The Beautiful Project Journal
Doing The Work
T B P
Journal winter 2018
EDITORS: Khayla Deans Pamela Thompson IMAGES & TEXT CONTRIBUTORS: Afabwaje Kurian Arielle Jean-Pierre Erin M. Stephens Jamaica Gilmer Kaci Kennedy Madylin Nixon-Taplet GRAPHIC DESIGN: Meron Habtemariam
Our love to Mama Toni, Sakarah, Ahmadie, Kira, Taylor, and Kenyatta for blessing us with your presence.
This publication is a product of The Beautiful Project. The Beautiful Project is supported by the NoVo Foundation, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust and the Southern Documentary Fund. For more information about our organization and our work, please visit us online at www.thebeautifulproject.org
Whatâ€™s Inside? 04. Letter from the Editor 06. Black Girl Image Maker Workshop 07. Images by Madylin Nixon-Taplet 09. From Her Lens: Black Women in the Work by Kaci Kennedy 11. Cranes: A Reflection by Erin M. Stephens 17. Resources for Practice: Our Beautiful Community 21. The Power of the Pen: A Discussion with Afabwaje Kurian 25. For the Girls: Books to Read in 2018 29. Koche by Afabwaje Kurian 39. Images by Madylin Nixon-Taplet 42.
A Letter from The Beautiful Project
letter from the editor I was recently part of a podcast with a couple of women I enjoy and admire. It was a good conversation that started with the question, “If money were no issue, how would you spend your time professionally?” This question really baffled me. My first thought was, “If money is no object, then why am I thinking about my professional career?” My professional life is more than the task of making money. My professional life is an extension of necessity. It is an outflow of my creativity and thought processes as a response to the problems of the world that I believe need to be addressed in a way that I can uniquely approach. So, basically, when I work, it’s more than just me doing me, climbing the career ladder for my own benefit. It’s me, as I am, moving throughout the world, and making the necessary shifts so that me and the folks I care about can be ok here. This spans from taking care of my family, to the way I use my gifts and talents in the marketplace. Thinking about this called up so many conversations, recent and past, where the topic of conversation was Black women, doing just that. The realization that Black women are the fastest growing demographic in entrepreneurial endeavors is not just because we prefer it that way. We have to create spaces where we can address the matters we care about, while undoing and dismantling the systems that so often are designed to take us out. Throughout history, we have cultivated a mechanism to be the responders to lack, dysfunction, injustice, inequity, and every manner of issues we face. More comically, but just as seriously stated, I recently saw a tshirt design by the brand Black and Bold that said, “F*ck it, I’ll do it. -Black women.” It’s who we are! Work, is what we do. Whether the motivation is to feed our families, or to make it easier for another Black woman to do so, we pour out our hearts and minds, while we put our legs and feet in motion and we change the world. Bit by bit. Day by day. In this issue, we’ll explore more about how this idea of “doing the work” is iterated by different Black women in our orbit. We’ll get a glimpse at what they consider to be their work and how they do it. We hope to inspire you to think about your life’s work, and how you are intrinsically situated to be part of helping the world function more thoughtfully, beautifully, justly, and correctly by setting out and participating in your version of the work. Let’s do it.
-- Pamela Thompson
â€œThe endeavor to affirm the dignity of human life cannot be waged without pictures, without representational justice.â€? 5
Sarah Lewis Vision & Justice/aperture 223
The Beautiful Project
Black Girl Image Maker Workshop 2018
@The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
saturday, april 28sunday, april 29 9:30AM-3:30PM
for black girls ages 8-15 years old cost: $30
applications due: 3/25/18
Apply Today! bit.ly/TBPImageMakerWrkshp
From Her Lens:
Black Women in the Work
By Kaci Kennedy
There is an abundance of inspiration, intelligence, and beauty from women within my community. I created this photo series to showcase Black women working in various fields so girls can know that they do not have to only look to popular culture to find inspiration and encouragement. The women in this series work with intention and are transforming their interests, passions, and talents into something greater than themselves.
1. Dr. Carla Oldham
Carla Oldham is an Assistant Research Professor at North Carolina Central University in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at BRITE. She is involved with both cancer and Alzheimer’s related research at NCCU, and a cancer research educational program. She makes sure to take time to meet with middle and high school students to show them that science can be fun and exciting.
2. Marion Johnson
Marion centers her work on the advancement of equity. Most recently, she transferred her passions into her work at Frontline Solutions, a Black-lead consulting firm with a goal to advance intersectional equity. Working as a consultant, Marion provides policy expertise and support to low-income communities and communities of color.
3. Samone Oates-Bullock
Growing up, Samone’s family taught her to be a proud Black woman and encouraged her to do good, meaningful work that uplifts people. Today, she is an AJ Fletcher Fellow and works at the North Carolina Justice Center where she examines policy issues in seven different areas throughout the state of North Carolina. She is working to improve social inequalities and is on a mission to create a society where everyone has a voice that can be heard.
4. Paula Harrell
From an early age, Paula had an interest and a love for the piano so she decided to contribute to the community by sharing her passion for music. She built a career as a music professor at North Carolina A&T where taught for seven years and obtained a Doctorate in Musical Arts. She then went on to teach at North Carolina Central University where she retired as the Chair of the music department. Today, you can find her playing at her church, weddings, or accompanying choirs including North Carolina A&T’s Choir.
5. Jeffery Johnson
When Jeffery found a pressing need for a good quality daycare that was accessible, affordable, and in a safe place for her children she decided that she should be the one to start an in-home daycare that fits her own criteria. Today, and for over 25 years, she provides love and nurturing care to children as a licensed daycare provider and owner of a daycare business for infants and toddlers.
6. Shaunetta Campbell
Shaunetta is a senior at North Carolina Central University majoring in Pharmaceutical Sciences and minoring in Chemistry. She will be graduating in May of 2018 where she will then go on to attend Campbell University College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences. Currently, as an intern with the Partners Program, she is working to reduce cancer causing health disparities among African American men.
by Erin M. Stephens When do you feel most beautiful? It was week two of staff video blogging and hardly a surprising prompt. After all, this question is the heart of The Beautiful Project. It is how Jamaica started when she developed the Black Girl Triptych and it remains a critical part of our toolkit for engaging Black women and girls around identity and wellness. When do you feel — It’s much different than when do you look or think you are most beautiful. I pressed record on my Mac, looked into the camera and started… rambling. Three minutes into the recording I realized, out loud, I could not remember the last time I felt beautiful. ——— In 2015, I did three wonderfully terrifying things: I started my first year of marriage, I carried and gave birth to twins, and I began my dissertation research on trauma and the Movement for Black Lives.
Y’all. I cannot even begin to unpack the various types of labor each of these things required on their own. But I anticipated that my life changes would require new growth in me and in preparation, I engaged various strategies so this work could be done. But in no way did I understand the emotional, psychological and physical labor that would be required to simply function. Perhaps it was the unsteadiness of a new marriage, stretched first by busy work schedules, worn thin by a trying pregnancy, and then pushed to a breaking point by new parents’ sleeplessness. Or maybe it was the precariousness of being an unfunded doctoral student at the beginning of a meaningful, but emotionally devastating research project that depended on my regular immersion into images and narratives portraying racialized police brutality. It could have been my desperate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to breastfeed my twins—or the anxiety that surged over me like a wave whenever those two sets of wide eyes followed me around a room. I don’t know what the tipping point was, but all of a sudden I found all of the hurts and insecurities that were dwelling deep inside of me at the surface. Simply unable to deal, I started shutting down. Any energy or intellectual function I could muster went to the twins, with little left to give to my relationship or myself. “Here’s the lesson. When you find yourself in a new situation, a new circumstance, a new life experience, everything that requires healing is going to rush to the surface.” -- Iyanla Vanzant in The Wisdom of Sundays: Life Changing Insights from Super Soul Conversations by Oprah Winfrey But I couldn’t shut down completely. There was just too much work to do to be paralyzed by new parent anxieties or depressed by images of black death. So I became angry. You see, anger was fuel and it was empowering. Anger could get me out of the bed and through the day. Anger could get me through piles of baby laundry and through hours of online data collection. But it was ugly — and my husband bore the brunt of it. Because the anger didn’t resolve my sadness, anxiety or guilt, it just displaced it onto him. Too often, rather than examining myself, I selfrighteously critiqued him as a father and a husband. When my anger failed me, I turned to “self-care strategies” to cope. By 2016, “self-care” was trending online on social media and blogs. It was a needed balm for Black folks who could not escape the images of our people suffering. And it fit with the self-centered survivalist narrative I had created. Self-care was about prioritizing my needs. Therefore, naps were justifiable when just thinking about my research, work and household responsibilities made me tired. Bingewatching TV shows was an easy and pleasurable distraction from dissertation research. I called anything that gave me momentary escape from my despair, “self-care.” Infrequently leaving the apartment, I instead played on my phone until the guilt I felt about untouched work, a messy home and a faltering marriage faded away. There would be moments where the clouds would part, and I would experience freedom from anxiety and a clarity that made me hopeful and motivated to re-engage my work. But in short time, I would find myself a gain consumed with feelings of failure and anger. I decided it better not to delve too deep into my pain, not realizing that my “self-care strategies” enabled self-harm.
The weather changes were taking a toll on her body, so her concerned mother urged her to rest. But her experience with rheumatoid arthritis had taught her something quite different. Rest might feel good for the moment, but it would not get her through the day. “Self-care is way more than indulging in short term happiness. It is about doing things that enable you to do the hard work you face each day.” – Flannery Jones Flannery’s words are giving. We must be careful what we define as self-care and ask honestly, does what I call self-care increase my capacity to engage meaningfully in my life? We come to points in our life where the work (be it emotional, relational, intellectual and/or physical) that is required of us can become overwhelming and seem beyond our capacity to handle. That’s where I was in 2015, 2016 and in more days in 2017 than I would like to admit. While I had prepared and planned for marriage, parenthood and my research, I did not have a care strategy in place that would enable me to meet the demands of these life changes. It was not until a tough conversation with one of the women in our collective that I was challenged to confront the ways I was causing harm, out of my own pain, to the people who cared about me. I had to come to terms with the reality that indulging in things that gave me a moment of respite was not addressing my despair. It was the path of least resistance, but rather than positioning me to heal and get help, it distracted me from identifying and pursuing the actual care I needed. In The Beautiful Project, we recognize the need for transformative care strategies. This means engaging in care practices that enable our individual and collective power to grow. This can look like engaging in mediation for healing and resilience, a physical workout to build stamina and fortitude, or seeking help from healers. It may also look like building relationships and creating spaces in your community that enable you all to collectively meet your material needs. For our collective, we needed to secure resources and time this past summer to work physically alongside each other such that our creative power could be maximized. As we continue into 2018, it is important that each of us identify and privilege the activities, relationships and environments
that cultivate our power to do the personal, relational and intellectual work we have before us. This requires an honest examination of the areas we want to see transform, an understanding of our energy and capacity, and identifying (or discovering) the activities, environments or people to engage as part of our care practice. Most importantly this requires that we determine ourselves, our convictions and hopes, as worth the investment our of individual and collective energy. Being well amidst exhausting demands and oppressive systems means transformative care is its own sort of work. But it is work we must engage for our own sake. As I have re-articulated what self-care looks like for me, I have discovered that transforming my power requires movement in the achy and hard places. Stretching and exercise snaps me out of laziness and mental fatigue as my body and mind hum. Building relationships rooted in accountability and care has jump started my research and positioned me in relationships of mutual support. I am finding more joy and confidence in my abilities as I push myself to take on opportunities I was too anxious to manage a year ago. I figured out that when I root my self-care practices in cultivating power, my perception of myself and my situation shifts, expanding my capacity to confront what is ahead of me and to dream of what can be. In 2017, I finally remembered and relearned that I feel most beautiful when I move. When I move my body in sunshine, when I dance with my children, when I move minds while teaching, and when I make moves in my research. It has taken me awhile to realize that caring for myself means attending to my power, and this demands movement. I have a way to go in healing the harm I caused myself and my relationships, but I am determined to keep moving.
SUGGESTED LISTENING: Artist: Solange Knowles Album: A Seat at the Table Song: Cranes in the Sky
Image by Madylin Nixon-Taplet
Resources for Practice:
Our Beautiful Community
We are confident in the belief that Black women are making the world safer, smarter and more beautiful as they set out in different locations and offer their gifts and talents. Throughout the years, we have had the pleasure of cultivating amazing relationships with Black women across the country who are doing amazing work in their own right. Get to know some of the women that we call on in our community.
Dawn Michelle Downey
Photographer at Chronicles Photography
Location: Wake Forest, NC What do you do & Why do you do it?:
I photograph weddings, families and individual portraits of people. A small part of me would like to say that I photograph one type of subject or event, but I’ve never been able to do that. I love to capture the beauty in all things. There is something so, so special about being able to show a person just how special they are through imagery. And then to be able to leave that image behind for future generations to see. That history is so powerful! There is nothing quite like being able to sit down during the holidays and look at old photos of your family. Especially those black and white images. To be able to help a family to share that legacy generations from now is huge for me.
Favorite Quote from a Black woman you admire:
“I have come to understand and listen to the fear.” -- Tracee Ellis Ross
Resource that facilitates your work:
I would have to say my 105mm 2.8 Nikon lens. I love that I can get in close with it to photograph details and then get a killer portrait at the same time. It’s a very diverse lens that lives on my camera.
Web Address or Social Media:
chroniclesphotography.com // instagram: @chroniclesphoto
Documentarian and Visual Artist
Location: Nassau, Bahamas & Durham, NC What do you do & Why do you do it?
I’m currently photographing in my hometown: Nassau, Bahamas. My work examines the complexities of living in a place shrouded in tourism’s ideal during the age of climate concerns. Emphasizing the importance of Bahamian cultural identity for cultural preservation, I am documenting aspects of Bahamian life not curated for tourist consumption to intervene in the historical archive. This work counters the widely held paradisiacal view of the Caribbean, the origins of which arose post-emancipation through a controlled, systematic visual framing and commodification of the tropics.
Favorite Quote from a Black woman you admire: “Our labor has become more important than our silence.” -- Audre Lorde
Resource that facilitates your work:
This is complex—working so far away from my “home base” I’ve had to be really creative about resources. I try to keep everything as mobile as possible so my phone is housing my books, camera, and software. Technologically speaking, the two things that I could not do this work without are Eye-Fi cards and Adobe Photoshop Express they help me review images on the go and post to social media. Culturally speaking, I couldn’t do this work without the people and the richness of all things signifying Bahamian.
Web Address/Social Media: tamikagalanis.com
Photographer | Filmmaker | Activist
Location: Brooklyn, New York What do you do & Why do you do it?
I own and operate a media production company called KUU productions (pronounced koo). I document history and tell stories for a living through the mediums of photography and film. It is a blessing that I actually get to travel the world and get paid to curate the narratives of people, organizations, and companies. I do it because it is unpredictable, exhilarating, emotional, historic and purposeful. Lastly, I am the co-founder of WEEN, Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network, a women’s non-profit in NYC that educates and empowers young women who want to have careers in entertainment.
Favorite Quote from a Black woman you admire:
“If you get, give. If you learn, teach.” -- Maya Angelou & “Be great on every level.”--Yvonne Orji
Resource that facilitates your work:
YouTube in the best invention in the my lifetime. If I ever need to know ANYTHING regarding film, tv, photography, producing, editing, etc. I head directly over to YouTube and sift through the endless possibilities.
Web Address/Social Media:
kuuproductions.com // instagram: @kuuproductions
Bianca C. Williams
Professor of Anthropology at The Graduate Center, CUNY and Author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism
Location: Brooklyn, NY What do you do & Why do you do it?
My teaching, my organizing, and writing are dedicated to figuring out how Black women develop strategies for enduring and resisting the effects of racism and sexism, while attempting to maintain emotional wellness. I think we’re amazing forces of change. And I want us to be able to experience happiness, joy, and peace consistently while we do our transformative work.
Favorite Quote from a Black woman you admire:
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” -- Zora Neale Hurston
Resource that facilitates your work:
Conditionally Accepted is a great blog where folx of color in the academy discuss their experiences and provide analysis on what types of changes should happen in higher education in order for there to be equity. When I see Black students having a difficult time navigating some of the challenges in higher ed, I usually point them to these “Back-to-School Beatitudes: 10 Academic Survival Tips” offered by Crunktastic of the Crunk Feminist Collective. conditionallyaccepted.com AND crunkfeministcollective.com
biancaphd.com // twitter: @biancaphd
Executive Director, Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation
Location: New York, NY What do you do & Why do you do it?
I support the full participation of girls and young women in society through access to higher education and economic development opportunities. I do it because unfortunately, gender is still a major barrier to success in this country and around the world. Add race to the equation, and most Black girls and women are left far behind. I do it for them.
Favorite Quote from a Black woman you admire: “Your silence will not protect you” -- Audre Lorde
Resource that facilitates your work:
he most valued resource I have is my network. There is no substitute for surrounding yourself with smart T people in diverse disciplines who have your best interest at heart. My tribe makes me better.
Web Address/Social Media: twitter: @MsReneeJoslyn
Journalist | Custom Content Producer | Ghostwriter & Editor ... and occasional photographer.
Location: Monticello, New York & Little Rock, Arkansas What do you do & Why do you do it? I’m a storyteller, and I come from storytellers. Story-in its various forms--can change, correct, and redeem things.
Favorite Quote from a Black woman you admire:
“I am so perfect, so divine, so ethereal, so surreal I cannot be comprehended, except by my permission ... I mean, I can fly like a bird in the sky.” From poet Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego-tripping”
Resource that facilitates your work:
Pad. Pen. iPhone audio recorder. iMac. Macbook. Canon 7D and my favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 ... cuz it was relatively inexpensive and makes way, way, way pretty portraits.
Web Address/Social Media: kattigray.com // twitter: @kattigray
Associate Director, Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW)
Location: New York, NY What do you do & why do you do it:
In the classroom and in all the work I do, I center Black feminist thought and practice to break down systems of oppression that limit connection, progress, and liberation.
Favorite Quote from a Black woman you admire:
The words of my graduate advisor, the brilliant Deborah Thomas, always resonate in my ears as I move forward: “It’s not that deep.” She’d say this to me as I agonized over my dissertation, over grades, and over my life. Truly, for so many things that seem to be crises in the moment--their importance vanishes with time and perspective. Breathe, take stock, and remember that so often, it’s not that deep.
Resource that facilitates your work:
I am a professor at heart, and my most valuable and well-loved resource is the Oxford English dictionary. What a beautiful construction we have in language!
The Power of the Pen In this issue and future issues, our hope is to feature writing, images, and art from women and girls. Our first featured short story, “Koche” on page 29 is written by Afabwaje Kurian, a writer who was born in Jos, Nigeria, and grew up in the US. She is currently working on her first novel, which explores love, marriage, and faith in a Gbagyi village. Below, we asked Afabwaje a few questions about her journey as a writer and how she plans to use her gift of writing to empower Black women and girls.
In this very moment in your life, what is the work that you are called to do and why do you do it? I’m called by God to be a writer and speak to the experiences of women and people of color through my fiction. Edwidge Danticat
once said, “I would write if there was no public. If there was nobody reading, I would still write.” This quote gives voice to that inexplicable desire within me to put words to paper. I also write because I love creating and inhabiting new worlds and bodies. I love writing about characters that are partially like me in some way and simultaneously not like me at all. Though I might share a trait with a particular character, the character has traits, upbringings, and experiences that are completely unlike mine. Because of this, I have to push myself to see and experience the world as they would, and not as I would. Writing also allows me to go behind the scenes to “see” what is unseen. I’m a natural observer, and I’m always curious about what’s happening behind the veneer of a home, store, family,
relationship, or friendship. Writing allows me to see it, and as a result, writing pushes me toward greater empathy and a deeper understanding of people.
What is the inspiration behind the story, “Koche”? Many years ago, an Indian classmate spoke about a time in her youth when she scratched her skin raw with a stone in a desperate attempt to rid herself of her darkness. I never forgot that story or the scar on her arm. When I first wrote “Koche,” the story revolved around that scar, and I kept holding on to that image. After several drafts, I realized the scar was just the gateway to the true story, and not the story itself. Writing “Koche” also allowed me to enter into the mind of a character that would feel such loathing for the color of her skin that she would resort to self-harm.
“I’m called by God to be a writer and speak to the experiences of women and people of colour through my fiction.”
Why did you choose to tell this story? What is the message that you want to get across? I’ve always, even in college, been interested in perceptions of beauty, body image, and self-esteem in minority girls. Growing up, I experienced and was intrigued by the politics of colorism in the Black community. Who is considered most attractive? Who is most desired by men? How does our outward appearance determine or define our societal standing? This short story is a culmination of the thoughts, conversations, and images that have stayed with me. In “Koche,” my desire was to present the lives of the characters through their longings for beauty and love, to consider the generational transfer of our perceptions of beauty, and to wrestle with our lack of sympathy for women, like Aunty Ladi, who struggle with self-acceptance.
How do you use the tool of the pen to empower Black girls and women? The protagonists of my stories are mostly Black females. They’re not accessories in my fiction, but complicated characters with desires, strengths, vulnerabilities, and flaws. My hope is that Black girls and women would find themselves increasingly represented in fiction as whole and human and complex. Representation is empowering. When I lived in DC, I once organized a weekend writing retreat for Black women at a cottage in Annapolis. I facilitated the writing sessions and developed writing prompts, and it was a time of encouragement for these women to give themselves the space and time to share their writing. As I continue on this writing journey, I hope to have the opportunity to not only write my fiction as a novelist, but also to create spaces for Black women to have their voices heard.
Image by Arielle Jean-Pierre
For Girls the
Books to Read in 2018
Here are six new books that will be great additions on the bookshelves for girls of all ages.
Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You! By Marley Dias
We are big fans and supporters of Marley Dias. For years, we watched the supergirl cultivate her passion for social activism at the Grassroots Community Foundation, an organization founded by her mother Dr. Janice Johnson Dias. Marley is the founder of the #1000BlackGirlBooks, a worldwide campaign she began in 2015 that encourages people to collect and donate thousands of books that features Black girls as protagonists. Marleyâ€™s successful campaign proves that youth can foster change and have their voices heard. This year, Marley returns as an author of her own book. Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You! serves as a guide for young people to use their talents and gifts as tools to create impact in their communities. This book is geared towards youth ages 10 and up, and offers tips and strategies on the path to becoming young activists.
This Little Trailblazer: A Girl Power Primer by Joan Holub
This Little Trailblazer is a very empowering book for little girls. Geared for children ages 3-5, the book highlights 10 powerful women of all races who prepared the path for future trailblazers.
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History is a small gem of a book by artist Vashti Harrison, who recently won the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. The picture book features illustrations and biographies of Black women who shaped history and ultimately changed the world such as abolitionist Sojourner Truth, politician Shirley Chisholm, poet Maya Angelou, filmmaker Julie Dash, and mathematician Katherine Johnson. Little Leaders will surely inspire and remind young Black girls and women alike that we all have the bold power within each of us to make history.
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed
This picture book by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington tells the story of a young Mae and her dream to become an astronaut. Little girls will feel inspired as they learn about the story of Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel to space.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Based on the highly acclaimed best selling book and Academy Award nominated movie Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly brings the true story of the four African American women in NASA to a picture book for younger readers. This inspiring book illustrates what it took for these four women to overcome racial and gender barriers in order to build successful careers in a field where women, let alone Black women, were seen far and few between.
Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson and Illustrated by Andrea Pippins
Inspired by Nina Simone’s powerful anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” this colorful and inspiring book pays homage to fifty-two iconic Black leaders and trailblazers from around the world. Short biographies are written by Jamia Wilson, Executive Director of Feminist Press, and are paired with fun illustrations by Andrea Pippins, an illustrator, designer, and author. Inside the book, young readers will enjoy stories that celebrate the past and present achievements of Black women and men who made history.
(may I tell you something) the words they are in love with you. from nejma by nayyirah waheed
Image by Madylin Nixon-Taplet
KOCHE by Afabwaje Kurian
I was seven when my Aunty Ladi first bleached my skin. She lined the bathroom counter with a bottle of clover honey, three seedless lemons, and a container of lavender-scented chlorine bleach. I peered through the crack of the bathroom door and saw the fierce curve of her back as she assembled the ingredients to transform my ordinary cocoa skin into something the equivalent of gold. “Don’t tell your parents,” Aunty Ladi said to me afterwards. She winked at me when they came to pick me up, and “I was seven when my Aunty her wink sealed the secret of the bath in my mouth. Ladi first bleached my skin.” My parents worked weekend shifts at Bilden Hotel, and I had stayed with Aunty Ladi on those weekends for as long as I could remember. There were other secrets that I’d learned and knew not to share, though Aunty Ladi never said anything directly to me. I never told my mother and father about the older gentleman who came to visit Aunty Ladi on Friday evenings. Aunty Ladi had no pictures of him framed in her living room or bedroom, and she did not bring him up in conversation with my mother. I assumed he was not meant to be remembered unless he was physically present. After my parents drove off on Fridays, his hunter green Taurus was never too far behind, cruising into the numbered parking spot in front of Aunty Ladi’s apartment, frightening the sparrows that had flown down to nip at crushed remains of food. He was a quiet man with a hairless face and a sharp widow’s peak that contrasted with his soft features. He would appear at Aunty Ladi’s door in jeans and a green flannel shirt, coming straight from his job as an operator at a power plant in Baltimore. Aunty Ladi made him a meat dish with roasted potatoes for his dinners. In the winter, she cooked collards to go with ham, and when it was summer, she grilled sweet corn in her oven. On some nights, when it was his turn to bring dinner, he ordered a large pizza for the three of us: meat lovers on his half, plain cheese for Aunty Ladi and me. Sometimes, he would bring tacos or a rotisserie chicken with macaroni and cheese from the Farm Foods in Silver Spring, the supermarket where my Aunty Ladi worked. The walls were thin, and from the fold-out bed in the living room, I used to hear their whispers on those Friday nights when they retired from the couch to Aunty Ladi’s bedroom. The man—who told me to call him Mr. Ernest—was in his early fifties and had grown children that Aunty Ladi said were hopeless. Aunty Ladi told me his daughter was a pretty high-yellow girl with all three of her children born out of wedlock, living with her good-for-nothing boyfriend up in New York, working as the office secretary of an elementary school. Ronnie, Mr. Ernest’s son, had dropped out of high school. He was trying to do better, Aunty Ladi admitted begrudgingly, planning to complete his GED and then register for geology courses at Montgomery College. Imagine, Aunty Ladi said, paying money to study rocks that you can dig out in your own front yard. Mr. Ernest was also separated from his wife. When he talked to Aunty Ladi, he was always saying my ex-wife did this and my ex-wife did that the other day.
Aunty Ladi reminded him one night, “She’s not your ex-wife.”
“When then, Ernest? You’re still living in that house with her.”
“Not legally,” Mr. Ernest said.
“It’s better like this. Can’t afford a divorce right now. She does her thing and I do mine. She pays her half of the mortgage and I pay mine. She’s got her man, and I’ve got you. We as good as done.”
“I can’t keep waiting on you,” Aunty Ladi said.
“I told you, once Ronnie gets himself together and out the house, me and her will start talking papers, figuring stuff out like we need to.”
“Then you leave her?”
“That’s what I said.”
There was silence before Aunty Ladi asked, “What does she look like?”
“You always asking, Didi. Don’t go worrying yourself about that.”
“You’ve shown me everyone else. Not her.”
“What would it look like for me to be walkin’ around with a picture of her in my wallet? Is that what you want? My ex-wife in my pocket?”
“Of course not, Ernest, I’m sure she’s pretty, that’s all I’m saying.”
“I married her so I guess she was. But she ain’t you, so quit worrying.”
Aunty Ladi paused and then said, “She must be good-looking though. That’s why you won’t tell me. Like your daughter, those hazel eyes, that gorgeous hair. I don’t know why she cut if off lopsided like that, but it’s thick, real thick. Who’d she get it from?”
Mr. Ernest sighed. “You know that stuff don’t matter to me. You the one I want.”
“Am I, Ernest?”
“You know you are.”
“Prove it then,” Aunty Ladi said, the edge in her voice gone.
I heard their muffled laughter and soon enough the volume of the television in her bedroom increased until their voices became inaudible, and I could no longer distinguish their whispers, regardless of how much I strained. Mr. Ernest never stayed too late on Saturday mornings. He always left before my baths, without sitting down to eat breakfast with us, despite Aunty Ladi insisting that he not rush off. He’d tell Aunty Ladi that he needed to spend time with his son or that he had to repair fixtures in the kitchen or do some yard work so he could maintain the property to sell when it was time for the paperwork to be filed. One morning, when Mr. Ernest saw Aunty Ladi getting the ingredients together for my baths, he said, “Didi, leave that child alone. The girl looks fine the way she is. She favors you.” “You don’t understand, Ernest,” Aunty Ladi said. “I have to do it.” She continued to test the yield of the lemons for the bath.
“Why do you have to do it?” I asked.
“Don’t you want to look like your mother?” she said.
After Mr. Ernest left on Saturdays, Aunty Ladi would plug the bathtub drain, allowing both hot and cold water to stream out of the faucet into the tub. The bathroom tub and floor were custard yellow and cracks appeared like veins between the tiles. The white vinyl shower curtain imprinted with large, looming sunflowers belonged to the previous tenant, but Aunty Ladi had never changed it. On top of the toilet tank sat a wicker basket holding sachets of cinnamon potpourri. Sitting on the closed toilet lid, Aunty Ladi would pour half a cup of bleach, three tablespoons of honey, and two cups of whole milk into the bath. Before swirling the water, Aunty Ladi rolled the lemons under her foot to soften the pulp, and the juice spurted when she made an incision. She squeezed the juice into the bath and dropped the lemons in with rind and pulp. Undressed from the spare pajamas I kept at Aunty Ladi’s place, I would lift one leg and dip it inside the tub. The touch of my foot into the water never failed to scorch my ankles. I hesitated one morning, removing my foot, and wiggled my toes to fling the excess water.
“Aunty, I don’t want to,” I said in a tremulous voice.
But Aunty Ladi only said, “Fat and dark. You can’t be both, Koche.”
“Sitting on the closed toilet lid, Aunty Ladi would pour half a cup of bleach, three tablespoons of honey, and two cups of whole milk into the bath.”
So I stuck my whole right leg into the bathtub and then the second leg. With both feet planted in the tub, I squatted until I was seated on my bottom and immersed to my armpits in the cloudy concoction. During the baths, the lemon pulp would cling to my body like miniature cellophane leeches. I would sit in the tub, my bottom numbing, willing the milk to lend a tenth of its coloring and the acidity from the lemons to strip the darkness from my skin so that Aunty Ladi would be pleased. Because I thought my Aunty Ladi was right—I could not be both. My legs were twice the size of Ariah’s, one of the girls in Aunty Ladi’s neighborhood, who flashed by on her roller skates, and her legs looked, to me, like shoestring fries on wheels. Sometimes, I thought I might prefer to be skinny and dark like Ariah and I envisioned myself that way—gliding down the paved hill near the dumpsters and over the split speed bumps on the road. But most times, I had an urge to scratch and scratch my skin until all that remained of it was like blackberry ink underneath my fingernails.
I often soaked in the homemade bath while Aunty Ladi made phone calls. While sitting on a wooden stool near the tub, she’d call her landlord to complain about the creaks in the floor or the mice that she said had built a village behind her stove. Aunty Ladi never let me read a book because she said my elbows and arms needed to soak just as much as the rest of me. So sometimes, she told me stories about supermarket incidents from the week, like the elderly woman who complained that the attendants made too much noise pushing the carts in the parking lot or the bagger she caught filching chewing gum and batteries from the cashier stands. Inevitably, Aunty Ladi would speak to me about her younger days. “People used to say I’d be good-looking enough to be in advertisements if I was light like your mother,” she used to tell me. “That’s how lovely your Aunty was back then. I could’ve been in magazines instead of selling pineapples and mops.” Though they shared the same smile, the same cheekbones, I could not picture Aunty Ladi golden and beautiful like my mother, outfitted in a black belted navy skirt and black ankle-strap heels, clicking and clacking down the marble floors of Bilden Hotel. Aunty Ladi also liked to tell me about how she met Mr. Ernest. He was a customer who came through her line when she used to work the registers at Farm Foods, before she was promoted to assistant manager. As she scanned his groceries, he looked at her nametag and asked her if she’d ever heard of Sade, the Nigerianborn singer.
“Who doesn’t know Folasade?” Aunty Ladi said to him, and named Sade’s songs. “‘No Ordinary Love,’ ‘By Your Side,’ ‘The Sweetest Taboo,’…”
“‘Your Love is King,’” Mr. Ernest added.
Aunty Ladi said, “Yes, yes, I could listen to that one every day.”
“You remind me of her.”
Mr. Ernest laughed. “Sade. Folasade.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Something about your eyes. It’s there.”
When Aunty Ladi recounted that moment, she would smile that smile that was as infrequent as desert rain. “Can you believe he thought so? Even in that hideous uniform they make me wear,” she said. “I said to him, ‘Sir, let me give you a little discount on those ribs.’” Though she had told the story countless times, Aunty Ladi would pause and her face would look troubled. “You think Mr. Ernest only said that so he could get a discount?” she asked.
I would shake my head no, trembling because my bath had cooled.
Aunty Ladi would let the hot water flow again. “You’re right,” Aunty Ladi would say, as the troubled look vanished. “He couldn’t have known I’d give him those ribs for next to nothing.” The truth was that Aunty Ladi did not look anything like the pictures I had seen of Sade on the covers of old CDs. She was not slender like Sade, but neither was she heavy. Aunty Ladi was tall like my mother and carried her weight very well, and any she gained was evenly apportioned to her arms, breasts, and thighs, so much so that most people thought she’d been this size since her youth. Aunty Ladi did her own relaxer in the kitchen sink. Other times, if there was a little extra after paying the rent and electric bill, she visited Safira’s crowded salon on Georgia Avenue, and Safira wove her hair in cornrows that collected into a remarkable bun. Aunty Ladi did not have Sade’s porcelain complexion. Her face, an almond hue, reminded me of granite, a splatter of black and purplish bruises scarring her cheeks and forehead. Aunty Ladi said these were reminders of how the whitening creams failed her. Because, as she told me, she tried the creams too late, when she was much older and her skin had determined what it wanted to show the world and rebelled against what Aunty Ladi wanted it to be. But still, wanting to see Aunty Ladi as beautiful, I thought that maybe she had the singer’s eyes, like Mr. Ernest said, those soulful, haunting black eyes. Mr. Ernest started coming around to Aunty Ladi’s place a couple of weeks after they met. Mr. Ernest enjoyed spending his Friday nights inside instead of driving into the city for concerts or shows. He disliked going to the reggae lounges Aunty Ladi heard about on the radio and brought to his attention. He did not take Aunty Ladi out to dinner at the finer restaurants downtown, like the ones in Penn Quarter, close to the hotel where my mother worked. If he took her out to eat, I went along with them to Red Lobster or a Chinese buffet a couple of streets over. I used to think that Mr. Ernest did not want to be seen with my Aunty Ladi. But one year, for Aunty Ladi’s 36th birthday, Mr. Ernest brought a frosted marble cake and case of beer along with his customary pizza
“Take me out tomorrow, Ernest,” Aunty Ladi said to him, as she cut into her cake. Mr. Ernest cocked his eyebrow and said, “What for? Don’t you like what we’re doing now?”
“I want to dress up, do something different, be out with you.”
“You’ve got Koche to take care of tomorrow night.”
“She can stay with Ariah. They’ll watch her for me.”
“Tomorrow’s no good. Got lots to do. How about next month?”
Aunty Ladi licked the daub of chocolate icing on her finger. “That’s fine, Ernest,” she said.
The following day, Mr. Ernest left in the morning per usual, but he arrived later in the evening. Aunty Ladi and I were confused when the doorbell rang. She sent me to the door, and there was Mr. Ernest, standing on the Hello! Goodbye! welcome mat, dressed in polished black shoes and a checkered bow tie, like a television host ready to announce prizes on a game show.
Aunty Ladi came up behind me. “What’s this, Ernest?” she asked.
Mr. Ernest said, “We’re going for dinner and dancing.”
“What? It’s not only because I asked, is it?”
Mr. Ernest smiled. “Already had it planned, but you had to go ruin it by asking yesterday.”
I got to see Aunty Ladi spruced up before Mr. Ernest walked me over to Ariah’s. Aunty Ladi chose an indigo dress that had a ring of sequins on the neckline and sleeves. She wore silver chandelier earrings and a silver necklace of interlocking circles that I had never seen before. Mr. Ernest let out a low whistle when Aunty Ladi walked out of the bedroom, and he asked her to turn so he could see the fullness of the dress. The sequins were iridescent under the lights, with her twirling on her tiptoes and laughing. And for the first time, in all that lightness, I saw my mother in her. Right before the hour-long baths ended, Aunty Ladi used to take a washcloth drenched with the bath water, and after asking me to close my eyes, she would press the cloth to my face, wringing the excess water on my forehead and neck when she finished. After, I would rise to my feet, and Aunty Ladi would scrub me from head to toe with a slender blue bath brush. She scrubbed as if all the filth on earth had galvanized my body, and as if another little girl was trapped inside of me. Once I was out of the tub, Aunty Ladi lavished my body with Fair and Lovely, concentrating on rubbing an excessive amount on my elbows and knees. She did this in a manner so bereft of the harshness of scrubbing that I would sometimes look at her hands to see if they had been replaced by someone else’s. Seeing the blemishes on Aunty Ladi’s face while she “After, I would rise to my feet, and Aunty Ladi rubbed the cream on me, I used to be afraid would scrub me from head to toe with a slender that the creams might tarnish my own skin, leaving marks and scabs that I could never blue bath brush. She scrubbed as if all the filth hide. on earth had galvanized my body, and as if Though I loved Aunty Ladi, I did not want to look like Aunty Ladi because even she did not another little girl was trapped inside of me.”
want to look like herself. When Aunty Ladi finished with the cream, she examined me to see if my skin had lightened. She pressed her thumbs against my forehead, stretching the skin along my eyebrow, and she traced her fingers down my cheeks and neck. She would hold my right arm and run her fingers up from my shoulder to my palms, slowing when she reached my hands. Her fingers treaded my spine and followed the curves all the way down to the hollows behind my knees. The tenderness of her touch almost lulled me to sleep. I did not mind the examination or the rubbing of the cream. My mother did not do this for me, and I could not remember a time when she had as gently as Aunty Ladi rubbed any type of cream on me. But she must have lotioned me when I was born, I used to tell myself, because I would not have been able to do so. The creams did not seem to penetrate deep enough, and I began to fear the tenacity of my skin—that it could not be compelled to look more like my mother’s. If I touched the skin on my neck and said that it looked like the baths might be working, Aunty Ladi sighed and said it was only a trick of the light. I wanted my skin to change, to look the color of that sweet corn that Aunty Ladi offered Mr. Ernest, so that my mother would notice and tell me proudly that I glowed just like her. If I resembled her more, I thought, perhaps she would spend more time with me, take time off on weekends and bring me places instead of sending me to Aunty Ladi’s. If I resembled her, perhaps, people would stop looking in confusion when they saw us together. She’s mine, my mother would answer when they asked, she’s all mine. But her voice sounded like it did all the time, detached and lost completely in another world where she did not have to be asked. My mother was not like other mothers: affectionate, removing a crumb from their child’s cheek, straightening the collar of a shirt, and holding hands when crossing the street. My mother smelled clean like the sandalwood soap the hotel reserved for guests, and she was graceful in her sheer stockings. At home, these same stockings dangled over the shower curtain after she washed them by hand. She dry-cleaned the three navy skirts and white shirts that she alternated between for work. My father said it was a waste of money, paying for shirts and skirts that could be tossed into the wash with his clothes and mine. She ignored him and took them to the $1.99 cleaners, bringing them back starched and pressed, swaying under transparent garment bags. I used to run towards my mother when she returned from work to pick me up from Aunty Ladi’s, but she would tell me to be careful not to wrinkle her skirt or snag her stockings. I stopped running when she came and started waiting to be called. On one occasion, my mother knelt down on Aunty Ladi’s floor and let me put my arms around her neck. I remember the draft from the partially opened door, and how I could feel her hot tears burning and tingling my skin, smell the fragrance of sandalwood, feel her warm skin against mine, as she said, “I’ve tried so hard, Koche.” It might have gone on like this, the two of us stuck to one another. Aunty Ladi was the one who asked her to stop, told my mother she might be frightening me with her tears. You must have had a rough day at work, Aunty Ladi said to her as she pulled me away, tomorrow will be better. The year I turned nine, Aunty Ladi let me accompany her on the F2 bus to the beauty store where she bought the whitening creams and packs of synthetic hair for Safira to braid. She said it was time I learned how to choose my own creams. The beauty store was located next to a cash express store, and it shared a green awning with a Dominican hair salon. The workers recognized Aunty Ladi as soon as the bell above the door signaled her entrance. The lightening products were kept in the fifth aisle behind a row of mannequin heads adorned with glossy black, blonde, and red wigs. Aunty Ladi had tried several of these lotions and soaps on me, but the one that she always purchased was Fair and Lovely, which came in a mint green package. I could see the silver lettering at the bottom of the box describing the potency and promise of the cream. I read the names of the products under my breath as I waited for Aunty Ladi to pick a new item to try—Brightening Skin, Ivory Queen, and Vibrant Light. The instructions said the creams were for black marks and blemishes.
“Aunty, do I have black marks?” I asked.
Aunty Ladi laughed. “Koche, you’re one big black mark like me.”
On the return trip home from the store that day, Aunty Ladi told me it was time I learned about beauty hoarders. She said beauty hoarders were well-groomed women whose skin complexions were like manila envelopes. Beauty hoarders never revealed where to purchase the gorgeous wedge sandals they wore or the coconut conditioner they used to add shine and softness to their hair. Mr. Ernest’s daughter is a beauty hoarder, Aunty Ladi said. She said that she knew this just by looking at her picture. She was convinced Mr. Ernest’s wife was one as well, even though she had never seen her. Aunty Ladi fixed my barrette, looping my hair around the clasp and snapping it into place. “They’re no better than us,” Aunty Ladi said about beauty hoarders. “We’ve all got that lightness inside. Some of us just have to work a lot harder to find it.” On the bus, Aunty Ladi and I took turns reciting names of beauty hoarders we knew. Like Ms. Vera, who did not tell Aunty Ladi where to buy the perfume she was wearing, or Ms. Melinda, who claimed she forgot the name of the woman who did her crochet braids. I named the girls at school, like Kimberly who did not tell me where she bought her heart-shaped pencil case, and Temi, who did not tell me where she got her scented markers. I mentioned that Ariah did not tell me where she purchased her roller skates.
“But Ariah is dark like you,” Aunty Ladi said, and asked me to pick another girl.
“Francine,” I said. “She told me she couldn’t remember where she got her necklace.”
Aunty Ladi asked. “Was it nice? What did it look like?”
“Orange-pink,” I said, “with a star in the middle.”
It was Aunty Ladi’s turn again. Aunty Ladi thought for a moment and then said, “Your mother.” She looked at me, smiled at my confusion. “Don’t be fooled. Family too can be beauty hoarders. Your turn.” One Saturday a couple of months after my first trip to the beauty store, Mr. Ernest left with a duffel bag over his shoulder, and Aunty Ladi told me that we were taking a trip into the city. When I asked what for, Aunty Ladi did not answer, so I assumed we might be going to a new beauty store she had found. We switched buses twice before I saw the street signs for Rhode Island Avenue. We crossed a few streets and arrived at what looked like an established neighborhood of row houses with mature trees and residents sitting outside on the stoops. “Here it is,” Aunty Ladi said, looking down at the address she had written on the back of a letter advertising auto insurance rates. “1280 Douglas Street.” We stopped in front of one of the gray houses, which I could only distinguish from the others by the well-maintained facade and thriving lawn. I did not know what we were looking for at first, but I could see Mr. Ernest’s car parked in front of the house, with its windshield shade reflecting the sunlight. The screen door of the gray house opened, and a woman stepped out. I thought Aunty Ladi was disappointed that it was not Mr. Ernest. He had told Aunty Ladi that he was catching a four- hour Chinatown bus up to Queens to visit his daughter, which was why he had brought his duffel bag with him and was out of her apartment early. I thought we had come to catch Mr. Ernest doing something he was not supposed to be doing, like relaxing on his porch instead of gone to New York. But Aunty Ladi was not disappointed that it wasn’t Mr. Ernest. She was studying the woman who must have been Mr. Ernest’s wife. The woman was willowy and dressed in a loose jogging suit. Her hair looked to be as brittle as the grass in the neighbors’ yards, but she was also as light as the dying grass, so amber light that I felt a tightening in my stomach seeing her standing on the porch of the gray house. The woman held a red shoulder bag in her hand that matched the red vertical
lines of her jogging pants. A boy appeared behind her and shut the door. He could have passed for Mr. Ernest’s younger brother, but he was slim in the face like his mother.
The woman and boy headed towards Mr. Ernest’s car.
“You drive, Ronnie,” the woman said and tossed him the keys.
Ronnie fumbled them.
“Clumsy like your daddy,” she said and laughed.
Ronnie opened the car door and removed the windshield shade.
“Y’all lost?” the woman asked when she saw Aunty Ladi and me. She sounded like she had laughed too much once and never regained the strength of her voice. “Looking for Randolph Street,” Aunty Ladi said. She glanced down at her paper and up at the street sign. “Is that close?”
“Ronnie, you know where Randolph at?”
“Never heard of it,” Ronnie mumbled from the front seat, where he was buckled in. He seemed eager to be off, and the car engine was already running. “Might be a few streets over,” the woman said to Aunty Ladi, as she joined Ronnie in the car and rolled down her windows.
“Thank you,” Aunty Ladi said.
“Don’t mention it. Easy to get lost round these parts.”
“I like your bag,” Aunty Ladi said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Up the street, ‘Penney’s,” the woman called out the window, right before Ronnie drove off.
“She’s thin as a rail,” Aunty Ladi whispered to me as we watched them drive away from us. She was not a beauty hoarder like Aunty Ladi thought, but still we laughed together at the rail-thin woman, Mr. Ernest’s wife, at her skinniness, and we laughed as if Aunty Ladi had won a hand that she did not think she could win. Aunty Ladi said nothing else about the excursion for the remainder of the day, and I knew this was to be our secret, a thing Mr. Ernest was never to know. On my tenth birthday, Aunty Ladi showed me how to make my own bath, how to pour the right ratio of bleach to milk, how to melt the honey in the microwave if it had crystallized in its jar. This is my present to you, Aunty Ladi said, you’re old enough now. She left the bathroom so that I could undress and soak by myself. Aunty Ladi did not only teach me because I was old enough, but because little by little everything around us was changing. The managers at Bilden Hotel had enrolled my mother in the next level of training, and soon she would have her own staff to oversee at the hotel. Aunty Ladi had convinced the landlord to move her into a twobedroom at nearly the same price as what she paid for the one. Mr. Ernest was the one who hung the curtains in each of the bedrooms after her move. As he fastened the brackets to the borders, Mr. Ernest told Aunty Ladi that Ronnie had enrolled in Montgomery College and was taking a course on celestial rocks. He’s moving out
in a couple of months, Mr. Ernest said to Aunty Ladi, and then I’ll start the paperwork. My mother and father had found a split-level house out in Bowie that they liked, and my mother told Aunty Ladi that they had made an offer. We would be about forty-five minutes away from Aunty Ladi now instead of just fifteen. It’s too far of a drive to go to Aunty Ladi’s every weekend, my mother had said to me. They’re taking you away from me, Aunty Ladi said, after all I’ve done for them. I saw Aunty Ladi before my parents moved from Hyattsville to the new place in Bowie. We sat together in her bedroom, which resembled a sorting area for Goodwill. If it weren’t for Mr. Ernest forcing her to get rid of things during the move to her new two-bedroom—like the broken dresser with the swinging bronze handles—it might look much worse than it did. Dresses and pants were folded over the footboard and some heaped on the floor. A couple of plates and Farm Food coupon books were thrown on the nightstand next to her table lamps, one of which had a malfunctioning switch.
Aunty Ladi brought out a small shopping bag from her nightstand.
“It’s not a necklace,” Aunty Ladi said and handed it to me.
Inside was a small bottle of nail polish. Coral Fantasy, the bottle read. It was orange-pink like the necklace with the star that Francine had worn to school. Aunty Ladi took the bottle from me, opened it, and told me to rest my legs across hers. One by one she began to paint my toes. She started with the smallest toe on my left foot and worked her way up, stroke by stroke, wiping smudges with her finger until all ten of my toes were shiny and prettier than I’d ever seen them.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I like it,” I said.
We were both quiet, admiring my ten toes, seeing how the coral sparkled against my skin.
“There was one before you,” Aunty Ladi said.
I glanced up from my toes at her.
“Another baby girl, skin like butter. She didn’t live past a week. It took your mother a long time to get over her and warm up to you, so black as coal, she swore you couldn’t belong to her. She couldn’t hold you, so I held you. Couldn’t feed you, so I warmed your milk and gave it to you. I’m telling you this so you know.” She said nothing more. And when I looked to her, she turned from me. She reached again for the bottle of polish on the dresser and asked me if I wanted my fingernails painted too. My mother said I was distant in the new house, and I did not talk as much as I had before the move. She woke me up for school and tried to make me breakfast before she left for work. She looked out of place in her white blouse and heels, bringing down a box of cereal that I disliked. She poured me a bowl with too much milk and then sat in the chair across from me. I looked into my cereal, and I hated how the rainbow colors were leaking into the milk. You don’t like it, my mother said. I shrugged. At first she attributed my silence to the airflow in my room and told my father that they should find someone to check the vents. Then she remarked that maybe it was the tap water in Bowie. It tastes funny to me, too, she said, and purchased a filter. But my silence had nothing to do with airflow and filters. It was because I knew what I should not know. I knew why my mother had never brought me to the Bilden Hotel. Why she said
one child was more than enough, when my father said they should try for another. Why she sighed when she looked at me from across the room, wondering how that ocean sand fairness of hers turned into molasses with me. Why was I darkness all over and lightness in unnecessary places like my palms and the space between my toes? Why was I breathing and living when the child she’d really wanted was gone? I had a bathroom to myself in the new place, so one morning I drew my own bath like Aunty Ladi had taught me. My mother knocked on the door, wondering what I was doing, locking myself in the bathroom. She wanted to know why the water was running and why the smell of bleach permeated the air. I’m cleaning, I said. Soon enough I heard her footsteps fade as I settled into the bathtub. I was doing it, I thought, because I missed the acridity of the chlorine, the softness of the lemon pulp grazing my skin, and the soothing promises of the creams. I missed the scent of Aunty Ladi’s potpourri, which was never powerful enough to mask the smell of the baths. I missed the Friday night dinners with Mr. Ernest and listening to their conversations through the walls, and the pretense in the morning that I had heard nothing at all. So I was doing it for Aunty Ladi, I told myself. But deep underneath, I knew that I was doing it for my mother, and I was doing it, I thought, for the one I should have been.