On May 11, 2003, 15-year-old Sakia Gunn traveled to Greenwich Village with friends in search of streets wide enough to contain her difference and safe enough to roam carefree. Before she made it home that night, she was alive. Before she said “no” to 28-year-old Richard McCullough, a man who apparently thought the bodies of young black girls were his to beat into submission, Sakia still had a “yes” to whisper into the ears of her girl crushes.
Gunn’s brown eyes were windows into a soulful world uninhibited by others’ demands for obedience, as young black girls are often instructed. Gunn was hard—without apology. Hair braided in disorganized rows and baggy clothes hiding teenage pubescence, she gave the impression that she was a caramel brown girl comfortable growing up as a lesbian in Newark, NJ, otherwise known as Brick City.
After enjoying a night out in the Village, Gunn returned with her friends to Newark to wait for the 1 New Jersey Transit bus at a busy corner. Here, she encountered McCullough and his adult male friend. The two men propositioned the girls.
Sakia wasn’t interested and, self-realized and unashamed, she told the men she was a lesbian. McCullough attacked Gunn in response. He didn’t know she was as hard as the city she called home. Gunn fought back.
Envisioning the scene, I can imagine her forehead folding into tight creases as she balled up her fists. I can feel the fear pulsing through her body as the endorphins caused her hands to punch rather than embrace. I can see her agile fists swinging in the direction of the arms and chest of a man who used his hands and a knife to attack her. I can hear the piercing noise of her girlfriends screaming for help followed by the loud silence that accompanies death. These are familiar possibilities known to those of us who had to fight for our lives when faced with violence.
McCullough stabbed Gunn in her chest near her heart. Blood began to wet her shirt until it was heavy. Her friend, Valencia Bailey, would recall the story years later, sharing what it felt like to feel Sakia bleed out in her hands as they traveled to the hospital where Sakia died.
The setting of Gunn’s death is a paradox: She was killed at an intersection. No safety guards were present to keep her safe in a black city not too far away from the gay, white enclaves of the Village, where lesbianism is upheld as a sign of progress unless, of course, the lesbian is a black, masculine-presenting teen from the hood. Where could Gunn have gone to truly be safe, if not her home?
There, at a literal intersection, Gunn was harmed. Gunn was black. Gunn was a black girl. Gunn was a gender nonconforming black girl who identified as a lesbian. Gunn lived in an urban city full of the working poor. Gunn rejected an adult man’s desire for her attention. Gunn was killed.
Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins writes in her book, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, that Gunn’s black girlhood—her love for other women, her age, her place, the fact that she existed in an intersection that required abnormal agility to survived unharmed—made her a target. The intersection, in Gunn’s case, was both material and metaphorical.
Who gets to cross without fear of the incoming traffic? Who gets to make it to the other side alive? Where are we—you and I—situated in the crossing? Who is looking out for whom? Who gets to live? And among us, who does not? These aren’t rhetorical questions: They are matters attending to the possibilities of life or death.
Who taught us, cisgender men, that “no” means “yes,” that silence means do it anyway, that sleep is an invitation for sex, that a person walking by wants our gawks and stares or compliments, that the ways others dress are invitations for sexual advances or sex altogether?
We have to do the hard and critical work of self-reflection so that we can unlearn the many ways we have been taught to harm. We cannot be afraid to look inward. As much as we are conditioned to look around and point fingers at the forces that harm us, we, too, must examine the extent to which those same forces have taken residence within each of us.
To borrow a phrase coined by historian Robin Kelly, my freedom dream shows my nieces dressing as they desire, and not be subject to the unwelcome advances from strangers who might devour their bodies and minds before they have a chance to be seen as people, not objects.
In my freedom dream, my nephews will feel liberated enough and will love themselves enough not to pin their anxieties and fascinations to the bodies of girls and women.
In my freedom dream, my black nieces and nephews will fall deeply in love with their bodies: their eyes, their lips, their breasts, their stomachs, their arms, their legs, the parts of themselves they are taught to hide or boast about or be ashamed of. And one day, they will look at themselves naked and announce, “This body belongs to me and is not owned, not an aberration of whiteness, not a mark to be targeted.”
In my freedom dream, they will also know that the body of another person belongs to her or him or them, as well.
In my freedom dream, my black nephews and nieces will be able to love how they desire, to explore the vastness of sexual desire, and not be harassed or policed for doing so.
In my freedom dream, accountability is real, but it does not feed the prison industrial complex. There will be mental health supports, black feminist interventions, community circles of care and responsiveness, healing initiatives through which victims can be restored, and community-designed programs through which perpetrators might be transformed.
In my freedom dream, Sakia Gunn is still alive at the intersection, standing proudly as an example of what freedom looks like—one my nieces and nephews can aspire to.