African American survivors are invisible in plain sight

Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Where’s my face? I’m searching for my reflection or the echo of my story, but to my dismay I’m considered a ghost and mute. My complexion has cast a shadow before me again.  The black story has been lost in translation at a museum dedicated to survivors of modern-day slavery, survivors like myself. And the truth is they don’t even see me. 

I consider myself to be a champion of “life after abuse” — a victor in realizing real love doesn’t hurt. After surviving child sexual abuse at the age of 9, child neglect by parents addicted to crack, familial trafficking to support my parents’ drug addiction, and domestic violence, I refuse to be silent.

I refuse to lay in my grave of deceased innocence. I refuse to be just another statistic.

According to the FBI, African American children comprise 59 percent of all prostitution arrests. In a two-year review of all suspected human trafficking incidents, 40 percent of sex trafficking victims were African-American.

However, when I entered the Museum of Modern Day Slavery in Houston, those truths were invisible. There were exhibits dedicated to the Latin sex trade, the Asian trade, the domestic trade, the white slave trade of the Industrial Revolution, the trades of London, India, and Chinatown. As I migrated through the world of sex trafficking, I didn’t see my face or the story of my truth — the truth that African Americans are at the greatest risk of being trafficked and are disproportionately affected by trafficking in America.

As I walked the museum halls with two white survivors of sexual abuse, they too wondered why my face was always invisible. Why is my face noticeably absent from mainstream media when discussing sex trafficking? Why is my face noticeably absent in the majority of publications or advocacy agency advertisements about sex trafficking? Why is my voice mute at the table of policymakers? Within minutes the “why’s” turned into tears that dampened the floors of the hallway. There were no answers, just questions, as we all felt a void in a space that was dedicated to “us,” the survivors.

What’s worst is what came next in this moment of tear-filled realization. The museum curator, armed with a smile that exhibited pride in her work, asked: “What did you think of our museum?” 

This poignant question became life-changing for me, as I had to decide whether to acknowledge my truth or nod with a smile.  I decided to humbly express my dismay that I couldn’t find my face or story in the museum. She was immediately offended and defiantly stated that she didn’t have room in the museum; that the museum wasn’t about the trans-Atlantic slave trade; that the pair of shackles in the corner should have been enough; that they didn’t want to separate white girls and black girls; that pointing out that pimps are mostly black should suffice. 

It wasn’t until my friend, who is white, told her this wasn’t meant to criticize, but rather to share an obvious void, that she started to hear me (but still couldn’t see me). By the end of the exchange, she was crying, apologizing for misunderstanding my need to express my truth and her attempt to defend her blindness. In the end, we all felt empty and struck by how a place meant to be a mirror into my story was simply a marred reflection of history in America.

It was evident that being black means you’re invisible in plain sight.

This opened my eyes to the desperate need to orchestrate public platforms to give a face and voice to those of color who are dealing with these truths. Whether it’s by speaking on the data in corporate, community, and entertainment realms, or building collaborations with law enforcement, judicial systems, and legislators, we must not only be heard – we must be seen.

Can you see me now?

Sophia A. Strother

Founder, Learning to Exhale Restoration Strategies LLC