Shades of Blackness: Back In The Day
*Note: the names in this blog post are pseudonyms
It was September 1985, my first day of school. My mother had washed and pressed my dress the night before but woke early that day to curl my hair. Once I was ready I stood at attention, ready for her to examine me. Stepping closer she smoothed down a few stray hairs, then bent down and took my small face into her hands and looked me in the eye:
“NOW, you listen to me closely”, she said, “you are JUST as good as ANYONE else, and don’t EVER let anyone tell you different, do you understand me? And I expect you to ALWAYS stand up for yourself. Is that clear?”
I nodded my agreement. “Yes, ma’am”.
“Good, then we’re ready to go”, my Mama said. With that we gathered my backpack, piled into her black Mazda RX-7 and drove to school. I’ve often wondered if my mother’s pep talk that day came from a worry of what would face me in a predominately white school. My mother passed away eight years ago, so I cannot ask her. I do know that she made it a point to constantly tell me how smart, talented and sweet I was. She would spontaneously rock me in her arms, kiss my forehead and tell me that I was her beautiful black girl, her sweet chocolate drop. And because my Mama repeatedly told me these things I believed them. Indeed, I cannot recall ever disliking my color or being ashamed of it as a young child.
I didn’t internalize it when the family of my Mexican-American friend banned me from attending her birthday party that year because I was black.
I didn’t feel bad about myself when a white classmate called me a nigger in the second grade and my Mama stormed into the school in her dress whites to demand an apology.
I didn’t internalize it when the Mexican-American kids at the new school I attended for grades four through five called all of the black students mayates, cucarachas and niggers.
After all, this ugliness was coming from people who were not black. My Grandma’s tales of life under Jim Crow left me with the impression that interaction with non-Blacks could go this way. Just as Grandma explained to me that the racism of Southern whites was a defect in them, I shrugged off the racist insults hurled towards me fifty years later as a flaw and sickness in the people reciting them. It didn’t affect how I viewed myself; as far as I was concerned my Mama’s words about me could not be wrong.
Then we moved out of state, and it began.
In 1990,we would leave my adopted hometown of San Diego, California and move to my birthplace, Seattle, Washington. We arrived in November, and as the school year had already started I could not get into the local schools that my cousins went to. I ended up in an alternative school. African Americans do not comprise a large segment of the population in Seattle, but for me this would still be my first real exposure to African American children in such large numbers. Prior to life in Seattle my contact with other African Americans was mostly limited to my family members and my Mama’s circle of military friends. In both circles I was adored and loved, so the idea that it would be different among Black kids at school didn’t cross my mind. I was in for a rude awakening.
It started with my speech. “Why you talk like that? You sound like a white girl!” Such comments baffled me, as my family members had always taken pride in how articulate I was and jokingly referred to me as a genius. My Black peers moved from attacking my speech to attacking my color. There was Kiki, a light-skinned girl who was constantly announcing that her Mama was a White Spaniard and that made her better than the dark-skinned kids. Kiki’s declarations of superiority amused me. Kiki was not an attractive girl and I wondered if her bragging stemmed from dissatisfaction with her appearance. When she called me blackie I’d become so annoyed with her and wanted to yell back: “Your Mama’s a White Spaniard? So WHAT, you’re not as cute as so and so!” But to do so would risk a fight, and I knew that if that happened I’d risk getting beat on the playground and later at home by my Grandma for getting in trouble at school. So I glared at Kiki and kept my mouth shut. In high school there would be other girls like Kiki-light-skinned girls with aspects of their appearance(bad skin, an odd-shaped nose, crooked or missing teeth, etc) which would normally cause a female to be considered unattractive. But the Kikis of the world were given a pass for their ‘flaws and elevated to dimepiece status by Black boys because they still possessed what counted as beauty: light skin and long, good hair.
My encounters with the Johnson family, though, are what really started to fuck my head up about color. Paula Johnson was in the Fifth grade like me, but she had three younger siblings at our school. The Johnsons were all very dark-skinned as well, with that deep smooth chocolate skin that the Southern Sudanese have. Being dark, however, did not keep them from harassing other dark folks. The Johnsons-all of them-made it a point to bother me on my playground.
“You think you better than me, huh BLACKIE?”
“Ole funky Black BITCH!”
The vitriol hurled at me matched what I’d heard from Chicano kids back in Cali, but it pierced me in a way that the word ‘cucaracha’ never could. For Paula and her siblings were black like me-American, with southern roots and dark skin. So why would they, of all people, want to single me out for abuse based on the color we shared? This would become a recurring them in my struggle with Colorism. For while I occasionally encountered stuck up light-skinned girls, the vast majority of hatred I encountered based on my color came from other dark-skinned people! Dark-skinned Black American males were the absolute worst, treating dark girls with so much contempt and revulsion that you would think we were mortal enemies. The hostility of the Johnsons and the crudeness of their language puzzled me, but when a relative of theirs accompanied our class on a field trip I gained a window into how they were being raised.
The field trip took place towards the end of the school year. My class headed to MagnusonPark that day for a picnic, and Paula’s cousin Leonard served as a chaperone. On the metro bus ride to the park I sat with Joana and Monica, two of my white classmates. We were minding our own business, discussing the latest Baby Sitters Club book among ourselves, when Leonard started in on us.
“Yo yo”, he said to his young cousins,” They remind me of that Gerardo song!” Leonard then pointed at us and started singing ‘they got the funk, they really got the funk’. We tried to ignore him but he continued. Joana and Monica turned red but would not engage him. That was when he focused on me.
“Ewww, look at how BLACK she is! Over there with them white girls acting like she all that! Ole black and ugly heffa!”
To this day I cannot fathom what would possess a grown man in his early 20s to harass and insult a ten-year old child this way, but among the Johnsons this was apparently normal behavior. Paula and her siblings joined in, pumping Leonard up with stories of how I supposedly acted like I was better than them. They repeated their insults, telling me how ugly I was and how I wasn’t superior to them. Joana, Monica and I ended up moving to a different section of the bus to escape them.
I wish I could write the Johnsons off as an anomaly. I wish they were just one example of the extreme self-hate that plagues some of my people. But back in 1990s the mentality of the Johnsons was not rare, and that day on the bus was not the last time I’d be publicly singled out for harassment based on my color.
In 1991 the policy of busing students from the inner-city was still in effect in my school district. Though I was eligible to take the school bus, I wanted to take public transportation. Yes it cost money and would require me to take two buses, but it was what the ‘cool’ kids did, and I wanted to be cool. I asked my Grandma for permission to take the metro bus and she granted it on the condition that I still made it home before 5pm. Happy that I could at least try fitting in with the cool kids, I hopped on the #43 and got off at Montlake station to transfer to the #48. I headed to the back of the bus-we didn’t like sitting in the front as that is considered ‘uncool’-and plopped down in a seat. Within five minutes my joy at taking the metro bus began to disappear.
“DAMN she’s BLACK!”, a boy yelled out.
“Eh yo Tim that’s your girl”, another said, pointing at his friend and laughing.
“Nigga is you out yo goddamn mind? I don’t want that ugly gorilla in the mist!”
And with that they’d all break out laughing at me. These boys were not white. They were not mixed. They were not light-skinned. They were dark like me, poor like me and taking the bus to the South end like me. But there was no kinship, no concern, no sense that they should not be acting this way. Because I was like them I was fair game.
One day an older teen got on the bus. Judging by his size he was fifteen or sixteen years old. When the black boys laid in on me as usual the copper skin of this older teen burned and turned an intense sienna. Holding my backpack I gritted my teeth and keep my face forward so they couldn’t see my tears. I got off my at my regular stop and started walking when I heard a voice behind me. I stopped and turned. It was the copper boy from the bus.
“Sister”, he said,” I’m sorry for what they did to you. That was mean. You shouldn’t let ‘em talk about you like that though. Next time crack on them too!”
“Thank you”, I said, smiling weakly. His words brought to mind what my Mama told me all those years ago. The insecurity and self-loathing that had taken root in me made me feel ashamed, like I’d let my Mama down. But the insults beat me down and chipped away at my former self so bad that I rarely defended myself. I was also scared of such encounters turning physical. The kind of black boys who harassed me were not like the black boys I sat next to at church-well-mannered, sweet and respectful of women. No, boys like those ones I encountered were venomous, spiteful, and would not think twice about hitting a girl. I didn’t want physical blows to be added to the verbal ones, so I didn’t follow his advice or my mama’s. He walked with me for a few blocks to make sure no one gave me trouble and then went his own way. I would never see him again, but his words would make an impact on me. For once someone had at least expressed that what was happening wasn’t right, and on that day it was what I needed to hear.