Coming of Age as a Black Girl

I waited so long for her. Well before my sister told me she was pregnant, I prayed for a new companion. My adult relationships were becoming far too fickle; I needed to experience that infinite love only a child could give. And while I don’t know what kind of mother I’d make, I’ve always wanted to be a crazy aunt.

I imagined our future play dates at random city landmarks that I’m far too old to patron alone at my age. I imagined the way she’d smile after a greedy scoop of Dippin’ Dots at Coney Island. I imagined the way her eyes would question the “native” artifacts on display at the American Museum of Natural History. When I finally found out she was coming, my first assumption was that we’d have the same taste in music, so I created a playlist of love songs that I sang to my unborn niece very often and very much off-key.

She arrived in the early morning of Christmas Eve, weighing six pounds and three ounces. We called her Amaya. When I finally built up the courage to hold her for the first time, she studied my face with one eye open and the other in a tight squint. My eyes met her tiny little pupils for a brief instant, and in that moment it felt as if I’d reunited with an old friend. She looked as if she recognized me too.

As the nurse whisked Amaya away to the nursery, my sister awkwardly lamented about childbirth disrupting her annual her Christmas shopping.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ll buy your gift next week.”

 Born nearly 9 years apart, we have developed more of a mother-daughter relationship over the years. With our own mother often working long hours overnight to feed two mouths my father had left hungry and vacant years before, my big sister stepped in to fulfill many of her maternal duties. I can recall her making me breakfast and taming my stubborn kinks in the morning. I can recall her teaching me to read and write well before I was old enough to tie my shoes. She taught me that too and she would read me poems and stories in exaggerated accents before tucking me into bed at night. 

Still, it was hard to believe that even after pushing something the size of a football out her vagina, my big sister was worried about me. We were all grown up now. We had both survived the backbreaking journey of coming of age as a black girl in America. We had found a way from no way and now it was time to light the way for my niece.

“Don’t worry about getting me a gift,” I replied. “We got Amaya.” 

***

I was 13 going on 35. At least, that’s what I presumed at the time. I’d gotten in the dangerous habit of testing my mother’s patience with my defiant demands for independence

“Mommy,” I’d ask, batting my lashes and pouting my lips for theatrics.“Can I go outside with Chrissy?”

“Heeeelllll no!” she’d snap back. “That girl is fast. I don’t want you hanging out with her.”

“You never let me do nothin’!” I’d yell before throwing my cell phone or some other object in my mother’s direction. Afterward, I’d immediately sprint to the bathroom and lock the door behind me. Sometimes, I was fast enough to escape her forthcoming rage. Other times, I’d get a heavy-handed spanking.

For as long as I could remember, my mother kept what felt like a GPS tracker on my every move— her own distorted invention circa the early ‘90s fueled more by paranoia than technology. More recently, she’d taken up the ritual of following me from a comfortable distance as I played in the park behind our apartment building under the guise of freedom. More and more, I dreaded the days I would look over my shoulder and see my mother peeking suspiciously out of some dark corner.

After months of pleading my case, she finally cut the metaphoric umbilical cord and allowed me to venture outside alone. Finally, I could candidly indulge in all of my preadolescent vices: jaywalking, the occasional catfight and, most importantly, talking to boys.

First, there was JaQuan, then Serrell, then Will. At that age, being someone’s “girlfriend” simply meant holding their hand in public.  Given this fact, my track record for commitment was pretty subpar and I’d pick up and discard relationships at my haphazard discretion. I wish I had the same clarity about my relationships with men today.  

About a year into my newfound independence, I found myself in somewhat of a lover’s quarrel with one boy in particular and a good friend of mine. She and I lived by the girl code, “sisters before misters.” So, when we found out this boy had been secretly seeing the both of us, we quickly kicked him to the curb.

One day, during what seemed like a typical walk home from the park, I noticed this boy following me. I stopped about halfway down the block to let him catch up, looking forward to the satisfaction of giving him the cold shoulder. That wouldn’t be so hard today.  He looked like shit. His oversized T-shirt gripped his sweaty chest revealing his supple man breasts, and his kinky hair grew out in tiny pea-sized balls all around his head. He needed a bra and haircut. As he ran toward me, I wondered what it was that I ever saw in him in the first place.

When he was about a foot away, I looked into his eyes and I saw an expression I’d never seen before; I saw God and the Devil; I saw my short life flash before my eyes. Before I knew what was happening, he grabbed me and dragged me into a dimly lit corridor away from pedestrian traffic. He pressed his weight against mine, pinning me hard against the wall. I could feel his nipples brush past my own as he held my arms above my head with one hand and hoisted my skirt up with the other.

“This is what you wanted?” he asked again and again between my panicked sobs.  

His breath was hot like cayenne pepper, the kind of hot that lingered, the kind of hot that stung so bad you’d swear it burned through flesh. I fought him off as best I could, but he forced his square hips between my thighs so that I couldn’t move. As he struggled to get a good grip on my panties, a passerby approached and distracted him just long enough for me to escape. I ran away as fast as I could, never daring to look back. When I felt I’d made it to safety, I collapsed to the ground in a ball of tears. More and more, I longed for the days I would look over my shoulder and see my mother peeking suspiciously out of some dark corner.

I would keep my assault a secret for the next ten years, confiding in no one for fear that any retelling of the event would surface the trauma anew. Sustaining the memory was one thing. Memories were transient phenomena, murky thought bubbles I’d hoped would burst into extinction over time. Words, on the other hand, were tangible and by deliberately avoiding the words to voice my pain, perhaps I could convince myself that it wasn’t real. Sadly, I could not. Despite my vow of silence, the pain festered and swelled, oozing out from the depths of my soul like pus from an infected wound. It would grow worse over time, transforming from a dull ache into a piercing sting each time I noticed the male gaze noticing me. Neighbors, family friends, fathers, brothers, and uncles of my childhood companions marveled at the gradual spread of my hips and the natural curve of my ass.

“You grew up,” they would say, flashing devilish grins as if they were all in on some dirty secret I was finally old enough to know.

Just one year removed from my mother’s watchful eye, I was no longer the endearing little girl they had come to know. I was a woman whose body was up for grabs. My girlhood had come to an end and I entered my young adulthood feeling robbed. My body didn’t belong to me anymore, it belonged to the world and, so long as it did, it could be gawked at, scrutinized, and possibly violated and there was nothing I could do about it.

Girlhood, as a concept, is often associated with an era of innocence, a fragile period of time in a woman’s life where her gender identity is largely negligible. Save for the dolls and hair accessories, a girl’s priorities are likely indistinguishable from a boy’s. She is as free as he is to foster her imagination, to see the world as both her oyster and her playground, to be carefree. This period of girlhood is relatively short-lived and, for black girls, in particular, it is even more rare. A carefree black girlhood, an existence unbound by social conventions of race and gender, will inevitably be disrupted. Coming of age as a black girl is often coupled with the realization that, as a black woman, you are what Zora Neale Hurston called a “mule of the world.”

The black woman’s body arguably built this country. Her womb gave birth to generations of offspring whose free labor launched its great wealth. Her breasts nourished the bellies of its white children as her own black babies starved. Like a mule, she carried this country’s shit for ages, without a word of thanks or gratitude. Instead, she was raped, beaten, and murdered by white masters, more concerned with breeding new slaves than honoring the humanity of slave mothers. Centuries after her ancestors first arrived on these shores, she remains more likely than any other woman to be raped, beaten, or murdered in America today.

***

As Amaya grew older, I began to relive my own carefree black girlhood through hers. When she was about six-months-old, I took up the habit of documenting her evolution on my smartphone. While she didn’t speak in any language I understood, my niece was relentless in her determination to express herself by any means necessary, and I was often in awe of her innate ability to wear her emotions on her sleeve. Over the course of the day, her expressions shifted seamlessly between infectious smiles and sad pouts. I grew equally fond of all of her many faces, capturing them on camera as often as I could. One day, after seeing her photo on social media, a former classmate reached out to ask who she was and if she belonged to me. I told him that she was my niece. Seeming disappointed, he casually responded:

“Wow, your niece is very…black.”

His words echoed in my head. “Your niece is very…black.” Black. He said it as if blackness was some sort of birth defect, as if he, himself, weren’t a few shades shy of a Hershey’s bar. Amaya’s carefree girlhood had only just begun and here was this awful man intent on disrupting it. I thought back to the day my own girlhood came to an end, the rude awakening that I was cursed to be a “mule of the world.” It dawned on me, again, that Amaya would undergo this same transformation. I couldn’t protect her from that reality, but I refused to allow this man, or any other, reduce her personhood to something as arbitrary as the slit between her legs or the color of her skin. I decided that when the time came, when her hips began to spread and men marveled at the natural curve of her ass, she would not suffer in the same silence and isolation that I had. I’d be there peeking suspiciously out of some dark corner to remind her that while she was black and a woman, she was also divine. The world would not always appreciate her greatness, but she must always remember to assert herself with the same intensity she seemed to already have as a mere infant. Her body built this country, and she must demand her place her within it.

After a long silence, I channeled my inner Michelle Obama and opted to take the “high road.”

“She is, isn’t she?” I replied. “A beautiful black queen!”

 

Photo by Russell Mondy /CC 2.0

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