Natasha – Black on the Outside
When I was seven, Mama told me I was too young to know what love meant. Permitting little knuckleheads like Ricky Reynolds to look under my dress during recess didn’t equal a relationship. Hanging from the monkey bars, his head between my dangling legs, nose sniffing through the cotton that separated my virginity from his prying eyes. We got married behind the swing set. Roxanne from the fifth grade performed the ceremony — her mom was a wedding planner. She ripped dandelions from the ground for my bouquet, told us we had to kiss for five seconds before it was official. She counted on her fingers while we pressed our lips together, dry and crusted from the late August heat. When she screamed five, Ricky jerked his head, biting my bottom lip, my first hickie. She snatched one of the kindergarteners from the sliding board ladder to be our baby, and I blew dandelion seeds into the wind. Whosever head they landed on first was next to be wed.
Unfortunately, our marriage didn’t last. I caught Ricky holding hands with Fast Lane Susie on the way to the buses that afternoon. They were a better match, though. They both lived in the Hamps while I had a mom and a dad and a house on Britter’s Street.
We only had one dictionary in our home, thicker than the King James Bible. Each section was tabbed, but instead of books from the Old and New Testaments, each tab was engraved with a letter— A, B, C, and on. The dictionary was too tall for the three-foot bookcase next to my parents’ bed, so they laid it flat, bending the shelf downward, curving the paperback spines of the Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan novels underneath. I dropped the dictionary in front of my feet, shaking the ground. It fell open to the M’s and I flipped backward, reading from bottom right to upper left — macaroni, mass, luciferin, lowboy — until I settled on love.
“Love,” I read, “a deep and tender feeling of affection for or attachment or devotion to a person or thing.” I curled the thin sheets of paper around my index finger, sat back on my heels. What did affection mean? Attachment as in Velcro? Didn’t devotion have something to do with Praise and Worship at church?
Mama always said love came from God. He traced our bodies into the soil, blew breath into our lungs, painted our skin with strong brushstrokes of ebony, mahogany, cinnamon. Love was creating someone in your own image, granting them the power to walk as kings and queens upon the earth. “We were building empires while Europe was still in darkness,” she’d said. “Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are. God is in you.”
God was in our house too. Images of the Savoir with brown skin, silky chestnut hair, the sun’s rays extending from his bowed head, adorned our walls, framed in glossed wood. He watched over us as we slept, blessed the food we ate at the kitchen table, clapped with the shouting parishioners mounted above the piano on the wall across from him. The figures in the painting danced whenever Mama played “This Little Light of Mine.” They waved their hymnals in the air, skipped around the pews, fainted down the aisles.
Each room had a Jesus figurine. It sat on dressers, coffee tables, cabinets, counter tops, clothed in white robes, arms outstretched, hair cascading down his back. Except for Cheyenne, whose mother was white, I had never met a black person with long, smooth hair. Our hair grew up toward the sky, spread out like fireworks. The stores didn’t sell a Jesus like that. He was too revolutionary, threatened the status quo. They needed something demure, a God who didn’t challenge the privilege of the majority, one who approved of the manmade pedestals on which they stood above the darker-skinned others. His glacial blue eyes, skin white as the wool cloth that tickled his ankles as he walked.
We colored the white Jesus’s in defiance. Brown permanent markers, henna paste, oak wood stains. We drew the lines on the blank canvas of his skin, filled him in with the flick of our wrists. We made him in our likeness, imitating the effort he put into molding our bodies from the clay of the earth.
I wanted to show all dark things love the way Jesus had when he made me. I stopped crushing on Ricky. His skin was too light. High yallah, Mama called him. He was the color of lemon cookies. Our wrists side by side looked like peanut butter and chocolate. Instead, I sought a friendship with Susie, hoping she was as sweet as her blackberry skin.
Johnson, Williams— we didn’t sit close to each other in class. I was toward the back, near the coat rack. Twenty-two students, seven desks per row, I was on a row by myself. Easily forgotten. I hid behind the other students’ heads, read chapter books I checked out from the library under my desk—Experanza Rising, The Birchbark House, Among the Hidden and the Shadow Children books. Susie sat in the middle row, next to the window where she stared out into the playground, beating on the desk in tune with the ticking clock, counting down to recess, uninterested in the lessons Mrs. Jenkins wrote on the blackboard.
At lunch, I stood three spots behind Susie in the line to the cafeteria. I listened to the rattling of beads in her braided hair as we walked. The pink, blue, and green cylinders clashed together at the ends of her hair, grazing over her shoulders. I mimicked her lunch choices. One square slice of cheese pizza, the cheese sliding off the undercooked dough. One bag of apple slices, the corners beginning to brown. A carton of chocolate milk from the cooler. Ranch packets from the condiments bowl.
Susie got free lunch, most of the kids from the projects did. They lived with their grandmas whose only income was social security, or their moms who worked late nights at McDonald’s and brought home chewy chicken nuggets and soft fries that would last them until the food stamps arrived.
I fished out two crumpled bills from my back pocket. The night before, I told Mama my lunch account was 57 cents in the red again. She’d promise to put twenty on it soon, but looking over the cafeteria lady’s shoulder, my two dollars had barely brought my account back to green.
“Have a good day, Natash.” She slid her glasses up the bridge of her nose, squinting at the monitor. I often wondered if she could read my name or if the last A had actually been cut off on the screen. I settled on the former. You didn’t graduate college to work in an elementary school cafeteria.
I found Susie sitting with two other girls at a table on the far right side of the cafeteria, against the wall.
“May I join you guys?”
“Why you talk like that?” The cheese stretched inside Susie’s mouth as she spoke.
“You sound like a white girl.”
Her friends snickered behind their napkins.
“How do I sound like a white girl?” I clutched my tray against my stomach, digging my nails into the plastic, the whites in my knuckles shown through skin.
“You got a really soft voice, like you used to live in the mountains and breathe in all the air. And you use big words in class.”
“I like reading the dictionary.”
The girls burst into laughter, cackling like hyenas, their partially chewed food jiggling inside their cheeks. They slammed their fist, squirted ranch dressing in the air, and it landed in droplets, sprinkled on the table.
“You’re weird, Oreo. You can’t sit with us.” Susie said.
I didn’t move. I picked at my cheese, twirling the strings around my finger. It wasn’t even warm. “Why do you call me Oreo?” I asked, not looking up from my plate.
In unison, white teeth glaring, they answered. “Black on the outside, white on the inside.”