It was enough just to hold her. The curve of her hips fit perfectly in my lap. We lay like spoons. The sun rose, filled the bedroom with bright light, and we didn’t move. It skated across the wall behind my headboard, and we barely flinched. It turned a fleshy peach and sank below the window, and we were still cocooned in the sheets, naked underneath, the heat radiating from our deep brown skin to keep us warm.
It was enough just to forage my fingers through her hair, soft like cotton balls, the tickling fur of dandelion seeds. A lock coiled around my finger, tightened, like a tiny snake suffocating its prey, and I made the mistake of wanting more. To think that we weren’t one whole, satisfied this day and forever, before I opened my mouth and spoke. To assume that asking her to do something so simple as to straighten her hair wouldn’t break her heart, wouldn’t consume her with images of my hating her, trying to scrub away her dark skin, seething at the natural bush that grew from her crown.
“I get that perms have chemicals. They can damage your hair. But a flat iron?”
I didn’t understand what that meant. Like heat stroke? Like dehydration? “I just want to be able to run my fingers through your hair, pull it when we . . . you know.”
“That’s such a man’s answer. Exploit my body for your sexual thrills.”
“That’s not what I meant. Just forget it.”
But she couldn’t forget it. She propped herself up on her elbows, took the other half of the covers, leaving me exposed, and wrapped them around her, concealing every inch of her body from the shoulders down. It was the first time she’d been out of my arms in eighteen hours, and it felt like carving away my own skin.
“Don’t go,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry.”
“I have to feed my dog anyway.” But we both knew Atticus lived in the yard, and if he didn’t have food in his bowl, he found it in a squirrel, or a rabbit, or the neighbor’s cat.
No, she couldn’t stand to be by my side anymore, let the self-hatred seep into her pores. She wanted to share all of her, all that she was, with me, but all that was on my mind was what if she looked a little more like her, a little more like them.
I waited a few days to call her, to let her anger recede, but as the phone rang and rang with no answer, the echo of her voice overcame me. Exploit my body. Exploit my body. What if another man had? I only perpetuated the cycle.
Snow White was nude at her wedding, she’s so white
the gown seemed to disappear when she put it on.
Put me beside her and the proximity is good
for a study of chiaroscuro, not much else.
Her name aggravates me most, as if I need to be told
what’s white and what isn’t.
Judging strictly by appearance there’s a future for me
forever at her heels, a shadow’s constant worship.
Is it fair for me to live that way, unable
to get off the ground?
Turning the tables isn’t fair unless they keep turning.
Then there’s the danger of Russian roulette
and my disadvantage: nothing falls from the sky
to name me.
I am the empty space where the tooth was, that my tongue
rushes to fill because I can’t stand vacancies.
And it’s not enough. The penis just fills another
gap. And it’s not enough.
When you look at me,
know that more than white is missing.
—Thylias Moss, from Pyramid of Bone (1989)
Earlier this month, I wrote a post about Sarah Baartman, an African freak show, for lack of better terms, who was paraded around Europe, her body put on display for white people far and near to marvel and its strange features (large breasts and buttocks), and measure her against white woman (even after her death). In an effort to elevate themselves as the superior race, they declared that fair, virginal Victorian age white women were the image of beauty and portrayed Baartman as the abnormal “other.”
Hundreds of years later, and black women are still experiencing this kind of marginalization.
Moss’s poem alludes to the tale of Snow White, in which the evil queen/stepmother asks the magic mirror who is the fairest of them all, and it tells her Snow White. Like the evil queen, black women are told daily, whether directly or indirectly, that white women are prettier, that white women are purer, that white women are more desirable lovers. We are forever living in the shadow of their “beauty.” The few times that black women are complimented, it is for their European features, which overtime created the problem of colorism within the black community (light skin vs. dark skin).
Black women are constantly pressured to look more like white woman—never mind that most white women don’t even look the world’s imaginary “beauty standards.” Whether it’s a daughter being expelled from school because her hair was too distracting, a model’s dark brown skin being lightened on a magazine cover, a female rapper or celebrity with a very round derrière being slut shamed, or a business woman being fired from her job for refusing to straighten her hair or wear a weave or wig because her boss thinks her naturally outward growing hair is unprofessional.
What’s more insulting is that many black men (not all, but a lot) often praise white women while degrading black women at the same time. While I’m a huge advocate for interracial dating—you love who you love; skin color shouldn’t matter—I do have a problem with black men who only date white women because they hate black women. Excuse me, sir, but your mother is black. Your daughter, no matter how much you try to mix that blood around, will still be black. What’s more demeaning is their worship of “exotic” or “foreign” women, or “white girls with a fat ass,” while the most a black woman would hear is, “You’re pretty for a dark skin girl,” “I only date light skin girls,” “Hell must’ve froze over for me to date a black girl.”
It’s hard to stomach some of the hurtful things I’ve heard black men say about black women. I often wonder where all this animosity comes from. Is it a form of self-hate or did all these men really have the same bad relationship experience with a black woman? I’m leaning more toward the former.
The last two stanzas are the most heartbreaking of this poem. I’m sure all women have that occasional fear that they’re not good enough for their man, that one day a smarter, prettier, nicer woman would come through and take him away. For black women, especially black who’ve heard their men say the above comments, we fear that woman will be white. No matter how hard I try to please him, will he still leave because I’m not white enough for him, because I’m too black? When you enter a relationship thinking this way, you quickly realize that “more than white is missing.”
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the black girl staring into her reflection, for the black girl pinching her skin to bring up the white. Tell her she’s beautiful. God created her in His image and likeness. Tell her she doesn’t have to alter her body, God’s body, to feel loved.