Then, I called my mother and my mother told me to stay put that she would walk over and get me.
When we walked home, my mother told me I had done the smart thing. She told me to not expect the cops to do much but that that was the right call. Additionally, she told me to get used to feeling unsafe and having to make judgement calls. That was also the first day she told me about the kids in Atlanta and that nobody looks for kids like me.
The Stuff of Nightmares
There is an ugly truth that many Black children quickly find out; that no matter how hard our parents try we are never really “safe”, even less so than children of other races. That lack of safety is all encompassing, from the strangers who would do us harm to, in some cases, the very people we would call to protect us. I learned growing up that unless there was no other choice in life, then I call the cops. Even now as an adult with my own child, that lesson has stuck. I have only called the cops a few times in my life, each time begrudgingly. This is partially because I found cops to either not take my reports seriously or make it almost not worth reporting by treating me poorly.
Now my parents were on guard about safety in the 80s because what had happened to Black children in Atlanta right around the time I was born. Atlanta is what I would call a “Black American city or Chocolate City”, due to its large concentration of Black Americans that make up all socio-economic classes; though there is a clear distinction between those with means and those without. Children and young adults in Atlanta’s poorer neighborhoods were targeted by a killer. The majority of these victims were under the age of 15. From 1979 to 1981 it is believed that as many as 30 or more children were abducted and murdered in the Atlanta area. Too often, when the families would report that their children were missing, the police initially did not take the reports seriously. Now I know before we go down the hole of how child abduction in general was not taken seriously, we must consider the racial and economic disparities that came into play that eroded the credibility of the reporting parents. Atlanta cops would eventually capture a killer and all the murders would be attributed to this man. Many of the cases did not go to trial and some of the victims’ families believed that there was a reason that Atlanta rushed to close all the cases before doing further investigation.
Until recently, the story was that this one man killed all these, in many cases, street savvy Black children. However, with a renewed interest in how these murders happened, Atlanta has decided to reopen and test what DNA is left to bring closure to these families. If you want to learn more about the Atlanta child murders, there are a few documentaries and podcasts that cover more than I ever could.
The main take away I want you to think about is how much coverage do missing and murdered Black children get? I can honestly say that I am unaware of many Black children and young Black women being abducted with large media coverage following it. The exception being the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, that was given national attention due the efforts of the people of Nigeria and the sheer number of girls abducted. The hashtag “#BringBackOurGirls” has been used since to raise awareness to other missing Black women and girls but sadly has garnered less popularity. Race and gender often play a role in how cases are handled not only by police but by the media. If I go missing I know there is a chance no one will look for me, even more so as a darker skinned woman. If I do get coverage, it is likely I will be portrayed not as a victim but as a person who had a hand in my victimization.
My parents KNEW THEN a truth that took me years to solidify in my mind, that the calvary won’t come for me. That if I find myself in trouble I better use every skill I was taught and even trick I know to save myself. While Black woman may only make up 7% of the US population we do make up to 12% of the those missing. There is this belief that if Black people go missing, we “Don’ run off” of our own accord even when the evidence doesn’t suggest that. Its these negative interactions early in life that make many Black people support defunding the police to use those monetary resources on other programs that may better keep criminality down and address issues plaguing economically depressed Black communities. Still, my heart breaks when I think about the thousands of Black families that not only lose their loved ones; then have insult heaped on this injury by law enforcement and the media not taking their loss to the same level as cases presented by non-Black victims.
This needs to change. Supporting organizations such as Black and Missing is the first step. Take an interest and be an advocate to help find these missing men, women and children. Demand that law enforcement and media give these cases equal coverage. Make sure that if you do find yourself in a position to share information to law enforcement regarding a missing or abducted person that they follow up with on the tip. Furthermore, ensure there are resources and safe places where children can seek help if needed in your neighborhood. Together we can solve this problem.