Danielle Evan’s book of short stories Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self starts off with the story “Virgins”. In the story, there are three main characters: Erica (the narrator), Jasmine (Erica’s best friend) and Michael (Erica’s other best friend). While reading the story, the reader gets a sense of what it is like to be a young Black girl-specifically how being a young girl and being Black can intersect.
First Lesson: Safety can be created by the presence of a man and safety can be taken away by the presence of a man.
The story opens with Erica, Jasmine and Michael hanging out at the pool belonging to Mr. Thompson, their past elementary school principal. Erica notes that it may seem weird to the reader that she and Jasmine hang out with Michael. He is a guy and he has a group of guys that he could easily hang out with. Erica explains in an effort to clear the confusion and justify this type of friendship:
We hung out with him because we figured it was easier to have a boy around than not to. Strangers usually thought one of us was with him, and they didn’t know which, so they didn’t bother either of us. When you were alone, men were always wanting something from you.
Though Michael is a peer, he serves as a protective figure for the girls. As young teenagers they understand that safety is associated with a male figure. Erica says that strangers will bother them if Michael is not there. She specifies that these strangers are men, men who always want something. This “something” is left to the imagination of the reader making the reader fear what this could actually be.
Erica knows the reverse is true as well. Erica knows their safety can not be guaranteed with just any boy or any man. Even though Mr. Thompson is an authority figure anyone could reasonably trust, they still have their suspicions:
We even wondered about Mr. Thompson sometimes, or at least we never went swimming at his house without Michael with us…We felt bad for letting Mr. Thompson make us nervous. he was the smartest man either of us knew, and probably he was just being nice. We were not stupid, though. We’d had enough nice guys suddenly look at us the wrong way.
They do not expect bad situations to happen but they remain hopeful that they will not occur. This feeling of anxiety and vulnerability comes partly from their experiences of being girls.
Second Lesson: Body image matters–everything about your physicality.
Erica and Jasmine recognize the power of beauty standards. Erica alludes to skin color and the fact that something as essential to health as screenscreen can only be associated with Whiteness though “all three of us burned”. They talk about Michael’s girlfriend, a White Italian girl who is a part Michael’s pattern of White girlfriends. For Erica, this pattern justifies why Michael would never have an interest in either one of them–their skin color is not light enough. They notice that Michael’s brother Ron is attractive not for being talented, intelligent or witty but because he is “golden-colored skin, with curly hair and doll-baby eyelashes and the kind of smile where you could count all of his teeth”. Both Erica and Jasmine worry about how their body looks (how big their hips, breasts and stomachs are or how pretty their face is) and how they will be perceived. For Jasmine, the right physical attributes and the right amount of sex appeal translate to a respectable, long term relationship. Jasmine wants to be “the one [a boy] kisses in public”, not the girl a boy leaves for another.
Third Lesson: Safety is relative.
Erica feels that safety is not something she can achieve but rather something she can approach. More importantly, there is no standard or bar of excellence for safety. For women specifically, safety remains relative. Though Erica leaves her friend Jasmine in a potentially dangerous situation, Erica finds herself in another potentially dangerous situation:
…I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better. I was safer than Jasmine right now, safer than I might have been.
Erica is not exactly forced into the situation but she does not choose the situation for herself either.
We are left with a sense of hopelessness at the end. The ending is foreshadowed by the death of Tupac Shakur who wrote the famous words “it’s a setup…keep ya head up“. Does this awful ending have to be inevitable? How can you live life when you have to acknowledge daily how terrible it can actually be?