(CNN) — We were in second grade. And I can still feel the dirt in my hair, falling down my face. Still hear the bullies screeching like monkeys, calling me “Rocky,” after the old African gorilla at the local zoo. Nearly every week for a time, the kids in my neighborhood would chase me home with their monkey taunts.
That gorilla chant found me again nearly 30 years later on the cobblestone streets of Spain, where I was vacationing at a mountain villa. A group of white men decided to chase my son and me down the street making monkey noises. At first, I laughed, stunned by their ignorance and because they looked so ridiculous curling up their arms making money sounds, but then I saw they were serious and meant to do us harm. Then we ran — fast.
So you see, little black girls are taught at a tender age how to defend ourselves against racist, woman-hating thugs, against those who would do us harm. We learn to sniff out bigotry before it can crush us. And we understand that we are all Leslie Jones. We will not let you destroy her. Not this time.
Leslie Jones, you are not alone.
Leslie Jones is an actor. On Wednesday, her website JustLeslie.com was deactivated after hackers posted personal information, including her home address and passport number along with explicit photos that appeared to be of the comedian.
Jones had just completed a hugely successful and entertaining stint as a guest commentator at the Olympics in Rio, where she breathed life into a boorish NBC broadcast. But it seems Jones’ celebrity and her refusal to cower to cyberbullies has made her a target once again online. Since starring in the “Ghostbusters” remake earlier this summer, the actress has become a favorite of social media trolls.
Jones rightfully challenged Twitter’s abuse monitoring system months back after she was the target of a flood of hateful, racist, misogynistic tweets. Twitter’s response was to ban Milo Yiannopoulos, a columnist and alt-right agitator who encouraged Jones’s Twitter harassment.
“If I hadn’t said anything [about the abuse], nobody would have known about this. All those people would still have an account. … Hate speech and freedom of speech are two different things,” Jones told Seth Meyers in an interview after the first cyberattack.
And today, fans are rallying around Jones to help her remain strong in the face of these new assaults. Yesterday, immediately after the latest cyberattacks became public, fans and celebrities began offering support using the hashtag #LoveForLeslieJ. But clearly, tweets are not enough.
At this moment, more than at any other — in my lifetime at least — we have to stand up, act up and speak out against racist, sexist behavior whenever we see it, whether at work, at home, in our government, or now more often on our social media feeds.
Because this is personal.
When these vile cowards attack Leslie Jones, they attack all black women — every woman — who has ever been told she doesn’t fit into Western society’s made-up definition of woman’s beauty. No one has the right to define us, or our bodies.
For centuries, black women’s magnificent, strong bodies have been coveted, used and then abused at will. We have been stripped down to our souls — though never losing our spirit — robbed of our humanity, our families, our dignity. But still we rise to unimaginable heights generation after generation, whether it be to the White House, the big screen or the boardroom. And though we have shed many tears, we will not be broken.
According to reports by the National Center for Education Statistics, black women are among the most educated group in America. Accounting for both race and gender, there is a higher percentage of black women (9.7%) enrolled in college than any other group, including Asian woman (8.7%), white women (7.1%) and lastly, white men (6.1%), according to the 2011 US Census Bureau.
So yes, the hateful words may sting us. And often leave unseen scars. But they also make us stronger, more resilient. As a girl, I plotted ways to get back at my haters. I found my revenge in the classroom — where I discovered I could be smarter, work harder than most — and in sports, where my oversized body was stronger than most. And more than once, my sweet revenge came at the end of my fist, when I got tired of running and decided to stand and fight.
Leslie’s revenge is her success. Bursting onto the big screen at 48 years old to star in “Ghostbusters” was the culmination of years of hard work that took Jones, the daughter of an Army vet who dreamed of being a comedian, from a college hoops scholarship to finally a big break with “Saturday Night Live.”
She is a living example of the American dream. Working hard, succeeding on her own terms where no one imagined she could, or should. Jones’ story is one to be celebrated and even emulated.
So no, haters, you cannot have Leslie Jones, or Gabby or Serena. Or any of the long list of trailblazing black women you too often try to destroy. We know this game well and you will not win.
“Our noses are broad, our lips are thick, our hair is nappy — we are black and beautiful,” said Stokely Carmichael .
And we’re here to stay. Deal with it.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events, is a co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.