When I first saw that Toyin Salau was missing I knew she was gone. African girls that go missing don’t get found alive.
Seeing her face made me think about what it was like to be 19 and an African girl. Now I am 34, a leader and a revolutionary, but when I was 19 I was a runaway, queer, homeless, and at any given moment a close call and a bad turn of luck away from going missing and never being seen alive again. So many stories where maybe that was almost the end. I have taken rides from men I didn’t know when lost far from home with no phone. I know what it’s like to feel the night closing in – you realize the last bus is gone and people like you can’t afford cabs and you don’t even KNOW anyone with a car and so you’re walking and walking and walking and a man stops or a car slows down and though you already know to be suspicious, even scared, the desperation to get off the street and out of the world and into somewhere where you can be warm and safe and just be, just let go, just rest overrides everything. So you go with them. I understand why she made the choice she did. I have many times. It was often only luck and or maybe something watching over me that never let it go another way.
It is a particularly vulnerable thing to be an African girl and this is true in any part of the world. We are cast as sex objects and threats, stupid and insubordinate, obstinate and uppity. The perception is: anything that happens to us is our fault. We don’t know what’s good for us. You can do anything to us really. We’ll have it coming. This perception exists across contexts, across national, and political, and racial lines – it is a true constant – even in our own communities. And so an African girl’s body – cis, trans, or however that body is configured – is a terrifying body with which to navigate the world for a time. Unless you are extraordinarily lucky. Unless you are one of the too too few that has a family and material conditions that hold and protect you. If you don’t: you are tossed about by the world and by your circumstances, doors shut in your face everywhere, people you don’t know and many you do expect things from you that you don’t understand, look at you with eyes that don’t really see you, take from you what they please. For a time it’s like this with almost everyone, almost constantly, until you find your place and your voice and your people – as I did with the AAPRP. Then you are saved. Then you can save yourself.
It can be easy when you are living through that time – that time before you save yourself – to believe your circumstances are something you brought upon yourself. It’s easy to believe this because it’s what you hear. If you’re an African girl your bed time stories are often of fast tail girls, teenage mom high school drop outs, drug addicted sex workers, date rape, and that one cautionary tale ass neighbor or cousin. The only constants in these stories are supposed to be raging hormones, loose morals, and poor female judgement – never socioeconomic status, marginalized identity, trauma, violence, or abuse. The only lesson of these stories are: these are the fates you must dip and dodge and twist yourself into knots to avoid at all costs lest you be a ‘ruined’ woman that no man would want. No one really tells you why you should aspire to be a woman men would want, but it is understood that this is your goal.
But then one day you go out in public, to the mall or to the park, still dressed like a kid because you are a kid, and men’s eyes begin to linger longer upon your body as you pass. They begin to call after you, ask your name, start following you to the parking lot or bus stop or back to your home. You don’t know what’s changed but what you have been taught is that this something you’ve invited. Somehow. And maybe you realize it first or more often someone points it out to you but either way one day it’s clear: despite your best efforts, despite all those bedtime stories, like flipping a switch one day you are a kid and then one day YOU are the fast tail girl. This is the earliest way that patriarchy and capitalism teach you – so often in the voice of people who are supposed to protect you – that you are on your own.
I saw Toyin was dead and I already knew it would be so but it felt like being punched because the other dimension is: she organized a protest, she got on the megaphone, she spoke, she yelled, she chanted. Maybe people cheered. Maybe people gazed upon her in admiration. Maybe people threw up their fists and snapped and took pictures as she spoke. Maybe people said “black-lives-matter-say-her-name-protect-black-women.” But then when the rally was over she didn’t have anywhere to go. After she’s dead everyone knows her face and her name. After she’s dead everyone lifts their voice to scream for her, to cry for her, to vow to fight for her. When she was alive she couldn’t even get a ride away from the protest or a chill place to sleep. It hurts. A dull ache in your heart and a queasy feeling in your belly and a brain that won’t stop racing with thoughts of when that could have been you. But I bet they felt her on that megaphone.
Sometimes we see this and for those of us that know what it feels like, it is easy to say, “I give up.” There are very few safe spaces to be an African girl. The movement we as radical and revolutionary women and girls give our lives to isn’t an exception. To be an African girl or woman fighting in the struggle is to fight for and with many people who do not understand you to be fully human and who do not and perhaps will never really see you. It is to be expected to hold a remarkable and sometimes insurmountable feeling of fundamental contradiction that can be pulled easily into hopelessness. I could see why – in a world where men whose lives we march for can and do hurt us profoundly when we are at our most vulnerable – sometimes it would feel easier to say, “this is not worth it. It’s time to do me.” But then, doing you won’t save you either.
The reality is that we as African women and girls were born, against our will, into a world built upon our exploitation and the exploitation of our homeland, our mother, Africa. The violence, destruction, pain, and theft visited upon our bodies is reflected within the violence, destruction, pain, and theft visited upon the land that bore us into this world, that created us as a people. By this I mean that the daily abuse we suffer is a direct consequence of a global capitalist economic and political order which depends upon the subjugation and exploitation of colonized women, non-men, girls and the waters, lands, and resources we are meant to protect in order to uphold itself, in order to function on a day to day basis. Through the process of colonization this system enlisted people who look like us, who in another time would care for us and protect us, into the project of oppressing us. And so now we face a reality where we are beaten constantly into the ground by all sorts of sectors of society in order to prevent us from rising up against imperialism in order to destroy it. We are told lies about our somehow biological complicity and culpability so those that transgress against us can safely blame us for it and so that we, as women and as a girls and as warriors to be, do not see the truth that violence against us will only end for good when we organize and turn all violence and all weapons against the capitalist system.
I feel a great rage for the African man that violated Toyin and took her life, but I understand he is a pure creation of the most evil global enemy this planet has ever known. He is a victim in his own way, doomed to a cycle of violence that only total revolution will break, though maybe too late for him. I feel a profound sadness and grief for Toyin’s light extinguished too soon but I also know that there will be many many thousands more women and girls who will suffer like her – new ones every day – until we defeat this enemy once and for all. I will avenge her and I will avenge me and I will avenge and defend every African woman or girl that has ever lived or will ever live by dedicating my life to liberating and unifying Africa, my home, and to destroying this system and building justice in it’s ashes once and for all.