“Chile, what’s wrong with you? What you over there cryin fo?”, my Grandma asked.
“It’s the kids at school”, I replied through my tears, “they keep picking on me!”
“For being black, for being dark…”
“Aww girl”, Grandma said as she sucked her teeth, “girl please! I told you how it was in Mississippi…”
“But Grandma it’s not the WHITE kids doing it, it’s the black ones! Just as black as you and me-“
“Don’t matter! What have I told you? Sticks and stones! Besides my Grandma always told me what don’t kill you makes you stronger! Did I tell you about the time I had to walk fifteen miles to the schoolhouse in the snow…”
And with that my Grandma would launch into a monologue about her childhood, shutting down my attempt to have a heart to heart with her about my Colorism issue. If not for my Mama’s struggle with addiction I could have gone to her instead. But my Grandma was my guardian and caretaker by this time, so I sighed and listened as always. I understood what my Grandma was doing and why she did it. Grandma came from a world where strength was crucial. There was no room for discussing feelings. If you stopped to do so you might become so overwhelmed with the pain of it all that you couldn’t function. So those of her generation kept it all inside. Talking about emotions, admitting vulnerability and pain were all signs of weakness. Grandma’s life taught her that weakness was luxury black women couldn’t afford, so she despised any traces of it. Tears could be shed in grief when someone died, or given freely to Jesus in praise and thanks at church, but that was it. On a certain level I felt what Grandma wanted to convey to me: her childhood had been harder than mine. But the knowledge of Grandma’s struggle didn’t erase the pain of mine. Restrained from further responding to anything my Grandma said by the mores of our culture, I simply nodded my head. When she finished and told me to go wash my tear-stained face and come back with a smile I jumped up and complied. It would be the first and last time I attempted to have such a discussion with her. I briefly thought of approaching one of my aunts or uncles, but soon decided against, that as I worried they would react as my Grandma did. Some of my cousins were just as confused and colorstruck as the kids at school, so going to them would be senseless. Shoulders slumped in resignation, I felt like it was me against the world. And then Tisha came along.
Tisha and I first met in the fifth grade. Years later, when people would ask how long we’d been friends, Tisha would always say since we were ten. I’d correct Tisha and remind her that we’d actually become friends a year later in the sixth grade. Tisha would insist I was wrong and I’d generally laugh and let it go. The exact year we became friends wasn’t what made us special; our connection and sisterhood was.
It started pretty simply. Tisha lived three blocks from me and rode the same school bus. One day she invited me over to her house. After my Grandma spoke to Tisha’s mom she gave her approval. I’d frequently hang out at Tisha’s place, glad for the change of pace and freedom it provided. On a breezy spring day in 1991 we sat in her bedroom, doing our nails. I picked up an emery board and began dragging it across my thumbnail.
“No, no, silly”, Tisha laughed,” it’s only for the edge of your nail dear! You’ll mess up the surface of your nail using it that way!” She walked over to me and demonstrated the proper way to use it.
“Thanks, got it”, I replied as I began using the board properly. After filing my nails I painted them and held them in front of my body.
“You know, you’re really lucky Tisha”, I told her.
“Lucky? What do you mean?”, she asked with a puzzled look on her face.
“You’re lucky because you’re so light. If I was your color no one would tease me and the boys would love me.”
Tisha’s face burned and her eyes became flickering obsidian pools. I could see I’d pissed her off.
“LUCKY? You think my color makes me LUCKY? YOU’RE the lucky one; at least they accept you as Black! Sometimes I wish I was darker!”
I stared at Tisha in shock. Tisha was what black folks call a redbone, a light bright and/or high yellow. Unless Tisha had a tan her skin was the color of a peach and she had curly long auburn hair. We were on opposite ends of the color spectrum of our people, Tisha as light as I was dark. Prior to Tisha’s confession that day the thought that light-skinned girls suffered for their color as well never crossed my mind. I assumed everything was better for them. Hearing Tisha say she envied my dark skin was something I never would have expected.
“You wish you were darker Tisha? Trust me, you don’t want that! Yeah they accept me as black but they CLOWN me for it”, I yelled at her, feeling the tears forming.
“Yeah I’m black alright”, I continued,” I’m black bitch, black and ugly, darkie, blackie, crispy critter, coal, gorilla in the mist. And if you were dark like me that’s what you would be to them too. No you got it good”, I said, wiping my face.
Tisha looked at me wearily. “They can’t be pleased regardless girl. They’ll always say I’m too light and you’re too dark. So you know what I SAY? SCREW ‘EM ALL! We can be outcasts together!”
Our discussion that day marked the beginning of a solid friendship. Though we wouldn’t always see eye to eye, we’d always have each others back. From our preteens through high school and beyond Tisha and I would never allow color or men to divide us. We became so inseparable that strangers sometimes mistook us for siblings-though we looked nothing alike. My friendship with Tisha opened my eyes to her reality, one that I’d been too wrapped up in my own pain to see. I noticed how cold and distant girls who were darker than Tisha could be to her without even giving her a chance. I saw the way girls yanked on her hair and called it ugly out of envy. I’ll never forget the scene that took place in the seventh grade. Tisha was sharpening a pencil when another girl, Guadalupe, came up behind her and grabbed her hair. Guadalupe was similar to the girl Kiki from my previous entry. Guadalupe was not light like Kiki-she was actually close to my color-and felt the need to tell others that she wasn’t really full black because she had ‘ Spanish blood’ from her Mexican Grandma. ‘Spanish blood’ or not, Guadalupe had issues, and she took them out on Tisha.
“You think you so CUTE”, Guadalupe said, tightening her grip in Tisha’s hair,”but you AIN’T! You ain’t better than none of us!”
Tisha was petite, but very strong. She reached behind her back, gripped Guadalupe’s hand and removed Guadalupe’s fingers from her ponytail. Tisha then turned to Guadalupe and stared her in her eyes:
“I DO think I’m cute, but what I think isn’t the real problem here. The problem isn’t that think I’m better than you-‘cause I don’t. It’s that YOU think I’m better than you! Now you put your hands on my head one more time and we gon knuckle up!”
The class watched in silence, expecting a fight. But Tisha’s words struck such a nerve in Guadalupe that she slunk away in defeat. Tisha returned to her seat.
“GIRL, were you really going to fight her?” At twelve years old I had yet to be in a real fight, so Tisha’s willingness to throw down intrigued me.
“Girl please! Yes I would have gone there if she tried me. When you’re a light-skinned girl in the CD(Seattle’s Central District, which had a sizable black population at the time) you HAVE to be able to fight”, she said, busting out in laughter.
Tisha and I were like peas in a pod, and the colorstruck folks around us couldn’t understand the why or how of it. People asked Tisha why a pretty, light girl with good hair such as herself would want to be seen with me. People asked me why I’d want to be friends with a light-skinned girl when they were supposedly so stuck-up. What none of these people understood is that Tisha and I actually had much in common. We were strong critical thinkers, we liked to read, we had the same sarcastic sense of humor ( we STAYED laughing) and harbored a rebellious streak. In Tisha I found a kindred spirit and someone who would listen to my fears and insecurities without judgment. Our friendship was living proof that the color among African Americans didn’t have to be a line fraught with resentment and scorn and could instead be a circle of kinship and love.