He was a celebrity rapper making rounds and posing for selfies with fans. I was merely a Black woman with “no name.”

“Can I have a photo as well?” I asked when he finished posing with my girlfriend.

From past experience, I learned to stay far away from celebrity men. But I set aside my “baggage” and hesitation to enjoy the moment.

“Of course!” he excitedly responded and positioned himself next to me, facing the camera.

Then I felt an intrusive hand gliding down the side of my arm. He gave it a squeeze, then brought his face right up to mine, pushing his lips out in my direction. I stood dazed, still half-smiling for the photo. As his lips were about to meet mine, I pulled away and gave him a confused look. He suggestively squeezed my arm again and pressed his body closer to mine, with a hungry look on his face.

“You got a sexy back,” the rapper’s friend said from behind me, quickly tracing my spine from the center to the small of my back. I spun around and glared at him and then looked around at everyone else for a cue. How was I supposed to stand up for myself? Was anyone going to defend me? Was I supposed to shout? Or scream? Or hit them in retaliation? If I did, would it be considered an over reaction?

I didn’t know what to say or do and I didn’t want to embarrass myself or anyone else. I was supposed to be appreciative to be there.

After all, I was just afforded the opportunity of a lifetime. Only moments earlier I performed in The Pyer Moss New York Fashion Week show, “Bernie Sanders vs Bernie Madoff.” The show was a call to which the audience was meant to respond; a call to confront the Black plight. I was hired to perform along with 5 other Black female actors of varying shapes and sizes. In a space where only tall, wiry bodies are celebrated, our bodies stood in opposition to the fashion status quo. Dressed as every day cashiers with name tags which read “no name,” we were meant to physically embody the plight of Black America as models strode by on the runway and a spoken word artist performed live.

“I guess the American Pie tastes like hush money

Capitalism is the bully stealing your lunch money

Momma playing the numbers

Cuz she gotta hunch money.”

The artist declared, as we the actors banged at the keys on the register, sighed, moaned and groaned. We were told to be “tired, frustrated and angry.” To cue the audience to feel what we feel everyday as women of color in The United States of America.

For me, the demands were easy to meet. Buried beneath only a thin veneer of respectability, my frustration was quite difficult to conceal. I gazed at the audience engulfed in a thought inspired by the poetry: Momma playing the numbers. A tear rolled down my cheek.

“I got a hunch, honey,” she would say, before running into the store with a buck or two and returning with a lottery ticket.

My mother always had a hunch, a dream, that she would hit the jackpot and no longer be struggling single parent. That she could secure her children’s inheritance — a single family home in the “hood” that she struggled to pay the mortgage on every month.  Sadly, that hunch money seldom becomes wealth for women like my mother. Just another dream deferred.

What happens to a dream deferred? Nothing. But those who bear witness to repeated dream deferment become disillusioned.

Disillusionment was the main reason why I initially felt it necessary to avoid the celebrity making his way down the corridor backstage after the show. I once dreamed of love and respect from men in general, and especially from Black men, because I thought them to be Black women’s biggest allies. Instead, I was forced to learn that I was vulnerable as a young Black woman around men, in general, and especially Black men.

Only weeks earlier I wrote, “Black Women Are Done Supporting Black Men Who Don’t Protect Us,” an indictment of the failure of Black men to stand for, defend or protect Black women against misogynistic violence. I was the victim of this kind of violence countless times. Like the 60 percent of Black girls, I experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a Black man by the age of 18. And many times after.

The first time? I was 10-years-old, when  a 17-year-old neighbor tricked me into entering his house where he was watching porn and jerking himself off. The second time? I was still 10-years-old when a Black man about 30-years-old said to me, “I’m sure you got a fat pussy.” The 3rd time? I was 12-years-old when a neighbor in his 30s asked, “Do you like school?….. I’d love to school you.” The 50th time, I was 17-years old when a male high school teacher made a pass at me and my home room teacher warned me to stay away from him. The 150th time, I was 20-years-old in an empty train when a man sat across from me and played with himself, while staring me dead in my face.

I cannot say I know for certain the number of times I have been sexually harassed or abused, but every single one of those encounters shaped the the lens through which I saw the world. And, eventually all of those experiences blended together to color my entire reality.

The last time?

After that fashion show when I chose the folly of youth over those conclusions and judgements. I stood close to the male celebrity, who said “yes” to my request for a photo, and feigned a smile.  And then he forcefully touched me, made sexual advances in front of everyone and left me feeling embarrassed and confused.

I was frozen. Before I could gather my thoughts, he continued through the busy crowd of models, stage workers, actors and photographers. And just like that, the moment was over. Two men touched my body without my permission and I, nor anyone else, did anything about it. Two men reduced me to nothing but an object; a nameless Black body for consumption and I, nor anyone else, did anything about it.

And once again, I was living a dream deferred. I was a voiceless Black women, left unprotected.

In that moment, I realized that I may had unwittingly poured my Blackness into a movement that still really had no space for it; That barely even acknowledged it. A Blackness, informed not only by battles with racism or oppressive capitalism, but also by constant overt sexism and misogyny.  While my Black body and my pain were put on display for consumption, it was merely the backdrop to Black men’s art, vision and story which gave no voice to my Black womanhood or many of the experiences which created that pain. Black female bodies are bought, consumed, used and discarded by capitalism– and even by the Black men who participate in it.

In that moment, I felt precisely that: Used and discarded. By racism, capitalism and once again, by Black men. Questions twisted about in my mind: Why weren’t there any Black female makeup artists or hair stylists? Why was the word “brother” uttered in the fashion show’s poem repeatedly, but the word “sister” never made a debut? Why were there only three Black female models? Why didn’t two Black men at a fashion show, meant to inspire “consciousness” about the Black plight, connect with my plight as a Black woman and instead chose to exacerbate it?

Once again, I was engulfed in disillusionment; Another dream deferred.

I collected my stuff and joined my group of Black women actors. We were going out to dinner to “celebrate”. When we got to the front of the building, photographers excitedly snapped photos of us walking together through the streets of New York. We could’ve easily been the envy of any twenty-something-year-old woman awed by the glamour of fashion. Yet, it wasn’t particularly glamorous at all.

“I just feel like we could’ve been treated better,” one of the women finally piped up, while we walked.

She was right. Black women not only could be treated better by society-at-large, by Black men in our own communities and within Black power movements– even those presented within fashion statements. We should be treated better.

Our bodies and presence should be respected. Our voices and struggles should be heard and numerated. That dream can become a reality.

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