SAMSUNG CSCItem: “Did anybody touch you down there?”

Down there, I understood, referred to the mystery below my waist, between my legs. A place where my mother  said no one should ever, ever touch me.

My mother asks me this question, nightly, as she undresses me for my bath, until I learn to bathe myself. What I learn–besides the fact that no one should ever, ever touch me down there–is that this burden is mine. I have to be the guardian of down there, as well as the giver of the daily report of any errant touching that happens down there. I don’t like it. It’s too much, and I don’t even know why.

Item: Old ladies in the neighborhood would watch us inside their spotless houses during the day while our mothers worked. Then, when we were old enough to stay home alone and play outside unsupervised, they would watch us from the shadows of their front porch, or from the slit between the curtains in their front window. One of them, Miss Maybelle, would come outside without her teeth, smack her lips, and say, “Don’t let the boys fool ya. Why they gon’ buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?”

Item: Hide and go get it!

The game was like hide and seek, except the boys looked for the girls and “it” was whatever a girl allowed a boy to do when he found her.  And sometimes it was what he did to her whether she allowed it or not.

Item: In 6th grade, the grown men would come to Cyprana’s house while her mother was at work.  One day, her mom came home and sat down on the couch next to some white stuff.

“What’s this?”

“Curl activator,” Cyprana said.

Did your mother believe you? we asked her.

Cyprana shrugged. The men sometimes gave her money. Sometime she gave some of it to her mother.

Item: What if you want to give the milk away for free? The summer after 6th grade, I have my first real boyfriend. We do things below the waist that leave me wondering if I’m still a virgin. My sex education, courtesy of Jackie Collins novels and biology books read while sitting on the floor in the Children’s section of the public library, doesn’t offer me any clarification on the matter.

I think that this is what love is–sweaty, sticky, forever–until the next time.

Item: Go back, way, way back. At the time, I don’t have the words for all of it. But then the memory comes back, and here it is: I’m two-years-old. Maybe three. It’s the early ‘70s. A white woman–a detective–is on our front porch asking my mother questions. My mother is sitting in the old wooden rocking chair that I like to pretend is a rocket ship. She’s crying. Her shirt is pushed up and her belly is exposed.  She has stretch marks; I did that. They remind me of sun rays.

My mother was walking home from work through the field between Darnell Cookman School and our house. A shortcut.

There is a word for this. Rape.

Item: Mick Jagger sang, “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night…”

Item: “Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed…” Of course, the men who say filthy things to me when I walk home from the bus stop aren’t thinking about pregnancy, or any consequences really. They never cross the street to where I am, and I cling to this. As long as they don’t cross the street, I’ll be safe.

Shorty Hall, the neighborhood drunk, doesn’t cross the street. But one time, he does this thing with his tongue and his hands and I run. I run all the way home.

My mother calls the police. The officer writes down everything I say. My mother is frantic, yelling, crying. The officer keeps looking at his notepad. He asks me again if I’m 11, like he can’t believe it. I know what he’s thinking because it’s what everyone says: I’m “big for my age.”

“Ma’am, there’s nothing we can do.”

No one can protect me. If Shorty Hall doesn’t rape me, it’ll be because he chooses not to.

Item: When asked what the position of women was in the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, activist Stokely Carmichael replied, “Prone.”

Good girls don’t. Black girls will. Keep your legs closed. Don’t let the boys fool ya. There’s nothing we can do.

There’s nothing we can do.


Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based freelancer who writes about race, gender, parenting, and pop culture. Along with her ex-husband she is the co-founder of and the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Children Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. She is currently at work on her first novel. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Essence and Bitch magazines. Other recent work includes contributions to the collections When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made, Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives and The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore