Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands
The first time I saw Cecilia, she was the only other black girl in our small group during freshman orientation. We were sitting in a circle while the junior leading our group was answering questions anyone had, and then we each had to say our name and where we were from. When it came to Cecilia’s turn, I had already memorized her name from the nametag, and carefully, without bringing attention to myself, took her in: flawless dark skin, silky relaxed hair that reached her breasts, tall, thin, beautiful. In that song “Power,” when Kanye West raps, “Ma’fucka’, we rollin’ with some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands,” he is talking about dark-skinned girls who look like Cecilia. But Cecilia isn’t the kind of name that brings to mind a black girl, and that day when she spoke, telling us that she was from California, her voice reminded me of all those blonde white girls on reality television, confirming that, as I suspected, she was a white girl trapped in a black girl’s body--an Oreo. I could forgive her for this, as I was crowned an Oreo in high school because I liked spending my free period with my hands in clay in the ceramics classroom and I liked listening to the kind of music played in coffee shops in the city.
But then I could tell that Cecilia was an Oreo who really might have forgotten the color of her skin, because when the group was dismissed, I walked up to her to ask which part of California she was from. This was the only question I could think to ask her. “The Bay Area,” she told me, and it was clear that she wasn’t particularly interested in me, that although we were black women, that was neither here nor there. I might as well have been talking to a white boy. Up until that moment, all of my experiences with black people in a sea of white faces was that we acknowledged each other, whether it was by eye contact or a smile, and that we would eventually make it across the room to each other. We might have been invisible to everyone else but we weren’t invisible to each other. That day, Cecilia left the orientation room with a white girl, the both of them cracking up at what seemed to be the funniest joke of the year. I’d overheard the white girl introduce Cecilia to someone as her roommate.
When I tell my mother that Cecilia and I are no longer friends, she doesn’t lift her face from her Facebook account. My mother only recently discovered social media, and is obsessed because it allows her to reacquaint herself with people she knew back in Jamaica. “You and her will mek up back,” she tells me, with such conviction that for a moment I believe her. When I am walking out of the living room, she says, “You know dis site nuh easy? It just encourage people fi fass inna people business.” I don’t respond to her, but I almost smile.
The thing about attending university in New York City is that so many of my classmates think that New York is heaven, or close enough, or maybe it’s hell depending on how you see things. But to me, it’s home. My first year, I overheard my classmates’ excitement about the city, the things they had done, the people they had slept with, and when I wasn’t rolling my eyes, I envied that they were having more fun than me. My mother couldn’t afford to pay for the dormitory and a loan was out of the question since I lived an hour away, so I went to my classes and then I went home.
I met Cecilia for the second time during our sophomore year. I’d seen her around a few times, but each time she didn’t seem to remember meeting me. She was always with some little white girl, all of them in crop tops and the other dumb clothes hipsters wear. One time I saw her holding hands with a white boy, who was a little bit handsome when I crossed my eyes, but mostly ugly. He had the hipster look to him, greasy long hair and a beard, like he might write poetry or song lyrics. Probably an English major. God, I’d hate to be in his fiction workshop. I could tell he’d had a middle-class upbringing from a place like the Bay Area. You know, I don’t think I’ve met a person from the Bay Area who I liked. His parents would be glad to know that their son had moved to New York and taken up with a black girl. They would call her “beautiful” even if she wasn’t. See, if I’m going to date a white man, he has to be sexy, he has to have the swag of a black man, like Justin Timberlake. Otherwise, why bother?
That spring semester, I was surprised to see that Cecilia was in my photography class. She ignored me until halfway into the semester, when we hung up our portrait projects on the wall and the teacher liked mine best. With everyone else he was in teacher mode, giving the obligatory compliments and suggestions, but with mine he stood in front of my photos for longer than he had with the others, and then he asked, “Is this your first photography class, Kimberly?” I’d taken photographs of four of the women who live on my block. I didn’t ask any of the men because it would have been more awkward to ask them. Plus, half of them always have a fresh look on their face when I walk past in my tight jeans. One of the photographs was of my mother. It was Sunday morning and because my mother belongs to the religion of obsessive cleaning, she was sweeping outside of the house we share with two other families. When I approached with my camera, she hissed her teeth, complaining that I was bothering her. Didn’t I see that she had on her housedress and rollers in her hair? Of course I saw, but I wanted to take natural photographs. In my favorite photographs, the people are as beautiful or as unbeautiful as they really are, their faces caught in an emotion that reminds you that life is a whole lot of feeling. I tried to explain that the rollers and the broom added character, which made my mother laugh, and it was while she was laughing that I started taking photographs. I also took photographs of the old women across the street. In the afternoon, one of them goes to the other one’s porch, which is where they sit, sometimes talking, other times just looking into the street as if the streets in Canarsie are pretty to look at (they aren’t), until it’s time to make their husbands’ dinners. My mother, because she’s paranoid, says that they sit there talking people’s business, but I hope it’s more interesting than that. I asked if I could take their photograph, and they looked doubtful until I said it was for school. “When pickney want fi better demself yuh ha’ fi support dem,” Mrs. Patterson said, and it was clear by how Mrs. Johnson nodded that she was speaking for the both of them. In the photos I took, the lines in their faces were illuminated, telling of the places they’d been and the people they’d seen. My last subject was the fat white woman who lives in the house next to us. Her name is Sheryl, and she has big, hanging breasts under her housedress. She always wears a housedress and never a bra. When she’s walking her small furry dog, if my mother is outside, she’ll stop and talk to her, as lively as though they are friends. Mostly what she tells my mother is gossip. Apparently, the Haitian family that lives down the street hasn’t paid rent in three months. Sheryl’s breasts fascinate me, and meanwhile my mother is saying, “Oh wow,” which is what she says when she wishes someone, especially a white someone, would stop talking. When Sheryl leaves, my mother will sigh dramatically, and say, “Then what I do fi dat woman harass me?” The day I photographed Sheryl, I asked her permission, but I expected to hear no because who would want photographs taken with their breasts hanging heavy and low? “Take me and Coco,” Sheryl said, lifting the dog to her face. Behind us, I could tell that my mother wanted to burst out laughing. When Sheryl left, my mother shook her head and said, “White people tek crazy to a whole oda level. Yuh know I haven’t prayed inna long time? Tonight mi a get down pon mi knees fi dat woman.”
After that photography class, I saw Cecilia in Trader Joe’s. I was there for various cookies and other sweet treats my mother and I eye in our kitchen and say encouraging things about, like “Oh, three of them are only 120 calories” and “I’m not going to have any more tonight.” Cecilia only had two bottles of sparkling water in her hands, while I had a jar of cookie butter and three kinds of cookies. She was standing by the meat section as though she was waiting for someone.
“Hi,” she said when I walked by pretending not to notice her. She was smiling as though she was glad to see me. I almost looked behind me to see if she was talking to someone else.
“Hi?” I asked her.
“We’ve met before. Remember, during freshman orientation?”
“Oh yeah,” she said, but I couldn’t tell if she remembered meeting me. When you’re invisible to a white person, you can almost get used to that. But when it’s a black person, you can’t help feeling hurt.
“Those portraits you took were so beautiful,” Cecilia said.
“Oh, wow, thank you,” I told her, annoyed that a compliment from her meant so much to me.
“They reminded me of Gordon Parks’s work.”
“Are you serious? That’s, like, the best compliment ever.”
“Is photography your major?”
“Maybe. Or I might major in fine arts. You?”
“I want to do something creative, but I don’t know what yet. I might want to be a writer, but I don’t know if I’m any good. My boyfriend is majoring in creative writing and he says that I’m better than any of the people he’s had classes with, but I don’t know.”
“Oh,” I said, pleased that I was right about her boyfriend. I wonder if white people are as good at reading us. Probably not. We’ve spent our whole lives observing them. It makes sense that we’d be good at it.
“Well, there’s my boyfriend.”
I turned around to see the same guy I’d seen with her before.
“This is Kimberly,” Cecilia said, motioning toward me.
“I’m Adam,” he said, smiling in the way nice white men smile. “I’d shake your hand if my hands weren’t filled.” He was holding two jars of peanut butter, a bag of apples, and a loaf of bread.
“Kimberly is the most talented person in our photography class,” Cecilia said. This made Adam look at me with renewed interest.
“Oh really,” he said. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from here,” I said.
“It must have been amazing to grow up in New York.”
“It was all right,” I said, smiling and shrugging.
“Come on! All right?”
“Where are you from?”
“Born and raised in Denver.”
“Are there any black people in Denver?”
“A few.” He laughed. “Yeah, it would have been nice to grow up in a place as diverse as New York. Have you always lived here?”
“No, actually my mother and I moved here from Jamaica when I was six.”
“You’re Jamaican?” Cecilia asked, visibly surprised.
“Yeah. Why are you surprised?”
“Because I’m Jamaican. Well, I wasn’t born there but it’s where both my parents are from.”
“Why are you so surprised?”
“Oh,” I said, grasping for a convincing excuse. “It’s just an unexpected coincidence.”
They left soon after, Cecilia saying that we should get coffee. I’d only smiled, instead of agreeing with her.
The next time we had class together, Cecilia came up to me afterwards, asking if I was free and whether I was hungry. “I can eat,” I told her, careful not to sound too eager. Usually, when I wanted a sandwich, I went to a bodega for a cheap, tasty turkey sandwich that was so big I could leave the rest for another meal. The place Cecilia took me to was one of those bougie sandwich shops that also serve soup, salad, and little, uppity bags of potato chips. I paid almost ten dollars for a turkey sandwich that was quite good, but then I couldn’t afford a drink and a bag of potato chips like if I’d gone to a bodega in Brooklyn. Cecilia, who had claimed to be “so hungry,” ordered a bowl of soup that came with a little packet of oyster crackers. I looked at the small bowl of thick soup with a few chunks of beef and vegetables and asked her again if it really cost seven dollars.
“Which dorm do you live in?” Cecilia asked me.
“I actually live at home with my mother. It didn’t make any sense to pay all that money to live in a dorm.”
“But then you don’t get the full college experience!”
“I know, but I’ll survive. Maybe I’ll go away for graduate school.”
“How’s living with your mother?”
“She’s annoying in all the ways mothers are annoying. But we’re really close, since I didn’t grow up with my father.”
“I couldn’t wait to get away from my mother. My father is okay, but my mother is so involved. Both my parents are professors, which maybe explains why my mother has such ambitions for me, but Jesus Christ.”
“What do you mean by ‘ambitions’?”
“I feel like my mother planned out my life and all she wanted was for me to agree, and when I didn’t agree, it was as though I’d disappointed her.”
“Do you think it’s because your mother is Jamaican? Caribbean mothers want to eat their daughters.”
“Eat?” Cecilia asked, laughing. “That’s a funny way of putting it. I wonder that sometimes, especially when my mother talks about her mother. The first time my mother brought my father home and my grandmother saw how dark he was, she barely looked at him. She disliked him and she could never give my mother a concrete reason why. My mother would speak so badly about her mother, but then when she died I don’t think anyone cried more at the funeral.”
“It was the same way with my mother. My grandma almost kicked her out of the house when she became pregnant with me. My mother will speak about her mother as though she was this horrible person, I mean like the biggest bitch in the world, but then once in a while she’ll get all sentimental and say that my grandma was a God-fearing woman. It’s weird.”