somebody/anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you ….”

Ntozake Shange, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” 1975.

The two second-graders I tutor, I’ll call them Tyra and Kory, are little brown, bony-kneed chatterboxes full of sass and giggly energy. Their laughter falls like pebbles into a glass jar. I’m not a parent. I did not give them life. But they come to me fully themselves.

It is easy, at times, for me to forget that these 8-year-old girls have been affected by homelessness; that they are targeted for the special attention I give them as a volunteer tutor because of circumstances that are totally not their fault.

It isn’t enough their families must deal with the daily assaults involved with their lack of adequate shelter. Now, add a global pandemic to that list. COVID-19 violently kicked the already shaky supports out from under them and added a layer of stress I cannot fathom.

In Memphis, organizations that help the homeless also are stressed as they struggle to continue services, given limitations set by a stay-in-place order and other measures necessary to keep everyone safe.

I volunteer with an organization in Indianapolis called School on Wheels. Founded in 2001, it provides one-on-one tutoring and educational advocacy for more than 400 school-age children and families impacted by homelessness at 17 sites, including schools and shelters.

“Would you rather be homeless, or in jail?” Kory asked Tyra matter-of-factly. … Tyra casually replied: “In jail. ’Cause at least you get somethin’ to eat!”

More than a third of the homeless population in Indianapolis is families, including those doubled up with family members, couch surfing or living in motels. Over 5,000 children are impacted by homelessness in Marion County each year, where the African American poverty rate is 31%, compared with 21% nationally for African Americans.

In Memphis, where I was a reporter during the late 1980s-early ’90s, the poverty rate is even worse for African Americans (33.8%), according to the 2019 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, and child poverty stands at 44.9%.

And now, a pandemic, and no home to shelter in place for many.

Tyra and Kory weren’t even born when I started tutoring about a decade ago. Clawing poverty and need has grown up alongside them and stalked them and their families into homelessness — into shelters, motels, friends’ sofas and mattresses on the floor, automobiles.

They are black girls. Black like me. I know them. I know how they are seen, and not seen. I know what the stigma of homelessness adds to the weight they must carry on their narrow shoulders. I imagine what their mothers — once black girls, too — must feel as they try to navigate a world that isn’t often kind.

There are many reasons, both mundane and profound, I am going to miss Tyra and Kory during this time when the world is upended.

Tyra is especially funny and completely frank in her questions. One day, fingers placed pensively on her chin, she looked me in the eye and said, “I have a little baby brother. I know he came from my mommy’s tummy. What I wanna know is, how did he get there in the first place?

I suggested we move on to her sight words.

Kory is triggered into spasms of laughter by her friend, and she doubles over and the puff of hair atop her head bounces when she snaps back.

Kory is triggered into spasms of laughter by her friend, and she doubles over and the puff of hair atop her head bounces when she snaps back.

Three weeks have passed since I last saw the girls meander like butterflies down the school hallway toward their classroom. As I accompanied them in their zigzag path after our tutoring session, I thought I would see them again in seven days.

On the way, Kory decided to play a game “would you rather.” It went something like this:

“Would you rather be homeless, or in jail?” she asked Tyra matter-of-factly. My heart jumped into my throat, as Tyra casually replied: “In jail. ’Cause at least you get somethin’ to eat!”

They shared spontaneous laughter, with their little heads thrown back — the same laughter that rained down as they played vocabulary games during the tutoring hour. These girls, who have been on the earth for all of eight years, share the experiences of homelessness, hunger and, somehow, jail, in common. And it connects them like a private secret links best friends.

I had a brief cry for Tyra and Kory in my car in the parking lot after witnessing their game of “would you rather.” I didn’t know I wouldn’t see them in a week. In the days that followed, the whole world cracked open because of a virus with no cure.

I have thought of the pair often during this time of “social distancing” and their little game of “would you rather.”

Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality released a report in 2017 called “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood”. The report studied a phenomenon that the authors called the “adultification” of black girls.

It explored the perception of black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls of the same age. Specifically, that black girls need less nurturing, protection, support, comfort; that black girls know more about adult topics — including sex.

It found that black girls are treated more harshly when compared to white girls the same age. The perceptions peak during pre-adolescence and continue as they get older; in school, they are punished more and suspended more often. Robbed of their innocence, the very essence of childhood. The consequences are profound — higher drop-out rate, increased contact with the justice system.

It is hard to understand how the country persists in not doing what is necessary to stem the tide of need of our most vulnerable citizens. Then again, as I watch the bungling efforts of politicians before and during this pandemic, maybe it isn’t so hard to believe.

Every year, dozens of children are referred for extra help from School on Wheels. There is one constant — there is more need than help. It is no more right for these kids not to get what they need than it is right for people not to get what they need during this crisis. Where is the rescue package for Tyra and Kory or children like them in Memphis?

I don’t know where the girls are today. I feel a need to let them know that they are ok — that they are cute, and smart, and funny, and that I think of them a lot. I know what the world has in store for them, and they, and all the girls (and boys) like them, need all of the support we can marshal.

I hope Tyra and Kory are somewhere safe and warm with full bellies, enveloped by love, and surrounded by giggles falling around them like diamonds.

That’s what I would rather.

Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.


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