Unpacking my mother’s racial pain: They chased her in class and cut her hair
Mom doesn’t talk much about her early years in school.
Believe me, I’ve asked. But whenever conversation turns to her childhood, the chronology is scattered. She’ll talk about home life, but rarely about school life.
For a long time, that irked me because I love scrolling through the past.
Just ask Grandma. Whenever I’d go to her house (pre-pandemic, of course), I’d crack open her collection of photo albums and pore over the pages, even if I had seen the same photos countless times.
I’m fascinated by what life was like before I got here. I enjoy picturing the world through the eyes of my nearest and dearest. From their hairstyles to how they spent their Saturdays, I’m insatiably curious. I want to know it all.
But when it comes to Mom (I call her “Ma”), I’ve seen very few school photos, aside from her high school graduation pictures.
Maybe those other photos were lost. Maybe my grandma didn’t buy many. Whatever the reason, it all plays into the shrouded mystique of Ma’s academic history.
Here’s what I do know: She didn’t like school.
It’s not because she wasn’t a good student. The woman is intelligent, and I credit her with my intellectual curiosity (and sarcasm, one of the greatest gifts she gave me).
My mother is fairly light-skinned, but brown enough to be identified as Black. She was even lighter when she was younger, plus she had long, straight hair (my grandma flat-ironed it). That made her a target. And because kids can be cruel — this was during the late ’60s and ’70s, when integration was a novel concept — she was teased relentlessly. Her hair was cut. She was chased around classrooms. She was shunned. Her teachers refused to instruct her because she was Black. By the time she was in fifth grade, white kids with sticks and dogs began chasing her and her friends to and from the train station, almost daily.
But it wasn’t just the white kids. Black children were terrible, too.
Colorism in the Black community is a prevalent problem that’s yet another byproduct of systemic racism and white supremacy. Often, light-skinned Black people are assumed to be uppity, smarter, sensitive and better-looking. Dark-skinned Black people are assumed to be ugly, violent, stupid and animalistic. Those beliefs were embedded into the psyches of our enslaved ancestors who adopted the same “white is right” ideology as their despicable owners.
(SN: For the record, colorism is a major issue in many minority communities. Black people are not unique in that regard.)
Although all slaves were considered chattel, many believed being light-skinned (i.e., white-adjacent) was better than being dark-skinned because it allowed for a certain degree of privilege. Instead of being subjected to the backbreaking work of picking cotton, sugar cane or tobacco, a lighter-skinned slave might be consigned to domestic work in the plantation’s big house. That created the perception that light-skinned slaves had it better.
But, no matter the variance or division of labor, slaves were slaves. Light-skinned people were whipped, beaten and sexually abused with abandon, just like their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. Life in the big house could be just as terrifying and miserable as life in the fields. Plus, treatment of slaves differed from plantation to plantation. Light-skinned slaves might be favored by one master and treated cruelly by another. No slave had it good; their lives were at the whims of the families they served.
The challenges did not end after emancipation. In the wake of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, light-skinned Blacks were still disenfranchised because, no matter how fair their skin, they were still Black. Even those who managed to pass in white society did so at the risk of being discovered and killed. (Read this article on the one-drop rule, an edict used widely during slavery and the Jim Crow era that said a single drop of Black blood made a person fully Black.)
But, perception is powerful. Culture has reinforced damaging stereotypes that being light-skinned or racially ambiguous makes you more attractive, safer, educated and more likely to achieve success or stardom — all because you look closer to white than, say, me or my dad.
That has created an undercurrent of resentment within the Black community we’re still fighting.
Ma fought it a lot, even though the origin of her light complexion is mired in pain and abuse. In my ancestry research, I’ve found records showing my maternal progenitors, as far back as the 1830s, were listed as mulatto, a racist term for someone who’s mixed. That means my enslaved women ancestors were raped and impregnated by their white owners. This makes sense, as many of my maternal relatives are light brown.
(SN: Dismiss any notion that love could’ve been a factor in light-skinned lineage. Slavery was an unbalanced, unequal power dynamic. My ancestors could not just come and go as they pleased. They were captives. Even if overt violence wasn’t involved in the sexual interaction — and it likely was — one person had all the power; the other had none. That’s rape.)
Ma was a kid in the civil rights era. She heard speeches from Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Fred Hampton when they were first televised. She heard broadcasts announcing their assassinations, too. She heard the cantankerous comments from people who opposed integration. And she heard the demeaning taunts from jealous classmates who called her a “light-skinned, half-white b — — h.”
Hence, why they cut her hair.
My mother’s plight might not seem extraordinary to you. Lots of kids are bullied.
But, racial animus is unique. I talked about this last week with my friend and colleague, Zach. He’s biracial, and thus light-skinned. Race, we agreed, is low-hanging fruit for the brute. If someone wants to hurt you, they make your skin color the punchline. Without even bothering to learn your name, a bigot can look at you and make a judgment call that your life is worthless, that you’re ugly, that you’re poor, that you’re uneducated.
Plus, kids are the worst, and the wounds they inflict hurt years later.
Ma dealt with that in spades. Then, there’s where she grew up. Brooklyn, New York may not have been the unabashedly racist south, but it was rough.
In New York City in the 1970s, violent crime was at an all-time high. Muggings were commonplace. Taking the subway was taking a risk. Visitors and tourists were handed pamphlets telling them to stay away from the city if they could and to never venture outside after 6 p.m. David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, went on his infamous yearlong killing spree. And Black people and White people, while indifferent towards each other at best and ruthlessly violent towards each other at worst, weren’t holding hands singing kumbaya.
By the grace of God, Ma survived it all.
I talked to her about some of this recently. She said dealing with the adversity in school “made me finally be able to stand up for myself and take no more crap. It made me strong, so I’m good.”
She is strong. She’s also human. She feels. She hurts. And what those kids said and did, because of how she looked, is infuriating.
Our Black mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents endured overt racial trauma that was normative less than 50 years ago. We can never repay or thank them enough for the challenges they faced. Many have managed to press beyond the pain to carry on with life as best they can. Many bear battle scars we hope our children will never have to. They are the carriers of an immense legacy juxtaposed with power and pain, triumph and tribulation.
Most importantly, they’re survivors.
Ma, I love you so much, and I’m sorry you dealt with pain because of your beautiful brown skin. I’m sorry they treated you so badly. I want to hurt them for you. I’d fight all of them for you.
But, I can’t.
All I can do is say I’m sorry.