I am African-American. My husband is Hungarian. Our daughter, Simone, is the color of honey and fantasizes about being a full-blooded Latina. I believe she has adopted this culture so as not to have to choose between her father or me. In all likelihood, her father doesn’t care. In all likelihood, I do. I am determined that she grow up with a black consciousness, and barring that, at least a black sensibility.
Simone, now a freshly minted teen, suffered her first identity crisis when she was still a toddler. She had been bathing in the tub one evening as was our routine. I am not a fussy mother. I tested the bath water until it ran a comfortable lukewarm, dumped in the cups and saucers, plastic artichokes and rubber duckies, and poured in enough bubble bath to create the requisite three inches of foam.
Stripping the clothes from her perfect little body I lifted, then plunked her squarely in the middle of the tub, where I left her to herself, remaining within hearing distance. I used this time to clean her room or make up my bed from that morning, or fold the clothes that had grown roots on the countertop in the laundry room.
When finished with her play, she called for me, usually some twenty to thirty minutes later. Invariably, when I entered the bathroom, she hid from me, submerged in the bubbles, so that all I could see was the profile of her face, the brown nose and mouth, little islands in a sea of white froth, her floating hair rivulets of streaming lava.
I sat on the edge of the tub staring at her naked body, flawless skin, the residue of bubbles around her eyes. She stood up, smiled her ever ready smile as she handed me the pink washcloth, small and soft in my hand.
The bath stripped her of everything but quintessential child and I pressed my nose to her cheeks, inhaling her satiny scrubbed skin while carrying her to the sink counter where I stood her, draped neck to foot in an oversized towel. I dried, massaged her already soft, moist skin with lotion, and dressed her. That part was easy.
Combing her hair was the challenge, and it was several years before I learned the secret of managing her long, curly-but-not-nappy hair, a process which required a strategic mix of product and technique. I would not have her looking like those raggedy-haired, bi-racial children I encountered at the grocery store and playgrounds, their dry, wheat blond locks so matted one wondered if the child had just been yanked out of bed. I blamed their mothers, typically white, for not learning how to comb their hair, for letting them roam the grocery aisles and climb the jungle gym looking like bleached-out savages.
The process took about twenty minutes, first spraying detangler to help comb through the thick mess of hair, brushing and gathering it to form a tight ponytail, topping the ‘do with mousse and dabbing a bit of pomade to keep away the frizzies. The whole time she grilled me about what the evening would bring. “When is Daddy coming home?” “What are we having for dinner?” “What are we going to do after dinner?” “And what are we going to do after that?”
It was during one of those deeply in love moments that, overcome with the miracle of her perfection, I kissed her cheeks and murmured, “My beautiful black baby.” Seduced by her smell and the softness of her skin, the curly locks of hair clinging to her back, I was totally unprepared for her response.
“I am NOT.” With those words, my life flashed before me, the sum of my worth, weighty as the final verdict on Judgment Day, vested in those single syllable words. I Am Not.
The whole of my narrative rearranged itself to accommodate this new center. Memories which had lain dormant erupted before me in panoramic color, threatening to scorch my tempered soul. I heard the voice of my seventh-grade Sunday School teacher, a sedate white woman, spouting her racial philosophy as she drove her station wagon, packed with kids headed to the beach. Sitting behind her I stifled my surprise over her resistance to racial mixing, as never before had I suspected her of prejudice. According to her, interracial dating was irresponsible because it led to interracial marriage which, in turn, led to interracial children who, by definition, lived miserable lives.
Even as she commented, she drove a car full of adolescents, two white, one Japanese and ha’o’le, one Chinese and Filipino, one black and Choctaw-Cherokee Indian, down a fragrant stretch of highway in Hawaii, a state where pure-blooded Hawaiians were virtually extinct and practically everyone was hapa-something. Obviously, she did not know that her daughter, Mona, sitting next to me, had a major crush on a very cute island boy in the back seat. Or perhaps she did. Perhaps that was the point of the lecture.
All the butter-brickle colored girls and boys who wanted to be white passed before me, those who believed they were white because they could be, and those who believed they were because they so desperately needed to be, who believed that by merely thinking so, the world would treat them accordingly. They opted for the advantages afforded to them by a society that assessed one’s value by something as arbitrary as a brown paper bag. In that moment, like them, Simone had renounced her cultural heritage, and by association, me.
My voice faltered, and I could only utter a desperate, raspy What? as I clutched at a clump of her hair, wrenched out the water. The heart that just moments ago gushed with such sweet tenderness now seeped bitter bile. Anger was beyond me.
With her father’s eyes, big and brown, the right one larger than the left, she looked at me with emphasis, her brow furrowed, dead serious. “I am not a BABY.” She repeated it. “I am NOT.”
Redemptive joy flooded my body, and plastering her with kisses, I met her furious eyes and said with equal emphasis, “No, you are certainly NOT.”
I knew at some point she would need to make a choice or choose not to choose. She had no idea, yet, what being black meant, but would learn soon enough. For now all that mattered, in her three-year old body, was that I not call her a baby. Still, I knew what was coming.