Me in 2nd grade (I think). I had been crying all morning b/c I didn’t like my dress.
I grew up at the feet of a closely-knit cherished cadre of elders. Family gatherings would often find me being still and quiet, and listening as intently as my wiry, antsy body was able. I didn't want to say anything that would incur an accusation of “getting into grown folks business” earn me an ejection from the room. I absorbed every offering like a sponge.
My family emphasized what a "smart girl" I was, but at the time, I really only cared to be told that I was pretty like Lynda Carter or Morgan Fairchild, whom I gathered from television, were the most beautiful women to walk the earth. That they did not fit the standards of beauty in my own community underscores the importance of representation, but that's another story for another time. Precocious young me believed that I was, indeed a smart little cookie, but I did not yet have the wisdom to realize that I was able to believe this because it was a sentiment echoed and reinforced by my family. They shielded a spark that they saw in me, and gave that spark enough air to survive until she could bloom into a wildfire. I did not yet know this.
I knew that my great-grandmother routinely asked “Is she colored or white?” When I came home from school upset because of a teacher who insinuated that I was not capable of grasping a concept or treated me in a way that felt wrong, even though I didn’t understand why. I knew that my grandmother and grandfather were ready and willing to purchase a textbook for me when a teacher told me that, despite excellent grades, I couldn’t take an honor’s class because there “weren’t enough books.”
I knew that my mother taught me not to let a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g outdo me, and that if other people could learn it, be it, do it- well, so could I. And with STYLE, Honey.
I knew that my other grandfather - wait, let me explain…
I grew up in a family in which every woman had been divorced at least once because they weren’t for putting up with bullshit ‘til death did them
I grew up in a family where the men didn’t always do right by their wives when they were young and so they lost them... but they grew, mellowed into better men, and did not neglect their children along the way.
These are my examples. This is what I saw. This is how I was built.
So when my other grandfather- my mother's biological father- told me that he was going to the corner store and when I got back I’d better know my address and how to tie my shoe or he was going to whip my butt… you’d better damn well believe that I learned my address and how to tie my shoe with Olympic-record speed. This grandfather never laid a hand on me ever in his life, other than to hug me, but he did promise lots of knuckle-sandwiches to people over his lifetime, and everyone would laugh because that was “just his way.”
I grew up with a stepfather who read to my sister and me whenever we asked. Who gave us a nickel a week for allowance and when we asked for raises in response to an increase in chores, he gave us each a one-hundred percent increase and let us feel as if we had gotten over on him somehow.
I grew up with a biological father in whose face and temperament I could see my own. A man whose landscape was a map of peaks that showed me what was possible, and pitfalls for me to negotiate without falling into the abyss.
My childhood wasn't perfect, but my family did the best that they could, and I grew up feeling loved, protected, and worthy of respect. I was taught boundaries, compassion, resilience, and persistence. I didn't think this was anything special, because it was all that I knew, and I was well into adulthood before I realized that this wasn't everyone's upbringing. I was taught that other people might attempt to label me as inferior because of the color of my skin, or the cut of my jib, but it was not so and would not ever be. And anyone who said otherwise could “let the doh-knob hit ‘em.”
The first time I was called a “nigger” was on a family vacation to Wisconsin Dells. I was walking across an overpass to a fast-food restaurant with my younger sister, an aunt, and two uncles. I was about 9- give or take a year, my aunt and uncles were mid-teens, and we were laughing and joking as free children are wont to do in the summer sun. Two white men in a large late-70s gas guzzler were driving past and slowed to get a good look at us. I saw this, but, sheltered as I was, I had no fear and it held no significance, so I kept laughing and joking. “Nigger!” yelled the passenger, and the driver sped off. I knew that it was a bad word, and to that point, the only “bad words” that I heard were the words that my school friends and I said defiantly when no adult was there to chastise us. “What did they say?” I asked, thinking I surely had misheard them. One of my uncles, mood changed, confirmed my suspicion. I wondered why they would yell something like that at us, but I had never been taught that I was a “Nigger” so there was no real connection between that word and myself. As far as I was concerned, they might as well have called me a “toaster." But the older kids understood the intent, and became sullen for the remainder of the walk.
As the years have passed, I, too, have come to see many past events in a different light - including the way that my family closed ranks to protect their young. The stories of my older family members not being allowed in certain spaces despite having demonstrated talent or excellence at a particular skill are a sepia-toned backdrop for my own existence. The stories of the generation just before my own being allowed into those spaces, but having to be twice as good to get there are in technicolor.
And here I am - an amalgam of these stories. Of these beloved people. Because they weren’t afraid to be their brilliant, flawed selves, I was able to learn from their mistakes, galvanize their strengths, and stand firm in the knowledge of my inalienable right to be all that I am without excuse nor apology. And I do. And I will. And I am.
And anyone who doesn’t like it can let the doh-knob hit ‘em.