When I was a child in Orlando, FL, every afternoon after school, a group of friends and I would go to a nearby apartment complex and cross a rickety bridge into a dark, algae-covered swamp that I was told was filled with alligators. I knew it was dangerous, but I’d cautiously take each step, as my heart pounded with excitement and my body pumped adrenaline, until I reached the other side with my friends.
“Don’t go back there,” an older woman would yell from her apartment next to the bridge. “Those gators eat kids!”
Did we ever heed her warnings? Of course not. Instead, we’d continue on until we’d get too scared, and then return to do the same thing a couple days later. Getting closer to the swamp felt unknown and exciting. We were just kids — how could we fully comprehend the danger?
Taking my first steps into womanhood was no different, except I was all alone. There were no parents or neighbors to warn me of the predators in my path. By the time I was 10 years old, I was already 5’5” with B-cup breasts. In the eyes of the world, I was no longer a child. It was time for me to navigate life as a woman, but I had no idea how to do that. The bridge had broken beneath me, and I was surrounded by gators.
For Black girls like me the transition out of childhood into a complex and ill-defined “womanhood” happens swiftly and without warning. According to a Georgetown Law study released earlier this year, Black girls are stripped of their innocence as early as the age of 5. The study, called “Girlhood Interrupted,” found that survey participants perceived that Black girls need less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort, and that Black girls are more independent and know more about adult topics, including sex. This phenomenon was dubbed “adultification” by the study authors, and they wrote that it refers to “the extent to which race and gender, taken together, influence our perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers.”
And sadly, America’s fraught history with race plays a role in this: The “adultification” of Black children has its roots in slavery, when Black girls and boys were treated like chattel and subjected to cruel treatment, just like their adult counterparts. And in the case of Black girls, it’s further exacerbated by the often early onset of puberty. As the study reported, “on average, African American girls mature physically at a faster rate than [w]hite girls and as a result can be perceived as older.”
My understanding of this fact is deep and personal. When I was 11, I was on my way to the grocery store to buy candy when I crossed paths with a group of men whom I’d met through older members of my family. These men were in their late twenties to early forties, and they knew that I was only a child.
“Hey girl, come over here,” one of the men said to me.
I lowered my eyes and quietly obeyed his orders, not wanting to be rude to an adult.
“You like school?” he asked.
“Well, I could school you,” he said, smirking.
The entire group erupted in laughter. I turned to leave, unable to decipher the coded language of his sexual come-on, but aware that I should be uncomfortable. Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked away. When I told my neighbor, who was standing nearby, what happened, she responded, “Well, why did you go over to them?!” It was as if my developed body was causing even the trusted adults in my life to turn on me. I was only 11, but I was beginning to understand that I was on my own. Soon after that incident, I overheard my neighbor telling my mother, “She is too fast.” My mother did not disagree.
By then, I was still a preteen and had been caught kissing a boy six years my senior — after he persistently followed me home from the bus on a daily basis. I was a straight-A student, but I frequented in-school suspension for being disruptive. Adults had begun to separate me from my peer group — other girls who were less developed — and I was expected to be more mature than everyone else, even though we were all the same age. (Researchers have since found that Black girls are subject to harsher and more frequent discipline, and they are six times more likely to be suspended, than their white peers.) When adult men directed sexual comments at me, or even physically assaulted me, I was chastised for “leading them on” and told that my shorts were too short. By the time I was 12, my innocence was completely stripped.
“But you are so mature,” strangers would say upon learning my age. Those words still haunt me to this day. Whether or not they were meant as a compliment, they felt like an increasingly heavy weight, a reminder of the childhood innocence I was robbed of. I fought for many years to get out of that metaphorical swamp full of gators, but my pleas and calls for help went unanswered.
I’m now 27 and I’m grateful that I was able to survive those early years, despite having little guidance or support. But sadly, when I take a close look at my community or read the news, I still see Black girls enduring the same struggle. In the aforementioned Georgetown Law study, the authors describe a case in which a 15-year-old Black girl in New York City was arrested by the police for using a student MetroCard that’s only valid for those under the age of 19. The officers didn’t believe she was 15, even after her parents confirmed it. It was only when her mother produced her birth certificate that she was released from police custody.
And that’s just one other Black girl’s story. Every day, in neighborhoods all over the U.S., Black girls are unwittingly wading into the swamp and calling out for help when they can’t turn back. When will we finally answer their calls?