Gone Black Girls: Finding the Forgotten, Telling Their Stories

By Pamela Harris

When I was five years old, I woke up to an empty apartment.

I ran to my parents’ room, ready to jump into bed with them — just as I’ve done every morning. But they were nowhere to be found. Of course, the panic set in as the worst-case scenarios raced through my 5-year-old mind. What if they were kidnapped? Or what if they decided they didn’t want me anymore? After all, I had been a little too mouthy the night before when I didn’t get that extra cookie after dinner.

When I came to the strong realization that my parents had, in fact, abandoned me, I ran out the apartment in my pjs and downstairs to my neighbor who’d often babysit me. 

“My…mom and dad…are gone,” I hiccupped in between tears. My neighbor swooped me in for a hug as the tears flowed. I don’t remember much about what happened next, just bits and pieces. I remember “Soul Train” was on the TV. I remember hearing my dad knock on the door, fear in his voice as he asked if my neighbor had seen me. I remember him scooping me in his arms and carrying me back into our apartment. He didn’t say much. But I know now that the reason he couldn’t really talk was because he was fighting back tears.

All in all, my parents had abandoned me for a grand total of…five minutes. And by “abandoned,” I mean that my dad had walked my mom into the parking lot to see her off to work. They didn’t want to disturb me — it was the most peaceful sleep I had in weeks, they’d later tell me.

They wanted to be good parents by letting me sleep in, and my dad would step out and swoop back in before I even noticed they were gone. (They’re EXCELLENT parents, by the way, but that’s a whole other article). That memory sticks with me because it was the longest five minutes of my life. And I can’t imagine how long it felt for my parents when they thought I was gone.

Sadly, there are thousands of missing children cases that don’t have that same happy ending. For Black girls and women, specifically, the numbers are even more devastating. Even though Black females make up about 7 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 10 percent of missing persons cases. Just as alarming is that they do not nearly get enough media exposure as missing White persons cases.

So, what’s the deal? Why are Black girls neither important enough to find, nor important enough to talk about in the media? The answers to these questions stem back to misperceptions that begin in childhood. Classroom staff and faculty often view Black girls as one of two extremes: either aggressive and loud (as evident by the crazy disproportionate number of Black girls receiving disciplinary referrals compared to their White peers) or incredibly self-sufficient — the latter of which leads to Black girls being ignored and overlooked.

When these girls go missing, then, they’re usually labelled as runaways instead of missing persons — resulting in a lack of urgency to find them.

But the families of these missing Black girls don’t suffer any less because larger society isn’t looking for them. That’s a major reason why I wanted to write “When You Look Like Us.” Not only to shed light on this heartbreaking epidemic but to also shed light on the families whose voices are not heard. One of the biggest roadblocks my main character, Jay, faces while searching for his sister is that he feels like authorities are not trying to help him. It’s his friends, his family, his community who step up to the plate to try and get some answers.

I’m not saying we can’t rely on the system to protect our Black girls and get them home safe and sound. I’m saying there is an obvious tear in the system that needs to be repaired. So, what can we do about it? Just like Jay’s “village” rallied around the search for his sister, we can do the same for the Black girls in our communities. 

As a professor, I always tell my graduate counseling students that advocacy can happen at both an intimate and systemic level. At an intimate level, we can talk to our Black girls about how to protect themselves (I still remember how my mom told me to hold my keys a certain way when walking to my car in case someone tried to harm me).

For those who have been harmed, we can serve as a supportive ear — or connect them to mental health services to work through the trauma. But the onus shouldn’t just be on Black females. We also need to talk to our boys about respecting women and provide them the necessary resources and mentorship to achieve this. And if we’re around friends, family members, co-workers and so forth who make disparaging comments or “jokes” about Black women, we need to call them out on it. 

As far as at a systemic level, we need to sign petitions and vote for legislation and lawmakers who make implicit bias training for police officers a priority. We need to contact our local and national media to demand that the same coverage be given to missing Black females (both cis and trans) as their White counterparts. We need to let these ladies know that we care. Period.

Though “When You Look Like Us”is a work of fiction, its premise, unfortunately, is rooted in a devastating real-life phenomenon. However, if we do our part, we can help our Black girls and women have the same happy ending as I did when I was 5.

Pamela N. Harris was born and somewhat raised in Newport News, Virginia, also affectionately known as “Bad News.” She is the author of “When You Look Like Us”, released Jan 5 from HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books. A former school counselor by day, Pamela received her bachelor’s in English and a master’s in school counseling at Old Dominion University, her M.F.A in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and a Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision at William and Mary. When she isn’t writing, Pam is rewatching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, playing with her kids and pretending to enjoy exercising. For more info on Pam, visit https://www.pamharriswrites.com/. 

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