This Will Be My Undoing
1) Monkeys Like You
When I was ten, the only thing I wanted was to be a white cheerleader. Bone-straight hair. Thin nose. Saccharine voice. Slender body.
When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.
I grew up in Atlantic County, New Jersey, just twenty minutes from Atlantic City, depending on how fast you drive down the expressway or Black Horse Pike. There are not many places in Atlantic County you can go where the last name Jerkins is not known—my uncles Rodney and Freddie have achieved incredible success in the music industry, producing hits for artists like Jennifer Lopez and Brandy. Maybe this was why I was generally popular with the black and Latinx students in my school. Teachers asked if my uncles could pop in to the class to supplement their math lessons, and aspiring producers wanted to know how they could get in touch with them. There might have been incidents when I was called ugly, or rejected by some guy whom I basically didn’t know but was infatuated with nevertheless, but that was all they were: incidents, moments. They were not experiences that defined my childhood, or me.
As a kid, I loved TV. I religiously watched shows like Saved by the Bell and Lizzie McGuire and slept through the weekday nights while The Facts of Life played in the background. And there she was, always: the cheerleader. She wasn’t always blonde, but she was always white, skinny, and desirable. She was equally powerful and pure.
When I was ten, the only thing I wanted to be was a white cheerleader.
Cheerleading tryouts for elementary school were under way, and I knew that this was my chance. If I made the squad, it would be easier for me to make the team again and again from middle through high school. All prospective squad members were mandated to attend nightly sessions in our elementary school’s cafeteria in order to learn a dance routine, gain tips on how to impress the judges with our energy and attitude, and practice our jumps. I was one of only four black girls in a room of about thirty white girls. The others were Tanya, a second-generation Jamaican-American; Ruby, whose name matched her beauty; and an Afro-Latina whose name eludes me now. There were no Asians, no Pacific Islanders, no Native Americans. If you blinked, you might not have noticed us four black girls there. The cafeteria was large, and the whiteness was blinding.
Although I could not stir up the strength to lift my pudgy body (with 34C breasts, to boot) into the air to perfect a pike or tuck, I made up for it with my enthusiasm. I wasn’t as popular with my black and brown classmates as I was with the white ones, although I was one of only a few black girls who regularly mingled with them. To this day, I’m not sure if it was due to circumstance or colorism, my light skin often associated with whiteness, my identity regularly mistaken for biracial. Nevertheless, I wanted equal social standing in both spaces. Just to be in the presence of white girls—mainly those who had been cheerleaders for years, those whom all the boys, both white and of color, wanted—I felt privileged. I hoped that if I were adjacent to them, then some of their desirability could lather me like soapsuds to the skin, polishing me off until I was just as white as them. I scrutinized how easy it was for them to make their bodies fly through the air, how graceful their movements were. Every gesture seemed like a dance. I might have noticed these talents when they sat beside me in class or brushed past me in the lunchroom line, but these sessions isolated them so I could study them a little bit more closely. Spatial boundaries did not apply to their bodies. They could move anywhere they pleased. Their bodies knew this even if their prepubescent minds didn’t. There was no place that they could not go without being acknowledged: not the playground, not the classroom, not the lunchroom, and most certainly not cheerleading practice. I had only a faint awareness then that being born in white skin, they had been groomed for this kind of dominance.
Unlike the cheerleaders in sitcoms and cartoons, these white girls weren’t stuck-up and rude. On the contrary, they were quite helpful, giving me tips on how to smile when I appeared in front of the judges and how to stretch so that I could improve my momentum for the jumps. Were they nice to me because of my uncles, perhaps? Because I was light-skinned? I wasn’t entirely sure. I was ten; I didn’t know myself. I exhausted so much of my mental energy hoping that a nonblack girl would swallow me into her identity that I never spent much time alone with me and only me. Looking back, they seemed to talk to me more than they did Tanya and Ruby, and both of them were darker than a brown paper bag. But could it have been because I made more of an effort to grovel? All of my closest friends were older girls of color who weren’t trying out or interested in cheerleading at all. The more I invested myself into becoming like those white cheerleaders, the less mental space I devoted to my actual friends. If I could not be a white girl, then I could mimic one until anyone who saw me would think that my skin was a costume. I thought myself very ugly. I had ill-fitting glasses, a large overbite, plaited hair that made me look like a kindergartner, and an adult woman’s body. I felt caught between two worlds, that of children and that of grown-up folks. I dreamed that cheerleading would provide a middle ground where I could be popular, envied by children and adults alike for my youth, fortitude, and beauty. These white girls were well aware of their beauty and how much power it yielded. They wore their hair in high ponytails that swung whenever they moved. They discussed who had the most tubes of lip gloss, whose butt looked the biggest in Limited Too jeans, who shopped where for bras. There were of course factions, and enemies swung the word “slut” around because there was no worse insult to direct towards another girl. Unlike with white girls, whose repeated mudslinging seemed quite boring and nonchalant, black girls’ conflicts were more directed and violent. If you were talking behind someone else’s back, that person confronted you. If that person was bigger or more popular than you, you either surrendered through crying (i.e., self-abnegation) or apologizing. But even then, a fight was still a possibility. In our world, the most immediate solution to silencing someone was through physical force. Many black girls, including myself, thought of our strength through physical force as a way of protecting ourselves. White girls weren’t expected to be strong; they didn’t need to be. They were already supported, cared for, and coddled enough. Fighting, for them, would have been extravagant—what did they have to prove?
The night of tryouts arrived. I had been practicing in my room every night; my mother encouraged me, told me that I “had it in the bag,” that they would be a fool not to let me in. When she was a child, she didn’t make her cheerleading squad, but then one girl fell ill and she was accepted into the elite. I felt like I was a legacy, that I was destined to follow in her footsteps by becoming a cheerleader and, in the process, I would become beautiful through whiteness. I don’t know what fueled my mother’s desire to become a cheerleader. I never asked because I was afraid that in turn she would ask me the same.
Families lined the elementary school hallways with beach chairs, blankets, and picnic baskets full of food because they knew that tryouts and decisions would all happen in one night. The judges were the cheerleading coaches, those who also taught us all the vocabulary, jumps, and dance routines. My mother and I held hands to pray that God would hold my fear at bay. I knew the dance steps. I’d practiced them while walking downstairs for breakfast and dinner. I’d practiced them on the way to the bus stop. My smile was congealed on my face; I was excited before my moment began. My confidence was so overwhelming, so filling, that I refused to touch any food or drink before it was my turn.
Every white girl walked out of the cafeteria where the tryouts were held with a smile on her face. She hugged her mother, high-fived her, or simply walked over to her spot by some wall in the hallway to relax until the moment of truth. When my name was called, I walked in with two other white girls and the Afro-Latina. The judges, all white women, smiled and welcomed us. Their hands gripped their pens, ink bleeding onto their evaluation sheets. I don’t recall breathing. Once the music began, I danced our routine almost like I was a programmed machine. I just went, my body moving and cutting through the air. I made eye contact to let them know that I was there, and they watched me. When it was time to judge our jumps, the Afro-Latina was the first to go. We were standing on opposite sides of the cafeteria, with the white girls couched in between us. Our order was not intentional, but nevertheless it was significant to me; we stood as poles for the white girls to remain at the center.
The Afro-Latina faltered on her jumps. She forgot what one of them was and stood there with a surly look on her face. She jutted her right hip and began to roll her tongue in her mouth. Oh no, I thought. I knew those gestures well. I’d seen them in my mother and aunt when they were fed up. She was returning to being a girl of color. When she forgot her steps, she remembered who she was in that room full of white women. She was paralyzed.
“Do you want to try again?” one judge asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. She was not upset. In fact, her expression spoke of exhaustion. There was nothing left for her to do, so she stood there and we moved on.
I knew that I had to be better, not only because I wanted to be a cheerleader, but also to signal to the judges that I wasn’t like her. We might both have had light brown skin and the same wooly-textured hair, but we were not the same. As I’d expected, I did my jumps without so much as wobbling when my feet returned to the ground. I walked out of that cafeteria feeling as airy and euphoric as the white girls. I couldn’t feel my actual body whatsoever. I imagined, I almost believed, that my body had no restrictions. I was limitless, white.
Hours passed as we waited for the results. We had gotten to the tryouts at around six p.m. and didn’t hear anything until about nine, ten o’clock. The cafeteria doors opened again, but this time, the judges were coming out rather than inviting girls in. The entire hallway was silent. I could hear my heartbeat thumping in my ear and an incessant ringing in the other. They called names one by one: white, white, white, white, white, white, white, white, white, white, white, white, white. White girls hugging their white mothers. White girls surprised at the results, covering their mouths and squealing, “Oh my God.” White girls surprised, white women judges holding back their excitement for their new, and yet old, team. The one judge speaking stopped, and they returned to the cafeteria.
I blinked and a tear rolled down my cheek. One became several. Several became innumerable. My mother spoke with Tanya’s mother and they deliberated going to the administration to “talk about this.” I did not know what “this” meant. Ruby, throughout it all, smiled and gathered her things. As for the Afro-Latina, I don’t believe she and her family stayed until the end. My mother tried giving me a CD to cheer me up, but I could not help but think that something was terribly wrong, not so much with the judges but with me. Maybe I didn’t smile enough. I didn’t recall smiling, but that’s because I had been trying to focus. Maybe I was too fat. Maybe I wasn’t beautiful. That had to be it. Because I was not a cheerleader, I felt like I was sentenced to eternal ugliness.
I got over the results within a few days because I had another kind of drama unraveling in my life. One of my closest neighborhood friends and I were fighting. I do not remember what it was about, but it had to have been something stupid, because what was that serious at ten and eleven years old? The Internet was starting to get popular—more of our fighting happened over AOL instant messaging than in person. We might have typed curse words to each other, talked about each other’s hair and clothes, but there was one comment that brought my fingers to a standstill: “Do you know why you didn’t make the cheerleading squad, Morgan? It’s because they don’t accept monkeys like you on the team.”
This “friend” was Filipina, and several shades darker than me. I had heard rumors that her family was racist and this was why I was never invited into her house, but I’d never thought she was infected, too. After all, she wore fitted hats, dated black guys, and knew the lyrics to more rap songs than I did. She moved through black spaces with so much fluidity that we accepted her as one of our own. But when she called me a monkey, I thought back to the first of those nightly prep sessions. There was no amount of practice or smiling that could obscure the inescapable problem of me being a black girl. Did those white girls look at me as a monkey who had to be treated with artificial cordiality so that I wouldn’t act wild or aggressive? Did I transform into the character of a monkey when I performed in front of those white women, subtly begging for their acceptance without questioning it? Suddenly, I understood more about race than I ever had. It didn’t matter if my “friend” was wrong. I didn’t make the team, and therefore, she knew that I was inferior. Unlike her, who ingratiated herself with black people and moved into our spaces, I could not perform well enough for white girls to claim me as their own. It wasn’t simply because I wasn’t good enough to make the team. I couldn’t make the team because I was not human. And when I looked at myself in the mirror, when I kissed my mother good night, this feeling of being the monkey, nonhuman, haunted me. I should’ve known my place. I should’ve known that when I was around my black friends, I was who I was, and when I was in a white space, I wasn’t afforded humanity. And maybe that was what I was really trying out for, not a cheerleading squad, a chance to be a person. Did I smile to be less threatening? Did I dance to prove that if I kept moving, I could avoid being confined by their preconceived notions of who I was? Just what exactly needed validation?
When I was thirteen years old, my mother’s boyfriend, a revered and well-liked Rowan University professor and psychologist who we liked to call “Z” for short, rose from our leather sofa and bent down on one knee in front of her. I heard my mother’s surprised scream of delight and that was it because I was already on my way back upstairs to hide. I’m still not proud of what I did. She had survived two previous marriages, one marred by physical and verbal abuse and the other by cheating, and a jilting. She deserved all the love in the world, yet I refused to watch it blossom because I knew that my own life in Atlantic County was about to be over.
Z had tenure, but my mother could conduct her real estate business from anywhere. It was only logical that we move closer to the university. After Z proposed and my mother accepted, my older sister Patricia found me upstairs in the bathroom.
I couldn’t look her in the face as I asked her, “Do we have to move?”
“Yeah,” she replied weakly. “But it will be okay. You’ll be fine.”
I wanted to believe her, but this move would not affect her. She was eight years older, had graduated from high school at sixteen and moved out of the house shortly afterwards. As my mother and I packed all of our belongings away in preparation for our move to Williamstown, a suburban neighborhood less than fifteen minutes away from Rowan’s campus, I yearned for her companionship.
My mother tried all she could to get me excited about Williamstown. We drove past our new home in a residential lot. It was noticeably bigger than our old one, complete with four bedrooms, a conjoined bathroom to every room, and a large basement. I saw some cute boys hanging around Main Street and that made my heart flicker, but that flame of excitement disappeared as quickly as it came.
Egg Harbor Township, where I had previously lived, and Williamstown had similarities. In the towns themselves, there were the usual bowling alleys and movie theaters. Families resided there for years, and their children almost always came back to perpetuate the cycle. But Egg Harbor Township at least had Atlantic City nearby, and from more rural Williamstown, with its Heritage’s Dairy store, acres upon acres of farmland, and common sightings of wild turkeys, you had to go a long way to get to Philadelphia. And Williamstown was far less racially and ethnically diverse than Egg Harbor Township.
I was more warmly received by the boys when I started eighth grade at Williamstown Middle School. Immediately, I latched onto and befriended a Colombian named Caterine—one of only a handful of Latinx in the school—who was in many of my classes and showed me the ropes. As she shuffled me along different hallways, the black boys did double takes, sometimes going as far as impeding our path to introduce themselves to us before saying one last hello when we parted ways. I was the new girl, and in this small town any novelty was exciting. Lunch came around, and I was informed through whispers that I was “fine.” The speed at which a teenager’s tongue moves could compete with the speed of light.
Caterine didn’t ask me about where I’d moved from, how many siblings I had, or what music I liked. Instead, she would pass notes in class, asking me if I had a boyfriend or whether I was a virgin. When we went to gym, she gossiped with the black girls about who slept with whom over the summer and whose pussy smelled like tuna. I was both revolted and intrigued. Who knew that thirteen-year-old girls could talk like such grown women? One time during lunch, I was teased for not knowing what an orgasm was, as though that were something I should’ve known at that age—like knowing how babies are made. In Williamstown, sex was more palpable, and I could feel its presence like a gnat buzzing near my eardrums. A girl outright told me, “Dick is like food. Once you have it, it’s a must,” and this was before she accused me of wanting the guy who’d taken her virginity the summer before, influencing her friends to ostracize me. But this paled in comparison to the harassment I’d experience from a new student the following year.
Jamirah moved to Williamstown from Virginia the summer before our freshman year of high school, and at first she seemed just as mild-mannered and meek as I was. The most popular girl in our year was Tiana, who was two years older than everyone else, and one of the most unapologetically black girls I’d ever met. During our industrial science class, she would often go to the nearest mirror, take out a toothbrush from her purse, scrape gel onto it, and smooth down her edges. Her laugh could be heard from one end of the room to the other, and she expressed her excitement by clapping her hands. On the flip side, whenever she was disgusted, she pursed her lips, rolled her eyes, and jerked her neck. I was always nice to Tiana because that was my natural disposition and also because I was afraid of her. Everyone was—hence her popularity.
Although Jamirah and I were both soft-spoken, Tiana must have recognized something in Jamirah that she didn’t see in me. Maybe it was because Jamirah immediately started following Tiana around, and consequently Tiana swept her up quickly. Soon, Jamirah became just as boisterous and brash as Tiana and her crew. It didn’t bother me much in the beginning because I wasn’t black like them. They were the kind of “black” that I was not supposed to be, a.k.a. those black people, the ghetto ones, the ones who made the rest of “us” look bad. My mother taught me to suppress those habits that Tiana was known for. As opposed to the other black girls, who wore graphic design T-shirts and hip-hugger jeans, my mother dressed me in cardigans, argyle socks, and plaid skirts so that I would “look the part” at all times.
Tiana and most of her group were in remedial and college-prep classes, and I was on the honors and advanced placement track, working in courses where I was one out of only a handful of black kids, and that is a generous estimate. The worst times for me were the periods when I wasn’t distanced from those who were not on the same academic trajectories: lunch and gym. I hated these egalitarian periods most because they were when I received the most abuse from Jamirah and, to lesser extents, from her friends.
At lunch, she’d yell at Tiana to draw attention to my neck or lack thereof while I was literally sitting right across from her at the same table. She made fun of my wardrobe, my intelligence, my speech, my looks—any and everything that made me a person: “Look at her. She ain’t got no neck. What the fuck you got on? The fuck is that shit?” I was always afraid that at gym, she would push me face-first into one of the lockers and start a fight out of boredom. Both she and Tiana frequently made idle threats about wanting to jump somebody while we changed, our half-naked bodies further emphasizing just how susceptible we all were to an ambush.
It was a kind of meanness that I have never seen matched. I did not know why Jamirah hated me so much. We didn’t like the same guys, didn’t frequent the same places after school, and didn’t speak much to each other. But perhaps this in itself was the reason. I did not want to be boisterous and brash and assert myself in the throes of the black community at high school. I maintained my timidity, preferring to be invisible so that I could commit to my studies and escape from Williamstown in four years. I confided in a few friends about Jamirah’s relentless bullying, and they urged me to retaliate, but I was too afraid of the consequences. If I swung on her—even though I’d never fought before—I’d get suspended, and that would mean that I’d get a bad reputation with teachers. I wouldn’t get those stellar recommendations I needed for college. I dreamed of getting an MD from Columbia and someday taking over my father’s medical practice. I feared I would be categorized as “one of them”: those black girls who were on the bad path in life and would end up pregnant before graduating high school, the black girls who would probably go as far as community college before settling for a waitressing job at a nearby Applebee’s.
Even in middle school, the black female body was always a target for destruction. Violence was a legitimate way to resolve arguments. Talking was not a conclusion but rather a trigger. You fought someone who talked badly about you or someone who wanted your man. In other words, you fought to maintain your space in an environment where your place was already on the margins. For what black girl wants to be even more invisible than she thinks she already is? Fighting was a way to assert that you were present and in motion. Fighting brought you respect that institutions refused to give you. I thought I wanted to be invisible. I wanted those institutions to respect me, and I believed I could earn it through silence, through assimilation. But my path of nonviolence only led to a cascade of madness.
I didn’t need to lie in bed with my curtains closed because whatever light permeated my windows could do nothing to dilute the darkness welling in my spirit. I spent many nights hidden underneath my covers, hot tears streaming down my puffy cheeks, unable to voice my pain even in private. In my head, I replayed my daily humiliation in front of all my classmates, and there was no sign of it letting up. I thought of no other escape than to commit suicide, but despite having called the local suicide hotline, I had no concrete plans for flinging myself out of this world. I just hoped that I would one day disappear and find myself on a transcendental plane where there was no more pain and humiliation. Secretly, I envisioned that all the tears I cried would drain my body and my mom would eventually find my desiccated corpse in my bed. I prayed to God to take my misery away from me, and my prayers became more impassioned the longer the harassment continued.
After realizing that my despondent behavior was not symptomatic of PMS—since it dragged on for weeks—my mother ultimately found out what ailed me. She spoke to the Williamstown High School administration about my problems and they did nothing, chalking up the bullying as a rite of passage. She then suggested that I transfer to a private school but I was too afraid to start over again. Since I could not be protected by the higher powers, one of my sisters offered to come to the school in sneakers, ready to fight Jamirah. I rejected both suggestions because I wasn’t entirely lonely. I had a few friends, one of them a boy named Dennis, who told me that Jamirah’s envy was the reason she bullied me. Dennis was one of my closest friends; he had moved to Williamstown the same year as I did. We lived only five minutes from each other and spoke for hours through the telephone on the weekends, talking about anything and watching shows together. He was my saving grace, and I figured it was better to suffer in high school with him by my side than to transfer to another school and start all over again. Not to mention I thought the change in schools, along with classes and extracurriculars, would make it difficult for me to get into a top college.
I had moved to another lunch table to sit with upperclassmen to avoid Jamirah at all costs. One of my friends called me back over, and Jamirah eviscerated me with such panache. She smiled, flicked her hand at me, and asked, “Why you talkin’ ’bout me? What’s good?” I stuttered through it all, explaining how I had other friends and that she was mean to me, which led me to leave the table. Finally, Jamirah stood up from the table and ended with, “I don’t give a fuck about you. So you can kiss my ass,” and protruded her ass before sashaying to another side of the room.
The friend who betrayed my trust smiled and sucked her tongue. She said, “You betta’ say something back! Don’t let her get away with it!” I assumed my friend must’ve told Jamirah why I moved, for how else could she have known? I left quietly, on the verge of a breakdown. I spent the next period silently crying while taking a test, the social studies teacher hovering over me but never asking if I was okay.
A sick game was played: I was tested on whether I could assert myself. I was not only supposed to “buck up,” or be aggressive, but also prepare to fight. Jamirah pushed me to leave that lunch table. She pushed me out of that space. Although I found another one, the underlying point was that I needed to reclaim my original space even if I had no intention to return. Instead, I cried and fled to another table with a shattered sense of self. I hated Jamirah, I hated my friend, and I hated every single black girl who laughed at me that day.
I blamed myself for not saying what I’d really wanted to say to Jamirah. I’d wanted to narrow my eyes at her, smirk, and say, No, I don’t give a fuck about you. I’m prettier than you, I have longer hair than you, I’m smarter than you, and I’m going to be more successful than you. You know it. I know it. Teachers know it, and there is nothing that you can do to change what’s already been set up for your life. You’ll hit me because you already know you failed and every time you see me, you see the reflection of your failure. That’s why you’re mad, and frankly, I would be, too, if I were you. But thankfully, I’m not.
I considered myself to be the bigger person because my passiveness had afforded Jamirah power that she would never have outside of Williamstown High School. I thought that because of the tone of her voice, the profaneness of her mouth, and her lackadaisical attitude towards school, she was going to end up a statistic, whereas I—if I remained respectable with my honors and advanced placement courses, preppy clothes, and clean hair—was set to bypass all of that. But I also regretted not doing more to defend myself. I entertained the thought of calling the police on Jamirah, perhaps even lying and claiming that she had put her hands on me or she was a threat to my safety. The officer would take one look at me and then at her and tackle her. I would watch with glee as her body was pinned to the ground by an officer two to three times her size. It would not have mattered to me that this officer was protecting me not because I was afraid, but rather because, out of the two of us, I was the closest approximation to whiteness and its rules. I wanted her to be humiliated as she had humiliated me, and if I could not do it myself, I would rely on the institutions to do the job for me.
It was a violent anti-black-girl fantasy of which I am, almost a decade later, beyond ashamed. We were two kinds of black girls raging for dominance and assertion. I wanted us to get along, and I thought that such harmony was contingent upon white acceptance. I hated black girls like Jamirah who did not conform to respectability politics; I hated their loud voices, their cadences, how they gelled their baby hairs with toothbrushes, their eye rolls, their neck rolls, the way they clapped their hands in exhortation, their tongue-sucking in disgust. They didn’t like me because I did conform. Jamirah relied on that validation from within, and I from without.
A few months later, I lost my Dooney & Bourke wristlet, which was a status symbol for white girls back in the mid-aughts, and I panicked. The wristlet contained both my wallet and cell phone, and I was sure that I would never see either one again. I checked in every single one of my classes, spoke to teachers, scanned every hallway, but nothing. When I finally went down to the main office to call my mother to pick me up from school since I had missed the buses, I found my wristlet—with my wallet and cell phone still inside—behind the receptionist’s desk. Someone was kind enough to bring it there, and I soon found out that that someone was Jamirah and Tiana. Blindsided is an understatement. I felt as small as the wristlet itself. Why would the two girls who’d made my freshman year a living hell be so kind as to return my valuables? Perhaps because, regardless of what they felt towards me, those valuables were mine. I imagined all the people who might have passed by my belongings, all of those who left them there. But neither Tiana nor Jamirah was going to allow anyone, not even themselves, to take from another black girl. In a strange twist of events, they looked out for me. I thanked them, but I wished that I could’ve done more.
Not too long afterwards, Jamirah stopped me in the hallway at our freshman semiformal, to tell me how beautiful I looked. I thanked her; there was nothing else to say. By this time, I had found my outlet for my anger: writing. The allure of creating a new world in a better and more peaceful universe, where I could have new friends, was unexpected, and powerful.
Jamirah ended up leaving Williamstown after freshman year. Years later, I found her on Facebook and discovered that she’d moved back to Virginia and had two children. I could still sense her bravado in the way she pursed her lips for mirror selfies, and I smiled. I thought about reaching out to her to say hello, but I never went through with it because I didn’t know what to say. Maybe I could ask her for an apology, but then again, perhaps her returning my Dooney & Bourke purse and complimenting me on my looks was exactly that. Maybe I could apologize for looking down on her—I’d never said I did, but I knew she knew. Maybe I could wish her happiness, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted that for her either. The pain she inflicted on me hasn’t entirely gone away, just as I haven’t entirely forgiven myself for what I felt towards Jamirah and her crew. I’ve never wanted to return to high school, even in my memory. This is the only time I’ve written about it, and I did so because it felt important—this is what black femaleness is, or at least part of it; this is the violence we hurl at one another.
I didn’t want to be friends with Jamirah, and I’m sure she didn’t want to be friends with me. I suppose all I wanted to do was remind her that she did not break me. And maybe I would wind up thanking her because if she never teased me, then I would never have discovered my true passion for writing. I would also thank her for teaching me how to assert myself more because years later, once I went to college, I became more assertive. My behavior might not have totally matched Jamirah’s, but my passion was just as obvious, if not more so.
I am terrified by the thought of raising a black daughter who will also have to fend for herself. At times, I wonder how I managed to survive. Something happened to the black girl, the young black woman, that I was. I fell into the chasm between what I thought I was, what I wanted to be, and how others saw me. I still have not been able to reconcile these selves with much clarity, and fueled by the vestiges of this trauma, this poisonous place of insecurity and inflated self-importance, I write for that girl, for that young woman; I write for me now; and I write for you. Because a monkey is what I never was, but a black woman is what I had to become.
Growing up as a black woman is different. It prepares you to remember that you have to navigate two worlds. In our predominantly white world, you will never be white. I’d assumed that playing by its rules would insulate and distance me from other black girls; I’d depended on white supremacist tricks to make me feel as if I was better than them. Although I never confronted Jamirah with these lies, I feel just as reprehensible for housing them in my heart.
As an adult woman, I can feel Jamirah in my voice whenever I get mad. That agile cadence, that unparalleled wit, which renders my profanity as poetic as lines from a Shakespearean sonnet, rhythm and all. I know now where that anger, that primal need to make myself known, comes from. Belonging to the world of black women demands strength, on-your-feet wit, and aggression, because space for and by ourselves is small. You either assert yourself or learn to do so through humiliation, exposing who you really are: just another black girl fighting to exist.
After that lunchtime confrontation with Jamirah, I could never go back to being the black girl I once was. Her words corroded me, and that rust birthed a harder person, one able to see weaknesses in others and strategize about how to keep myself protected by any means necessary. But that corrosion also reminds me to check myself whenever I feel like my lighter skin color, or education, or behavior gives me some kind of inherent superiority over other black women. Basically, I needed her. I believe we needed each other.
This book is the balm to my soul and my gift to you. The desire to be the cheerleader while being seen as the monkey, the strain to be passive over the demand to be aggressive, the bullying, the conflict—all of this takes place on the battleground of being born both black and female. We cannot afford to believe that any part of ourselves gives us an edge over another. Ultimately, we are all fighting. I intend to fight those on the outside rather than those on the inside who are just as victimized as I am. I cannot divorce either part of my identity, and I recognize now, as I excavate my most painful memories, that to try to do so would be to understate their impact on my psychology.
There is equal value in race, gender, and class, for each trait refracts a different light onto another, which is why I write. Someone may have read these two anecdotes from my childhood and believe that this is what happens to all little girls. It’s true that we are all victims within a patriarchal society and we must fight. But the fight to empower all women under the veil of feminism has historically and presently centered white women. The word “all” switches to whiteness as the default—this is also why I write. When black women speak about themselves to those who are not black, somehow our interlocutors get offended that we dare speak about how both race and gender affect us. Somehow, our acknowledgment of our blackness and womanhood causes others’ brains to short-circuit because they have never been encouraged to focus on the type of person who has been dehumanized and neglected for centuries. The only way many can make sense of us is by looping us together with white women because their whiteness, their illumination, provides some kind of intellectual relief that erases black women all over again.
And to that I say this one-sided feminism is dead. This book is not about all women, but it is meant for all women, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary. It is for you. You. Our blackness doesn’t distance us from other women; however, it does distinguish us, and this requires further understanding. At the same time, my story is not a one-size-fits-all tale about black womanhood. This book is not your resolution but the continuation of your education, or maybe the beginning. We deserve to be the center; our expansive stories are worthy of being magnified for all their ugliness, beauty, mundaneness, and grandeur. I will not baby you. Instead, I will force you to keep your eyes on me and, in turn, us, and see the seams of everyday life that you have been privileged to ignore but that have wrecked us. Some of us are still wrecked. I am admittedly so in some ways, which you will know about soon enough. But in many other ways, our community has been strengthened and that’s why I am here and you are continuing to read my words.
And to that I say, welcome.
Let us begin.
2) How to Be Docile
- When your black girl child exits the womb and you hear her loud wailing, savor and remember it for as long as you can. That’s the loudest the world will ever allow her to be in a room where multiple people are present.
- If she’s ugly, hide her face with a lace-trimmed handkerchief and tell passersby that she’s sleeping. If she’s beautiful, hand her off to strangers so that they can talk about how pretty her skin is or how many curls they can count on top of her small head.
- When she’s approaching six or seven months, where it’s time for her to start speaking, teach her “Dada” first so that she knows that whatever comes out of her mouth is a symbol with a point of reference and that reference always returns to man. Man is the establishment and system, and don’t ever let her forget it.
- When that black girl child can learn to form full sentences, teach her early on never to ask questions, especially if the interlocutor is a man. She must learn submission early if she is to succeed in life. Don’t allow her eyebrows to raise when she sees the women in her community laugh and call the boys “fresh” when they question things. Smack her face if you must. An emotionally inexpressive black girl child is one who keeps herself alive.
- If she relaxes her posture and her legs begin to spread, hit both kneecaps with an open palm or the back of a pan so that she associates opening herself up with pain.
- If she spends too much time running after the boys or allowing them to chase after her, call her a fast-tailed girl even if she won’t know what that means. Remember: she’s not allowed to ask questions. And frankly, she’s better off that way. Ambiguity will undo her sooner rather than later.
- When she bleeds for the first time, tell her how inherently dirty she is and that what she is down there is nothing but a cesspool of stench and waste rather than a channel that brings forth life and takes in pleasure. Tell her that she’s a woman even if she has no hair besides that on her scalp and arms or no sprouting breasts because the weight of that word “woman” makes her feel as if she can tip the scales. It’s not about what she feels but what she is made to think that will do her in.
- You can pinpoint the exact moment when she begins harboring sexual feelings for the opposite sex: her stare lingers a little longer than normal; her voice tapers off while she shakes her head and tucks her bottom lip into her mouth; her blushing, her lack of eye contact. Tell her what happens to black girls who want to be “fast.” Tell her that they will get pregnant and never achieve anything. Tell her that the boy will leave her and that he won’t give her the respect of his pants hitting the floor when it’s time to do what grown folks do. Tell her, tell her, tell her. And before you know it, the next time she so much as lays eyes on another man, her vaginal muscles will tighten. Her opening will produce an extra layer of skin as a fortress so that no man can get in, and if he does, that in and of itself is her punishment for not keeping it tight.
- Instruct her that being complimented on her looks is much better than being complimented on her brains. Everyone wants a black woman who makes him or her feel at ease. Her face is the easiest way to comfort people, and if she isn’t pretty, then her silence is even more necessary, for it is better to be present in the room than never in it to begin with, and she must get in, even if she cannot participate. She must access whatever it is that they have by any means necessary.
- If she tells you that a man calls her pretty, pour yourself a glass of Merlot because men don’t give compliments easily, and then figure out a way to get her vaginal muscles to unwind themselves. The only thing worse than being a black woman is being a single black woman, and it’s time to reel a man in. Black is ideal, but whoever will have her works, especially if she’s doing well professionally. Ain’t too much of her kind up at the top, and love is love anyway. The only thing worse than a successful black woman is a single and successful black woman.
- Tell her to let the man be the man. Don’t argue with him. Don’t share an opinion unless he asks her to. Let him be right even when he’s wrong. If she takes care of him in this way, he will take care of her.
- Tell her that when he’s ready to make love, she should lie on her back and spread her legs as far as they can go. She’ll remember you beating her kneecaps with open palms and backs of pans, but at least this will distract him, breaking through her skin to find a home inside of her. If she screams out in pain or cries, he’ll probably ask her if she wants him to stop, although this is not what he actually wants. Urge her to not make him stop or slow down. Instead, tell her to focus her attention someplace else, even if that place is unreal. Let her think of Elysian fields where black girls receive more mercy. She can stay there until he comes. Then after that, she should either rub his chest, watch him as he rests, or bring him some food from the kitchen, before he wants to do it all over again.
- Once he decides that she doesn’t excite him anymore but is too comfortable to officially break up with her, he’ll cheat on her and you must blame it all on her. There must’ve been something that she was doing wrong to not keep him around, and she better make things right so that she won’t embarrass you.
- If they do decide to get back together, she’ll shrink even further. The next time you see her, you’ll mistake her for your own shadow for her light will be gone.
- When she finally enters those prized spaces that you told her about as a child, she’ll have everything she’ll need to succeed: looks, deference to man, suppressed sexuality, silence. A good ol’ twenty-first-century mammy, ready to give, ready to serve. She will be the talk of the town, the new Negro socialite, the one whom countless black girls must emulate if they want to get anywhere and have a man on their arm while doing it.
- After a few years, you will notice some other things about her: she’s getting physically smaller until she needs a booster seat to sit at the table. Her man can’t enjoy fucking her because he feels like a pedophile, but he feels too comfortable to leave her so he cheats on her again and with more than one woman this time around.
- Her voice gets higher- and higher-pitched until the register she reaches is so high that no human ear can detect what she’s saying, not even her own.
- Without her body ever reaching orgasm, without ever housing a penis that recognized that her vagina was not a ground for domination, the only hole that hasn’t closed up down there is the one through which she urinates. Neglect will do that to the body.
- Soon, she won’t be able to move. Doctors cannot diagnose her as comatose simply because she can’t speak when spoken to. They believe she can still feel; she simply cannot move. Perfect, you think. The less she moves, the more mobile she can be. People will remember just how comfortable she made them feel, and they will take pity on her.
- But they don’t. Her name rings a bell, they snap their fingers to try to conjure the letters of her name, but they ultimately give up and return to eating their watercress sandwiches or cheese and charcuterie. They do not remember her name or how she made them feel. They blame it on her not speaking up enough when she was around. Her body collects dust. She stops menstruating. She stops urinating. She does not speak. She cannot eat. You are waiting for her to die, but not sorrowfully because this was the plan all along. Black girl children aren’t supposed to live; they’re supposed to exist. When she dies, you know you should not mourn for her because now that she’s dead, she lives more expansively than ever before. Where there is no man, there is no world that can make her feel less-than. Yet you do mourn for her because maybe it was not her time to go. Maybe there was something else that you could’ve done to make her shrink but not die, as if one can happen without the other.
- Nevertheless, you fold back into the community, where you teach other black girls the same ritual but with more fine-tuning. You’re sure that you’ll get it right this time. The world forgets the former black girl child when they accept another token who whets their palate like a new flavor of the month. The man finds another woman, and he makes love to her with all his clothes off, pants and boxers hitting the ground, watch on the nightstand, and that woman comes over and over again. When he closes his eyes the moment after orgasming, he sees your child’s face and silently thanks her for preparing him to be the man that he is today.
- This is how a black girl becomes docile.
3) The Stranger at the Carnival
I loved amusement parks as a kid. For native New Jerseyans, it’s basically a tradition to go to Morey’s Piers and Raging Waters Water Park in Wildwood as soon as the weather is sunny. Until I was about eleven years old, I was too afraid to ride the roller coasters. I’d choose to go inside the fun houses instead. The large distorted mirrors would make me feel like I was an exaggerated version of myself, or even someone altogether different. The first things to grow enormously larger were my breasts; then it would be my hips and finally my butt. I was already a well-endowed kid, so there wasn’t much make-believe there. The fantasy came from watching little white girls giggle and whisper in each other’s ears as they posed in front of these mirrors, puckering their lips, leaning forward and placing their hands on their knees so that their butts pushed out. Their curvy reflections resembled my female relatives, and these girls loved it. They would laugh at how ridiculous they looked.
And as soon as they walked past the mirrors, they would go back to being stick thin and tall.
The face cutouts were another form of entertainment. I’d see kids, both black and white, whose parents had coaxed them into sticking their heads through the holes so that they could take pictures above the painted bodies on the board. These cutouts were always on top of white bodies. I never participated. Frankly, I thought it looked ridiculous: my black head on top of a white body. It was a deformity that I could not forget about in the land of make-believe. Since my mind couldn’t fantasize about this possibility, there was no way I was going to make my body reach a state of being, that being whiteness, if my mind wasn’t already there. After the cheerleader incident, that “state” had been marked off with barricade tape. Besides, if I wanted to transform, I was going to do so entirely. Anything less than that was not worth the trouble.
One of my fondest childhood memories is from when I was three years old. It was evening. A group of black women, including my mother, either stood or sat at the table in our kitchen. There was an almost mystical glow emanating from the overhead light. One of my mother’s longtime friends put me in a booster seat and, with a thin comb, began to divide my thick hair into sections and slather a white substance on it from the roots to the tips. When I was little, aside from my nose, my hair was the only evidence of my race. I barely had any melanin, and I burned in the sun; I was so much lighter than everyone else in my family and church community that people joked that I was the milkman’s baby or the daughter of a white man. But my hair was black, obsidian like ink, and grew into a massive afro.
At first, this application of what I later found out was a perm seemed okay.1 The product was cool upon my scalp, but then I began to twist and turn in my seat because that coolness turned into tingling and that tingling became a burn. I started to cry. I was immediately taken to the sink, my head placed underneath the faucet. Once the water hit my head, my afro flattened into loose strands that I could see rotating around one other in the stream. My mother’s friend ran her fingers through my hair and I hissed, noting how sensitive my scalp had become. What happened next is hazy, but it doesn’t really matter because that night began a tradition of more than a decade.
I grew up learning about “good” and “bad” hair. Natural hair was not a style that I saw as a child, unless you count the biracial, light-skinned black girls whose midback- to waist-length curly hair turned bone straight in the pool. I was told that I had “good” hair even though my hair was just as thick, if not thicker, than that of other girls, maybe because I am light-skinned and my complexion somehow mitigated the thickness of my afro.
That white beauty was the ideal was never formally taught to me. I learned it through warnings and observation. I noticed my white female classmates seemed more invested in the latest lip gloss colors than in their hair. Meanwhile, my eyes and those of my black female classmates surveilled whose hair might be fake, whose hair might be real. If a black girl’s hair didn’t touch her shoulders, someone might have easily called her “bald-headed” as an insult. If I impulsively wanted to jump in the pool, my mother would tell me, “You’re not a white girl, Morgan. You can’t just jump in the pool without letting me know.” So I began to pay more attention to the white girls I knew who could just jump into the pool and reemerge looking like bathing suit models or extras on Baywatch. They didn’t have to sleep with bonnets or scarves. They rolled their head around on pillows and allowed anyone to play with their tresses.
In the evenings, during Nick at Nite, I watched Marcia Brady of The Brady Brunch excessively brushing in front of the vanity mirror in the bedroom she shared with Jan and Cindy. Every day, on my TV, Marcia would wake up, but Carol Brady would never yell from downstairs that she was coming up so that she could do Marcia’s hair. That practice was strangely missing, planting one of the first seeds of difference in my head. My hair care regime was much more strenuous, and demanded more of my time, than Marcia’s.
The painstaking effort directed towards one’s hair is taught incredibly early, and it never lets up. Many mothers choose to plait their daughters’ hair to make it grow quicker and then, around grade school age or so, perm it to see its true length. From the age of three to around fifteen, I received a perm every four to six weeks. I started to go to a salon when I was around eight or nine years old. The hairdresser would apply the perm to my head, and within a matter of minutes, I would complain that it was burning.
“That’s okay, it’s working,” she would always say, and leave the room to take a phone call or eat Chinese or soul food in the sitting area of the salon.
I would clench the handles of my seat and tighten my entire body. My eyes would turn bloodshot, and I could think about nothing else but the pain, which was of a degree that I, to this day, have never experienced in any other situation. I silently repeated to myself, It’s working. It’s working. The burning means that it’s working.
That burning didn’t just affect my scalp. My skull could feel it, too. Every time I was sure that I was going to be injured, but I tried to soothe myself by imagining how pretty I would be once my hair swished and swayed whenever I walked. As soon as the hairdresser returned, I dashed to the sink and rolled my butt around on the cushion in order to get comfortable. When the water hit my scalp, it stung. Each time the hairdresser worked her fingertips through the back of my head, a new scab would appear, and she would admonish me not to scratch my scalp so much in between sessions; then, she said, it wouldn’t burn as much, and new scabs wouldn’t appear on my scalp. I took her advice and patted my head whenever I had an itch, but the scabs still appeared. All of the pain disappeared, though, when my hair was finally dried, trimmed, and flat-ironed. I would stand in front of the large mirror wall in the salon sitting area and twirl around and around, beaming at how my strands flew in the current created by my outstretched arms. This, I thought, was how I was supposed to be. Nothing else would do.
I was obsessed not only with my hair’s straightness, but also with its length. I thought that if I had long hair, not only would I fulfill my beauty’s ultimate potential but I would also elude the restraints of my blackness. I was already mistaken for Dominican and Puerto Rican by Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Besides the white girls, the Latinas were the most sought after in my school. They were often called sexy or hot, and I began to think that these attributes were inherent to their ethnicity. I watched rap video after rap video of black and Latina women dancing and swimming in pools with their hair flowing past their shoulders (not realizing that many of these styles were lace front wigs and weaves). Long hair would seal the deal for me.
Each time I got my hair permed or braided, I asked the hairdresser to show me the length of my hair before she started. One birthday, my eleventh or twelfth, I wished for hair that stopped underneath my breasts before I blew out the candles on my cake. If straightness would draw me closer to purity, length would draw me closer to sexiness, and stretching between these two poles would make me perfect. At the age of eleven or twelve, I stretched only to undo myself.
Now that I have been natural for almost the same amount of time as I was permed, I can better understand the tremendous amount of duress that both black girls and women put themselves under in order to look “good,” whatever that means. The perm is sometimes called “creamy crack,” which is quite charged given the racial and socioeconomic context of America’s crack epidemic and the War on Drugs. It is a widespread misconception that Madam C. J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America, created the perm. She did build an incredibly successful business around a system of scalp cleansers, massaging methods, and petroleum-based ointment applications that black women could use to combat hair loss due to a previously nonexistent black hair care industry, infrequent bathing, and poor diet, but it was actually Garrett Augustus Morgan, an African-American inventor, who accidentally discovered that the solution he used to ease the friction of sewing machines in his tailor shop also smoothed the nap on fabric and straightened hair. He patented G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream and also sold pressing combs and skin bleach.
The root of the word “refined” is “fine,” meaning the absence of impurities or blemishes. The Old English root of the word “white” is “hwit,” meaning “bright, clear, radiant, and fair.” As one of the oldest English surnames, it also means “morally pure.” The term “white” was first recorded in association with fair complexion in 1600—less than twenty years before the official start of slavery in the North American colonies. In 1852, “white” in American English began to pertain to white people, and in 1868, after the publication of Dr. John H. Van Evrie’s White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, “white” pertained to not only white people but also their hegemony over nonwhite people. We are taught to straighten our hair because our hair in its natural state deviates from what white people consider acceptable.
An African-American perm, or hair relaxer, is usually made from sodium hydroxide or guanidine hydroxide. (For white people, the main agent for a perm is ammonium thioglycolate, which is considered the mildest of the three chemical straighteners.) Sodium hydroxide contains such a strong chemical base that it can be used to unclog drains and dissolve cellulose fibers from wood and wastepaper. It can cause second or third degree burns in contact with skin, blindness if eyes are exposed, and gastrointestinal damage if ingested. Now imagine this being slathered on a three-year-old child’s head. Imagine black mothers consulting dermatologists to see whether they can use relaxer on a one-year-old’s head.2
You may consider this to be grotesque. In a sense, it is. But the more significant tragedy is that black women are forced to shoehorn themselves into a model of white female beauty. Many of us—myself included—jeopardized our health by not working out because sweat would mess up our perms. Many of us make fiscally bad decisions, skip a bill or two, in order to keep up with regular perms. When we can’t get perms, we gel our edges and hair to squeeze it back into the biggest ponytail that we can create. We get the rat-tail comb, we get the wide-tooth comb. We get the paddle brush, we get the bristle brush. We get the flat iron, we get the hot comb. We get the bobby pins, we get the barrettes. We get the small rubber bands, we get the wide rubber bands. We get the sponge hair rollers, we get the plastic hair rollers. We get the bonnets, we get the scarves. We get the plastic caps, we get the wraps. We get the gel, we get the Vaseline. We get the water, we get the grease. We eschew swimming in the pool because chlorine damages our hair. (I haven’t swum in over ten years.) If we do get in the pool, we immediately have to wash our hair. We often do not allow others, even black men, to touch our hair. We run our fingers through our hair to see if the naps—or “beadie beads,” as we liked to call them—were beginning to grow, which meant another perm was soon to come. Why? Because black women are conscious of how much our appearances are scrutinized, so we painstakingly put ourselves through these beauty rituals to paradoxically create some kind of peace, to “fit in,” and therefore be left alone.
We need to consider how we talk about black women’s hair. So much cultural scripting happens around our hair, perhaps more than any other place on our bodies. In the 1700s, black women’s hair was categorized as wool, which immediately suggests they are more animal than human. In Old English, “shag” meant “matted hair or wool.” “Nappy,” derived from the word “downy” in the late fifteenth century, is related to “nap,” another bed-related activity. The word “nap” was most likely introduced by Flemish cloth workers, but its Old English cognate means “to pluck” and its Gothic cognate means “to tear.” Somehow, this term, “nap,” which has both sexual and violent implications, became a derogative term for black people’s hair in 1950.
“Kinky” means either “full of twists and coils,” or “sexually perverted.” When we conjure up images of a black woman’s hair growing outward, thick and wild, we are unconsciously likening her hair to the imagery and act of sex, with an undertone of force. This is why there are so many examples throughout history of the desire to tame black women’s hair in any capacity. Even touch becomes political, a narrative of black women’s bodies as spectacles, freak exhibits. It is understandable why a black woman wouldn’t allow anyone who is not black to touch her hair because this petting is a form of that fetishization. But what about those who are also black? In Chris Rock’s Good Hair documentary, an array of black male celebrities express their discontent at not being able to touch a black woman’s hair. Many of them admit that they have never touched their partners’ hair. Touch is a form of intimacy, and for a black woman, to achieve this kind of connection comes with many challenges.
The significance of black women’s hair is nothing new. In many West African cultures, hair possesses a spiritual, aesthetic, and sociocultural importance. During the fifteenth century, many tribes, such as the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba used hairstyles as a communication system through which they carried messages. The comb was a special implement, too. Men would carve symbols into combs that indicated their religion, family history, and class. As Africans were transported to the New World, their hair became defiled by perspiration, blood, sweat, feces, and urine, and so slave traders shaved their heads, justifying this practice for sanitary reasons. However, many writers and researchers believe it was also intended to dehumanize them and strip them of any legacy from their respective cultures.3
When they finally arrived in the New World, Africans had no palm oil, combs, and herbal ointments with which to treat their hair. Instead, they made do with cornmeal and kerosene for scalp cleaners, coffee as a natural dye, and butter to condition. Field slaves especially were not encouraged to invest in hair care, and the women wore scarves for both aesthetic and comfort purposes. But scarves were also enforced as a means of repression. In 1786, Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró of the then-Spanish provinces of Florida and Louisiana, passed restrictions affecting black women, called the tignon laws. These mandated that women of African descent, either enslaved or free, cover their heads with a knotted headdress so that they would not compete with white women in beauty, dress, and manner, or confuse white men who might otherwise make inappropriate advances towards them.
Over three hundred years later, our culture is still grappling with how to control black women’s bodies and identities through their hair. Before 2014, two-strand twists were not accepted in the US Army, Air Force, or Navy. In that same year, both the Army and Air Force decided to remove the words “matted” and “unkempt” from their grooming guidelines. In 2013, the Horizon Science Academy administration in Lorain, Ohio, sent a letter to parents outlining a ban on afro-puffs and small twisted braids. That same year, seven-year-old Tiana Parker of Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was sent home for having dreadlocks because they did not look “presentable” and would “distract from the respectful and serious atmosphere it strives for.” In 2016, the administration of Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky, sent home a list of guidelines mandating that hair be kept “clean and neat at all times” and banning dreadlocks, cornrows, and twists because they are “extreme, distracting, or attention-getting.”4
In pop culture, we don’t take kindly to black women with natural hair. When I was growing up, the only black female characters whom I saw regularly with natural hair were Moesha and Maxine from Living Single, although their hair was always styled in braids, not in an afro or twists.5
When we straighten our hair with chemical products, we are surrendering to the dominant white culture. We do this to appear more docile; we do this to get jobs, move in and out of various social circles. This is not to say that every woman who gets a perm is subjugating herself. For many it is truly an aesthetic choice.
Around age fifteen, I’d had enough of the creamy crack and so I stopped, cold turkey. I didn’t realize until my hair broke off that you cannot quit any drug cold turkey. You have to be weaned off it. I hid my hair’s damage with braids, weaves, ponytail clips, and full wigs. I flinch now at photos from that time. My thick hair puffed out from my scalp underneath straight dark brown hair. Anyone could see where my real hair ended and the weave began. In the summer, the difference was far worse. If I flat-ironed the hair left out of the weave, I had to make sure I didn’t make too sharp of a movement in windy weather, or engage in too much activity, because my hair would puff out again. I wore wigs that aged me, but at least my hair then was entirely straight, an ideal I was still chasing; I could be less picky about the length. Braids gave me length but not straightness. In both cases, I was never satisfied because I never fully accepted what came naturally out of my own scalp. It was not worth adding onto what brought me shame; no genuine happiness could come from any extension of my hair.
In the summer of 2015, news broke that Rachel Dolezal, the president of the NAACP Spokane chapter and former professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, had been masquerading as a black woman when she was, in fact, born to two white parents. Dolezal predicated much of her racial identity on outward appearances. She wore bronze foundation and traditionally African-American hairstyles, such as micro braids and kinky wigs, in her effort to “be” a black woman. When asked about her race, Dolezal first said, “I don’t understand that question,” and in a later interview, she said, “I wouldn’t say that I’m African-American, but I would say that I’m black.” And then she explained she was “transracial,” which is not only bullshit but an insult to people of color who are not afforded the privilege of a malleable identity. I do not condone what Dolezal did. I abhor it, actually. But interestingly enough, she caused me to turn inward, to consider my experiences, my looks, my ideas, and piece together what black womanhood means. And believe me, it is more than naps and brown skin. I may not be able to fully articulate that thing, but that’s because I’ve never been asked how and who I imagine myself and other black women to be.
Since slavery, black womanhood has represented the perverse, the grotesque, the ugly. Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin defined a grotesque image as one that is frightening and funny at the same time, and there is no more acute example of this than Hottentot Venus, whose large body was a source of entertainment for white people.
Born in 1789 in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Sara “Saartjie” Baartman experienced great hardship at a young age. Both of her parents died before she reached adulthood, her fiancé was murdered by Dutch colonists, and her child also died. Because Baartman had steatopygia, or extremely large buttocks, she drew the attention of Hendrik Cesars, in whose house she worked as a servant, and Englishman William Dunlop, who sought to capitalize on her body. Legend has it that although Baartman was illiterate, she signed a contract that she would travel with both Cesars and Dunlop to Europe in order to participate in shows. Promoters nicknamed her “Hottentot Venus,” “hottentot” being a derogative term used by the Dutch towards the Khoisan people, an indigenous group of Southern Africa. Besides gawking at her onstage, wealthy people could pay for private exhibitions of her in their homes where they were allowed to touch her. After Baartman died at twenty-six, naturalist Georges Cuvier not only preserved her skeleton, but also pickled her brain and genitals, containing them in jars and displaying them at Paris’s Museum of Man. They remained there until 1974.
We as black women are not afforded ownership over our own identities, our own bodies, the color of our skin and the texture of our hair, and yet white women can appropriate our bodies in order to suit their own selfish desires. bell hooks writes in “Eating the Other” that “. . . ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” White women’s privilege allows them to do this with little, if any, reproach.
That black women’s bodies are problematic manifests in several flash points, such as hair, but when embodied by white women these flash points are neutralized, even admired. Case in point: Marie Claire praised Kylie Jenner’s “epic” cornrows while black women are still discriminated against in the workplace for wearing such a hairstyle. In February 2013, the international fashion magazine Numéro did an editorial spread called “African Queen,” in which the lily-white model Ondria Hardin was in blackface. Black skin and hair are considered “epic” and regal as long as they are not found on the black female body, because that kind of authenticity is not the kind of beauty that mainstream culture values. A simple Google search for “beautiful women” reveals a proliferation of white women.
Some may ask how we can demonize Dolezal when black women try to “look white,” with weaves that look nothing like their natural hair texture, or blue contacts. The answer is that when there is no equality, there cannot be equivalency. In other words, we cannot judge black and white women in the same way. Although black women are pressured to be as close to the white ideal as possible, they can never call themselves white. There are benefits to looking “respectable”—a chance at getting certain jobs, moving in and out of elite circles, vast networks, and so on—but like a black child who places her face through a cutout on top of a white body at a carnival or amusement park, a black woman with a Russian weave and baby-blue contacts will never be viewed as a white woman. She will be seen as a black woman with a Russian weave and baby-blue contacts. We all know that we cannot identify as something that we can never inherently be.
Dolezal, on the other hand, managed to embody whiteness, white womanhood, in the guise of black womanhood. Only a white woman could pose as a black woman and not be immediately laughed out of town. Rachel Dolezal’s massive media blitz after she was “outed,” everywhere from MSNBC to Vanity Fair, was no accident. Although Dolezal darkened her skin, she still inhabits a white female body and, as such, possesses the privilege to take black female characteristics and subsequently become a newsworthy subject. While actual black women are stigmatized for the bodies that we live in, when Rachel Dolezal attempts to wear our bodies as a kind of costume, she becomes intellectualized. Only a white woman could inspire others to discuss if races can be switched, and when someone like Rachel Dolezal does so, she is protected—even defended. It is true that she was also condemned and mocked, but this backlash was followed with a book deal and massive press junket, not obscurity. Dolezal is not an innovator. She’s just carrying on tradition. In the late nineteenth century, white women wore bustles to make their buttocks look bigger than they were. Hottentot Venus influenced this style, and yet what was natural on her was seen as disgusting; what was artificial on white women was seen as a sign of luxury. The offense does not lie only in the imitation itself, but also in the reception of black women’s body parts, which are only coveted once a white woman decides that she wants them for herself. Black women cannot reappropriate from white women and be equally desired. White women are not pressured to look like anyone else but themselves. Yet when they want to look like black women, they still are seen as both original and acceptable. Under the white gaze, the black body cannot exist without white people encroaching upon our right to be. We are like bendy straws, able to curve and snap depending on a white person’s curiosity. We are not black “people” on our own, but rather the opposite of whiteness. I am beyond questioning if all of this is mere coincidence. Because of history and current pop culture references, it seems as if it’s all by design, which makes the discussions around beauty—who gets to own and determine it—very difficult and painful.
When I was growing up, every black girl I knew had a Barbie—a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, perfect-white-woman prototype. I hated dolls; their still eyes made me feel like I was always being watched, and I much preferred stuffed animals. Still, I saw girls carrying Barbie everywhere because Barbie was a hot commodity back then. But even more than that, she was a status symbol: a small piece of white luxury available for purchase. If you bought her, you, too, could share in that counterfeit ideal. Why do you think you don’t see many white girls with black dolls? I saw a video online of two white girls having a fit when they received black dolls for Christmas. Black dolls don’t represent beauty, luxury, and perfection. These things are for white girls, not black girls.
Like the girls I grew up with, Claudia MacTeer in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye treasures a “blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll.” The possession of one, as she says, is what every little girl in the world, whether she be black or white, wants. Black and white girls want the same white doll. Only problem is, white girls stare at Barbies and see potential. Black girls stare at white dolls and see impossibility. This is what stirs Claudia to ask, “What made people look at them and say, ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me?” Her quandary can only be solved if she destroys a white doll, a symbol of white womanhood. White women can weave magic around others in a way that she cannot.
In our patriarchal culture, both white and black women have to fight for the reclamation of their bodies. But we cannot group all women together under the patriarchy without considering race, which further stigmatizes us as black women but provides a buffer for white women.
Their womanhood does not eliminate their whiteness. We as black women are doubly disenfranchised in the throes of two spaces, race and gender, and there is no solace. Toni Morrison once said that “the black woman has nothing to fall back on: not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality, she may very well have invented herself.” Morrison’s predecessor Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God that black women are “de mule uh de world.” The offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, a mule is not quite one, not quite the other. Mules require less sustenance and support than horses. Their hooves are much harder, which helps to ward off disease and infection, and they have thicker skin. Black women, like mules, have always had much less support and a greater burden. And our efforts rarely receive acknowledgment; if they do, it is only as footnotes on our cultural narrative. This is why the idea of the Strong Black Woman is sweet in sound but damaging in effect.
Lorraine Bethel, a black lesbian feminist poet, wrote a poem called “What Chou Mean We, White Girl?” about buying a sweater that was once owned by a white woman. When Bethel smells the sweater, its scent is comfort, a delicacy that she will never know in her life. This comfort that Bethel describes is one that I believe black women secretly desire, but also eschew. There is pride in getting by with less. We do it, our mothers have done it, and our female ancestors have surely done it, too. There is a pride in still being here in spite of it all, and that’s a feeling that white women will never be able to experience. But even though black women may not want to be white women, “frustration” and “anger” would be plausible words for how some of us may feel about all the benefits of their whiteness that they receive—luxuries won without any exhaustion, without an investment of labor. We never had organized groups like the KKK believing so strongly in our purity that they would lynch any sun-kissed man for even looking in our direction. We are never in mainstream spaces without someone asking, Why? With white women it’s, Why not? Our existence begs more questioning. Their existence doesn’t and, in fact, often comes with praise for just having shown up. We are afterthoughts; they are the nuclei. White women have been the basis of feminism, and they have fought for their rights at the expense of black people. Elizabeth Cady Stanton once asserted, “The representative women of the nation have done their uttermost for the last thirty years to secure freedom for the Negro . . . but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first . . .”
And arguably, white women have a vested interest in a patriarchy that is more ruinous towards black women’s bodies than their own. Our pussies do not unite us. It is easy for white people, especially women, to cut away at our bodies like we are meat on a slab. It was easy for nineteenth-century white women to wear bustles to make their asses look bigger; easy for Rachel Dolezal to slap on a wig and brown foundation and call herself black; easy for Kylie to wear cornrows and be seen as an innovator. We are not seen as people, but rather as parts that can be appropriated and tailored anytime and in any place.
When black women look at Rachel Dolezal, we see someone who used our skin and hair as a cloak. She never lived in a black woman’s body, because if she did she’d know that to be like us is to always dwell in a place of war. Our bodies are vulnerable; we await attack as we salt our wounds from the last one. We are the mules whose origins we cannot fully imagine, but now is our time to reclaim our dreams about ourselves. What is the black woman, and how do we go about procuring this knowledge about who she is? We’ve been finding out who we are through the influence that we have upon everyone else and the influence they have on us. Black men, white men, white women—each one of these groups has had a stake in our bodies, even though we’ve never given our consent. We have to get our bodies back somehow, but we must navigate our own bodies first. How do we turn inward? How do we find a place of refuge within them?
I’ve never been asked what I am in my own imagination. What is a black woman to herself out from under the shadow of the white woman? For black women, whiteness and white womanhood linger over our heads, smothering our consciousness every day. But we are not the inverse of whiteness—or white womanhood, for that matter. Still our bodies find a way to come back to us distorted like images in fun house mirrors. We know something is wrong with the distortions, but we cannot say what. This is the magic that I believe Claudia talks about in The Bluest Eye. But if we are not the opposite of whiteness, then what are we? Maybe the truth is that we are invisible to ourselves. The truth is, we are all clamoring for something ancient within our souls that is still virgin from white touch. We are nostalgic for something that we cannot claim, an artifact within ourselves that was not chained when our foremothers were transported across the Atlantic to the New World. The Portuguese call this “saudade,” feeling a loss or absence of something that we know will never return.
We may never find it, but we must keep digging anyhow. It is an arduous battle to piece together our existence while we are trying to resist during our individual lives. I do believe in the Audre Lorde saying that you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. But we’ve been working in that house for centuries. We may know the tools better than the master, and we must know all the ways in which they operate in order to destroy the master’s power over our lives. We must consider white womanhood. If we abandon that prematurely without studying its influence, then we will not know all the ways in which that power functions so that we can trap it before it traps us. But we must not dwell on it for too long. For as long as white women have been appropriating our bodies, we have been insulted and afflicted. And frankly, I am tired of being in such an abusive relationship that I never agreed to in the first place. There was never any honeymoon period. There is no need to consider those who take without giving, speak without listening, and use feminism as a way to unify without analyzing black women’s differences and their complications.
I had no desire to see my natural hair until I went to Princeton and I saw many black women abandon the creamy crack and hot comb. Maybe it was due to a lack of sufficient funds or black hair stylists around the area, but nevertheless, I was inspired. One evening, two of my closest friends helped me to undo my Senegalese twists and wash my hair. Once the water hit my scalp, my strands did not rotate around one other in the stream. Instead they transformed into tight coils whose definition could only be seen if they were separated from one another with the use of hands or cream that consisted not of sodium hydroxide but shea butter, jojoba oil, coconut oil, aloe vera juice, and avocado oil, among other things. There was no pain, no burn. I stared at myself in the mirror, afraid to touch my own curls out of fear that they would snap off in my hands. I felt naked, unsure of my own natural beauty.
I went to a dorm party later that evening, and there I received more compliments than I ever had with any other style. At first, I was confused. I wondered if people were just being nice because they knew I was deathly insecure and they wanted to make me feel better about my hot mess of a hairdo. My afro barely touched my shoulders. How could anyone consider this beautiful? But they did. I will never forget the increased breadth of sensation I experienced when I walked out of my dormitory and felt the undulations of the wind coursing through my scalp. I didn’t have to worry about when I would need to schedule my next perm because the wind had gotten the best of my style. I’ll never forget how self-conscious I felt walking from one end of an Ivy League campus to the other, worried that I would feel less deserving than I already did. But damn, did it feel good to be free.
When my mother found out about my natural hair, she worried that my hair would break off because I wouldn’t be able to take care of it. So I watched YouTube video after YouTube video on how to moisturize, preshampoo, wash, deep-condition, and create two-strand twists. When I washed my hair with SheaMoisture products while showering and stepped out to return to the mirror, I did not immediately grab a towel to cover my body. Instead, I watched my hair spiral into tight coils again, the water hiding in and around my scalp, and I became aroused. I thought maybe this was because I was naked and watching water bead down the hills of my breasts, but I was looking only at my hair. For years, I had complied with a tradition and restrained my sexuality, the appeal of my hair, through perms and relaxers and hot combs. But this place, more than any other site on my body, was the domain of my humanity.
And if I step away from the mirror altogether, I can really look at myself: my skin, my large afro, and my curvy frame. The realization of who I am is more visceral. I look down at my thick thighs and my large breasts, and I know that I have this body. This body is mine and I hold on to it. I want to know how I exist in my own imagination. The black female imaginary is what happens when you see yourself as another black woman may see you. The black female imaginary is what happens when you look at yourself, when your body is what you hold on to and your mind focuses inward to inquire about who you are, not outward to actively combat what is out there. I know that as a black woman, I am a problem. I am a contradiction of what it means to be human, but I am still here anyhow. I speak, I talk, I think, and I walk with a swivel in my hips. Perhaps it is the black female imaginary and not whiteness that is strange and mysterious, but I prefer it to be that way. When I see other black women whose behavior and decision making towards their appearances I cannot understand, I know the parts I’m searching for in me are already in them and vice versa. We need to collect our many imaginations together in order to build a body of knowledge. We are fighting just by living.
I have been natural for over ten years now. My hair is longer than it’s ever been. Defining my curls takes a concerted effort. My afro is thick. My shrinkage is massive, although I prefer it this way. My hair holds much more than it ever has, and I feel like I am living who I really am. Rubbing coconut oil or shea butter into my curls becomes a meditative process, a way in which to maintain my beauty. If my hair is considered wild, so be it. I prefer it that way. Thankfully, a huge natural hair movement is happening. Many natural hair bloggers, video content makers, and even regular black women are emerging in our culture, so the dichotomized images of black hair are becoming less so.
Sexuality is harnessed through black women’s manes. Its wildness and expansiveness is a sight to behold. It is something that many institutions try to tame but cannot. And I, for one, enjoy living my life as a provocation.
I am who I am despite imposters, despite the carnivalesque images of my body reflected back at me by our society. I am a stranger and I like it.