From Trauma to Triumph: What “Roxanne, Roxanne” Reminded Me About Stolen Black Girlhood

By Tekita Bankhead

Editor’s Note: Minimal spoilers, so be sure to watch the film first!

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Credit: Netflix, Inc.

This past weekend, the world was enthralled by the incredible story of battle rap phenom, Roxanne Shante (Lolita Shanté Gooden played by breakout actress Chanté Adams) in the Netflix biopic Roxanne, Roxanne. I had only a limited knowledge of Roxanne Shante’s impact prior to watching the movie. But now?! Chile, I want to know as much as I can about her! I’ve been watching interviews, reading biographies, and finding any track I can with her iconic lyrics over a nostalgic beat. Aside from the legendary music career of hip hop’s First Lady of battle rap and despite her historic musical takeover, Roxanne Shante’s dynamic story, though inspiring, contained a cryptic reminder that was all too familiar for me:

Little Black girls are rarely if ever, allowed to just be little Black girls.

Several Black women have an extensive history of trauma during their formative years, and many do not even identify their experiences as traumatic at all. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is loosely defined as an emotional response to a deeply disturbing or distressing life experience. Whether sexual, familial or otherwise, instances of trauma have become normalized in Black childhood, especially in Black girls. Black girls often have to make tough life decisions long before gaining the years of experience to guide them wisely or safely. Sexual trauma, in particular, makes Black girls vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In Roxanne Shante’s story, her predatory experiences with Black men in the hip-hop world stand out as a huge component in the development of her persona, her priorities, and her psyche. From seemingly innocent encounters to violent sexual advances, Roxanne Shanté is constantly inundated with Black men who are projecting ill-formed expectations of womanhood on a pre-teen neighborhood starlet.

Think this isn’t that common for Black girls? Let’s try a little experiment. If I asked a Black woman, “At what age did you realize that older men (who were well aware of your age) were looking at you in that way?” I guarantee you, most Black women can pinpoint a specific age that they felt the dread of being looked at by older men as a “woman” that they never asked to be. They knew grown ass men were looking at their budding breasts. They heard them make comments about how they were “filling out” and make sexualized jokes about what all the “little boys” had to be putting them through at school. They felt dirty stares at the gas stations, the grocery stores, and behind the backs of guardians. For me, it had to be around 7 or 8.

Can you think of an age? Do you still remember that feeling clearly? Welp…that’s trauma.

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Credit: Netflix, Inc.

Little Black girls who are survivors of traumatic experiences eventually grow up into Black women who may unknowingly perpetuate cycles of pain within their families. In Roxanne, Roxanne, Roxanne Shanté was indirectly affected by a traumatic experience in her mother’s (played by Nia Long) life that changed her outlook forever. In a poignant and candid moment with her mother, she tearfully admits that during that dreadful day, “everything fell on [her]” and that she felt responsible for raising her siblings at the age of 14.  Again, an all too familiar story. Black Girls often inherit the residual effects of the trauma of their families, but their inherent resilience, as displayed by Roxanne Shante’s character and her mother, are examples of how Black women have pressed on through their own pain to protect and provide for everyone else around them–a thankless, but sometimes unavoidable, feat.

Unresolved trauma often spills over into other areas of the lives of Black women, and they may sometimes utilize damaging coping mechanisms. Roxanne Shanté illustrates that she began to take on a hardened demeanor as a protective factor, and this was a huge benefit for her on-stage presence and off-stage business. However, in her personal relationships, her actions signified a deeper need for stability often gained through her volatile relationship with an older man steeped in sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. Characteristic of a toxic relationship, she found herself as a young mother who was becoming increasingly isolated from her most trusted circle of friends and siblings, thereby weakening any potential networks for support and clarity. It’s a familiar cycle that happens swiftly, and many Black girls, similar to Roxanne Shanté don’t realize until it’s too late. To me, this was a deafening reminder to our Black men to call out problematic behavior in their fellow brothers, especially when the innocence of a young Black girl is at stake. When Black men protect us by policing the perverts among them, we send the message that our Black girls are worthy of being loved, valued, and saved by any means necessary. Black women could use the helping hand of Black men so they can let their fighting fists take a break from time to time. Predators are taking too much of our Black girls’ energy.

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Credit: Netflix, Inc.

I, for one, have a newfound and deep respect for Roxanne Shanté, not only as a groundbreaking female emcee but also as a Black woman who defeated insurmountable odds. She absolutely paved the way for so many female rappers to follow, but the price she paid was tremendous. Thankfully, she has been able to gather triumph from her personal journey and share her experience on a platform that will hopefully protect other Black girls from being targeted and equip them to be victorious. She is sharing a message of truth that is resting on the hearts of little Black girls and Black women who needed just one more dose of hope. Thank you for that. You don’t know how bad we needed it.

Roxanne, Roxanne, you stole our hearts again.


Header Photo: JAMIE MCCARTHY / GETTY IMAGES FOR NETFLIX

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