The Status of Black Girlhood in Light of Mikayla Miller’s Death

Mikayla Miller was a Black lesbian teen whose life mattered, and there are many like her whose stories we have not heard. What can be done is to pay more attention to the lives of all Black girls right now.

The Status of Black Girlhood in Light of Mikayla Miller's Death
Family members, lawmakers and activists have called for an investigation into Mikayla Miller’s death, as she had reportedly been accosted by a group of students just hours before she was found. (Twitter / Violence In Boston)

Although she is no longer in the headlines, we should still be thinking about Mikayla Miller, a Black teenager from Hopkinton, Mass., who may have committed suicide a few months ago. Mikayla Miller’s life mattered, and should not need to be said.

Her parents have called for an independent investigation into her death because they are not confident in the county’s hastily conducted inquiry. The chief medical examiner declared Miller’s death a suicide, but many are decrying an investigation that was not properly handled. Boston elected officials including Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D) recently asked the Hopkinton district attorney to meet with them and provide more details about how the process unfolded—they want to know if Miller may have been the victim of a hate crime. As these lawmakers point out, and as we know because of the rates of suicide among Black LGBTQ teens, Miller may have been “driven to suicide due to bullying because of her race and sexual orientation.”

Too often, Black girls like Mikayla Miller are forgotten, overlooked and ignored. In fact, a few days prior to her death in April, Miller’s girlfriend reached out to a guidance counselor expressing her concerns, saying, “I’m really worried about Mikayla and I don’t know what to do.”

What if this student’s cry for help had been taken more seriously? Might Mikayla Miller still be here today, able to share her own memoirs as a Black girl? As an LGBTQ identified youth, Miller sits at the intersection of marginalized identities that placed her at further risk. Not enough was done to help Miller, and she emblematizes how too often our schools fail Black youth in both urban and suburban districts. 

Last year, a report found that Black girls in Massachusetts and other states are far more likely to experience discipline in schools ranging from detentions to expulsion. It is a nationwide phenomenon meticulously researched by scholar Monique W. Morris in her groundbreaking book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.

Inspired by Morris’s study, the 2019 report, “Protecting Girls of Color from the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” is also a reminder that conversations about racial justice often fail to include the problems faced by Black girls. Too often, Black girls, despite their valiant efforts to organize, mobilize and document (as we saw when Darnella Frazier not only recorded and posted the viral video of George Floyd’s last breath, but also courageously testified at the trial of Derek Chauvin), do not receive the same kind of media attention or public outcry when their lives end in violence.

What Morris terms “pushout” has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Recently, the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, which empowers young artists and activists to end gender-based violence, published “Black Girls During the Pandemic and Protest,” which attests to the harm that occurs when Black girls are under-resourced and overlooked. As the first of its kind, the report offers a window into how vulnerable Black girls have been in the past year—we read about one girl who was on the brink of taking her own life, but with the support of a friend, decided to seek help instead, and others whose loved ones have died of COVID-19 and are struggling with grief. The alarming statistics gathered for the study remind us that Black girls are living in households where they are expected to contribute and so went out to risk their lives as essential workers. 

At the same time, the report beautifully recognizes “the ingenuity, creativity and unparalleled leadership that Black girls have exhibited in these extraordinary times” as we face two pandemics in the form of a public health crisis and the unmitigating violence of racial injustice. The ethic of care guiding this research does not leave us with only the bleak portrait of Black girls suffering—rather, we bear witness to how girls are leading change by imagining new pathways to healing and supporting one another in unprecedented ways. As A Long Walk Home’s study confirms and as the case of Mikayla Miller demonstrates, Black girls are more likely to reach out to a peer when they are in distress.  When others fail to see them, they see and stand for each other.  

Like many Black parents, I have had countless conversations with my children about the multiple crises this country is facing. I talked to my children about Mikayla Miller because I wanted them to know her name. My spouse and I long ago made the decision to never shield our children from current events, no matter how difficult. We also encourage them to search for joy, to feel empowered, and to imagine the kind of world they want to live in because there is more to our lives than Black pain and suffering. I worry about both my daughters and my sons and pray that they will internalize the message that their lives matter. 

Mikayla Miller was a Black lesbian teen whose life mattered. There are many others like her whose stories we have not heard, and that we sadly may never hear. The immeasurable loss of these lives cannot be undone. What can be done is to pay more attention to the lives of all Black girls right now. We can listen to their stories—as photographer and organizer Scheherazade Tillet does in A Long Walk Home’s unprecedented report, which champions the lives of Black girls because they matter and deserve more of our collective attention whether it be in our organizing, our policy, or culture in general.

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About

Régine Jean-Charles (@reineayiti) is a professor at Boston College and the author of Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary. She is currently writing a book about representations of Haitian girls in literary and visual culture.