Can I touch your weeaaaveee? Will my hands get stuck? Is this your reeaaaal hair? she has the laugh of a sinister Cruella, but she’s your friend; you think. If you tell her no, will she leave you alone, or will she keep going?
No, you say to answer all questions. She reaches for a fresh braid. You pull back in defense. My head is still sore, you say. No touching. Not yet.
You lied right through your gap-teeth. Your head is not sore. Your heart is.
You are twelve-maybe thirteen sitting atop the fence of your front yard on a glistening summer day. The radio is playing redundant pop songs you know all the lyrics to. Your friends are doing cartwheels and round-offs on the sharp green grass in mid- June. It feels like school will start again soon. There’s no time to sink into the bath of the shade, wash off the sun. There’s no time to lighten up, so your classmates won’t publicly address how dark your skin got over the summer. Yet the sun is one of your greatest companions.
Do you ever worry about how dark you’ll get if you’re in the sun too long? a friend asks. Do you? You say. No, I’m only going to tan. Well, what about sunburns? You ask. It’ll peel away. Oh, right, you say. I’ll be as dark as you by the end of the summer; she cackles at this remark.
You remain silent as the moments pass. A small breeze cools your scalp then you join in on the cartwheels and the round-offs in the grass.
You decide to look for a job because you’re finally sixteen. You figure it’s time to grow up and make your own coin; you want a car and the best prom dress. There’s also nice boy in your math class want to impress.
The application process is easy, but then comes the interview. Out of ten fast food applications, you get one call. Make it count. Get ahead.
Be here at 3:00 PM on Wednesday, the manager says. His voices sounds like a cat is scratching the inside of his throat. No problem; I will be there.
You show up at 2:47. Mom always says: the earlier, the better. Your friend adds, especially when you’re black.
How can I help you?
I’m here an for interview; your voice sounds shaky. Your nervousness is amplified by the subtle look on her face. She’s sweet, but what is she really thinking? These thoughts usually cross your mind. She then retreats to the back to locate the manager who will be conducting the interview.
A minute or two later, she’s back. He’ll be right out. Go ahead and take a seat anywhere. Her smile seems genuine. You wonder if you’re wrong for wanting to know if she’s judging you based off this brief moment. Okay, you say.
How do you handle yourself in stressful situations?
I keep myself composed. It’s only temporary. Freaking out never ends well.
Define “composed.” He puts air quotes around the word like you’d just made it up. Like you’re throwing meaningless meanings out there for no coherent reason, and like your entire statement isn’t a justifiable response. You remind yourself it’s your very first interview.
You know, being respectful, smiling at customers, not allowing negative issues to escalate. Your palms begin to sweat and the you’re worried about small things like if your interview outfit is appropriate, or if your breath smells bad.
You sound like a smart girl, he says. And you speak so good!
After the interview, he offers you the job. You’re excited, but worried. What if you can’t keep your composure?
Your friends think you won’t care or say anything because you’re labeled the white-black kid, and somehow that means you’re excluded from knowing what it’s like to be a black-black kid–the kid who uses nigga as a term of endearment, yet your friends use the word almost exclusively because they don’t seen an issue. A so-called pal justifies his usage of nigga by claiming that if black people didn’t want to be called the n-word, they shouldn’t say it either. This gives you a grueling migraine, but it’s no different that any other day.
I like that you’re not ratchet, but I bet you can beat a bitch’s ass if need be. You’re like an Oreo-white on the inside, black on the outside. I can’t picture dating a black guy; their dicks are too big. I like doing hoodrat shit with my friends. You dress like a white girl with your American Eagle jeans and North Face jacket. I’m glad you’re not like those other ghetto bitches. The bigger the hole, the bigger the hoe. All niggas care about is pussy and Retros.
A guy in the group starts heightening up his black voice when he approaches you. Ayo what’s up, guh. But the others receive Hey, guys. What’s happening. He always daps you up with awkward handshake language because all black people do it; even the women. The other girls present get hugs and kisses on their cheeks. This isn’t unusual; you just notice it more and more as these friendly outings begin to feel less of that nature.
You begin to see an eraser at the tip of your shoes working its way to the tip-top of your head leaving only the leftover gray marks on a white sheet of paper. You’re still there, but you’re invisible and being rewritten all over again.
You’re sitting at a bar top alone, waiting for your homegirl to show up for late drinks when a tall, strawberry blonde man approaches you with a posse of equally tall men.
What’s a fine sista like you doing here all by her lonesome? His attempt to sound cool fails tragically. Even the bartender is unmoved. Any ounce of attraction suddenly dissolves and discomfort unleashes within your arteries.
Drinking an Appletini, you say. Alone preferably.
He slides himself into your personal bubble as if your message isn’t clear. A girl with an attitude, I like that. You like white boys?
You don’t detest white men; in fact, you’re in an interracial relationship. You’re just sick of being approached by fetishists. You’re tired of being a hot topic or taboo or a story he can tell friends about the next day. Your pussy, your ass, your breasts are not for his unwarranted sexual fantasies. How do you make that abundantly clear without causing a stir?
I have a boyfriend, you say. He’s on his way, as a matter of fact.
But just in the nick of time, Liza shows up. We exchange half hugs. Hey giiiiiiirl. Hey girrrrrrl. You’re relieved to see her highlighted face and Senegalese twists for the first time in months.
Mr. Nuisance chimes back in. I’ve never seen black women as beautiful as y’all.Never been with a black woman before. I hear y’all are freaks. His buddies laugh, but you’re not sure it’s because they think he’s just making a damn fool of himself. Or if they’re actually entertained.
You and Liza exchange looks that settle the moment. Anyway. Let’s go, girl.
You never took the Doll Test when you were a child, but you may as well have. Because for a long time, you felt the same way. You just don’t know until it’s brought to your attention by a psychology class that acknowledges the science but not the issue. It is ingrained in you like race and gender. It affects you the moment you realize you can conjure up your own thoughts, but sometimes they are not your own thoughts. Everything you see, hear, smell, and learn has implications. Nothing is one-dimensional in this world.
Your PWI embraces their level of diversity like it’s supposed to make them seem special and accepting of evvverything. You know they mean well, but you still feel out of sync. There’s no telling why except knowing that you are a small speck in a fraction. You wonder if it’s affirmative action or if things are changing at an alarming rate in a good way. You know you worked for that acceptance letter. You deserved that acceptance letter. No one can tell you otherwise. A sense of gratitude to yourself rushes up your spine.
A brunette woman stops you in your pursuit to locate the Fruity Pebbles cereal in Walmart on a lousy Friday morning. It’s too early as far as you’re concerned but breakfast is necessary for the what the day will bring.
I hope I don’t sound rude, but just where did you get your hair done? We just adopted a five year old African American girl and have no idea how to tame her hair. Any recommendations? I’d do it myself, but I’m not too skilled with her hair.
Her smile is big and innocent. You’re trying to think of ways to politely tell her go away, but you think of the little black girl. How precious she must be. You wonder what she must have been through before being adopted. You wonder what exactly the brunette means by “tamed.” The girl isn’t present but you wish she was. You can usually tell the future, but this one is rather unclear. You know her new parents will love and cherish her no matter what, but you also wonder what she’ll have to deal with in school and if she’ll know it’s work. Assimilation is work; loving yourself is work. This is advice you wish you could give her. You secretly hope you run into this woman again next time with her daughter.
There’s a place downtown called Aphrodite Salon, you say. They even have a store where you can buy the right products to maintain her texture. No appointments necessary. You throw in the last statement to cease the awkwardness.
Great! Thank you. Your hair looks amazing by the way. . Her smile simmers down as she strolls her cart the other way.
Memories begin to strike you like a bolt of lightning. You see yourself as the five year old girl getting her very first relaxer. The Vaseline. The burns behind your ears. The feeling of being pretty as the final result. The ability to twirl your hair like the white girls in Pantene commercials.
The night draws to a close at a sleep over with your middle school friends.Mom calls to remind you to wrap your braids and spray sheen before going to bed. You do just that before joining the other girls in Dariah’s room.
You look like an old lady. You look funny. Hahaha. Meanwhile, Dariah sits aside silently shy. You don’t blame her. You do the same thing.
You let these comments slide because you’re too exhausted at this point. You always let the comments slide.
Goodnight girls, Dariah’s mother shuts off the light and closes the door. Her apologetic smile toward you is comforting and mother-like. You feel slightly better.
Before the night really begins with ghost stories and truth or dare, there’s one last thing:
All of the black girls disappeared, one says followed by a dark room full of light chuckles.