The first time the little young black girl I once was wished she were white, she was seven years old. I remember seeing Michael Jackson’s severe vitiligo and thinking that it might happen to me too, if I was lucky.
I don’t know how old my mother was the first time she retreated back into our house in a practical, sort of self-imposed agoraphobia, too scared of what the white foreigners that surrounded her might do because her tongue was different. But I know she was an adult by then, with children. My mother knew she had come to more prosperous land but, knowing that it was not built for her, she hid.
It seems the times in which I was raised misinterpreted the future that has become my present. At seven I’m sure I thought racism was over already. And now, I can’t recall how I ever equated growing older with anything but challenges. The work of unlearning the deeply internalized racism from my childhood was not painless, but undoing it was what was necessary.
This summer has dealt us loss after unrelenting loss. We can come back from this. To our allies, please don’t feel bad if you don’t like hurting. We can show you how to heal, too.
The only time my mother let me see her let her hair down as a kid was when Saturday came and we would clean. I would watch her dance for hours, broom in hand, Michael Jackson songs blaring one after another. She could flick her legs so fast I developed a myth about her once being a back-up dancer for Tina Turner.
Now, every time I pass another black person on the street with their head held high, confident as they sing along to a song, I feel pride. Pride in seeing someone who was not given the option to love him or herself but still jumped up and stole it anyway. It is a right, like life: that tiny parade for one.
Remember that jig might be life-giving. The kids living in the projects behind my house in Brooklyn already know it’s bad to be black most places, yet they still climb on top of their generators to dance to the music coming from the church across the street. For some of us the timing is always wrong, but a broomstick can look enough like a microphone to reveal a way to suffer better.
Feature photograph by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images.