This Saturday, mogul Russell Simmons and civil rights leader Al Sharpton are expected to deliver speeches at the "Stop the Violence" rally in Trenton, N.J. This rally is a direct response to the revolting news that seven men, ranging in age from 13 to 20 years old sexually assaulted a 7-year-old girl in Trenton's Rowan Towers apartment complex last weekend.
According to the police reports, the girl attended a party with her 15-year-old stepsister, who then sold herself and her younger sister to a group of men for an undisclosed amount of money. While the proverbial Bush-speak of "shock and awe" come to mind, this alleged incident is yet another stark reminder that the sex trafficking of younger and younger African-American girls is not only on the rise in the United States, but is fast becoming the forgotten slavery of our times.
The Trenton case should not be seen as an isolated incident of either gang violence or child prostitution. This month's Heart and Soul magazine, "The State of Our Girls" report opens with two stories about African-American girls, ages 15 and 13, who were prostituted by their mothers. This past November, newspaper headlines across the country reported that the body of Shaniya Davis, a 5-year-old girl, whose mother allegedly sold her into sexual slavery in order to pay off a drug debt, was found alongside a North Carolina highway. Within a week of Shaniya's disappearance, police arrested Mario Andrette McNeill for first-degree kidnapping, and charged her mother, Antoinette Nicole Davis, with human trafficking and felony child abuse involving prostitution.
There is scant attention paid to the growing numbers of young black girls being kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, in places such as Atlanta, D.C, Chicago and Los Angeles, with large African-American populations. "Atlanta, for a variety of reasons, has become a hub of child prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children," writes Bob Herbert of the New York Times. "In Atlanta—a thriving hotel and convention center with a sophisticated airport and ground transportation network—pimps and other lowlifes have tapped into that market big time."
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), nearly 800,000 children under the age of 18 are reported missing each year in the United States. Of that number, 33 percent are African-American. Even more frighteningly, in 2008, half of reported missing children in New York City were black, 60 percent of missing black children were female, and most of the girls were between 13 and 15. With the rare exception of high-profile cases, such as Shaniya Davis' or the Rowan Towers incident, the unprecedented number of African-American girls who disappear from their classrooms, communities and churches, only to end up exploited in strip clubs, pornography websites or Craigslist ads remain uncounted. Invisible. Forgotten.
More often than not, these missing girls become sexual commodities in a tightly woven network of buyers and sellers. According to Jody Raphael, author of Listening to Olivia: Violence, Poverty, and Prostitution: "Some of these missing girls are 'put out' by a mother or a brother as a way to make money for the family. Some run away from an abusive home, only to be preyed upon by 'recruiters.' "
Raphael continues: "Once in this network, the girls, like their enslaved antebellum ancestors, have few options for escape. Under the persistent threat of violence from their owners or 'pimps,' no home to which to return and permanently isolated from shelters and social services agencies, these girls spend their days servicing more and more 'customers' as they get older. Here, I am reminded of Harriet Jacobs' famous 'Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl,' in which she wrote, 'But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import.'"
For many Americans, the words "sex trafficking of young girls" only conjures up images of the illegal trade of young females from Eastern Europe, Cambodia and Thailand. Likewise, within the confines of the U.S. borders, law enforcement officials primarily treat sexual trafficking as an immigration issue. As a result, there is a de-emphasis on the rising epidemic of U.S. domestic-born girls who are trafficked. But even more astonishingly, in both the international and national anti-trafficking movements, black girls who are victims of child prostitution are invisible.
Coupled with a deafening silence about domestic sexual trafficking and cultural stigmas about childhood sexual violence within our communities and churches, these girls become casualities of war, with the traffickers emerging as the victors. To end the trafficking of young black girls, we must have initiatives that name the crime as such. This movement, according to Simmons, requires that "mainstream media, many human rights organizations who work on trafficking of women, and Hollywood," include the saving black girls within their missions.
Moreover, this movement shouldn't only feature black male leaders, such as Rev. Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons, who can take back the neighborhood under the mantle of black male protection. That only answers part of the problem. We must also have a cross-gender, multigenerational movement to abolish sexual slavery that prevents young girls (and boys) from becoming potential victims and perpetrators of sexual violence.
Granted, we must understand that the raping and selling of black girls is connected to a myriad of social issues, such as gang activity, the illegal drug trade, failed child protective services and rising unemployment. But, we must place the sexual trafficking of African-American girls at the forefront of our conversations about social justice, our legislations and public policies, and our demands for racial and gender equality.
To not do so, means that we idly sit by, while thousands upon thousands of black girls are sold into another peculiar institution of slavery.
Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end sexual violence against underserved women and children.
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.