I didn’t always know I was black. I knew that I was different from the other kids at my elementary school but my six year old self couldn’t exactly articulate why. I knew I had darker skin and different hair from my classmates, but that’s about as deep as it went for me. In a small rural town in eastern Connecticut, I was the only black girl in my elementary school and if I’m being completely honest, the whole school system. I also was a part of the only black family that lived in that town. I had only brothers, therefore, I had no sister to look up to for representation. Everything that I learned about being a black woman in this country, I learned on my own.
Looking back on my adolescence and knowing what I know now about my culture and who I am, I can pick out some defining moments of my life that stem from my blackness.
Age 4- It is my second ever dance recital. I am excited because my ballet teacher tells my mom that she finally has makeup that will look nice on my skin tone. Ecastic isn’t even the word to describe my feelings at the moment. All my days of getting my makeup done by my mom instead of the hired makeup artists are over! I am finally like everyone else. The lady finishes my makeup and applies her “translucent powder.” I run to show my mother and she looks at me like she had seen a ghost. And to be completely honest, she definitely did. She took me straight to the bathroom to angrily wash my “makeup” off. No child of hers would look like a clown. I cried the entire time.
Age 8- It’s Martin Luther King Day. We learned all about black history and the slave trade. We are coloring pictures of Dr. King. Every time someone at my table asks to use the black or brown crayon, the whole table stares at me. I explain to them that I am not offended by the words “black” or “brown.”
Age 10- I was at swimming lessons with my brothers. We were all shy and never talked to anyone but each other. My swim teacher yells at us and asks us why we can’t be better swimmers and listen like the white girl named Veronica in our swim class. My mother pulls us out of swim school that same year. She says we don’t need lessons anymore.
Age 11- In the fifth grade bathroom my white soccer teammate looked me dead in my face and said “Afua, your hair looks kinda ehh today…” I slapped her.
Age 13- I had the nicest box braids put in my hair. The hairdresser gripped edges of my hair that I didn’t even know could be braided. I was even bold enough to choose a light brown highlight color to be braided into the typical jet black hair. After a riveting game of gym class kickball, my classmates and I walk back to the gym. My best friend screams and points at the ground. “Oh my god, it’s Afua’s hair extension!” One of my edge braids had slipped out and was on the ground next to the gym door. I laughed along with my “friends” even though I wanted to fight them like New York fought Pumpkin after Pumpkin spit on her during Flavor of Love.
Age 14- I am followed around the stores in the mall. They think I am going to steal something. I get nervous and buy something I don’t really want in order to show them that I mean no harm.
Age 15- I am told I’m “bad” for a darkskin girl. I am seemingly content.
Age 17- The boy I like tweets “If she’s darker than me, it’s not meant to be.” Not so content.
Age 18- The white ladies on the sidewalk clutch their ugly purses a little tighter when I walk by. I am used to this. I almost didn’t even notice.
Age 20- The man at the nail salon asks me if I’m mixed. He tells me that I’m so pretty he just knew I had to be mixed with something. “Maybe Indian,” he says.
I have been learning how to exist in white spaces my whole life. I have been embarrassed because my hair didn’t lie down like my white friends’ did after hours on the soccer field. I’ve also been embarrassed when a racist girl in my preppy New England boarding school asked me if I was “even wearing a shirt” because I had on a brown t-shirt. (I never wore that shirt again). I’ve had a white girl pick a “nap” out of my hair. I’ve felt obligated to do stupid photoshoots for my school’s catalog in fear that they would cut my financial aid if I did not comply. When I was a junior in high school I tweeted about not wanting to help park cars for the school’s revisit day. I was brought into the admissions counselor’s office where she told me that she did me a favor by accepting me into the school, and that if she could vote in our upcoming student leader election she would never vote for me. Meanwhile, my white counterparts could post whatever they wanted on social media about everything bad about the school and never get in trouble for it.
This is not meant to be an “I hate white people” piece, because I don’t. I don’t hate anyone and despite everything I’ve been through, I definitely do not hate white people. Being black in this country means having to deal with racial microaggressions from people in power because you don’t want to lose an opportunity. It’s having to work twice as hard to have the experiences and jobs that other people are automatically allocated. It’s having to explain to your white friends that they shouldn’t use the words “ratchet” or “ghetto” when describing things they don’t think are good enough. It’s having to be quiet and not laugh as loud in the dining hall because people may think you and your friends are in a gang, or having to explain why your hair “grows” overnight when it’s really nobody’s fucking business.
Living your life and having to censor yourself in order to fit into spaces that are not made for you is tedious. It’s difficult and emotionally taxing. I was angry as child. I didn’t understand why I had to be different. As I get older I’m learning to love everything that makes me the strong independent black woman that I am. I know that I won’t be satisfied with myself overnight and I also know that I am not to be compared to eurocentric standards of beauty. Each day I am falling more in love with being a black woman and this is only the beginning.