The other day I was looking at a photo of my 8 year old daughter and I noticed how much lighter her skin was in the photo, so I turned to her and said that she was getting browner from playing tennis. Her response: she didn't mind because she liked getting browner. I was struck so deeply by her words because it marked a significant difference from my experiences with brownness and blackness as a child.
When I put box braids in her hair for the first time this summer (to give me and her hair a break from styling) I told her not to get used to wearing weave. Her response: she wouldn't because she loves her hair. I keep thinking about that statement too. I'm raising a child who thinks consciously about race and embraces both her skin and her natural hair. She loves to draw and her characters are quite often a deep walnut brown that represents her place in the world. She creates a space for people of color in her favorite shows because she believes that the characters would be beautiful as black people.
I keep hoping that this child, who is growing up confident in the skin that she will wear for life, is growing up that way because of the choices that I'm making.
When I was growing up, too many of us still fetishized light skin. That dichotomy of light vs. dark-skinned was one that helped to shape my childhood and deeply affected how I saw myself. I craved longer and straighter hair because even Barbie dolls indicated that there was something wrong with the way that I looked. My parents would buy me Black Barbie dolls and I both loved and hated those things. I wanted so badly to comb the dolls' hair but the matted, twisted mess perched on top of the doll's head was not meant for combing. The white dolls were better suited for hairstyling.
But I think I loved and hated those dolls too. I would comb their hair for hours and then I'd chop their hair off, or I would add grease to their blonde locks. I'm not sure why I knowingly ruined these dolls but I did. I wanted to be like them at the same time that I would never be like them. Then, when I was in junior high school, my mother put a Jheri curl in my hair. I thought I was really something then. I suddenly had this curly hair that proved that my hair wasn't as short as I had previously thought nor as "nappy."
I happily applied my Jheri curl juice and strutted around like I was too cute. Then it happened. At my nearly all-white private school, I was the only black cheerleader on the squad and what was known as a base. I was always assigned to hold and lift the slimmer, blonder white girls into the air. But then my cheerleading coach pulled me to the side on day and said that my hair was staining the girls' clothes. I was...humiliated. I already felt different attending this white Baptist private school in the late 70's and early 80's, but little moments like this reminded me of just how different I was.
My mother sent us to this school so that we could receive an excellent educational foundation, but there were these little reminders that showed how we would never truly belong. I was counseled about my hair so I stopped using the Jheri curl juice, which caused my hair to break. I often found out about parties after the fact. In eighth grade, a white male student offered me the brown M&M because it looked like me (his words). When my sister and I came back to school after Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America, we had to hear about how blacks should stick with their own pageant. My 9th grade year my best friend (white, of course since everyone was white except me) called me a nigger in the midst of an argument.
The wrongness of being black was evident in these small but significant events that marked my time in a school that didn't get me or my siblings. The experience was uncomfortable and devastating to my construction of identity. I had attended that school since I was two years old and by the age of thirteen, I realized that I would never fit in.
But worse than that, I didn't have a clear understanding of what it meant to be black.
My private school excluded the black presence from our curriculum in a way that was truly negligent. I remember learning about Crispus Attucks and that black people were slaves. I remember my 8th grade teacher pulling me out of gym to view a video that she was showing to her 10th grade English class. Every time the black teacher in the video would coach the five-year-old black students to say that they were better than whites, the white students in class would sneak a look at me. That was the only lesson I had ever known her to teach that included black people.
When my mother decided to send us to public school my 10th grade year, I was more than ready to leave the private school setting behind. I was tired of being the minority. But changing to a public school was awkward for me. I had never gone to school with so many students of color before, and I found it difficult to navigate the public school system. I was awkward in every way. I attended school with students who had gone to junior high together and already formed cliques. I was drawn toward the black students, having felt rejected by the white students that I attended private school with, but I didn't quite fit with them either. I tried to find my way, but I don't think I ever did. I just wasn't savvy enough. I didn't have the social capital to do public high school.
My sense of who I was was fractured in so many ways, and I had to build by racial identity one book at a time. When I enrolled in University of Florida, I found Frederick Douglass the week before classes began. That was when I began to construct a stronger racial identity. I had a moment like Sarny does in Nightjohn when reading finally clicks and she realizes that the white preacher had been lying to the slaves. I had that moment in UF's library almost thirty years ago. I realized that my white Baptist school and my public high school had robbed me of the opportunity to see myself in my educational experience.
Even University of Florida would add to this absence of blackness with the overwhelmingly Euro-American syllabi that dominated the English department. My immersion in African American history was one that I had to forge with very little outside help. And when I sank my feet into the history of African peoples, oh how my soul woke up and sang. I learned that I existed: I was there when Africans resisted slavery, when black artists started a Renaissance, when black people poured out of the South, when a human rights movement spread from Alabama. I was there, in history. More than Crispus Attucks and more than slavery. And that was when I realized that I had spent my childhood and teenage years trying to stand tall and sprout branches when I had no roots. I had to find and water my roots.
In my daughter, I've tried to instill the beauty and greatness that fills her legacy. I steered her toward Doc McStuffins, bought her black and brown dolls, encouraged her to read biographies of various black leaders. I've tried to put her in diverse schools, which aren't always easy to find. If a school system lacks diversity then I find a successful predominantly black school. I've made all of these conscious decisions so that when my daughter enters into a world that will ask her to doubt her abilities, the pride in her blackness will be at her core.
When I watch her draw pictures and unconsciously color her characters a deep brown. Or when she tells me that she actually likes getting darker skin, I am so grateful that she has already learned to love herself. And while blackness for me was an epiphany, a movement, a consciousness (ode to Biko)--she can live in a world where blackness is just aneveryday,natural, part of her life.