She was only 19 years old when we failed her.
Oluwatoyin Salau was among two women found dead near the side of the road in Tallahassee, Florida, on Monday, nearly a week after she had been reported missing. Salau spent her last days demanding justice for Black lives in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. On June 6, just days before officials found her body, she shared a thread of heartbreaking tweets revealing that she had been sexually assaulted. Salau had sought refuge at a church to “escape unjust living conditions” at home. A man, whom she described as a Black man in his 40s, offered to help her. Despite her telling him about her past as a victim of sexual abuse, the man took advantage of her trust. On Tuesday, Aaron Glee Jr., 49, confessed to killing Salau and the other victim, Victoria Sims, 75.
Salau’s death could’ve been prevented. She cried out for help and didn’t get it.
Her story gutted me.
Salau was on the front lines fighting for all of us during her last days. She sought help and instead was sexually abused, manipulated, killed and thrown on the side of the road as if her life were disposable. Salau’s story is so symbolic of how universally disregarded, disrespected and unprotected Black women are, even in our most vulnerable moments.
The statistics are alarming — and should have everyone in a rage. Starting at age 5, Black girls are adultified and viewed as less innocent than white girls. In school, Black girls are four times more likely to be arrested than white girls. In some states, that number rises to eight times more likely. According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, 25% of Black girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18, and 1 in 5 Black women report that they are survivors of rape. More than half of Black trans women are sexually assaulted in their lives, and those numbers don’t account for the cases that go unreported. An estimated 64,000 to 75,000 Black women are currently missing. More than 40% of Black women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the Blackburn Center. Black women are more likely to be arrested during a routine traffic stop and face excessive force during a traffic stop than non-Black women.
These numbers all point back to a world that doesn’t value Black women’s lives. A world that has the blood of Salau, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Riah Milton, Na’Kia Crawford and so many other Black women and girls on its hands. Even in pain, drenched in blood, our doctors don’t listen to us.
But whenever we’ve been brutalized and victimized, Black women show up to fight every time, bearing the burden of everyone else’s weight. From the suffrage movement to the civil rights movement to Stonewall to Black Lives Matter to Me Too, we show up while others continuously shut us out.
Yet when it comes to the fight for liberation, even basic human rights, this country continuously fails Black women.
It felt like it took an entire, separate push to get the world to say Breonna Taylor’s name as loudly as the names of many of the men who’ve been killed by police. A similar push happened with Sandra Bland and the #SayHerName movement. But many women and girls, including Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, Atatiana Jefferson, Natasha McKenna, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, India Kager, Korryn Gaines, Tanisha Anderson, Shantel Davis and so many others, are names unfamiliar to so many despite their lives being taken by police.
People on social media called out Dave Chappelle for omitting the names of Black women in his “8:46” special, which premiered on YouTube on Thursday. A lot of Black men were quick to defend Chappelle rather than listen to the women who constantly show up for them and are also victims of police violence. Some said Chappelle named those whom he saw himself in. Others said Black men’s lives should be the primary focus of the Black Lives Matter movement. Folks, though not as many unfortunately, also called out The New Yorker for leaving Black trans women off of its Black Lives Matter cover.
I debated even writing this, hoping for it not to be taken as an attack on Black men. But after seeing a video circulate of a group literally throwing a Black woman in a dumpster and laughing at her while they recorded, I can’t stay silent on this one. This pain cuts too deep. And J. Cole using the first single he’s released in a year, “Snow on tha Bluff,” to police Black women’s tone in the middle of a revolution is a perfect example of how we’re not truly listened to but expected to bear the brunt the work. In the song, he asks Black women to educate him and speak to others gently.
We shouldn’t have to turn up for others to listen to us express our pain, but that is the case too often. Cole is asking us to push our anger and hurt to the side so we use even more emotional labor to make sure his feelings don’t get hurt. That’s literally not our job.
Who’s protecting us from pain?
This isn’t a gender war or the oppression Olympics. I say with love, Black men, this is our fight together. Too many Black people are dying, and we absolutely cannot separate this battle. The world doesn’t protect Black women, so we need you to ride for us with the same energy we ride for y’all.
When we fight to make sure our pain isn’t erased, we aren’t fighting with y’all. We fight too hard for y’all to ever fight with y’all, as my friend Damilola Laguda would say. Black women are not accessories to the movement. So when we call out our pain and say we’re dying, too, don’t exclude us.
Black men, we know that you have the highest death rate at the hands of police. We’ve been mourning and fighting with you all along. And to those who consider themselves allies, especially white men and women, stop aiding in the erasure of Black women from every movement you decide to belatedly join.
These movements that we lead keep erasing our pain, and we’re dying because of it. The phrase “protect Black women” isn’t a meme. It’s a call to action, and it’s time for people to stop dropping the ball.