Black Woman Walking: Dedicating this first day of International Anti-Street Harassment Week to the memory of Adilah Gaither

Focused and determined. That’s how I would describe my
stride and my gaze walking through Oak Park on an unseasonably warm March afternoon.  I heard the rattling from the bass of the car’s sound system approaching behind me, but I kept my attention forward. It’s crazy when you stop to think about it—hearing a noise, but not responding to it. It goes against natural reflexes, but in all my years growing up female, I’ve learned to adapt and develop new reflexes.  I felt the car slow down somewhat as the driver and his passengers passed me. But, I guess I did a thorough enough job
of looking absolutely preoccupied and disinterested because they continued on without saying a word. Thank God for exceptions to the rule.

Growing up, I don’t remember ever being taught how to respond to or deal with street harassment. For me, I learned by trial and error.
Ignoring the comments and advances may get you called a bitch or stuck up. It’s okay to smile and be polite; sometimes boys/men are genuinely just giving a compliment and being friendly.  Don’t look
in every car that passes or turn around at the sound of car honks or general “Ay you, in the blue,” “Hey shawty,” or those annoying bird-sounding calls. You are not a street walker…or a pigeon.

As women, the catcalls and advances are so commonplace that
they’ve become a justifiable normality—almost to be expected, as if street harassment is an understood risk we voluntarily take anytime we step outside our front doors.  I know it happens all the time to women of all races, but as a black woman I sometimes feel like I’m in the minority of experiencing this. We don’t really talk about it. It’s not discussed at length in our magazines and media outlets. So today when I came
across this documentary Black Woman Walking on the Stop Street Harassment site, I did a little happy dance. Other sisters openly expressed and shared my same concerns.  Where on earth
has this documentary been hiding all these years???

At a mere eight minutes long, Black Woman Walking is a
2007 documentary by Tracey Rose featuring interviews with women of color about their experiences with street harassment. Like me, these women shared stories of being harassed in their everyday lives, doing simple things like going to work or walking down the street. Simple things like just being alive and being women.

For some men, I think being female is enough to warrant
their attention. During my same walk through Oak Park, I got “holla’d” at by a group of men that were gathered at least a block and a half away from where I was walking. A block and half. Who does that? Apparently those dudes. They couldn’t see my face to gauge my attractiveness. I was wearing a long Maxi dress, with a jacket tied around my waist, so they really couldn’t see my figure. The ability to see me from that distance and make out that I was a woman was enough to garner all types of “Hey ma! Hey ma! Yooooooo! Slow up!” from them.

I lived to tell about it, but 16-year-old Adilah Gaither wasn’t so lucky. Black Woman Walking is dedicated to the memory of young Adilah,
who was shot and killed in 1998 while standing at a bus stop because she wouldn’t give a boy who was trying to holla her phone number. Almost as heartbreaking as the incident itself is the fact that there is very little information about Adilah’s story on the Internet. In 1998, social media wasn’t a phrase in most people’s vocabulary, so it’s not surprising. It is still very unfortunate, nonetheless.

I hope that during this 2012  observance of International
Anti-Street Harassment Week (March 18-24) women and men will take time to talk candidly about street harassment and send a prayer up for Adilah and all the young girls and women like her just trying to walk through life unharmed.

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  • Wow. I never heard of the story either regarding Adilah Gather, but how sad. I have a girlfriend that regularly ignores the group of men or cat calls that she receives when walking. I choose to smile politely but move quickly to avoid being called anything and or appearing to be "too stuck up" to speak or acknowledge. You never know when you'll see someone again.

    I've always wondered if other women, from other races (which I'm sure they do), have the same experience when walking.... hmm.

  • Thanks, J, I think I err more on the same side as you--smile, be polite. Like you said, you NEVER know when you'll see someone again. It definitely does happen to women of all races, so it's interesting for me to take myself out of my bubble and hear the stories of other women from the U.K., Canada--all over the world.

  • Wonderful post. Just a word from an older sistah' who had many years of putting up with this mess, teach your sons, brothers, young boys that this behavior isn't cool. Teach them that this is disrespectful.

  • In reply to Danie:

    Thank you, Danie, I appreciate you! I definitely take your advice to heart. We need to teach our young men AND young ladies...I think the challenge has always been how to do that.

  • Brilliant post Sandria!
    I'm quite the opposite of everyone else, I tend to throw you a look that says "stay away." I'm not friendly. I don't smile. And I don't let any strange man get anywhere near me. I seriously don't want to give the impression that I'm receptive to their advances.

    In my opinion, any respectable guy who rides public transportation knows to stay clear of a woman he doesn't know at a bus or el stop.

  • In reply to Woodlawn Wonder:

    Thank you, WW! I get the "Smile!" or "You're too pretty not be smiling" comments often, so I must have my "stay away" looks going on, too, LOL.

  • Hello Sandria, Thank you for featuring this post honoring 16-year-old Adilah Gaither. I am a research librarian and author writing a book about school shootings. Ever since the mass shooting at my alma Mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, I been tracking every school shooting in the US from January 1990 to December 2019 with the hopes to find patterns that will help save children's and teacher's lives. In my research, I thought you might be interested to know, there is an article by the Washington Post about Adilah's tragic death titled, "Youth held in slaying of girl" by Maria Elena Fern and Brian Mooar, January 15, 1998. Also, the National School Safety Center published a 2010 report that includes Adilah's shooting titled, "School Associated Violent Deaths." I hope this is helpful to you and your blog. Kind regards.

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