My mother and I have an arrangement of sorts when it comes to Mother’s Day. One alternate years, we trek up to the high desert for a two hour drive so that my mother can parade us in front of her church friends. This time around something significant happened that inspired this essay, and I want to share it with you.
Before I begin, I need to preface that my mother and I have had a difficult relationship over the years. She, born in 1940 into the segregated South, picked cotton and aspired to be one of the two “acceptable” professions for a black woman: a nurse or teacher. I was born after all the battles were (mostly) won, but her persistent view of the colorist black standard of beauty dominated her perception of herself, and of me.
According to my mother, my grandmother was quite open about how she was a disappointment to her. She was too dark, her hair too nappy. Raising my mom single after her husband scrammed left her an unaffectionate, hard disciplinarian. Our relatives and community also reinforced that my mother wasn’t pretty simply because of her dark skin, and openly mocked her. I remember telling me once of a woman who worked as a teacher at her school who did absolutely no teaching at all in the classroom, but maintained job security because of her light skin. So it’s no surprise that, with no outlet to tell her any different, she thoroughly internalized the color hierarchy in the black community. Everything and everyone was filtered through the prism of colorist notions. So-and-so was “pretty” because she was light skinned, and that description was never, ever given to women of our color. She never told me that I was pretty growing up. Not ever. According to what she learned, dark was ugly, no matter how your features were arranged.
And while my worldview was different, and my childhood growing up around various cultures allowed for me to have more flexibility about my identity than she did, the colorist views of the community didn’t escape my experiences. I was a lover of baby dolls and Barbies. But when my mother took me to the toy aisle to buy a new one, I never picked the black ones. After all…they were “ugly.”