The experience of the African diaspora differs around the world. I became uniquely aware of this at the age of thirteen when I moved to Anguilla permanently with my mother. Prior to this, I had lived on the two coasts of America: Los Angeles and Miami, two cities known for a dichotomy of racism and diversity depending on the neighbourhood in which you found yourself walking. The middle section of the country was no man’s land to my child’s mind. I pieced together a wheat-tinged view from various news segments and movies. Mostly I thought of middle America as white (with lots of corn growing) and families who owned labradors and expected their children to grow up to be anything but artists.
In the early 90s, the soles of my worn Vans slapped the chewing-gum-spotted pavement of a not so choice location in West Hollywood, but only if my hand was secured in the pale palm of my mother and even then only if we were walking from our padlocked gate to the parked car around the corner.
My mother came from the middle section of America. She wore flannel pants and saddle shoes in the halls of her co-ed high school.
I was born in 1985, a mere eighteen years after interracial marriage became legal across the United States. This meant that many (if not all) adults remembered a time where a relationship which would result in a child such of myself was seen as an abomination. In grade school I remember reading that in ancient Greek mythology existed a chimera, a creature formed of different beings. I imagined that as myself. I would look in the mirror and note the differences in my reflection to my mother’s.
I was raised by my white mother to love myself. She taught me that my hair was revered and that my skin tone was something others laid out in the sun for hours to achieve. She used to tell me I had a perfect nose and lips that others would over-line to achieve. The others were white people. I didn’t realise that until I was much older. A girl looking at beauty magazines that didn’t just feature white women on the cover. I don’t remember seeing anyone on magazines that ever looked like me (and I know I was looking) until one year in late grade school when I saw Halle Berry. I was looking not for a black role model, but for someone else who had my same ambivalent chimera DNA. I don’t remember any people of colour in my circle when I was growing up who I could look at and think, “She looks like me”.
When I was five years old, I discovered that, unlike my mother’s hair, mine was not controlled by gravity. It orbited. I would press my hands against it and plead it down to the earth with all my kindergarten might.
“This is how long my hair really is,” I would say, as if in its unmanipulated state it was deceiving me. At night, my mother would let me tend her hair with toothy hair brush. It had stiff plastic teeth emerging from a pink rubber mouth. I would run it from root to tip and be met with no resistance. My mother’s hair did not tell lies to her. It grew straight down and did not hide its length in devious curls like mine.
I trusted my hair only when I was in the shower and it was slick with the influence of conditioner. I conditioned it to lie with fake verisimilitude against my shoulders and down my back. I liked it better when it was good and told the truth.
Now I am in my mid-thirties. I pass the bathroom, my flip flops slapping the tile. I see my own daughter. I am in a loop of my childhood, but now I am the one who is lighter. I am the one who owns the mouthy brush. I am the one whose hair is obedient and truthful. I see my browner daughter in the shower smoothing her hair down. Conditioning it to lie.
“Look, Mom,” she says. “Now my hair looks like yours.”