“Freeing yourself was one thing,
claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
— Toni Morrison 1
Absorbed in the Music
► “Pretty hurts
We shine the light on whatever’s worst
Perfection is the disease of a nation”
— Beyoncé (Pretty Hurts) 2
I have, for as long as I can remember, been embarrassed to be Black. Embarrassed of all the things that came with my Blackness. (Short, high-maintenance hair. Pale palms, pale soles. Purple scars from picking scabs.) Embarrassed that even if I became okay with these things, the rest of the world wouldn’t. Embarrassed that my Blackness was on display. Such a personal secret the rest of the world was privy to.
Between the ages of five and eight, I turned to juvenile religion to escape my fate. I asked God if He would please just do me a solid and make me white. It wasn’t, I explained to Him, about just lightening my skin. I wanted Him to have me wake up one day, white. With all the things that mean whiteness. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by having them realize I had forsaken my Blackness, so I wanted to make sure that I was just dropped into a parallel universe where I was born and raised and existed as white. This, of course, meant that my family had to be white as well. I was sorry if I was asking too much of Him but, as He must know, that was the only way. And if He could step on that request so I didn’t have to waste any more time being Black that would be great, thanks. Shockingly, these prayers were not answered.
My Blackness, I knew, would keep me behind in the world. That was its purpose and, for years, I made sure it would do so. I based my life on becoming perfect—or, at the very least, as perfect as I could, considering my fatal flaw. This way, anything that was not perfect in my life could unequivocally be attributed to my skin color. I got all As all through school. I refused to share writing until it was perfect. I wouldn’t speak until I thought each syllable through—twice. Alone in my room, I would practice articulating things, study up on sentence structure, make sure that I was one step ahead of my white classmates, never speaking in the way Black people always did on screens. I crimpled my nose at the first note of what I regarded as Black music—anything with an ounce of soul, whether by a Black person or a white person. I was a person existing by negation.
I was less than what everyone else was, but what I was was perfect.
► “Why can’t you see
That you belong with me?”
— Taylor Swift (You Belong With Me) 3
Once I realized that miracles don’t happen, I turned my efforts to making peace with my fate. I was, for this life, going to be Black. If I was going to escape that, I would have to change my strategy. In the vain of an OJ, a Prince, a Whitney, I was going to have to become more than Black. I was going to have to become someone else.
My model presented herself easily. 2009. VMAs. Taylor Swift. Tall, blonde bush of curly hair—white girl curls, no coils—red lips. Taylor was the moment. She won for her video “You Belong With Me,” infamously beating out “Single Ladies” in a moment I wouldn’t understand for years to come. My eight-year-old brain could do no more than pity her. She was a beautiful, fair doe, unfairly made the victim. And yet, she handled it with grace. She was an inspiration. I, I decided, belonged with her.
Becoming Taylor was not particularly difficult. Her schoolgirl fantasies of romances were as accessible as classic Disney movies. Her wallowing reflections on lost love were just cryptic enough to be hers, but just relatable enough to be anyone’s. She had a lovely little voice but was no powerhouse; I could sing along and fool myself into believing I was good. She was a success story one could only dream of. Even when she lost, when Kanye told her she shouldn’t win, she took home the trophy.
We all loved Taylor. We loved her as prepubescent third graders, imagining falling in love with the boy next door. (Never mind that in Coral Gables, we all lived in standalone houses on busy streets or, in my case, a sixth-floor condo.) We loved her as wounded fifth graders, feeling for her as she wallowed in her misery over a negative album review: all he’s ever going to be is mean. (Never mind that we had no experience with critics saying we couldn’t sing.) We loved her, most perhaps, as sixth graders, lavishing in what it meant to be 22. (Never mind that we were half that age.) We drew 13s on our hands with nail polish and lyrics along our arms in Sharpie. We slathered red lipstick over our chapped lips. We pretended to want to learn guitar. We were perfect little Taylors. And I was, for the first time, part of “we.” One of the Taylors.
But—and perhaps you saw this coming—I wasn’t Taylor. I could never become Taylor. I didn’t write poetry, couldn’t write music. I didn’t spend my time thinking about boys, reflecting on my fantasies, or begging my parents to move to Nashville. I wasn’t born on a Christmas tree farm, didn’t have blonde hair, wasn’t 22. My red lipstick was always a few shades too dark—the color that matched my skin tone, according to my mother. My legs weren’t country-pop star legs, they were tennis player’s legs. My skin wasn’t fair. It was dark.
► “It wasn’t love
It wasn’t hate
It’s just indifference”
— Taylor Swift (I Forgot That You Existed) 4
When I moved to Texas, I lost a religion. I lost a lot. I lost a self.
I learned there that people didn’t love Taylor. They found her annoying. I didn’t consider the misogyny built into their irrational hatred of her. I simply let her go. I let what I had become my identity drift away.
I stopped eating chicken, watermelon, Kool-aid. I cleared my iTunes, ready to start over. I was a blank, black slate.
I became concerned with being someone people wanted. They wanted me to just be fun. To laugh at their jokes: Why do black people have white hands and feet? Because God spray painted them on their knees. I couldn’t understand the joke. I wanted to be able to laugh. If this is what whiteness was, I wanted to be able to do it. But I just couldn’t.
watermelon, chicken, kool-aid
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
— W.E.B. DuBois 5
In Hugo, OK,
home, in a past life,
they smack their lips.
They bite into triangles of ruby red
with gapped smiles
and spit out black seeds
into the dust and gravel and dirt.
They offered me fresh possum
and red solo cups of too-sweet lemonade.
They loved me
and I love them.
But when they hacked into green orbs
and offered me misshapen chunks
of watery melon
I crinkled my broad nose
and vowed to never smack my lips brazenly like them.
In Miami, FL,
on the playground,
they told me I must love watermelon.
They told me I ate it with fried chicken
and drank kool-aid.
They told me they knew this about me.
In Miami, FL, she offered me a watermelon lollipop
which I refused
for fear I might accidentally like it.
In Friso, TX,
home, by force,
I lived in fear.
Nothing was home:
there were no mangoes
and the water tasted of dirt
and only I tasted it.
I took up cantaloupe and chain food
and mixed bright red powder into the clear dirtwater.
I drove down Cotton Gin Road and picked up Chili’s Chicken Crispers
and ate them at home
with my lips unsmacked
for the first year.
In Frisco, TX, I lived with two views.
I saw as Aliya and I saw as Texas
and in year two, Texas won.
I turned my nose up at chicken
and lost the taste of the familiar.
I threw away my powders
and shriveled for lack of water.
I told myself I didn’t like them—
watermelon, chicken, and kool-aid—
and didn’t know if I was telling the truth.
In New York, NY,
I realized I was Sunken
and struggled my way from this place.
I wrote to understand
and understood to write
but those supposedly-sacrosanct Black staples
have yet to touch my lips again.
“Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every Black person in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy”
— James Baldwin 6
I was born in UCLA
and taken home to Ladera Heights
(if you ask me
I will change LH to LA
without a second thought).
I had no Beale Street
and the visions of love I saw were animated:
pale skin and red lips.
My parents divorced
and we all moved.
The love I could remember:
stale smoke, shaggy carpets, shotgun homes;
“wash up to your elbows” and waffle day;
too many phone calls and hours of Bid Whist;
letting me choose the music and never letting me give up on me.
When I went to Beale Street,
I saw more love.
I saw the brushstrokes of rich melanin
and ►powerfully soft strings 7
filling the portrait:
the strength, the rawness, the wrongness, the intensity;
the hugs that stopped my breath and filled my heart;
the story behind it all, never to be fully known;
When I went to Beale Street
and heard the cries and the laughter,
saw the color of love
and felt it
I realized that I, too, was born on Beale Street
and felt the beauty of
Facing the Music
► “I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell”
— Beyoncé (Freedom) 8
When I moved to New York, I discovered religion—a new religion. Her name? Beyoncé.
Beyoncé does not care about being embarrassed, doesn’t have the time. She’s busy. Practicing complex dances, perfected with an army of beautiful Black women. Producing each vocal track on each song on each album she has put out. Raising the next generation of Black kids‚ making sure that her grandchildren’s grandchildren will be on the Forbes list.
Beyoncé has certainly, at this point in her career, risen above her Blackness. And yet, she insists on bringing it back. She insists on being Black. When she works out to mold her body, she molds it to be a Black body: a vision of perfection with thick thighs. When her husband cheats on her, she writes that album about it—certainly not least because she intends to give the world a vision of Black love that they can count on. When she performs at Coachella, ►she sings the Black national anthem.9
When I moved to New York, when I was finally free to stop defining myself by whiteness, I realized I loved Beyoncé.
► “It’s the soul that needs a surgery”
— Beyoncé (Pretty Hurts) 10
Internalized racism. Apparently. That’s what they call it. That’s what it means when the racism of America goes so far that it makes a Black person hate their Blackness. That’s what happened to me. That’s what I’m getting over. That’s what I’ll never rid myself of. Because here’s the thing: even after you recognize it, think about it, reflect on it, promise to be done with it, internalized racism still insists on owning your life.
Riding on the train, I saw the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Her skin was deep, a brown filled to the brim with melanin dark enough to match her dark eyes, make them sparkle. Her hair was perfectly coiled in indiscriminate chunks and formed a fuzzy halo around her head. Her nose, broad across her face, demanded to be seen, noticed. And I noticed it.
I looked at this woman and saw an alien. Someone far too beautiful to be an inhabitant on the same planet as me. And I was again embarrassed: embarrassed that my Blackness was not as regal, as worthy as hers. Embarrassed to be seen on the same train as her. Embarrassed that the world would see the purple scars on my face—areas I picked and picked to get the Black off—and know that I was ashamed. Embarrassed that I looked at this alien and used the same rhetoric as the racists I feared in Texas to describe her beauty. Embarrassed that I would never be free of racism, even in my own mind.
► “Bow down, bitches”
— Beyoncé (***Flawless) 11
Here’s what Beyoncé does: she knows her place—up on a throne—and she doesn’t second-guess it for a second. She insists on bringing her sisters to the throne with her.
Here’s where I’m at: I don’t deserve a seat next to Beyoncé, not yet. I don’t eat chicken. No watermelon, no Kool-aid. My face is freckled with purple and black, angry spots that are impossible to cover fully. I don’t wear sandals, don’t wear red lipstick, don’t listen to Sam Cooke.
But here’s where else I’m at: I’m making my way up to my throne. I’m breaking my picking habit and caring for my skin because it’s mine. My hair is in long braids—all natural now, no chemicals. Taylor’s “All Too Well” is a beautiful ballad that will forever be one of my favorite songs. Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” is a perfect song, and I will preach about it to anyone who will listen. I’ve dedicated my time in college to studying and overcoming trauma—not least, the trauma of race. Do you think Beyoncé would be proud of me?
I think she would. I really do.
Anyway, I’m proud of me. I’m proud of my Blackness. I’m not embarrassed anymore.
It was never about rejecting something.
It was always about doing what it took
It was about neutrality,
being simply black—
There were methods:
genius, I thought.
Wear long sleeves and long pants—
less to see, less to hate.
Say ask, never axe—
mannerly, never mutilated.
I was not, could not ever be,
but perhaps I could make up for it.
But ►this is a story about control.12
Control of what I say,
control of what I do.
This is not a story of genius.
Not a story of overcoming.
Not a story of success.
This is a story of control,
This is the story of being overcome.
This is the story of you and me:
what I say,
what I do.
What I wear,
how I strive for greatness.
trying to break free,
trying to be individual—
but remaining a puppet, an oreo, a Black.
years too late to undo it.
vowing to cut the strings,
It was never about rejecting something,
but it’s true:
I was rejecting something.
So here’s ►Me:
Miss (almost) twentysomething13
breaking one illusion,
A vision of life where I can
wear what I want
say what I want
be imperfect, as I want.
It does not exist
and it may not ever
but ►that’s what I think about control.14
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
— Toni Morrison 15
I am tied to my unknown ancestors, my family, and all African-American people of the world through one thing above all else: my Blackness. Though our experiences vary, the trauma of race connects us, haunts us, threatens to hold us captive. Breaking free is a never-ending struggle, but it must start somewhere.
If I can free just one other person, my whole journey would be worth it.
- Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf Inc, 1987)
- “Pretty Hurts (Piano Acoustic),” YouTube, track 1 on Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2013.
- “You Belong With Me,” YouTube, track 6 on Taylor Swift, Fearless, Big Machine Records, 2008
- “I Forgot You Existed,” YouTube, track 1 on Taylor Swift, Lover, Republic Records, 2019
- W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co, 1903)
- James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk (New York: Dial Press, 1974)
- “Agape,” YouTube, track 3 on Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk (Original Motion Picture Score), Lakeshore Records, 2018.
- “Freedom,” YouTube, track 12 on Beyoncé, Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2016.
- “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing (Homecoming Live),” YouTube, track 4 on HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM, Beyoncé, Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2019.
- “Pretty Hurts,” YouTube, track 1 on Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2013.
- “***Flawless,” featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, YouTube, track 11 on Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2013.
- “Control,” YouTube, track 1 on Janet Jackon, Control, A&M Records, 1986.
- “20 something,” YouTube, track 14 on SZA, Ctrl, Top Dawg Entertainment and RCA Records, 2017.
- “20 something,” YouTube, track 14 on SZA, Ctrl, Top Dawg Entertainment and RCA Records, 2017.
- Toni Morrison, “Barnard College Commencement” (speech, New York City, 1979)