Rumpus Exclusive: “Dark Girls”

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My daddy’s side of the family has blood made of craw daddies
                                                                         bayou waters
                                                                         red bones
                                                                         big waves of silk

When I was born I came out looking just like them. I could pass as masta’s daughter, just like them. The first picture I ever took fresh out of my mama’s womb, looks just like them: a Louisiana Creole French-tongued thoroughbred. My eyes are closed so tightly you can see the wrinkles on my eyelids. I looked tired already. My hands are palm up, pressed closely to my ears at a few min­utes old. I was born into surrender. My skin, almost the color of spoiled milk, thick and light all at the same time. Bubbling and burning, all at the same time

My mama wanted to name me Africa; as a symbol, just as much as a name. She knew I would fit the description. My mama, pronounced MawMaw—my daddy’s mother—told me she knew my colorless world wouldn’t last long when she looked at the back of my ears and it was only sundown, my downfall. She said she knew I would turn into nighttime before the sun set and rose again. I could tell she didn’t want me to fit the description

Before my daddy planted seeds inside my almost too dark mama, he was told not to. Now he tells me there’s no way any child I might house will have skin less potent than mine. He tells me even if the father is just as bright as him, my shadow will still cast itself upon my offspring. But I scrub off my curves. Stand up straight. Crack my own hips. I don’t want anyone’s grandchildren

People who love me but not my skin tell me at least I’m a pretty dark-skinned girl, an insult as salutation. My pretty dark-skinned girl smile doesn’t translate to my pretty dark-skinned girl lips that could potentially appreciate the attention of someone who thinks they’re giving me a gift by calling me a good colored girl / a negro girl / a dark girl / a violent girl / a black bitch / a field girl. I’m all of these things. I should say thank you. At least they don’t lie

    i am a reminder for them to say
    at least I have
    good child bearing hips
    and a good spirit
    maybe i’ll attract a man like them
    lighten up my offspring
                      teach them how to say not enough in French
             dance to zydeco and suck juice right from the head of a crawfish
    watch them turn red instead of purple like they mama

My Aunt Ceal called/calls me, chocolate. She’d say, chocolate, when you gone come and see me? Said, look at chocolate, whenever I was in her presence, made me aware of my chocolate, nicknamed my blackness, made me like the appar­entness of my ash-prone tone, the burnt toast color of my brownness early on. Made me see the difference. I’d like to think she did it to train my spirit to stay inside my body when my complexion would inevitably began to be pointed out in place of a greeting. Train my mind to still be okay. Even if they never smile. Even if they look uncomfortable. I’d know she always smiled when she said it and it always felt like an attribute instead of a definition

When I was younger my skin was as smooth as it’s ever gonna get. It gave me no problems. I did nothing for it but clean it with warm water. Never had a second thought about it. Didn’t have any dark marks, discoloration, or con­fidence issues behind it. It was not a lump or a bruise covering it besides the mark on my thigh after being run over by my friend’s bike. But I did notice there was something lurking in it I hadn’t/haven’t fully come to terms with. How much it hurts other people to see me while simultaneously trying to find a type of peace in knowing I wouldn’t want to change my darkness even if I could. It came when I visited a dermatologist for my bad skin. It’s been on a decline since I was a teenager—the aftermath of picking and itching at it for years. Peeling holes and creating scars that last too long. I got medicine to fix me. Months later the medicine turned my face the color of my father, my mawmaw, my nana. I was bleached back into a newborn from the neck up. It started out in blotches, on my chin, spaces in my cheeks. I thought I was experiencing a case of the Michael Jackson disease. I got scared. After a couple of weeks of using the medicines, the light eventually eased its way onto my whole face. Wiped me out completely. I looked like a ghost, like Casper, and the world began to look proud of me. I was always looking deep into mirrors trying not to search for a brightness, but a light. I didn’t know I’d find it like this; I didn’t know I’d immediately want to give it back

I’ve experienced two spectrums. One as the light-skinned girl deemed pretty just for being light-skinned. This lasted about three months before the medicine began to reverse me back into my original texture. I saw the way everyone reacted. Black men reacted. My men react. When I opened my front door dur­ing this time I could physically see them lose breath over my perceived beauty. It felt good. I covered the darker parts of my body that hadn’t changed, my arms, my neck, my legs, in hoodies, in pants, in the required layering of the Chicago winds. Let only my face show for a few months. It felt good until I missed looking like something, until I missed looking like me, until I missed being behind the scenes. I know an opposite existence. One as the dark-skinned girl deemed pretty for being a dark-skinned girl. This will outlast any­thing. I see the way everyone reacts. Men react. Black men react, my men react, as if I’m not supposed to fit my description

The color of my skin is never trained to mean something different, something alternate, any more diverse, to anyone outside my race. They might see me as rich, but they still see black. They’ve never seen one of us, they just see all of us. They do not see caramel, yella bones, creole, good hair, bad hair, they most times see just a nigga. They don’t see chocolate, bleaching creams, sunscreens, brown skin, light skin, they just see African. We see stained glass, three-fifths compromise in me. We see “Four Women” and Nina Simone’s lips. We see a burning, an aftermath of sins. I know people who look at me like poor baby

When I go to a different dermatologist and show her what happened to my face she says Well... and pauses to figure out how to complete her thought professionally…

Well… she finishes this time… Did you like it?

I tell little girls who look like me their skin could persuade multitudes to make moves. That they are so beautiful. So beautiful. That you are beautiful. I move fast to protect them. I can’t let them end up like me. They say they want to be like me. Ask me to be their play sister, their camp mother. Something in me makes me want to be my aunt. Even if I don’t know if what I’m telling them is true enough to mean something

I tell them to develop a sharp tongue because you will be told directly or indi­rectly that you are an issue. That they’ll start to see holes, a constant reminder they could be cuter if only they could shed like a reptile. I want to tell them they will be okay even when a parent inflicts the narrative on them. Tell them they’ll be okay even when a boy they like only likes girls who don’t look like her. Tell them they all will call it a preference for a long while instead of fixation, instead of a complex. Tell them they will all call it a preference instead of self-deprecation. I tell them they will be okay as time blesses them. I tell these little girls I love their hair, the way it stands, but this thing that covers their bones will always matter just a little bit more. I tell them good chocolate ain’t never been cheap. I write to them. I write for them. Hope this helps them recover quicker than I did. I tell them they are not special occasions. I tell them to speak up even if they think you are already too loud because so much time will be spent in defense, I tell them to make it count

To consciously aware white men who like to use pet names to describe the va­rieties in our complexions: I am not your mocha frappe chocolate chip hand-dipped princess. I don’t even drink coffee. Please stop

To white women who tan all day then use the word ghetto or hood or rude as a substitute for my blackness: you cannot be scared of me and then try to be the fun parts of me. You cannot burn yourself ragged to look like me. You cannot wear my essence and think you are above this black girl bad attitude

To light-skinned black men who seek me out. Who have held their arms out next to mine without judgment or delay. Who show me love like no other. Thanks for making me an object of your seduction, but you are not a prize I can­not give back. I don’t know what you think this is, you are not doing me a favor

To light-skinned black girls who think their disposition grants them special access. Who think it’s hard having skin that passes the paper bag test, who think it’s hard being a pretty black girl because your whole life is just one big assumption, who can’t help being helplessly pretty, I do not know what to tell you besides pretty girl, I cannot agree to make you feel good at the expense of me

To black men in general who are currently on a melanin kick because the Inter­net told you it’s cool to love yourself now, who pretend their darkness doesn’t look just like mine. Fighting to prove you no longer long for the light-skinned black girls anymore, the mixed black girls anymore, the foreign but possibly black girls anymore, the racially ambiguous black girls anymore. Who calls me your favorite dark cousin instead of my name, you cannot treat me like a fad when I treat you like a treasure

Sometimes I wonder if all the black women in the world woke up one day and were cursed with black roses as covering, as lifelong armor, would we all be as uninviting in public when we look just like their mamas. I wonder could the women handle the pressure that comes with that partiality. It would be like having an infectious disease, scratching at their seams until the shade bursts open and turns back into sunlight. They would all fight and tug to get out as if there isn’t room for us all

Nowadays I’m told you not even that dark. Nowadays,                    I’m told the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice and dark skin is heritage and exotic and strong and black girl magic but all black girls weren’t magic, some of us were curses who cast spells on God wishing to wake up four shades in the other direction

    who hoped people they have been born of didn’t use them as
    containers for last resorts
    then broadcast the truth as a self-esteem issue
    because you look too much how
    white people looked at their dirt how
    when their blood was splattered across
    acres of pain how
    when they were forced to say yes sir
    like black ain’t black ain’t black ain’t black
    like you can change it like
    black ain’t black ain’t black ain’t black
    and the delusion that it’s not is frightening
    even when it’s sad and immovable and it hurts

I thought about my aunt this year when I sat out in the sun on purpose. All day I stared at my legs changing colors and I fell asleep under the heat. I sweated. I melted. When I woke up, my arms and chest were the color of hell. My face the color of damn near charcoal. I got my first ever sunburn. I didn’t care about getting darker than I already am. I didn’t hear girl you getting darker and darker. I didn’t hear you sholl is getting black. I didn’t hear you fine as hell, you just black as hell. I didn’t hear anything. I felt like I couldn’t get black enough. Felt like I wasn’t scared of the dark. Felt thankful for my body and its color. Felt like I wasn’t sorry I can be a happy, scary, confusing sight, the way my skin gleams, shines, and soaks up every ounce of the hopes that were had for me. My taste buds glistening under chocolate moons, black as hell, dark as night, so black that when the lights are off all you can see are my teeth right before I take a bow

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Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.

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Excerpted from When You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen. Copyright © 2019 by Kendra Allen. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of University of Iowa Press.


Kendra Allen is the author of essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet from University of Iowa Press. She's the winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction and her work, described as "raw" and "witty," has been published in Brevity, december, and The Rumpus, among others. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, Kendra is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where she is working on her thesis and leading freshman students astray. She still doesn't know what she's doing but you can follow her on Twitter @KendraCanYou. More from this author →