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We All Failed Oluwatoyin Salau. All of Us.

At every turn in her life, Oluwatoyin was failed by all the people, all the places, and all the entities that were supposed to protect her.

TW/CW: suicide ideation, murder, anti-Blackness, domestic/interpersonal violence, and sexual assault.

I should not be here.

This, of course, does not help my suicide ideation. But… I think about that a lot. More than most of you might suspect, despite a highly perfervid public face and God-tier witticism, both gifted to me by my Aries ascendant and my Gemini in Mercury. I think about the peculiar twists and turns my life has taken. I think about how all these left turns, and occasionally wrong turns, have somehow resulted in my, surprisingly enough, sustained and reluctant existence.

I think about how I should not be here.

My existential suffering/torment has a long and storied history. I’d call it biblical even. Quite simply, I could see it being some sort of DLC or epilogue to, let’s say, Lamentations, when it comes to The Good Book. And there’s much about it that I have repressed in order to continue the ruse of “living”. But even in the midst of my repression, when it comes to my work, I have made the horrific abuse that I suffered in my childhood home—and over the course of my short life—no secret. The details that I have forced myself to divulge over time vary, but it has played a disturbingly major role in shaping my current self.

And I was reminded of that today, upon hearing about the death of Oluwatoyin Salau.

Since the inception of #BlackLivesMatter, I have made myself read every name that we lose to state violence and that we lose to Black cannibals in search of white power. Every. single. one. Because I believe I am duty-bound to witness all of the stories so that they do not die a second death. But because of the sheer force of repression, I have not allowed myself to fully internalize what all of these names mean. But occasionally, some of these names, these faces, and the particularly violent way in which they were stolen from us… take my breath away. Cause me to pause. Take my already fragmented sanity and sense of reality and shatter it some more. This happened when I witnessed the death of Mike Brown in 2014. And how he was the exact same age as my favorite brother. And how they had both been due to attend college in the fall. This happened again with the death of Sandra Bland. And how her quest for a new job, in order to start the next part of her life’s journey, turned into a death sentence. And it has happened once more with the death of Oluwatoyin, a 19-year-old Black girl.

A baby, even.

All of these deaths tend to leave their own unique marks on me, which is the symptom of the shadow of death that tends to follow Black people of all backgrounds around. But this one? Oluwatoyin’s? It is personal. It is familiar. And the parallels between her story and mine are enough to make me weep. This morning was not a good one and it progressively got worse as I learned more details about her story. About her life. I remember reading her name and immediately registering that she was also Nigerian-American. I immediately thought about all the deprogramming and unlearning she had to have done and gone through—under that one identity—to get to the radical thought that she had embodied before her death.

Her age caused me to pause too. Not because she was, as I mentioned, a baby. But because I was 19-years-old when I was ferociously and expeditiously radicalized by the death of Mike Brown. I thought about the painful chasm, originally created by my immigrant parents’ abuses against me, that was widened when I forced myself to break my parents’ conservative school of thought. From their callous sense of superiority over Black Americans like Mike Brown. About their, often, self-wounding respectability politics. And how Toyin may have found herself in a similar position, particularly as she fought on behalf of the life of Tony McDade, a Black trans man. As a radicalized 19-year-old child of Nigerian immigrants.

I thought about her abusive family. I mean, how could you not? How could you read that she was thrown out of the house by her mother, in the middle of a goddamn global pandemic akin to a biblical plague, and not immediately feel bile at the back of your throat? How could you read that she was assaulted by her own brother, and subsequently ostracized by her family—instead of him—and not immediately feel the flames of hellfire rising on the back of your neck? How could you not want to draw blood at the sight of her disgusting family profiting off of their “grief” about her death by raising at least $10,000 on GoFundMe before they were found out due to Twitter sleuths? I became so angry. Because I remembered the sadness my parents feigned to the outside world when I finally found the strength to cut them off and flee to Chicago for school. I remember my narcissistic father and complicit mother and sister imploring all of Nashville to reach out to me for “reconciliation”. That “God” wanted us to be a family again and that it was our—mine, really—Christian duty to make it so.

I thought about God. And Christianity. And the simultaneously chaotic and useless role that they played in my life. I thought about the fact the Church, as an institution (let’s call it what it is), betrayed me in perpetuity. How all the faith leaders (a majority of who were “men of God”) in the church—and I do mean all—possessed intimate knowledge about the ways in which my father had abused my mother. Particularly my eldest sister. And all the rest of us kids. And how they purposefully chose to do nothing. How they offered toothless prayers. And laughable versions of “therapy” and “counseling” to keep my abusive and self-destructing parents together. Because it was God’s will. 

I think about how different my life and my siblings’ lives may have turned out had The Church truly intervened. Had they weaponized the love and wrath of God and drove my father out. Had they refused to provide cover for him and all abusers like him. Had they looked at my mother, a truly battered woman, and used all that money they collected from tax-free tithes and offerings to provide her (and us) with shelter. Money that could have gone to groceries. To funding her divorce. To a deposit for a new apartment. To a down payment for a new home. And I thought about the ways in which Oluwatoyin sought refuge in the Church. In a man of God. In men of God. And how she was similarly betrayed.

And just like that, the floodgates of pain and grief opened and I was savagely bombarded by all the things, the forces, the ideologies, and systems of oppression that betrayed Toyin.

That killed her. I thought about the hyper-focus that our society places on family. The “nuclear” family in particular. I thought about the atrocities and barbaric acts of abuse that people will allow and willfully close their eyes and ears to because they believe that sharing blood and DNA entitles these people to harm you up close and long after you have finally escaped their clutches. I thought about the ease in which all people valorize the “strength” of Black women and young Black girls. And violently strip us of our humanity. Our personhood. I thought about the irony in people recognizing that we are the pillars of our community, their “superheroes” even, and yet purposely forgetting us and discarding us in the fight for Black lives—which is so painfully clear in the co-opting of the #SayHerName hashtag

I thought about the chains of colorism. About the callousness and frigidness that Oluwatoyin, like myself, was probably intimately familiar with as a dark-skinned Black girl. As who Alice Walker referred to as the “Black Black woman” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens where she first coined the word colorism in 1983. I thought about the torment that was probably wrought upon her as a child—for the “growth” and self-actualization of repugnant and self-hating Black people—and the indifference that she was probably met with as she closed in on adulthood. I thought how this glacial indifference absolutely played into who was willing to help her in her darkest hour. And who was happy to prey on her in that same hour. And how these things were inextricably tied together in the cycle of denigration and dehumanization that dark-skinned Black women and girls are subject to at every. stage. of. life.

And I thought about the fact that Oluwatoyin could be here right now. About how she should be here right now. And how easily I could not be here right now.

There is nothing so special about me that makes it so that I should be here over her. And vice versa. The only thing that ceases the parallels between our stories is that I got lucky. That my big move to Chicago changed the entire trajectory of my life, down to the very thoughts and alternative futures that I was able to conceive of and then be free to pursue.

I got lucky. But Toyin was not afforded the same lucky break.

And that is because we failed her as a society. And we failed her as a people. And at every turn in her life, she was failed by all the people, all the places, and all the entities that were supposed to protect her. That were supposed to help her. That were supposed to love her. I don’t know what the fuck it’s going to take to change this world’s attitude toward dark-skinned Black women and girls. But it has to change after this. It must change after this.

Or what the fuck else was Toyin fighting for?

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