Illustrated by Emma Vatnsdal
There is this picture of Mama, with her swan-long neck and rich brown skin. I found it in the little box where we keep secrets and old stuff, some rainy day. A messy cut out from a newspaper. The color is all faded, and it’s been folded many times. There is a date on the backside, lower-left corner. And a caption. It says: The Red Farm’s New Owner, Miss …
Mama had just bought the new house. She was glowing with pride in her flower print dress and high heels. And when I found this old picture I smiled, too. I found the other ones a day or two later. Not cut out from a dated paper, these ones. You could have sworn they were just out of the polaroid.
On the second picture, Mama, The Red Farm’s New Owner, is elegantly taking off her intricate headwrap and bending forward towards the other woman.
On the third picture, Mama’s still there, bending even though it causes her back pain, smiling embarrassingly while our new neighbor grips the kinky, black roots of her hair.
This pictures still haunts me today. The red brick house in the background, the one we just moved in. It takes seconds of looking at it to be transported back a hundred years: my mother is wearing a rough, grey cloth dress that barely hides her bony chest. She’s carrying cotton in a heavy basket on the top of her head. And our neighbor is looking at her amused, sitting in her evening gown, all tied in her lace corset, with her landlord husband standing besides her.
That is SO FUN, she says, still gripping. So fuzzy. Kind of coarse also. Can you wash it? I wish I had hair like that. But look actually, mine is curly too, you go ahead and have a feel of it.
The fourth image is Mama politely grabbing a string of the lady’s hair, running her black finger trough it like it is silk, noticing the invisible curl pattern at its tip and letting go. She sighs a sigh too weak to be heard.
Then the neighbor notices me and my brother standing still at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the new house. Her eyes sparkle so much that we know very well whatever comes next can’t be avoided. She drops her hands on both our heads without asking and starts to laugh loudly. That feels so different, now, doesn’t it? So much…fluffier! Almost like lamb’s wool, is it? How lucky you guys are!
The next image is a picture I remember the neighbor took -at that point our father had left since months already-. Mama sits on the front porch, in the middle of her two mixed race children, her smile half faded, her hair half back under her scarf, our afros blooming like foreign flowers on this land of whiteness.
How it is like to be petted by strangers and considered “exotic” in your own country, I still cannot explain. They’ll say: you are so pretty. I wish I was like you, all tanned even in the winter time and with this fun head of hair to play with. One day you’ll grow up to be a fine, young woman. And, somewhere in my head, in this little bubble of heaven where I am not shy nor afraid to be considered politically incorrect, I answer: be careful what you wish for. Having two different homes, a bi-colored group of family members and friends and a nationality that doesn’t match your physical appearance, means having a double point of vue on everything there is in life. Not fitting in anywhere. SO MUCH FUN. If their wish actually came true, my reality is one that could quickly make them change their perspective.
It’s been a few years now.
I’ve grown to become a young lady that is almost fine, if I wear a cake face of makeup to hide some stubborn pimples and a slightly curly wig with my hair tightly cornrowed underneath. Half English, half Nigerian. A zebra with invisible stripes.
Mama is in the hospital dying, like most angels that do not deserve this sort of ending to their story. A last breath cold and anonymous. This is what you get for years of daily struggling.
We set the date in an apartment he rented. I didn’t see the pictures beforehand. Not that I cared. Ran there straight from the hospital. Lost myself in the corridors of the building. Stains and cracks everywhere, and a tiny elevator with only one lightbulb remaining alive, which went all the way up to the third floor. The apartment where he waited was on the sixth. I climbed up the stairs in this half-terror-half-excitement that comes back every time you are about to meet a stranger in a place where you shouldn’t, for “safety reasons” (i.e. Not a public one). I rang the doorbell before noticing we were on the roof. A penthouse, as you should call it. I heard footsteps behind the closed door. Phil opened it. He didn’t look too mean. I said:
-Oh my God, hey!
The silence that followed should have been recorded. Phil stared at me in a sort of awe, with his eyes and his mouth opened wide. I was just standing there smiling the best I could. What was the “oh my God” about? It was he who had rented that stupid penthouse.
I followed him in when his senses came back. Finally. Took off my boots and coat carefully enough not to disturb the quiet elegance of my wig and sat besides him on the couch. We talked over a book and some wine. A true cliché. Phil spoke most of the time. I barely listened. But I heard when he said:
-You don’t look like your pictures. You’re prettier.
And I suddenly felt very, very tired. But I said “thanks”.
I heard when he said:
-I like your hair.
-It’s not mine.
-Oh, you mean you straightened it.
-No…not really. I mean, I used to straighten it, but I stopped.
-Oh, yeah right, because it’s like, super bad.
-But it’s so long and soft…
-I told you: it is not mine. My hair is a lot curlier and voluminous. Nice too. It’s just a completely different texture.
-Well I like your hair. Whether it’s like this (vertically pointing towards the ceiling) or you make it like that (pointing at the wig).
-I am wearing a wig.
-Hold on, what?
-Oh, right, I can see it now.
-See? It’s crazy, some people have told me I looked Latina with this thing on. Totally changes me…
-People are stupid. You don’t look Latina, you know why?
-This (pointing at my lower lip).
I covered my mouth with my hand as fast as I could. But it was too late.
And I heard when he said:
-Let’s go to the room, it’s getting cold out here. At least there we’ll have blankets.
Then the kissing started.
I hardly had time to take off my dress. It got messy along the way. I had no change of clothes.
Phil and I had sex three times in a row. Talk about a good ice breaker. He came every time and I came once, the very last time. Phil had already gone to the bathroom to get himself all clean. He didn’t see me splashing in the dark like an idiot, and I was glad. Then, I gathered my legs in a little cry and attempted to detangle my wig with my fingers. Still trembling.
When he came back into the room, there was nothing left to say. There had never been anything in the first place. He switched the lights off and whispered something I didn’t understand. I asked:
-What language was that?
I was too tired to play. Phil gave up. It was Greek. I didn’t ask him what he had said before. I just closed my eyes and thought about Mama, the picture box, my dirty dress, how hot and itchy it was under this wig now. Why I wore it in the first place. To please. Who?
Before drifting to sleep, I noticed the moon was full. In its milky light, the only thing that remained was the contrast between our two skin tones.
Phil said one last thing, caressing my forehead.
-You are so beautiful. You know, I used to laugh with my father all the time about how we would never date a black girl. Because we didn’t want smoked meat, you know.
Something broke inside.
-Yeah. Because you know, the vagina is kind of… black on the outside, pink on the inside, so… Smoked meat. Pretty nasty.
-I mean, that was just a stupid joke. Like… You’re one of the prettiest girls I ever met. Even if you’re black.
-Good night, Philipp.
That’s the last thing I said.
The next morning, I escaped. Almost left a note saying: I know a good place for smoked meat, if you’d like. Seems like you discovered yourself a new appetite yesterday. But I didn’t. Too heartless. Plus, he wouldn’t have understood. Realising how hurtful that “joke” was would have been too much of an epiphany. Perspective sure can change. But never that much.
I rushed down the stairs. Slammed each door, gasped for fresh air. While running to the closest bus stop, under dying snowflakes, I had a thought for all these women in my life; Mama, my aunts, my cousins, my grandmother, my ancestors before them. Generations and generations of self-hate and self-love acquired patiently, through tears and songs and cornrows and headwraps and solidarity and strength. Strength. Years of looking at the blonde Barbie dolls with envy in their big brown eyes. Years of being approached only for sexual favors. Decades of having been called ugly, vulgar, undesirable. Years of occupying crappy jobs. Years of sitting on rough knees every Sunday, praying to a God that doesn’t exist. Years of losing husbands, sons and brothers. Years of skin-bleaching. Years of lying and despair. And yet, still there, still hit by the rocks of prejudices and jokes that aren’t made to be, still fighting for a voice and the right to freedom, in all its forms, for recognition, for representation, still there smiling to life with poise and grace. Grace.
I held my head high and entered the hospital in that same dress I had worn the day before, still full of sperm and saliva, still warm from the night.
When Phil woke up that day, he found the other side of the bed empty, just like in the movies.
He wrote to me again. Saying how awesome it had all been. Where was I? Could we do this again? I never replied what I thought: next time you like someone, instead of comparing their body parts to smoked meat, please wait. And consider the fact that before being a skin color, they are also (mostly) a person. A person.
If that’s not too much to ask.
But I just sat there waiting for Mama to wake up while a black lady mopped the floor around us.