As a child, I had stranger danger. That acute awareness of an adult that emitted a sense of caution; knowing that something about someone I didn’t know…or didn’t know well…just wasn’t quite right. I don’t know when I acquired it; maybe it was somewhere in my 80’s childhood, growing up in a working-class offshoot of Detroit, amidst the amplified ravages of the Crack Era, supplemented by a declining auto industry. All I know is, by the time a middle aged man first stopped his car next to me as I was walking from a friend’s house at the age of ten, telling me that I was cute and offering a ride, I instinctively knew to walk faster and not engage him, or him, or the many other hims that followed. It was one of the unfortunate survival instincts you learn when you grow up in a not-so-safe environment, one of the few pebbles in my development that I am appreciative of.
My own kiddos have not lived in the same type of milieu. Sure, we’ve not lived among mansions, or even McMansions, but my kids are growing up in the 21st Century. Faces are crammed into electronic devices, not falling into pillows of green grass. Neighbors are isolated from each other; hell, my daughter and I lived in an apartment complex for seven years, and never even knew the names of the people living on either side of is. Of course, I instilled in my kids the adage, “Don’t talk to strangers”, but because they are rarely out of my sight, they’ve not had much opportunity to practice its use. What my kids do have, however, is a recognition of boundaries with adults they don’t know. I taught them to have ownership of their bodies from infancy; they were never forced to hug or kiss ANYONE. If an adult is offended, oh fucking well, the adult will just have to get over it. It’s ridiculous to expect brand new humans to decipher a touch in one place that makes them feel uncomfortable, as opposed to a touch in another place that makes them feel uncomfortable, just because the giver of said touch happens to know their mama from way back. Besides, I know from personal experience that it only takes one second, one fleeting moment of distraction, to destroy a child’s innocence forever. Not on my watch. Perhaps, I naively assumed that most parents felt the same. On the metro train the other day, I found out that I was wrong.
Some young cats boarded the Green Line at L’Enfant Circle; skinny dudes with dreads and bandanas. I’d seen them before; the “host” of the group introduced them as an aspiring dance troupe, trying to raise money to compete on “So You Think You Can Dance”. They began their short routine, miraculously in a small space given the crowdedness of a rush hour train. One pop-locked in circles; the other artfully contorted his double-jointed arms and legs to the point of entertaining dismay. I watched for a split second, then turned back to my game of iPhone Solitaire. I couldn’t knock their hustle, but I wasn’t getting paid for another week, and a sister doesn’t carry cash. As I dragged an ace to the top row with my index finger, I heard a loud, booming voice from the door; an oversized bear of a man was shouting, clapping and cheering the dancers on. Mind you, they were on the OTHER SIDE OF THE TRAIN, and this brother’s voice carried. Mm-kay, I thought, he’s really enthusiastic about this-here impromptu show. Maybe he doesn’t get out much. A moment later, I noticed a little brown girl of around nine, braids unloosened to exhibit textured ponytails, stand up away from her mother to get a closer look at the dancers. As she’d entered the train one stop before, I heard her comment to her mom that she’d also wanted to dance like the guys for money. With sniper-like precision, the loud man’s focus pinpointed straight to the little girl. The little girl who, at this point was closer to him than she was to her mom. The hairs on my nape stood up, as the mama in me analyzed the level of safety around her. “Come on Mama,” Big Dude boomed. “Let the little girl dance!” My discomfort with the scenario grew as the mother smiled and said nothing, and Big Dude began to talk directly to the little girl. “Aw Baby, don’t worry. Your mama’s been drinking some haterade this morning. Go ‘head and dance, baby!” And it was in that moment, that I prayed to all of the Baby Jesuses of every nationality that this little girl had sufficient amounts of stranger danger in her blood. Enough to know that something was amiss about this big, adult man zeroing in on her and encouraging her to dance for him. But she didn’t. Little Girl ate up the attention. And began to dance. Mere inches from my face, this little girl started to milly-rock, drop it like it’s hot, swivel her hips and purse her lips, all to the glee of this Big Ass Dude who continued to spur her on. This went on for several tense, disconcerting train stops, as the mama smiled sheepishly and occasional uncomfortable snickers filled the crowded air. I glanced at the mama, trying to Jedi-Mindtrick the message: PLEASE STOP HER. THIS SHIT RIGHT HERE AIN’T COOL. Hell, I’m not for the cursing at of any child, but a well-placed “Sit your little ass down” would have been fitting at that moment. But instead, the mother did nothing. Little Girl continued to dance with more and more fervor. And with every bounce of her behind, the giddiness of Big Dude increased. By the time he was ready to get off the train, he knew that in another place, he could have gotten away with a lot more. And that the rest of us were on to his game His parting words were, “All these fucking haters ain’t gonna support this little girl dancing. Y’all some fucking haters” as he pulled a ten dollar bill out of his pocket and beckoned the girl over to him to receive it. And her mother let her. Moments later, I heard her mother ask the little girl how much the man had given her. Apparently, that was of utmost importance to her.
After she and her mom exited the train, I remained, dumbfounded for several minutes. Why did this mother let that happen? What became of her instinctual warrior blood, willing to be shed to protect her baby? And why was Little Girl so comfortable performing for this strange man? Was this the norm? I had to ask the woman next to me if she also felt uncomfortable. She not only affirmed that she did, but several other people on the train chimed in as well. I wondered, what would have happened if I spoke up? I suppose I would have gotten a cuss out and a warning to mind my damn business. Someone once told me, roots grow in the ground before they shoot up. Perhaps it would have been worth it to plant that painful seed in the mother’s heart.
The event on the train brought to mind the unfortunate case of Relisha Rudd, an 8 year old girl living in a DC shelter with her family who was given over to a relative stranger, a custodian at the shelter who had befriended the family. Relisha was allegedly allowed to travel with the custodian. Relisha’s disappearance was not reported for several weeks, until a staff member at her school finally took action and called the authorities. A staff member at her school–not her family. Weeks later, video footage was found of Relisha accompanying the custodian into a hotel room. The custodian’s wife was found shot dead, and soon after, the custodian was found in a D.C. park, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot. Relisha Rudd, three years later, has never been found.
In the age of reality shows, social media, Cash Me Outside Girls and teen moms earning six figures to share their tales on television, it’s hard to maintain the sanctity of children’s innocence. But in this ever-corroding society, it’s one of the last, precious, perfect things we have left. The ability to allow children to remain children for as long as possible. To fall and laugh and play in the assurance that there are adults surrounding them, protecting their multi-colored worlds from all hurt, harm and danger. From leering eyes. From hands moved down to low on their backs. From indecent suggestions in their ears.
My daughter will be eighteen years old in seven months. As God is my witness, I will protect every last minute of her childhood with my very being. No one has the right to take it away. And I don’t have the right to allow someone to take it.