How do you write a eulogy for someone you’ve never met?
I suppose it’s not really possible, but it feels like something that, in this instance, must be done.
If you have been paying attention at all to the ongoing coverage of the widespread Black Lives Matter protests that have been popping up around the world over the past two weeks, then you have likely already heard the name Oluwatoyin Salau. The world at large and the Black community specifically has seen so much death, but this most recent one feels personal in a way that the others somehow didn’t.
Toyin, as she was known, rose very quickly to prominence after the murder of Tony McDade, a Black transgender man killed at the hands of Tallahassee police officers on May 27th.
On June 1st, Toyin promised that she would make sure that Tony’s story and voice would be heard. She promised that his story would not be censored, and she committed herself to that cause for the time that she had left.
Toyin marched, Toyin protested, Toyin gave vigorously rousing speeches. Toyin cared about and was loud about Tony McDade and his story in a space and movement that has largely been overtaken by the deaths of cisgender Black men.
And on June 6th, just five short days after Toyin began campaigning for justice for Tony, her life was taken from her.
What happened to Toyin, people wonder? Was it the state? Because we’ve watched as Ferguson activists have been snuffed out over the years. We’ve seen how Civil Rights Era activists were murdered in their own driveways. Was it something more sinister? Perhaps someone ramming their vehicle through a gathering of protesters?
And of course, it was none of those things.
It was, in fact, something even more devastating: Toyin’s death came at the hands of the very people she was fighting to protect.
At 19 years old, while fighting a pandemic, systemic racism and transphobia, Toyin had no safe refuge. She’d chosen to stay at a church, but a Black man, under the cover of religion, offered her a place to stay, a shower, clean clothing.
After her shower, this man exposed himself to her while urinating and then, in the early hours of the morning, physically took advantage of Toyin, molesting her until he climaxed. When he was asleep, and she believed she was safe, Toyin escaped his home. She left with nothing but the clothes the man had given her (all of her belongings were still at the church) and tweeted out details of her attack.
Within hours of her last tweet — a description of her assailant’s house and vehicle — Toyin was missing. Days later, Toyin’s body (and that of another woman) was found.
Like so many of my fellow Black Americans, I have watched the callous brutality leveled against our bodies with anger, frustration, rage, horror and sorrow for years. It is a reality that we have all lived with since the moment we become conscious of the way our skin others us.
Toyin is not the first activist we have lost. But Toyin is the one who has broken me in ways that I do not know if I can recover from, because Toyin could have been me.
Toyin’s story is almost my story. Like, Toyin I was 19 when a Black man was murdered by the police (in my case, Oscar Grant). Like Toyin, I was vocal about his murder, I attended a few rallies held for Oscar. Like Toyin, I was sexually assaulted after one of these rallies.
Unlike Toyin, I was not brave enough to detail my attack in a public forum. I did not attempt to escape him (he simply left). I was ashamed, and so I buried that experience and have never spoken of it outside of therapy. Unlike Toyin, I survived, and I have watched as year after year, as one decade turns into another, the pain of Black women — at the hands of white people and Black men alike — is buried by all voices but our own.
Before Toyin’s murder, a trend began to spread across Twitter. Black men had dared Black women to name their sexual assaulters, and they did — in droves, in massive numbers.
And, as the survivor’s tweets piled up, we watched as the same men who had demanded names, suddenly found excuses as to why these women must all be lying.
Before Toyin’s murder, we watched as the #SayHerName hashtag was co-opted and turned into #SayTheirNames, a slap in the face to Black women who have spent generations uplifting the names of stolen and murdered Black men and boys while being buried by the same systems and our own communities. Before Toyin was murdered, we watched Breonna Taylor’s story be quite literally swept under the proverbial rug.
After Toyin went missing, we watched as nothing moved in the almost ten-day search for her until a private investigator was hired — even though she had already detailed specifics about her attacker’s age, residence and vehicle. After Toyin’s body was recovered — along with that of another woman — we watched as the media related copious details about the life and death of the other woman (75-year-old Victoria Sims) with nary even a mention of Toyin’s name. If Toyin’s body had not been found with Sims’, how long would it have taken for us to even know that it was her?
This is what happens to Black women who are brave and loud and unapologetically take up space like Toyin. And this is what happens to Black women who are ashamed and silent, and don’t learn to hold their ground until years later. We are ignored and erased by everyone in both our lives and our deaths.
Toyin fought for Black men while she was homeless. Toyin fought for Black men after she had already suffered a previous sexual assault at their hands. Toyin fought for Black men in the midst of a pandemic. Toyin fought for Black men. And Black men repaid Toyin with rape and murder.
Black women deserve better. In particular, dark-skinned Black women — make no mistake, this plays a part in the optics of this situation — deserve better. We deserve to have our cries for help heard and responded to, not in the wake of our deaths, but while we are still alive to receive said help. How can Black women expect to survive if our very men are just as responsible for our assault and murder as the people they ask for protection from? How can Black women expect to survive when our own families make our homes untenable and force us to seek shelter in other places?
How many people will ignore Toyin’s story because she was Black?
How many people will ignore Toyin’s story because she protested for Black Lives?
How many people will ignore Toyin’s story because she was dark-skinned?
How many people will ignore Toyin?
It won’t be me. I will say Toyin’s name forever, because Toyin is me.
Toyin’s light was so very bright — too bright to be snuffed out at just 19 years of age. Too bright to become just another small, flickering flame in a tableau of lost Black women and girls.
Toyin, whose full name Oluwatoyin means “God is worthy to be praised”, was a gift to this world. Toyin was courageous. Toyin was beautiful. Toyin was free. Toyin was a model. Toyin was a FAMU student. Toyin was passionate. Toyin took up space. Toyin was smart. Toyin was worthy of our protection, our love, our strength, our kindness.
Black women matter. Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau matters.
Life, by definition, cannot die. As long as we do not forget Toyin, then Toyin cannot actually die. We can carry a piece of her indomitable spirit with us at all times.
In Toyin’s own words: “I am standing on a rock, therefore I can never be broken or robbed.”
I am so sorry that we failed you in life, Toyin. We will not fail you in death.