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ABW Disease

There is a condition out there quietly plagues many females of the Black community.  It is whispered of in hushed tones, and although it is easily diagnosed by anyone with an eye, most of the women who suffer from it are completely unaware they have it.  It is an isolating and restrictive condition, and if you know of it, the you try your hardest not to develop it.  it’s called Angry Black Woman Disease and every woman I know who knows of it bristles when she spots it.

There are varying strains, of course.  There’s the Rasputia strain of ABWD; the loud, brash, easily angered, unreasonable and irrational Black woman who Eddie Murphy forever immortalized in Norbit.  There’s the Deliver Us From Eva strain; the professionally aspirant, personally miserable, cut’ em off at the knees Angry Black Woman whose bitterness is her defining trait.  There’s the Celebreality strain of ABWD that is preoccupied with looking perfect and acting crazy, torn between being likeable and being “real”.  This woman’s temper is regulated solely by the perception of disrespect or lack thereof.  There are many, many strains and the whole world is very adept at spotting them all.  The Millennium Black Woman is very adept at avoiding the label all together.

Indeed, the Millennium Black Woman (at least this one) strives towards a different social archetype:  The Claire Huxtable/Michelle Obama Black Woman.  This Black Woman is perfect!  Words like, unreasonable, irrational, brash, and bitter don’t apply to her.  This woman is personable, relatable, likeable, and classy! She’s Every Woman!  Yes, Momma may not take any mess, but she uses convincingly subtle suggestion, not finger wagging and neck rolling, to make that clear.  THAT’S who I’m trying to be.  Okay let’s be honest; that’s who I am,…..right?

Thats what I thought, anyway, until Leila suggested otherwise.  We were sitting on the couch watching TV and a commercial of a woman yelling like a crazy person came on.  “That’s how you talk to Daddy,” she says to me offhandedly.  Aghast, I replied “That’s not true,” to which she very matter-of-factly replied, “yes it is”.  Because two wrongs of course make a right, I look for parity.  “Does Daddy talk like that to mommy?” I asked, waiting for her to say yes.  After all, she is just probably misinterpreting the way that we communicate.  Somethings kids misunderstan – “Nope”, she says before I can even finish rationalizing her observation.  “That’s how you talk to Daddy, but he doesn’t talk like that to you.”  Wait a minute….did my baby just diagnose me with – clutch the pearls – Angry Black Woman Disease!?!?!

Now I will say this:  I am not a yeller and I am not a disrespectful conversationalist.  But I do know two things: I have short patience and a sharp tongue and tone.  The two together can lead to some very tense communication.  Leila pointed out that the tone of my conversation – the sharpness of it, the one-sidedness of it – is not lost on her.  I have to acknowledge that for better or for worse, she might have a point.  And if she feels like I am speaking meanly to her Daddy…. how does he feel?  Oh dear me. Could it be that I am as unaware of myself and how I make people feel as those ABW’s I have cocked an eyebrow and shook my head at?  It is very possible that I have a slight case of ABWD, strain unknown.  It is also equally possible that I don’t have ABWD, I am just overworked, highly stressed, overly expressive and sometimes unaware of how my more pointed tones could be received.  Hell, nobody can be Claire Huxtable 24/7!  Even Michelle Obama gets criticized when she indulges in a moment of just being herself.  And that’s when it hit me:  Claire Huxtable, Postcard Perfect Michelle Obama (not FLOTUS herself), Rasputia, Eva, Evelyn Lozada, NeNe, all of these “personalities” are constructs.  They are reductive, two-dimensional boxes that fit none of us comfortably.  Instead of trying to be/not be any of those socially created jumpsuits that make defining me easier for other people, maybe I just need to be focused on being a better me.

So I recognize that maybe I do need to be more mindful of how I talk to folks, regardless of my intentions.  After all, Leila is watching.  I want her to understand that life and love is about respect, both receiving it and giving it.  I want her to know that you can disagree with people in a way that doesn’t leave them demoralized.   I am trying to be more mindful of how I talk to my husband and the tone I use, especially in front of Leila.  Because whether we are discussing something big or trivial, it’s the tone that turns it into an argument.  And in the words one of my favorite fab “Millenium Me” TV characters right now, Ms. Jessica Pearson of Suits, “Mother and Father should never argue in front of the children.”

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Best Friends Forever

Last week my grandmother fell and she couldn’t get up, which was not funny at all, given her age.  My grandmother is 93 years old, and at that age, a stumble can be life threatening.  So when I heard that my mom had to call a family friend over and sit there with my grandmother in the floor while she waited for him to arrive and help move her, my heart jumped into my throat.  Usually for old people, a fall like that means hospital, then nursing home, then tears for those who love them.

Leila heard me talking about Granny to my sister.  Its funny; Leila and Granny  have such a cute relationship.  Granny has regressed, Leila has matured, and now they’re kind of the same age.  They laugh at the same silly things, have the same short attention span, they tell on each other, and they antagonize each other.  Leila reads to Granny from Dr. Seuss, Granny reads to Leila from In Touch.  It is absolutely adorable.  They are BFF’s, Leila and her great-grandmother.  So when Leila approached me with eyes wide and voice low, I knew she was worried.  “Did Granny die?” she asked.  “No, silly.  She just got hurt”, I replied.  “Is she going to die?” she asked.  Oh my baby.  Here she is, such a little girl, trying to resolve all these things that have happened in her world.  This summer has taught her that death is as real as Christmas.  She understands, maybe more than the average 6 year old, that people get infirm and then they die and they don’t come back, no matter how much we love them.  And she has noticed that my family is shrinking.  What do I say to this kid who keeps burying people  she loves?  How do I explain that, yes, mommy’s got a little family because nobody lives forever?  And how do I resolve with myself the shrinking of my nucleus?  After all, I want my children to feel connected to my whole family, but what if my whole family – one day – is gone?

“Sooner or later everybody goes to heaven”, I tell my baby.  “But Granny’s so old, she’s probably going to go to heaven soon, right mommy?”  she asks, with all the seriousness in the world.  “We can’t know that, muffin.  All we know is that we have to show people how much we love them and have fun with them while they are here with us”, I say.  After all, it is all I can say.  I wish kids could learn some of the tougher lessons later.  But since life has dealt us some different cards, I guess all I can do is try to cushion the blow.  Kids, however, are surprisingly resilient.  “Yeah mommy, Granny’s my precious partner and I’m gonna show her all the time.  Besides, even if she dies, she’ll still be in my heart, just like Poppop”.  She’s so strong and smart and insightful and amazing.  When I grow up, I wanna be just like my baby.

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What Would Jesus Do?

One of the things that I am learning about being married to someone of a different culture is that the small differences between you culturally can almost be a bigger deal than the big things.  It’s funny how that works:  you get over the big things pretty quickly, but the stuff that you thought wouldn’t matter that much slowly begins to, well, matter.  Take, for instance, religion.  John is Catholic, I am Christian.  Not that different, right?  After all, we both believe in God, we have the same reference point for creation, the fundamentals are in alignment.  But there are some real differences in our beliefs also.  In spite of those differences, though, we are two people who know how to get along and we quickly found a happy medium.  After all, church is church and God is God.

But then we had Leila and broader questions popped up.  Should she be baptized by one church or both?  Her Catholic church godparents have to be Catholic?  What if my choice for a godparent isn’t Catholic?  What if I’m not Catholic?  What does that make me?  Does she pray to God or to Peter, Paul, Mary and Joseph?  How do I ask these questions without offending John?  How does he stand his ground without offending me?  An easy answer is still nowehere in sight.  And while we try to figure our stuff out, Leila has started figuring things out for herself. Before I know it, she is differentiating between “Mommy’s church” and “Our (read her and John’s) church”.  All of this leaves me mulling a much bigger question:  where am I in all of this?

It’s a selfish question, really.  My mother says as long as she believes in God she’s fine.  But I associate my relationship with God with my relationship with my mother.  After all, she dragged me to church, Sunday School and VBS (Vacation Bible School) religiously (pun fully intended).  She helped me memorize Bible verses for summer camp, she slammed me in the youth choir that taught me songs whose lyrics would pull me through life’s toughest times.  Being spiritual without being dogmatic, knowing the word for myself, appreciating a well-timed Bible verse, being able to praise without making a spectacle, recognizing the difference between Christians and “Christians”, seeing God everywhere and in all things (including other religions), all this I learned from watching my mother.  My relationship with God is defined, in large part, though my relationship with my mom.  Simply put, God reminds me of my mommy, and my mommy reminds me of God.

Now if Leila develops that with John, I think that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.  But on this east coast, so far away from the only five other people I call my family and in a neighborhood with approximately only three African-American women to speak of (including me), Leila’s only reference point for me, is…me.  To the extent that I do not clearly define myself to my baby, do I, in some strange way, disappear?  And heaven forbid anything happen to me, what left around my baby would make her think of me?

I guess what I am realizing is that in many ways, we are defined not as much by what we believe, but more by what we practice. Religion creates the many of the traditions that are the very fabric of the ties that bind.  And what I have come to realize is that when you feel so far away from all that you are, strengthening that fabric becomes very, very important.  So last night, when Leila finished a prayer with “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” and the sign of the cross, both against and compelled by my better judgement, I corrected her.  “When you go to church across the street, you can say that when you pray”, I said, “but in the house we just say, ‘In Jesus’ name, Amen'”.  I’m so conflicted here.  I don’t want to confuse my baby, but I don’t want to disappear to her either.  What I believe matters too, even if it’s not that different from what’s all around her, right? God, this is hard!  What would Jesus do?  It’s just so hard to know…

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Time Flies

Last week, my baby was in a wedding.  Actually, I’m wrong; my baby wasn’t in a wedding.  My big girl was.  It seems as if over night, my baby is gone, and what is standing in her place is this kid that is more mature than I am prepared for.  I watched her interacting with the other kids in the wedding and I realized that she isn’t just my baby anymore, she is a person.  And not just any person, but her own person!  She has a sense of humor, a sense of style, she holds conversations and – clutch the pearls – even throws the occasional side-eye!  She is definitely not a baby, not anymore.  She is now a big girl, and she got here quicker than I ever expected.  I am thinking that every mom goes through the shock of this realization sooner or later.  All I could think about as I watched her stomp down the aisle, eyes cast down, not even throwing the petals that were her charge, is just what a big girl she has become….and what a mother I had turned into!  Here I was at a wedding, about to cry not because of the ceremony, but because of how taken I was with my own daughter’s growth.  I am all caught up in this motherhood thing, and it crept up on me so quietly I didn’t even know it was happening.  It feels like only yesterday I was holding her in my arms while we both stared at each other skeptically, neither one knowing what to expect from the other.  But all this time my baby has been growing, I guess I have been too.  She is turning into a big girl, I am turning into a bona fide “momma” and we are both turning out okay.  We are growing up together, my baby and I,  and it seems like the time is flying.

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Is Beige The New Black

I have to be honest about something I’ve noticed recently. I am noticing that – where I live at least – if you are my age, moderately middle class, African American, female and in a long term relationship, more than likely it may be with a man “other” than African American. Is that a given? Absolutely not. But is it probable? Highly.

Now I am not always on the lookout for other interracial couples, searching for normalcy in an unforgiving world. Quite the opposite, I didn’t even characterize my own marriage as interracial. My husband is an Alpha for God’s sake! He’s grandfathered in. It wasn’t until other people pointed out that he wasn’t black and therefore we were by definition an interracial couple that I began to see us as others do. So I’m not on the lookout for other mixed couples to be our mixed friends so that we can talk about mixed couple things.

But what I am always on the lookout for are friends for my daughter. I want her to feel comfortable in the world and am always trying to soften the “only” syndrome that I new so well. It’s tough being the only tall/black/not poor/not rich/not white/not black (enough)/ not kid. So I am always looking for environments that are well balanced so she’s not the only “only”. The good thing is, she’s not. Much like my parents, I have made friends with kids that are being raised just like Leila. Her little friends share similar experiences, values, and perspectives. And as it happens, most of them also share the same beige complexion. Because what I realized at a recent shindig one of my friends threw, is that a lot of Leila’s friends’ mommies look like me, and their daddies look like my husband. I looked around at all my friends with their little mixed children, standing with their swirly husbands and partners and it got me wondering: has beige become the new black?

The whole world would have me think otherwise. Whether its talk shows bemoaning the plight of the lonely ambitious black woman, the death of the black family, or the undesirability of the African American female, the message is the same: ain’t no love for a black woman. But I look around and I am seeing Black women all around me in thriving, loving relationships. I am seeing us raise well behaved respectful children with the same values that our parents gave us. I am looking at the life partners of these women steal glances at them that speak pride, and love, and affection. And while some of these glances are from one black lover to another, up here on the east coast it’s also not. At first I’m inclined to first wonder if I unconsciously bought into a social trend for upwardly mobile (translation: bougie) females or if I am watering my bloodline, I think again. The only trend I’m a part of is the trend of people opening their eyes to one another and believing that attraction is more complex than complexion. It’s perspective, it’s sense of humor, it’s values, it’s bone structure. And everybody can command it, even a black girl. We are loved and being loved, committed to our families with partners that are committed to us. We are fine! So beige may wind up being the new black, and that’s okay. ‘Cause beige is beautiful, too.

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The Dark-Skinned Club

A few weeks ago, John and Leila met me at my job.  They were picking me up for a family dinner night out in Harlem.  Since they were meeting me at the office, I thought it would be nice to bring them in so Leila could meet my whole team.  They came in, Leila smiled, everyone laughed at her missing teeth, we said goodbye and that was it.  As we exited the building, Leila said to me, “all of their skin is so beautiful, Mommy!”.  I wrinkled my eyebrows.  I think I know where this is going.

As I have mentioned before, Leila is keenly aware of complexion.  I do not know why this is, because I do not remember even remotely having an eye for it at all in my childhood.  I would say it’s because John and I sit rather far apart on the color spectrum, but then I think no.  My father was significantly darker than my mom, and although my sister and I are closer to her complexion than his, I never considered his skin’s complexion significantly different or even noticeable.  It just kind of was, like his beard and his height.  But Leila did not only notice skin color, by the age of 3 & 1/2, she had picked a preference.  “I don’t like Mike and Jacob, because they have brown skin mommy”, she said to me one otherwise insignificant summer day.  “Excuse me!?!?!” was my reply, followed by an intense – but measured – line of questioning.  This was all too much!  Not only was she aware of complexion in a way that I was not prepared to deal with yet, she had already internalized some negative connotations about skin color that didn’t just affect the way she could see the world and her role in it, it could disturb her relationships with her own family members, including me!  Initialize deprogramming sequence immediately!

Corrective action was taken, post haste.  Whether it was right or not, I told her everyone has brown skin.  Everyone!  Daddy is light light brown, mommy is brown-brown, she is light-brown, Pop-Pop (her grandfather) is dark brown, etc.  And ALLLLLL brown skin is beautiful!  Brown is beautiful!  Now say it!  And repeat it!  Again! It was more military drill than affirmation.  I had to make sure she got the point.  I can’t risk raising a self-hating child and letting our lives become a re-enactment of Imitation Of Life!  Everything became about the beauty of brown.  “Look at how pretty that brown marker is!”  “I love the brown crayon”, it just went on.  And I made it a point to point out how attractive brown skin is, also.  Every brown person we saw in a magazine, tv show, or even on the street, I made a point to offhandedly comment on how pretty their skin is.  Of course, I would reaffirm for her how perfect her skin is too, because God made it that way, just like he made the brown skin.  “All skin is beau-a-ful!” my baby would say to me proudly, and I would say “that’s right, baby!” right back, just as proud.  Crisis averted.  No self-loathing (or mixed kid mommy shame) would take place here.

But children are so observant.  And Leila noticed something in a five minute interaction that I had not noticed my entire two years at my job.  Yes, I work at a predominantly black agency.  However, what I saw through Leila’s eyes, is a bit of complexion stratification.  The majority of my line staff is dark-skinned.  And for the most part, the higher the management personnel, the lighter the complexion.  It is something that I never even saw until my baby said, in earnest, “all of their skin is so beautiful!” Because what I know is she was really making an observation (albeit one that had slipped past me):  everyone is very brown.  She planted a seed that I had not yet considered and couldn’t exactly process.  Anyway, a week later, she says to me, “Everybody in the dark-skinned club at your job is so nice!”  “What are you talking about?”, I ask, because time has past and I don’t know what she means.  “At your job mommy!  All the people in the room are all together and they are all dark-skinned and so pretty!  So they are a dark-skinned club.”  She was so matter of fact, so innocent, so earnestly contextualizing her own observations.  Of course I explained that they were not a dark-skinned club, and they weren’t a club at all, just a group of people who happened to have similar complexions.  I went on to explain that the similarity was a coincidence and besides, all that really matters was if they were nice.  She agreed and changed the subject.  But I was left wondering about the larger, more silent, subconscious systems at work in society, even in organizations run by minorities for minorities and wondering if even radical, revolutionary, renaissance me has ever yielded in their direction.  Leave it to a kid to make a statement that leaves you questioning the world.

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Prepping For The Press

What is it about girls and long hair?  Every little girl wants long flowing locks. I know I most certainly did.  In third grade, I ached to have long, straight tresses to play with absent-mindedly like all of the other white girls in the school full of vanilla skinned children I had recently transferred to.  I wanted it so badly I used to walk around with my mother’s slip on my head, pretending it was hair. I tucked it behind my ear, I tossed it over my shoulder, I even secured it pony tail style with twisties.  I waited – with bated breath – for those wonderful and rare occasions that every black girl lives for:  when she sits in a beautician’s chair and the heat of the hot comb stretches her hair all the way from short to long, from kinky to straight.  For me, though, the hot comb only took my hair from super short to short. There was never any hair to graze my neck or tuck behind my ear. Hence the slip.

Leila has the same long hair fixation with a twist; she actually has long hair. When I’ve washed her hair she has said “now is my hair long, Mommy?”  With a mixture of pride and dread I say”…..yeeeesss…” I know where this is leading. I remember clearly the tantrum she had when I told her once that her hair was washed, it couldn’t stay “down”. And I’m hearing her say repeatedly how tired she is of her poofy hair. Sooner or later she’s gonna realize that straight is an alternative, and once that happens will she ever want to see her curls again?

Well, sooner is upon me. Leila is a flower girl and the bride has requested that her hair be loose. I know full well the only way to manage her loose hair over the course of several hours is to straighten it. Otherwise it will swell to the size of a hot air balloon and snatch up any small utensils it passes.  Literally. At Leila’s last party she had her hair down and my sister came to let me know that there were forks and crayons getting snagged in her hair. So it must be straightened. I tell her “so Leila, this Sunday I’m going to get your hair done.” “Is it going to be long and straight and beautiful?”, she asks. “Well, your hair is already beautiful. But, yes it’s going to be straight also. We are straightening it for a special occasion, not forever, okay?”  I stare at her, this little girl who has memorized every scene and score of Tangled the Rapunzel movie. I see a little girl who has told me all she wants is straight yellow beautiful hair, I stare at this little girl who reminds me so much of myself, and I wait. I wait for her to say something that reminds me of how unhappy all little girls are with themselves. And she looks at me and says right back, “ok, that’s fine. I love my curls.”  And just like that I realized she is more than ready for her first press.