I was in the middle of writing a post about 5-year-old Shaniya Davis of Fayetteville, NC and found myself stuck. It was like trying to swallow a huge, chalky pill without a glass of water. Then once you manage, the thing gets stuck somewhere in your chest…feels like it’s actually stopped up in your heart, though of course you know that anatomically that’s not possible. One of my little ones gets occasional gastrointestinal problems that so far has not been diagnosed as anything that doctors can find. One time she was describing to me her ailment: instead of saying the term she had heard her father and me use—heartburn—she said she had heart stuck.
What an accurate word.
That is what I felt when I tried to write about the short life of this little girl in North Carolina.
It is tempting to try to place her life and death in some sort of context. Others have written beautifully about Shaniya and how her life, abuse, death—and media coverage of her death—fits in with other current events or broader societal ills. In the post I was writing, I tried to link Shaniya’s experience to that of a girl I once tutored—who also, coincidentally, was 5 years old when I met her—who had a similar story of pain and abuse. But I started to get that uncomfortable feeling—that hearstuck—and stopped writing.
I didn’t like the ending to that post that was coming clearly into view, even though I had not yet typed it. I think I was aiming to write a post of One Who Survived. One who was not Found Dead. One who was not a headline or a post in blogs from across the sphere. I hadn’t seen the little girl from my past in many years. But recently I got a report about her and it was not cheerful. She had become a mother as a teenager and was currently serving time in a detention center. I think I was aiming to write a post with a happier outcome than what happened to Shaniya. But my blog post could have no happy ending. Unless I invented one.
So I am heartstuck and writing stuck and instead of commenting any more about this tragedy (or any number of other such tragedies of similar girls and boys) I choose instead to restate something I wrote a while back. I don’t know if Shaniya or the little girl I used to tutor ever had an outing with girl cousins like the ones in this post. But after thinking about their stories I am more dedicated than ever to make sure I get my Girl Cousins together soon and often, and make sure I fight for their right to be fully themselves, safe and sound, for their long and happy lives.
Working With Black Women, Epilogue: The Next Generation
So, as the blog says: What about our daughters?
Will they be destined to travel our same paths, stumble over the same exposed roots and boulders we did? Will they be able to be all their selves with each other? Will they decide to identify as feminists, womanists, multi-ists, or nary-ists? Will they be more than their hair, their skin tone, their names? Can they be yoked romantically to men, other women—to no one in particular—without being defined solely in terms of these connections or lack of them?
…The Family Reunion is an ideal natural environment to gain insight into these questions. The aluminum foil is peeled back from the homemade mac and cheese and the pork ribs. The card decks and dominoes are slapping table tops. Frankie Beverly and Maze is echoing across the green grass of the public park, and the living is easy.
Hugs and greetings of long-losts have been exchanged and now the sub-groupings have been formed. Loosely based on age and gender, but not completely.
A group of Girl Cousins, from 3 to 10 years old, has coalesced around a shared love of babies and homemade ice cream and a cooler full of juice in pouches. At some point I take them across the field to the portable potty. In-depth discussion: toilet paper and hand sanitizer, who is doing number one versus number two, the merits of High School Musical underpants versus plain white or pink, the odd looking “cookie” in the urinal (“where men go pee-pee; see, their penises fit inside there”) beside the toilet. After all this—and of helping with lining the dirty seat with paper and fastening snaps and belt buckles and buttons—I am ready to head back to the picnic site.
But the Girl Cousins are not.
They have found a sewer drain, full of water from three straight days of rain. The sewer drain is actually a pot of stew, and a discarded stick has become a wooden spoon. Beans are required from amongst the pebbles of the adjacent baseball diamond. Leafy greens are needed from the dandelion plants and grass. Seasoning in the form of sand from the pitcher’s mound gives it extra flavoring.
Braids and twists and puffs top the heads. Inside the heads minds work to create a state-of-the-art kitchen. The conversation is focused and intense. No, that’s a little too much salt. Yeah, great idea—Get the brown beans up under the lighter ones. Please let her add her greens next. Look at what I found—we can use it for a measuring cup! OK, OK, we all gonna get a chance to stir! Mmm, it’s almost done; Y’all wanna taste?
The Girl Cousins are from the inner city and the suburbs. They participate in vacation bible school and swim practice and drill team. They sing all the words to Kidz Bop and Beyonce and Keke Palmer and Alicia Keys and Hanna Montanna. Their parents are married, never married…their siblings are theirs by biology and social agreement.
They are a diverse bunch.
After the stew is made, the oldest calls for everyone to join hands and bow heads for a prayer. Her words give thanks for this food and the hands, Lord, who has prepared it. She asks for the continued safety of our family, Lord, and the love that we share for each other today and all days. The other Girl Cousins nod, their eyes tightly closed in reverence.
At the end of the prayer they all say amen and begin to eat their meal.
Eventually we head back to the picnic area. The Girl Cousins run ahead, leaving me to snap a few more photographs.
I pray that if there is a God, she or he listens to and answers the prayers of little children over make believe stew.