They taught you that you weren’t worth it. You learned the day you were born and they convinced your mother that her breast milk — breast milk not unlike that which nourished white kids who grew up to oppress the very women whose breasts they suckled – was not the best choice for you. You didn’t need the vitamins and immunities your mother’s nutritious milk could provide you. You weren’t worthy of avoiding ear infections. You didn’t deserve to bond with your mother. You were worthy of chemical-laden, contaminated, canned formula. Similac’s profits trumped your health.
You found out you weren’t worth it when you wanted your first doll baby at three years old. You learned that nobody wanted to play with dolls that looked like you. You realized your kinky black or curly brown hair was a badge of shame. You understood that chocolate skin like yours or caramel skin like your sister’s weren’t beautiful. You believed the blue-eyed blonde dolls were better. You accepted that you weren’t worth representation.
You knew you weren’t worth it that Easter Eve when you were five and your mother finally decided to do something with that “nappy mess.” You figured out your hair wasn’t pretty enough without that relaxer. You sucked up the tears caused by the chemicals burning your scalp because you needed those naps gone. You got that your natural hair wasn’t worth the care it took to maintain and grow it. You processed that the state of your hair defined your beauty, so you learned to straighten it no matter how damaging.
You felt you weren’t worth it when you heard about Aiyana Stanley. She was seven just like you. You knew if her life didn’t matter, neither did yours. A bullet to the head while she was sleeping from the Officer Friendly they taught you was here to protect you. You learned to live with the fact that your life could be over before your first book report was due. You swallowed that pill because you weren’t worthy of being protected.
Your worthlessness was confirmed when you had finally worked up the nerve to tell someone that your uncle had grabbed your breasts and made you kiss his penis. You were ready to tell your parents what he’d done because maybe it wasn’t alright and maybe you were worth your innocence, but then the tape surfaced of a thirty-something R. Kelly having sex with a girl who was 12 just like you. You listened to adult friends and family debate about how that didn’t look like him and how they couldn’t see him doing anything like that, and wondered if they’d defend someone they didn’t know like that, how hard they’d go for a loved one. You listened to grown men and women talk about how she was “too fucking fast” and had them “big ass titties” like a grown woman. You looked down at your short shorts covering baby-making hips and your tank top barely covering your D-cups and decided you shouldn’t bother telling your parents because you weren’t worth it and had probably been asking for it just like the girl in the video by being too damn grown and hot.
It was clear you didn’t matter when you got your first crush at 15. You were not worthy of the flutter in your heart when you saw your crush. Listening to your mother gossip with your aunts about your neighbor told you all you needed to know about your kind of love. You didn’t want to be unworthy of love like that “dyke next door.” So when you were asked why you never brought any little boys over, you chuckled and said you were too focused on school because you weren’t worthy of acceptance and understanding. Any chance of you ever being worthy of happiness was predicated on you finding a man who would love you. You knew better than to ever imagine you were valuable enough to be loved when you loved a woman.
You accepted your devaluation when you went shopping for your prom dress. You found the perfect form-fitting dress. You pictured yourself working it at the prom and dropping jaws when you entered. Then your mother pointed out how if you knew you wanted to wear a tight dress to prom, you shouldn’t have sat around eating cupcakes and you wouldn’t have that gut. You knew any value you’d earned had been depleted when your waistline grew three inches. You understood that hiding your bulge was more important than wearing the dress you wanted. You knew you weren’t worth that dress since your hourglass figure was gone and that was fine.
He taught you that you weren’t worth it in college. You thought you’d found the man who’d marry you and give you that value you’d sought all your life. Never mind that you were never really happy with him. He was gorgeous and popular, and a worthless girl like you had no right to turn down any attention, especially from a man like him. He reminded you how worthless you were when you wore a short, tight dress to a concert with your girls. It had taken you three weeks and hours in front of the mirror to work up the courage to wear the dress in public. You were dancing and singing your way to your car with your boos when your prince came to put you back in your place. That blow to the face knocked the sense back into you. You remembered how worthless you were as he pummeled you calling you a “dirty ass bitch” and a “freak ho.” You knew to never again challenge your worthlessness.
You resigned yourself to never having value when you were 23. You crashed your car on the way home from the club. When you came to, you touched your head and were bleeding. You couldn’t find your cell phone and needed help. You started to get out and knock on doors for help, but you knew you weren’t worthy of help. You didn’t want to end up the next Renisha McBride, blasted in the face for knocking for help, and forgotten because you weren’t worth remembering.
Then at 32, you decided you couldn’t live with the pain anymore. And even though you knew you weren’t worth it, you finally found the strength to report your college professor who’d taken advantage of you when you went to his office for help. You weren’t sure what happened, but you woke up sore and without your panties. You didn’t bother confronting him because what value was there between your legs that wasn’t worth trading for a passing grade? So you stood up and left. You sat in the back of his class for the rest of the semester never making eye contact. Then one day ten years later, you realized that some other young black girls, valueless as they were, had probably earned their grades the same way. You couldn’t imagine them tormented as you were, so you made your way to the Dean’s Office to tell your story. While waiting to be seen, you read the reports from Cosby’s accusers. You read the comments and absorbed how no one believed these women. You watched celebrities come to his defense saying these women only wanted to destroy the legacy of a powerful black man. You read the victim-blaming and shaming comments and realized that you were there to do the same thing to the professor that these women had done to Cosby. Who the fuck were you to bring down this man? You collected your things and left without seeing the Dean. They’d proved to you that you weren’t worth it.
Your boss showed you that you weren’t worth it. You’d spent months bringing a project to life. You’d sacrificed time with your family. You’d postponed vacations and missed sleep. The day had finally arrived for you to present your project, and you were so proud of your work. You put on your best suit and arrived early. Then your boss pulled you aside and informed you that he’d be the one to present to the executives. He promised to acknowledge all you work on the project. You were crushed, but grateful he cared enough to mention you had headed the project. Then you sat through the meeting and he, like everyone before him, reminded you that you weren’t worth it. Not only didn’t he introduce you to the executives or allow you to speak, he took full credit for your work. You almost interrupted him to let everyone know that he was telling a blatant lie, but then you remembered how Mo’nique was called everything but a child of God for exposing Lee Daniels’ lies. You knew if an Oscar-winning actress could be discredited, demeaned and disrespected for standing up for herself, surely you, a worthless project manager who no one even spoke to around the water cooler, had no chance of being believed or redeemed.
And so has gone your life. Your worthlessness was handed to you and reaffirmed at every turn. Yet each time, it was other black girls and women, who’ve been devalued and degraded too, who lifted you up.
It was the black nurse in the maternity ward who begged your mother to try breastfeeding you and gave her all the information on the benefits of breastfeeding.
It was your mother’s black girlfriend who found you a Kenya doll with brown skin and curly hair. She needed you to see that you were worthy of representation.
It was your black aunt who let your mother have it for relaxing your hair. “Why the hell you do that to my baby? Her hair was perfect the way it was.”
It was your best friend, a little black girl named Ki Ki, who held your hand and promised she would never let anything happen to you when you cried about Aiyana.
It was your big cousin, Trina, who told you your uncle had done the same to her and assured you it wasn’t your fault.
It was your favorite teacher, a little old black lady named Ms. Hunter who taught History, who revealed to you that you weren’t sick or nasty for loving girls. It was she who introduced you to her partner of 20 years, and let you know that your kind of love was not only alright but beautiful.
It was your grandmother who bought you that dress you really wanted for prom and let you know that you looked “damn good” in it.
It was your girls, Tasha, Mika, Kelly and Doniece, who’d jumped your boyfriend up when he hit you outside the club. They promised you that anybody coming for you had to come through them.
It was a black lady who you never met, Ms. Carla, who saw you sitting bloody in your crashed car and called for help. She’d stayed with you until the paramedics arrived and called your mother to tell her what happened.
It was your old college roommate, Laquita, who had convinced you that you’d done nothing wrong and went with you to report the professor.
And it was your coworker, Diane, who had called your boss out for you in front of the executives, putting her own job and reputation on the line.
For black women, our strength is and will always be each other. We decipher life through each other’s eyes. Our pain is uniquely collective. We learn to support our sisters because we’re all we have. So to each of you reading this, I know your story is somewhere in these lines. I know you believed at some point that you didn’t matter. I know they try to prove to you everyday that you are not a whole person worthy of love, kindness, empathy, success, joy and freedom. I understand how they want you to be maid, cook and sex object, and nothing more. But you are so much more. Live out loud, boo! Let the box they planned for you to live in be shredded. Know you’re everything and then some. Grab your desires and devour those dreams. Rock that freakum dress and red lip while you look back at it. Twerk, write, paint, fuck, dream, read, cook, eat, dance, curse, skate, laugh, live, love, fail, succeed, slay, inspire! You’re worth it, boo!