I think I was in eighth grade. I was sitting in my step mother’s very red and very black kitchen with my cousin and her mother. We were gathered around the black and white faux granite kitchen island, my cousin and I seated behind a warm coke and cold ginger ale; her mother and my stepmother oscillating between sitting down and standing up whenever the theatrics of their storytelling called for it.
I love the people in my family for the way they tell stories, and even back then I was desperate for aunts and uncles to tell me my stories back to me. When I was much younger, I had a great memory. Apparently, at one point in my life, I could name all the cats my stepmother had owned; which I only know because she boasts about this old parlor trick even now. But, at about the time I hit puberty, which was late, my memories started fading away; not dramatically or anything, but I developed potholes and lost an understanding of my own timelines. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was, and am, the proud owner of the kind of depression that eats away at the edges of memories and moments that might matter one day. (Side note: that is why it is so hard for me to write about my past with any conviction, I just don’t know if or when something might have happened to me or someone who told me their story one day).
My aunt told a story about how she used to “hate” my stepmother. Growing up, I was the kid who didn’t want the fun to end after a family function so I would always opt for staying over. But sometime between my parents leaving me there and the next morning, I would call my stepmother to pick me up. It was before cell phones, but I had my three parents’ phone numbers studied well. I would start with my mom, then move to my dad, and then move to my stepmom. No matter what, they would always pick me up, especially my stepmother.
My aunt said, “Every time I would tell her, If she stays the night then she stays the night. I don’t care if she calls you: Don’t come pick her up. She’ll be alright. She’s with family. And every time, everything would get quiet and then I’d hear a car outside and see Jamilla get her overnight bag and run down the stairs and out the door.”
This story sounds true enough. I loved having fun, but I did not like sharing beds with cousins, sleeping on the floor with or without a blanket, or waking up early the next day to clean a house I didn’t live in. I would rather sleep in bed with my stepmother, which I did during the weekends until I was way too old, binge-watch Law and Order until I fell asleep on the couch, or eat all my father’s snacks and drink his cokes until I gave myself a sugar high. And so, once everyone fell asleep, I would be uncomfortable, or cold, or not-coked up enough and I would immediately find the nearest house phone, mute the buttons, and call my mom, and then my dad, and then my stepmom until one of them rescued me. I didn’t do this all the time, but it was definitely a habit.
And I’m not sorry, because I refuse to share a bed when I have a Queen-size mattress and oatmeal cookies waiting for me fifteen minutes away in a house with a bathroom I’ve grown familiar with.
My aunt said, “Every time, she would say she wasn’t gonna pick Jamilla up. But I knew she was lying.”
And my stepmother smiled and said, “She’s my baby girl and if my baby girl is calling me to pick her up, imma pick her up even if I do get yelled at.”
And we all laughed out loud. The adults were a little bit too loud because they were drunk, but still.
My stepmother said, “I remember Jamilla was pissed when I changed my phone number because she couldn’t remember it by heart anymore. She said, How am I gonna call you to pick me up? She was so heartbroken. But she figured it out eventually.”
After my aunt and cousin left for the night, my aunt and stepmother decided it would be the perfect moment to talk to us about sex and relationships. Unprovoked, they felt that now was the time to give us unsolicited advice about being a young woman. This mainly centered around owning and protecting our vaginas.
My stepmother said, “Imma explain it to you the way my mother and grandmother explained it to me:
What you have between your legs is like a treasure box and right now it has all that beautiful treasure that is priceless. It has all of these jewels and golds and pearls and diamonds. And this is the treasure that you were born with. Every girl is born with this treasure box and it’s right between her legs.”
It is a bit repetitive, but it is a simple comparison. Vagina = treasure box. Vagina you are born with = filled to the brim with earthly treasures.
“So right now you have your treasure and it’s untouched.”
A bit presumptuous. And probably wrong. And by probably, I mean definitely.
“And then you meet a boy who you love and he loves you and he convinces you to open your treasure so he can take something out.”
Men will convince you to have sex, and sex = taking. Again, a bit presumptuous, but simple.
“And then you meet another boy and you love him and you think he loves you and he convinces you to open your treasure box again, so he can take something out.”
So the first one didn’t stay. Cool. And the second one doesn’t even love me? Cool.
“And eventually, you keep doing this. You keep falling in love and letting these boys take a part of your treasure from your treasure box little by little until one day you look and you don’t have any treasure left in it. It’s all gone because you gave it all away.”
Damn, so no one’s gonna stay with me? They’re all going to leave and get replaced? I mean, this is exactly what did happen, but for my stepmother to know this back then is a level of clarity we all hope to master one day.
“So what you have to do right now is protect your treasure. I’m not saying don’t give it out to anyone, but be careful who you give it to and how often you give it out because you don’t wanna be young and without a treasure to give the man you settle down with and want to spend the rest of your life with…”
In my recollection, my stepmother and aunt were going back and forth with this wife’s tale, with each of them taking a turn to spit a bar while the other nodded along and threw in their own ad libs of mhmm, exactly, and, yup. It’s clear now, and maybe even back then, that these two women who I had, at one point in time, loved furiously were raised with some rendition of this same story that women have vaginas, and our vaginas are special so we can’t fuck random dudes whether they love us or we love them because if we do then it will make us less special and no one wants to end up with a woman who isn’t special. Whether they learned this idea from their mothers or other women in their family trees, they heard these words and trusted in them enough to repeat them to my cousin and me, on a random night.
Side note: In retrospect, there is some deep irony behind this story. I think most women on my father’s side of the family, my stepmother included, had their first kids before they could drink. However, my father’s side of the family is known to mate for life once they do fall in love; so maybe that was the truth they were trying to hone into. Maybe it was less about purity and more about riding and dying. Either way, even back then I knew it was bullshit.
Maybe they already knew, because as I think back to this very, very awkward and problematic exchange, I can feel all of the eyes in the room on me. My cousin hit puberty before she turned ten, and has always been gorgeous and thin and of a womanly bone; so her mother probably gave her the talk back then, when she “needed” it. Or, maybe I just looked aloof and inexperienced. Or, maybe, out of the two of us, I looked like I needed it the most because I would be the easiest to trick out of my treasure. I was fat and dorky (I still am), and maybe I looked like an easy enough target for horny boys and men with bad intentions. Which is a lucky guess.
It has been about sixteen years since I had the treasure box talk and as a grown black feminist woman in the ever-constant process of unlearning and healing, I can honestly say with a mouth full of venom: fuck that talk?
I was molested (?) as a toddler (?) and then raped by someone I invited into my home when I was fourteen or so, and you would know this if you have read any of my other writings because I cannot shut up about it apparently. In the literary realm of my life, I have told anyone and everyone about two very awful things that have happened to me, without considering the destructive impact that those two moments have had on my actual life.
When your stepmother and aunt sit you down to talk about your treasure box at thirteen, you should be touched, uncomfortable, and creeped out. You should blush and feel nervous and maybe ask these women who love you a few questions that you have started thinking about on your own. You might even reference some difficult conversations you are having with the age-appropriate boy you know who you met in person and not on an AOL chatroom full of out-of-state strange men.
Maybe, if they got to me earlier, I would have been better suited to deal with the weight of hormones and attention while unattractive and awkward and lonely. But how much earlier should they have talked to me? Someone looted my treasure box when I was four, could talking to me at three have changed anything? It might have. It might have made me scream when someone was breaking into me, or at least tell my parents what was happening to me.
I wish when I was three, one of them would have said, “Imma explain it to you the way my mother and grandmother explained it to me: Your whole body is a treasure box. From your hair to your mind to your hairy toes. And if someone touches your treasure box, you need to tell me, or your mother, or your father, or another adult. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else because your whole body is a treasure box and no one has the right to take any treasure from you. You hear me?”
And I wish that when I was four, one of them would have said, “Imma explain it to you the way my mother and grandmother explained it to me: Your whole body is a treasure box. From your hair to your mind to your hairy toes. And if someone touches your treasure box, you should tell me, or your mother, or your father, or another adult. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else because your whole body is a treasure box and no one has the right to take any treasure from you. You hear me? Now, tell me, has anyone tried to touch your treasure box?”
Shit, I would have settled for an eighth-grade telling of, “Imma explain it to you the way my mother and grandmother explained it to me: You should treasure your whole being; from your hair to your mind to your hairy toes you get from your father. As a woman, one of the most vulnerable parts of your body is your vagina. I say vagina and not “treasure box,” or “friend,” or “purse” because I don’t want the metaphor to be mixed. I want you to hear what I have to say because it’s what my mother wanted me to know and what my grandmother wanted my mother to know. If someone touches your tits or your ass or your vagina without your permission, you should tell me, or your mother, or your father, or another adult. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else because eventually, you will find someone who will listen to you and help you through it. It might take a while but that person is out there for you, they always have been. No one has the right to touch you without your permission. You hear me? Now, tell me, has anyone ever tried anything with you? Anything you didn’t want? Anything you didn’t like? If you don’t wanna tell me now, just make sure you tell someone because that’s that shit that eats at you. Anyways, people will try you even if you don’t want them to. And they’ll say all these things to make you feel bad about it. They’ll threaten you or your parents. They’ll tell you that it’s your fault. They’ll say any and all bullshit to take the focus off of them being worthless. But I need you to know that if someone touches you without your permission, whether it’s your tits or your ass or your vagina or treasure or friend or purse or whatever they call it then you have to fight back. Not in the moment if you don’t want to. Not the next day or the day after if you don’t want to. But eventually, you have to fight back even if it’s speaking up and telling me or someone else. Don’t worry I won’t let your brothers kill them unless you want me to…Now that the bad is out the way, one day you will meet someone and it might be a girl or a boy or a neither or a both and that’s okay too. I always tell you, if you like dog, I like dog. And dog will walk up to you and you’ll decide this is someone you want to share your being with and that is okay as long as it is something you want to do. Sometimes you will want to share your whole being, and sometimes just the vagina, and sometimes just the heart, and that is between you and dog. All that matters is that it is something you want to do. And all that matters is you should treasure your whole being: from your hair to your mind to your hairy toes you get from your father’s side of the family.”
But, the reality is they got to me when they did, and delivered to me the only message they had at the time. And instead of me looking bashful at the scent of my own purity, I sat there wondering if they knew that I was already desperately becoming more box and less treasure. That I had made a hobby out of seeing how quickly I could offer a boy or a man a necklace if he would call me pretty until I believed it to be true. I was already too far gone by the time they tried to reach me, so as they talked, I heard what they were saying, I knew what they were trying to do, but I felt like it was too late for me, and that all I had left to turn to was the shame of it all.
Oddly enough, as fate would have it, within a year and a half it would be that same shame convincing me to stay quiet when I was raped in my own bedroom. It would be that same shame reminding me how worthless an empty treasure box is, and how the damage was irreversible and everyone could smell it on me. It would be that same shame that took me into sexual autopilot for the next fifteen years.
I used to blame them in part for what they taught me, and part of me still does (but I’m still working on that part), but I cannot continue to misplace blame for my own misfortunes. I cannot demean them in their attempt to not just save my purity, but my life, and my social value. They are two women who are of a moment and mindset who felt they had a specific responsibility to teach me how to best navigate a world of men and the weight of their expectations of women and girls. In retrospect, I know what I wished they had told me, but in the context of that time, that family dynamic, and that state of black womanhood in America; they were attempting to use abstinence theories to help me deal with the social dilemma: a woman’s worth is in their body and their body count.
Jamilla D. VanDyke-Bailey is a 27-year-old, pro-black feminist who uses her writing to provide a voice for silent traumas, and to hopefully create a sense of belonging amongst the misfits. She has had work published in The Southhampton Review, K’in Literary Journal, and the Santa Clara Review. Her collection of poetry, than we have been, will be published by Weasel Press in the summer of 2021.