It’s amazing how the undergraduate experience in college can reveal so much of yourself. Most of my freshman year we would have various programs around campus designed to “bring the Bowie women together.” They were pretty good efforts, even better because most of them involved food. One day when I missed dinner in the cafe because a nap after class seemed way more important, I decided to hit up one of these events to grab some free pizza. It was the typical girl talk kind of session, bringing girls from Philly, New York, Baltimore, D.C., Prince George’s County, Jersey and other places together to discuss their first year cheers and jeers. While doing a balancing act of three slices of pizza, a cupcake, chips, and a Sprite, a girl from P.G. asked a question that I didn’t realize would eventually be so poignant.
“I have a question for the Baltimore girls. Whenever I see ya’ll walking across campus, ya’ll always have such a mad look on your face. Why do Baltimore girls scowl like that?” Without any hesitation or thought, a fellow Baltimore student answered the inquiry, “To keep people from bothering us.” The other girls from Baltimore, both freshmen and upper classmen, agreed with the response, sharing their own experiences of when they wear the scowl.
This was eleven years ago. Let’s flash forward to today.
Recently, the internet has been abuzz with a recent video released by an anti-street harassment group called Hollaback. The one minute video documents a young woman walking down the streets of New York for 10 hours and her various encounters with men on the street. Some of them call out to her. Some of them are really close in her space. Two walked along side of her for a few blocks. The video sparked a debate from both men and women regarding the realness of street harassment, if anything should be done about it, or were women just overreacting?
Before I get into my view about the whole thing, I will admit early that this “social experiment” does have its flaws. I’m not feeling the narrative of this lone, seemingly non-Black girl going through the streets of New York while being pounced upon by mostly men of color. It definitely gives you that Birth of a Nation vibe, further perpetuating the Brute stereotype that has plagued our Black men for centuries. Furthermore, street harassment goes beyond the urban settings this video focuses on. I would have been interested to see an uncut full-length video of the walker going to other places as well (if she did).
But with all that aside, the video does have a bigger point that gave me flashbacks.
I first developed my scowl when I entered the 9th grade. The summer before school started, all incoming freshmen were required to attend an introductory program for a few weeks to prepare them for their first year at Western. With my mother working on the Westside all summer long teaching college courses, that meant I had to hit the bus circuit. It wasn’t an uncommon thing, as this is what most kids attending Baltimore City Public School did. Once I got on the bus or the subway, I was safe. It was getting there that was the challenge.
It started with the cars honking. Me being obliviously new to this kind of attention at all of 12 years old, I didn’t know what was going on. At first I thought it was just angry drivers signaling to others to get out of their way. I didn’t start to catch on that something was different until I noticed I would always hear the honks whenever I walked down the street. Observing the drivers, they mostly came from adult men who would smile with the cheesiest and creepiest looks on their faces. I honestly had no idea what to make of it (as I wouldn’t think any 12 year old would or should know). Feeling confused as to maybe it was something I was doing wrong to warrant this kind of attention, I started to be more cognizant of what I was wearing. In the dead of summer heat, I would walk down the street in a sweatshirt or loose fitting t-shirt in hopes of solving my problem. Unfortunately, the cars kept honking anyways.
The catcalls followed the honking, particularly on the days when I had to meet my mother at her job at Coppin State College (now University). Walking from the station or getting off at the bus in front of the school, I would feel the stares of groups of guys looking my young body up and down. I would hear the whispers of “Damn, girl” as I hurried to the door, hoping it would shut behind me fast enough before they said the sexualized “Hello.” Some of these guys looked around my age; some of them were not.
This went on for a few weeks up until school started. I really didn’t tell my mother that all this was happening mainly because I didn’t know it was an option. Listening to similar accounts from the other rising 9th graders at school, this was a common thing we just had to deal with. A twisted rites of passage, I guess. Some liked the attention, others didn’t. But it was from those experiences where I learned the only weapon we had to get through the day on our daily journeys throughout the city: the scowl. The scowl is a quintessential piece of Baltimore Black girl bravado at its finest. It’s a slight scrunching of the eyebrows to match the glaring, cold stare of narrowed eyes, a tightness of the lips emitting all vibes that you are not to be fucked with on that day. For the most part, men would respect the scowl. You did have your select few that would request you to “smile” or still try to violate your personal space. The scowl still didn’t stop them from checking you out, but it did give a sense of protection no matter how false.
Coupling my personal experience with the overall experience of this video leaves me with many mixed emotions, mostly because I see the situation through different perspectives. As the little Black girl in Baltimore going to high school, I feel empathy. I understand the struggle of women in city streets all too well. While yes, I am very familiar with what the statistics say regarding women and rape in that 51% of the reported perpetrators were intimate partners as opposed to 13% being strangers, that still does not relieve the anxiety I feel walking down the street wondering if this will be the day I become part of that 13%. Needless to say it does not help to have known people and to hear on the news about the bad experiences of catcalling resulting in women being berated extremely, physically assaulted, or murdered by men whose advances they rejected. My empathy then leads to frustration as a grown woman living in D.C.. Why should I have to live my life with this kind of anxiety on an almost daily basis? Why can’t it be understood that the root of the problem is not in all “hellos” from men, but the ones with heavy sexualized overtones? (Note: Yes, there is a difference and more often than not, the signs are clear. Your sentiments can speak louder than your words, guys). Why is it when we discuss these kinds of issues the conversation is never around the need for a society that stops objectifying women but rather the need for women to conform to an objectifying society (Which really doesn’t make a difference no matter what you are told to do or wear)? As a scholar studying Black Politics, I feel skeptical. Why is this particular issue a thing right now? It’s interesting how there is now attention to such issues in the age of gentrification when such problems existed in these same areas heavily populated with Black and Brown girls and women facing the same issues. As articles have reported, both Black and Latina women are most likely to endure street harassment at higher rates than any other race of women. Growing up in this environment, this really wasn’t breaking news. But where was the uproar and outcry for us? Where was the help for us to feel more empowered and to know that we had a right to walk down the street unbothered? Where were those organizations to arm us with more than a cold stare and a shoulder? Why do we care now? Such questions will probably never be answered, but all I can do now is ask.
At 29 years old, when I think of my scowl I am reminded of the poem “We Wear The Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The scowl is our mask. It is designed to protect us from the situations where the subtlest hellos could led to the most brutal of rapes (or so we think). Aside from silent prayers that we would make it to and from our destinations in one piece and unharmed, it is one of our defense mechanisms. I guess if I were to remix the poem to fit this situation, it would go a little something like this:
she wears the scowl
because it knows
it matters not
the clothes she chose
her makeup, her hair
her shoes, her rings
on the street, she’s not a person or place,
but a thing
the coldness of her stare
the tightness of her lips
she silently must remind herself
she’s more than between her hips
she hopes to be unbothered
with a bothered look on her face
so she can journey peacefully
and they won’t disturb her space
she battles through lust-filled energies
creepy glares, honks, and howls
a daily struggle to which i know
why the Baltimore girl scowls