25 April 2013

Blackness, Beauty and Shame

I had a rich, nourishing and inspiring conversation with a friend yesterday. It was mid morning and we spoke by telephone. While I stood barefoot on the back porch, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, we had an intimate long distance conversation.

About beauty and blackness and shame.

I also shared some of the latest episodes of Life in Holly Springs. It was good to hear his laughter. When he laughs on the phone, I can see him in my mind.

He is shaping a project for himself and as the conversation closed, he asked if I'd write "even a page" of reflection and documentation of some of my comments during our phone visit. I consented and wrote the following (with minimal editing for inclusion in the blog; I may share the edits with him as well now the project seems to have wings -- he sent updates of his progress by email today):

Reflections on beauty and blackness and shame et al :
Mommy taught me early that I was not beautiful. Her oft-repeated teaching, to me and my two sisters:  "None of you are pretty but you are intelligent and that will see you through." This pronouncement by the premier trusted source for guidance during my childhood, sat beside an early awareness that a) the World held beauty in higher regard than intelligence, b) both "not pretty" and "intelligent" could be (and were) used as starting points for ridicule by other kids, and c) there was a strong negative correlation between being Loved by the World and not being pretty. As I write these words I recognize that these points of awareness likely influenced my choice to NOT reference cultural standards of beauty in my inner world; it was clearly a no-win proposition that guaranteed a measure of suffering I wanted to avoid. Best shot at minimizing suffering required thinking as little as possible about physical beauty.
When Carolyn (can't remember her last name), the white female coworker, approached me a few months after the birth of my son to awkwardly offer to adopt him, she probably had no idea of the tender spots in my psyche she touched. Her offer was based on assumptions that there was something wrong or problematic about me raising a biracial child alone. As I mentioned, I also had the sense that she wanted him because he, unlike me, his mother, was beautiful. I did not mention to you that she was already the mother of an adopted biracial girl child who was about 6 at the time.
In retrospect, I can see that to some degree I agreed with her assumptions/predictions about my capacity as a poor black unmarried woman in america to provide for my child. I was single, receiving Food stamps, black, not pretty and largely unsupported by my family. I think somewhere inside I knew she was right:  there were several things wrong with me. And still, perhaps from a confidence won over the span of my young lifetime, a lifetime of NOT buying in to the surrounding culture's evaluation of my chances and still surviving, I chose to decline her offer and go my own way.
Sometimes, as I watched people's strong, immediate attraction to my light-skinned, "good" hair son, I enjoyed a vicarious sense of being beautiful. Like basking in some deflected light of his beauty.
During the summer that my son's father and I were dating and having sex, he never parked his car in my driveway. He parked down the street and walked back to the house. This practice always triggered feelings of shame, on some level, but we never talked about it that I can remember. I suspect I didn't want to talk about it because what was there to say? On some level I had known for a long time that there was something wrong with me -- not being pretty just one of a handful of flaws -- and so I could understand his not wanting it known that he was associating with me. I was grateful to have even this imperfect, incomplete expression of regard.
There's just nothing finer than writing in response to a strong "prompt"....