Erica Garner's death reminded me that I'm not ready for my twenties.
I’ll be 20 years old this year. Twenty. That scares me. It’s not merely because of my fear of adulthood, but it’s more concentrated on the fear of approaching black womanhood. Initially, I imagined that I would spend my twenties “Living Single”-ing it up—thriving in melanated magic in a Brooklyn brownstone with my black friends, having a bombass journalism career, living my life to a Frank Ocean playlist. I pictured myself as an independent and level-headed character like Khadijah James (Queen Latifah), who was mainly doing all three of those things (Frank Ocean could be replaced with Sade or any other prolific 90’s R&B artist during that time). Or, I could be “Insecure”-ing it up— being a mix of Molly and Issa while having love interests in a regular rotation, basing by experiences off of SZA’s “Ctrl” and living in a black middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles. I still fantasize about living in both of those realities.
Last year, however, I realized that there are ugly realities associated with black womanhood that I’m not ready to face. It’s more than just the regular-degular things that come with being an adult like bills, employment, and more bills. My fear stems from maternal mortality, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and other issues that plague black women at alarming rates.
Consider Erica Garner. Out of all the deaths related to white supremacy that have been amplified by the Black Lives Matter Movement, Erica Garner’s death hit me the most. Her death was the culmination of my realization that living in black girl magic is too often confronted with hardships that contribute to the erasure of a black woman’s existence. It wasn’t just the stress of her witnessing her father being placed in a chokehold by the police which prompted him to scream “I Can’t Breathe” that contributed to that realization. It wasn’t the narrative of black women sacrificing themselves for black liberation movements that wasn’t a stranger to Erica Garner. It wasn’t her surviving intimate partner violence while pregnant. It wasn’t even her suffering major complications post-pregnancy that later resulted in her death. Instead, it was a combination of all those things that increased my fear of approaching my twenties. Thus, Erica Garner found herself at the intersection of many avenues of structural racism that ultimately inhibit black women the most, and that is something that I’m not ready to encounter.
When I was younger, I always dreamed of having a lot of kids (six was the maximum). Being the only child hasn’t been easy, and I wanted to ensure that my children would never lack having a big family. At 16, I reduced that number in half partially because I’ve realized that I don’t like children past the age of four and mainly because they’re just too expensive. Now, my thoughts on motherhood have drastically changed to me being content without having any children. While those aforementioned reasons still remain true, I’ve become aware of the startling maternal mortality rate for black women that has discouraged any thought that I’ve had on having a child.
Last fall, I read in Essence Magazine about the death Kyira Dixon Johnson. At age 37, she was accomplished and travelled across the world. She was also the daughter-in-law of the Hon. Glenda Hatchett who had her own television series. Last year, Johnson was pregnant with her second child and was scheduled for a C-section in the top-tier hospital of Cedars-Sinai. It was the same hospital where Beyonce would give birth to twins nearly a year later. According to the article, Johnson was also in perfect health which is why it was a huge shock to her family that she hemorrhaged to death. However, it was a situation that could have been avoided if she received the proper care.
How could highly-rated hospital be dangerously inattentive to the care of a patient, especially one who knows their own body? I asked that same question after reading Vogue’s interview with Serena Williams, in which she detailed some complications of her pregnancy. The tennis star, and arguably the greatest athlete of our generation, had to plead with physicians to care for her pulmonary embolism that was making her short of breath the day after giving birth.
I also read the scathing report by ProPublica that detailed how structural racism impacts black motherhood. According to the report, black mothers die at more than triple the rate than white mothers and are still at an startling advantage when considering factors like poverty and low educational attainment. But nothing stunted my pregnancy dreams than this statistic that explains everything—black women are 243 percent more likely to die from childbirth or pregnancy-related issues than white women.
Being raised in the black church and in a family that’s predominantly Christian, marriage was always the goal. Most of my childhood and teenage years were spent (are often still spent) listening to messages about how my virginity would lead me to the prize of marriage in which I would experience a limitless amount of love and happiness from a husband who found me worthy of being a wife. I believed it. So, in every relationship that I was in, I entered it with marriage as the goal. Yes, before the age of 16, I seriously thought I would happen to meet my soulmate. Some people do. However, I’ve realized the pernicious effects that mindset can have on a young girl.
Those sermons that I consistently heard throughout my upbringing failed to mention that women don’t need men to reach their happiness. Although those messages didn’t explicitly say the contrary, it certainly implied it by associating my happiness to how I’m perceived by men and God. At 19, I’ve finally understood I am not defined by what goes inside of me and how many men I decide to be with. My identity is controlled on my own terms.
Thus, when Ciara posted a video on social media of John Gray preaching those same toxic messages that I grew up on, I became frustrated by the constant oppression that women face within the four walls of the sanctuary. However, the sad part about the entire situation was the many women who still amplify their support of it. Black women are the backbones of the black church. They are the nurses board, choir directors, and Bible Study teachers. Black women are also among the most religious demographics in the nation. They give their lives to churches that don’t thoroughly support them, and most black women seem to be content with that. The only reason why preachers like John Gray continuously sell these “singleness sermons” is because the target market—black women— isn’t in jeopardy, and it’s perhaps the greatest finesse of all-time.
This current realization of having agency over my own happiness included the my newly found agency over my body. With the agency that I’ve tried to have over my body, I can’t help but notice the menacing glares from men who examine it as if it’s theirs. I’ve been receiving these stares for a while, and I’m still not used to it. No, hiding my ass and thighs won’t do the trick because somehow, men find a way to take control of my body. Furthermore, why should I have to hide parts of my body to tame a man’s bad behavior? That’s the very reason why the #MeToo movement exists today. However, while the #MeToo movement has benefited wealthy white actresses, it hasn’t quite served justice for the many girls in the black community who’ve had to experience sexual assault at a young age. Because of racism, black girls have learned to carry their pain without any recognition because we know the damaging effects that white supremacy has on our men. R.Kelly is a perfect example of this, but, in this case, there has been decades of evidence against him targeting young black girls for his toxic behavior. However, he still gets to sell out stadiums and featured on songs. The #MeToo movement certainly showed whose pain matters and who gets to be a victim.
Realizing these things at 19 years old has been a telling experience of how much I’ve grown, and I’m ready to explore more issues in my twenties. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t say how discouraging all of these things are. How am I supposed to make my own happily ever after when there are many obstacles that prevent black women from having one? Erica Garner was only 27 years old when she died and didn’t get to experience a remnant of a happily ever after. I can’t help but attempt to tie her life with mine because she’s only eight years older than me. What does this mean for me, at 19? Will I get to live my happily ever after? Will I be able to have children? Will I be able to find love without the problematic messages tied to it? More, importantly, will I be able to have my dreams fully realized without the burden of white supremacy sabotaging them?