The Bold World
As a kid, I was tiny. All through my school years, I looked half my age. When girls in my class started filling out their tank tops and high-waisted jeans, getting to know the shape of newfound curves, I remained small, layering my sweaters even in the summer to hide my flat chest.
I saw weakness in my narrow hips and thin arms. They were weightless, powerless, unable to keep me from floating away. If I couldn’t feel my own weight, how could I trust myself? How could I be confident that with one swift change in the wind, I wouldn’t disappear into the air like a runaway balloon? In my mind I could be strong, but it was my body that couldn’t measure up.
At home, in the full-length mirror in my bedroom, I’d fantasize about being an opinionated, chubby girl. Someone with wide hips and sturdy legs who demanded to be seen. A girl with presence. With my Jackson 5 album playing in the background, I’d roll my neck and wag my finger in the air, perfecting comeback lines to imaginary adversaries—“Oh, so you can dish it out, but you can’t take it?”
No one was taunting me in the hallways of my mostly white Manhattan private schools. But still, it was the principle of the thing. To wield your power like a sword. To carry it effortlessly on your body and let it drip off your tongue in a well-crafted attack. I longed to be Sassy Chubby Black Girl. In my mind, big was powerful. And I wanted to be thick with power.
But I was stuck in my slight frame, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. My fate was written in my genes. And so I made up my mind early on that I would borrow weight from the people around me. To combat my small size, I kept close to anything that felt bigger than I was, to those who held a pulse louder than mine —Mama, Daddy, my sister Ramona, when she allowed. I gravitated toward them to be closer to their power, never really thinking it could be mine. Even our apartment on Eighty-First Street and Riverside Drive, a mostly white and wealthy neighborhood on the Upper West Side, felt like an anchor. I needed it, as I needed my family, in order to feel what it was like to be substantial.
In our house, Daddy was the provider and Mama was present and responsible. Together, in their distinct roles, they agreed on creating an actively Black household, where racial solidarity and pride ruled. This was the mid-1970s, when Pan-Africanism, Black solidarity, and political leaders like Kwame Nkrumah were encouraging Black people globally to fight racism by coming together and increasing our knowledge, power, and strength. I remember learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as if they were each other’s brother and our very own uncles. Perhaps they had opposing approaches to the struggle, but they were family nonetheless. Daddy might not have liked King’s pacifism or Malcolm’s religion, but he never spoke against either of them. We were raised to rally around our people as if we were all related by blood.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
As children in the segregated South, my mother and her sister, my aunt Lurma, learned the Negro National Anthem along with their ABCs. Black history, for them, wasn’t limited to just one month, it was woven into their every day, seamlessly, like breathing. It was used as a tool to help bring Black people together and thus make us stronger.
Similarly, Ramona and I learned our Black history at afterschool programs and cultural events that Mama and Daddy signed us up for. We learned the anthem when we were toddlers, and loved its challenging tone and vivid lyrics—lyrics that made me think about the era when Mama was a little girl. We sang it as often as we could, for our parents at the dinner table, in the backseat of the car driving to Martha’s Vineyard, and for our relatives who’d gather around our makeshift stage for talent night in our living room on Saturday evenings. “Facing the ris-ing sun, of our new day be-gun!” Ramona and I would belt out, our arms flung wide in the air. “Let us march onnn, till victory is wonnn!”
Later, when Mama tucked me in for the night, she’d explain the importance of the lyrics—how the song was really about leaning toward goodness, toward love and light. Believing in the anthem, she said, was one of the many ways Black people survived. It reminded us that good always wins in the end.
The conversations we had, the music we played, the art that hung on our walls—Mama and Daddy made sure that everything we touched, heard, and witnessed contained an element of Blackness, of the inherent goodness and strength of our people. Nina Simone, James Baldwin, August Wilson, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden—these were our precious heirlooms, our wise teachers, and the most poignant reflection of who we saw ourselves to be. Each family, each member of every family, and every person had the support of an entire culture behind them.
My parents knew how small a little Black boy or a little Black girl could feel in this world, so they made sure we thought in numbers. In that way, one Black family could feel like a nation of comrades. One little girl could feel like a warrior tribe.
It was important to Daddy that we be confident. Confident enough to walk into any setting, anywhere in the world. He wanted us to feel at home particularly in places where Black folks dwelled—regardless of their circumstances. Beginning when Ramona and I were two and three years old, he would insist that the family go for tennis lessons every week in Harlem, where he was raised.
We’d drive up Central Park West to Frederick Douglass Boulevard, cut across on 140th Street over to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, and continue north until we hit 150th Street, where the Frederick Johnson tennis courts resided. There, we entered what locals termed the Jungle. The Jungle couldn’t have been more different from our Upper West Side neighborhood. There, Blackness was everywhere —not just inside some homes but out on the streets, in the air, and on every corner. We could buy six-foot stalks of sugarcane for a dollar out of the back of someone’s truck, listen to Grand Master Flash rapping from a boom box propped up on a park bench, and stand captivated while a Nation of Islam member preached on the corner.
Daddy had chosen those courts in particular so that every week, year after year, all four of us—Mama, Daddy, Ramona, and I—would have to travel from our fancy white neighborhood to an all-Black community in Harlem. Daddy wanted us to be around all types of people, especially all types of Black people. And he didn’t want his girls afraid of anyone or uncomfortable around anything—not poverty or privilege. Daddy wanted us to know how to “flow”—from one situation into another, rich to poor, uptown to downtown. From Black to white and back to Black again.
“Jodatha,” he’d say to me as we approached the courts at the Jungle, “there’s no place you don’t belong. Walk like you own the joint. Because you do, baby girl. You do!”
My parents were dispelling the myth—that we were just a few strange Black people in a big white world. The reality they were teaching us was: We are many. And we are diverse. There may be differences in the way we look in Harlem, or in Cuba or Africa, or on the Upper West Side, but we are one community.
It was this kind of support structure that was meant to help me, a skinny, tiny thing, feel significant.
When we were kids, my sister Ramona literally towered over me. She’s just over a year older than I am, but looking at us side by side when we were young, you would think she could easily stick me in her pocket and carry me around. Though Ramona and I have two older sisters from our father’s first marriage, it was just the two of us with the same mother, raised under the same roof. But in our youth, a shared address and set of parents were about the only similarities we had.
I was ordered and methodical—a striver for perfection—and my bedroom was a shrine to those efforts. The clothes that hung in my closet and lay in my dresser drawers were carefully organized just so. I had a collection of Black baby dolls that sat on a shelf, and each one was fully dressed and accessorized from a different period. They were Victorian aristocrats and seventies B-girls, as beautiful and elegant and cool as they wanted to be. Next to them was my tribe of teddy bears outfitted in hand-me-down T-shirts, followed by my arrangement of first place trophies and ribbons from various gymnastics meets. Lined up across the center of the shelf were all my prized albums—the Jackson 5, The Sylvers, Minnie Riperton, Roberta Flack, Prince —their colorful sleeves in pristine condition, always gleaming.
Each weekend, I cleaned and dusted my room, carefully moving each doll, teddy, and record from its place. Nothing was thrown about or forgotten. Everything was important. Every time I walked into my room and saw my rainbow-patterned bedspread neatly tucked and folded, I felt an intense surge of happiness at the sight of the order I had created.
But to get to my room I had to pass through Ramona’s, wading through the chaos she seemed to revel in. Ramona would lie in bed all day, stretched on top of rumpled sheets while she picked up books from the many piles strewn across her floor, devouring chapter after chapter. She was lost to us in the pages of Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, or the latest Judy Bloom novel, inhabiting whatever worlds existed there. Ramona had taught herself to read at age five on the floor of our school’s bookstore and never stopped. She was constantly feeding her mind with information.
When she wasn’t reading, Ramona was a tornado that spun through the apartment’s long corridors, taking out whatever and whomever she touched as she passed. When she’d wake —which was usually late —she’d whirl into my room, where we shared a closet. Each morning Ramona stomped over to her clothes and tried on nearly every item she owned, discarding the rejects on my floor. She’d finally settle on an outfit unlike anything I’d ever seen before —shredded jeans, an oversized men’s shirt, a cropped bolero jacket, cowboy boots—somehow making it all work. Each ensemble was a work of art. She was bravado personified, and I regarded her mostly from a distance. Get too close and she would run, but if I made myself quiet and still, I could drink her in. Ramona was brazen and stubborn and full of attitude, and I desperately wanted all of what she had.
“Let the child be free!” Daddy pushed whenever Mama tried to get Ramona to behave nicely. Mama was a stickler for manners and hated whenever Ramona would do things like eat with her fingers at the dining room table.
My father wanted us to celebrate who we were, as we were. He showed a lot of pride in his brown-skinned girls, and we were encouraged, even rewarded, for expressing ourselves unapologetically. If one day we felt like wearing jeans under our dresses, he’d support it. “The girls are happy, Jamelle, who cares what they look like?” Or if Ramona refused to brush her hair before going to visit family on a Sunday, he would challenge us to an Afro contest—seeing who could grow the biggest one by Easter. For him it wasn’t about us acting right or speaking well. He cared only that we rebel against the status quo. Defiance had always been in Daddy’s blood, and he nurtured it wherever it grew.
Coming up Black and poor, my father faced years being told about all the things that he could not achieve, and he ended up achieving them anyway. He was a self-made millionaire — “smart, Black, and rich,” as he often liked to remind me. He emerged from his tough childhood in Harlem as a person who wore his success like a middle finger to white America.