"Mommy, I'm brown. Do you like me?”
Words from my three-year-old that struck me in the heart. Her words bore a pain I thought I had buried nearly 20 years ago.
“Yes, I like you. I love you! You are beautiful.”
“Mommy, I’m a girl?”
“Yes, a beautiful girl.”
Her questions remind me that I have only just begun to teach her about her beauty, her presence, her power, her greatness.
My hands are shriveled up after having soaked in forty-five minutes of dishes I haven’t had the energy to clean until now. As I grab the sponge to start the second round, I wonder, why do her words hit so hard?
I suppose I was caught off-guard. I had been listening to James Baldwin’s, I Am Not Your Negro while cleaning, and though I was feet away from her, I was truly in another world. Or, it could be that for a brief moment, I had forgotten who I was when I looked in the mirror. I had forgotten that I had been preparing for moments like this my entire life.
I remember the questionable tone in her voice.
"... I'm brown. Do you like me?”
Out of left field she leads me back into a world I have not yet conquered.
Maybe, deep down, it strikes me this hard because I know these two phrases do not belong in the same thought. I don’t like you because you’re brown. I like you because you’re my daughter. Because my blood is running through your veins. You are an extension of me and you are all that I could only hope to be. I love you because you are my wild-fire child. Yes, you are brown and you are beautiful. Your brown is a reflection of your greatness. Wear it proudly. Your brown is a mirror of your powerful history — honor, cherish, and love it. Your brown is a symbol of triumphant days to come. It should remind you that in the face of adversity, you will rise.
Her question sought confirmation and acceptance. She wasn’t asking if I liked her. She may only be three, but she surely knows that I like her. Her question was recognizing difference. Seeing color. I believe she was asking for permission to be. Does that make sense? Somewhere in her incredible three-year-old mind, she decided to place the color of her skin in the same realm of being liked, being accepted — being loved.
I can’t remember a day in my life where I questioned my color. Though, I remember the days of wearing a towel on my head and pretending it was long flowing hair I thought would be fun to play with and easy to comb. I remember being thirteen or fourteen and creating positive affirmations for myself.
"You are wonderfully made. God doesn't make mistakes. He made you just how He wanted to. You are beautiful."
I remember loving myself so deeply at fifteen and sixteen. I remember forcing myself to love my skin, my hair, my feet. I remember loving myself. I remember telling myself how much I loved being black and how I wouldn’t trade it for the world and how I justified racism by telling myself that some white people were so jealous of our greatness and culture and food that they had to hate us.
We are such a vibrant and spirited people. I love our beauty. I love that we are an endless spectrum of creativity and wonder and power. I love our resilience — how we manage to revive and reinvent ourselves time and time again. I love that we can make something from absolutely nothing. I love us. I love me and I know that this is what I must pass down to my daughter — somehow. I need her to know that she is loved and is love. That her skin color only makes her stronger and more magnificent. That she must love herself and that she must learn to forgive herself whenever she is too hard on herself.
One day, I’ll have to teach this to her. But today, I reassure her that she is mine and she is beautiful and she is loved.
Hours later, I remember her question and realize that perhaps it struck me as hard as it did because of the internal war raging within me. The same internal war I always avoid but for the past year has been slapping me in my face. For as long as I could remember, I have been searching for answers but never had the courage to dig deep enough. I often wrestle with the questions we all have asked ourselves at some point in our lives — who am I, what is my purpose, what is my value on this earth, and why? Just, why?
I also find myself sitting in bouts of anxiety and depression but I’m learning to catch myself before I fall too far into the grip. I know that many of my experiences, feelings, and beliefs are generational traumas — the idea that my traumas are my mothers and her mothers (and fathers) rings true in my life and I accept it, but I struggle when having to confront the weight and substance that compliments many of these tremendous pains.
Looking in the mirror, I knew I was black but looking at my father and grandfather, somedays I wasn’t sure. I only knew my mother from photographs and her beauty would leap off the pages of the photo albums. I’d often ask myself, how could someone so beautiful have it in them to leave her children… to leave me.
Needless to say, I had many questions.
My Father’s Side
The photo of my great-great-great grandmother, Laura Wortham (Gran-Laura), hung on my great-grandmother’s (Granny) wall for as long as I could remember. Her mother, Tabitha, was a full-blooded Cherokee woman and she’s as far back as our family history could be traced on this side of my family. Whenever I walked into Granny’s house the photo greeted me out of the corner of my left eye. Gran-Laura’s face was soft but stern, much like the many women in my family. Her stance was one that told me she was not to be played with — another characteristic of the women in my family — on my father’s side.
I would walk into Granny’s house and without thinking, I was always sure to acknowledge the photo as if to say, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, thank you’. Though, I must admit, it was kind of haunting and mysterious. The photo took up about two-thirds of the wall, was a hazy black and white with a gold frame, and I’m sure it was taken in the late 1800s. The history in that photo seemed heavy, and though I was curious, I never had the courage to ask the right questions to learn more about my family history surrounding this photo. My beloved grandmother — I call her Nana — is a daughter of this side of the family.
My grandfather, I’ve been told, has always struggled with his identity but I know him to be heavily immersed in the Native American culture. We grew up going to Pow Wows, riding horses, dancing the traditional dances, wearing moccasins, and I can even remember the name he gave me — Morning Dove. He built a sweat lodge on his land and for years, has hosted, The American Indian’s Truths — Nightwolf — the Most Dangerous Show On Radio. I would hear stories of him in his younger days — some interesting and others I acknowledge and let be. His father, I’m told, was a Chinese man but we never knew who he was. My great-grandmother passed before she could tell anyone the full story.
My father is a minister and a military man (Army and Air Force) — and as you can imagine, we grew up in a pretty strict household. The house was always clean, we were in bed by 8 PM or sooner, and there was little-to-no room for tears. But growing up, my father had a childlike side to him. I remember coming home to water gun fights, great Christmas mornings, full bellies — sometimes too full as we had to eat all of the food on our plates, and harmless name calling where the rule was to put as many fruits together and then end with the word ‘head’.
"You watermelon, cherry, orange head!"
I can still hear my little brother’s voice shouting at my dad.
Mornings would begin with the mantra, “whether a task be large or small, do it well or not at all.” We would repeat, recite, and rehearse sayings like this as if we were robots and to this day they’re ingrained in my memory. When we were getting ready to leave the house, my father — with a very specific cadence — would say, “stand in the door”, and we would scurry to the door with excitement and line up to get ready to go. While I reflect on these moments and smile, I can’t help but think there was also fear in those moments. Fear of being left behind and fear of getting in trouble if we weren’t ready by the time our father was headed out the door.
In the car, we’d have competitions on who could say, “wheeeee doggin”, the loudest and longest. I’m pretty sure I was always the winner. And before we stepped out of the car to go to church, school, the store, or anywhere, it was pretty much tradition to hear my father say, “Be on your what?”, and our four-person choir would respond in unison with, “Best behavior.”
Then, there were the times that we would get in trouble.
“When one of you get’s in trouble, you all get in trouble. You’re responsible for each other.”
Let’s just say the spankings and punishments were memorable.
I think motherhood is growing on me. It’s hard to label such a love and pain.
Growing up without a mother left me to create my own blueprint for how to best teach and raise my daughter. But I’d argue, does any parent really know what they’re doing?
These women were and are my mothers. I would watch them on television and in movies and tell myself that these were the women I wanted to be. These graceful queens were all I needed to get through life.
Whenever I need wisdom, I rest on the poetic words of Maya Angelou — she is the reason I became a poet. Her voice grounds my spirit and reminds me who I am. Whenever I need to be uplifted, Whoopi Goldberg is there to turn my tears of pain into tears of joy. When I need to feel human or when I feel disconnected from the world around me, I am motivated by Oprah and reminded that there is a true oneness in life — a oneness that lets me know everything is connected and if I sit with myself long enough, I’d understand this fully. She taught me to question and to be curious. Angela Bassett — the truest queen. I rest easy in this woman’s strength. At first, it was based on the incredible women she portrayed but as I grew older, I watched her beyond the screen and learned the true meaning of the words grace, strength, elegance, courage, — QUEEN.
Everyone’s mom. But to me — more. When I watched the Huxtables, I didn’t see a lawyer or middle class family. I didn’t think about the cultural impact they were making. If I acknowledged that, it would have ruined my image of normal, my definition of hope. It would have ruined the thought that a mother’s love was attainable.
I simply saw what I was longing for. I saw what I knew could be real. I saw myself and then, I latched on to Phylicia Rashad. I latched on to her wit, her style, her grace, her confidence, her power, her might, her joy, and her pain. I’d watch her interviews and learned her manner “off-screen”. She taught me how to be woman — human.
As a child, I always thought she resembled my mother. There was something about the soft but sure tone in her velvet voice, her facial expressions, her hair, her poise, and her presence that captivated my entire world.
As a singer, I am moved by voice. I connect to the timbre, tone, inflections, and the beats between the words. When Phylicia Rashad speaks, it’s intentional, soft but sure. She speaks as if she’s reading an eternally beautiful poem.
She helped me to see the truth in the aphorism that the inner reality creates the outer form. My inner reality was uncertain, unsure, and secretly abandoned.
I’d hear the teacher’s say, “give this permission slip to your mother”, my reality would present itself, and I’d hide from the internal confrontation of it all.
My inner self was afraid of the truth. But Phylicia Rashad’s words taught me to look within myself, first. I’d lean into the comfort or discomfort of discovering my own truth and became constantly aware of my truth within.
She taught me to understand myself and in turn, I’m learning to love myself. Thank you.
My Mother’s Side
I believe my mother was around until just before my sixth birthday.
I remember shattered glass on the floor of our house, standing near the steps by the front door, and the bright red blood coming from my big toe. I couldn’t have been older than three but I remember my mother’s face and her frustration or worry — I really couldn’t tell the difference. I also remember her doing my hair in her lap — a skill I never learned and now, I kick myself every time I find myself struggling to do my daughter’s hair or mine. I remember being burned on my ear as she curled my hair because my brothers were running and playing in the bathroom. I do not remember her smile but I remember the softness of her voice and her presence which often reminded me of a slightly happier Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
I remember not seeing my father for months in 1995 or 1996. My mother had taken us to stay with her. We were on the run. Why? I don’t know. What I do know is that we spent one Christmas in a hotel with a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and I remember hugging my mother, pretending to be excited in an attempt to make her feel better. I remember the birth of my baby sister and I remember my last memory of my mother. Anytime I think of this memory, an overwhelming sadness overcomes me and I can’t figure out why. We were at a park seemingly in the middle of the woods and I believe I was sitting on a swing holding my little sister who couldn’t have been more than a few months old, in the middle of the summer. My mother was there and then, she was gone. While some of these details are a bit hazy, this is what I remember.
I am thirteen and my father is taking us to see my mother for the first time in eight years. We’re near a park not far from my middle school, under a bridge. The meeting almost resembled a drug deal without the exchange. It felt weird…uncomfortable? Awkward.
I believe he had been searching for her for years. She was different and I couldn’t tell if she was afraid of us or my father. Her hair was shorter. She hugged us but nothing about this encounter felt real. She was around for a few weeks, maybe a month or two. At one point, my little brother and I rode in a Hummer for the first time, her Hummer. And then, I remember my father being brutally upset that he could’ve lost us again.
The next memory of my mother wouldn’t be until I was twenty.
She drove, with her husband, to the college my older brother and I were attending. This was one of the most internally divided moments of my life. Part of me felt as if I was betraying my father for inviting her into my apartment and the other part of me was longing to have any kind of relationship I could possibly have with my mother. The third divide was that I had been told interesting stories of my mother that I didn’t know what to believe or how to believe, so I just listened.
She sat in my low-lit living room in the chair closest to my bedroom. My brother sat closest to her and I sat closest to the door. True to nature — I always walk into a room or situation looking for the exit. I’m proud to say, I remained in the room the entire time.
She began to tell her story.
Her story was one of betrayal and pain and being controlled and hurt but there was barely any mention of my father. Her voice never carried any form of hate. She was calm, seemingly rehearsed and I listened. Moments in her story were truly unbelievable. Looking back, I questioned her story because of jaded thoughts that were created from stories I had been told prior. Though I’ll never know the full truth, I do know that she told her story.
I remember the conversation being light-hearted, my brother asked all the questions, and I just sat there. This was the night I would find out that I was also part Cuban — which was the one thing I believed. (We believe what we want, right?) I believed this because of my love for Cuban food and culture long before this conversation. Whenever I spoke Spanish, it felt right. It felt like home. I also believed it because to me, it was one more “cool feature” I could add to my list about who I was. When the conversation was over, I rode with her to her hotel and stayed the night. I slept in my mother’s arms and internally wept the entire night.
Years later, she visited for my daughter’s first Christmas. I danced around her visit not knowing what to say or how to act. I questioned if I wanted her to be proud of me or if I was making her feel guilty for not being there. I questioned if I should mimic her softness and grace or if I was being weirdly awkward. My daughter, who is usually my crutch and way out of situations and events, had become my kryptonite and I feared that any interaction I had with my daughter would hurt my mother for the moments that she wasn’t there for me. Though this was the first Christmas we spent together in years and as much as I claim to be Mariah Carey Jr. at this time of year, this was one Christmas I was glad to see end. Ever since, my relationship with her has been fragmented. A text here or there. Never a phone call and most times, I forget how to feel when I think about her or hear from her.
What I am learning to keep at the forefront of my mind and heart is that, we are all human. I’ve never been angry and have always told myself, from a very young age, that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for the choices that were made.
Maya Angelou also taught me that some people aren’t meant to be parents of small children. Often egos get in the way of remembering that others are human too. Whatever their reason for acting how they did, in that moment they may not have been capable to give us the love we thought we needed or wished for. Through my experiences, I’m reminding myself that every human deserves to be treated with compassion and understanding.
The internal war inside of me begs to know who I am — for me, but also for my daughter. I need to be able to tell her where her beautiful brown skin comes from and why she is the way she is. About eight months ago, I wrote a poem with the following lines:
"My trauma exists in others. It breathes in me and lives through my eyes, my power, my voice. Am I my mother's mistakes or her joy? Am I her burden or her light? Will my daughter be a reflection of my healing?"
I sit with my thoughts because I need to understand. I haven’t given myself the space and time to write in years and here we are at 4:15 AM on a Sunday morning in April during COVID-19, and I’ve been writing for about 3 hours.
Will my daughter be a reflection of my healing? Lord knows, I certainly hope so. Only as of recently have I acknowledged the pain and trauma that needs to be healed and an acknowledgement is about as far as I’ve gotten.
In this world, we live lives that take us on many journeys. We bury pain, live inauthentic lives, and carry traumas that have yet to be named. Over the past year and a half, I have been on a path to wholeness. I used to say I just want to be happy but I really just want to be whole.
Hearing my daughter’s question, “Mommy, I’m brown. Do you like me?” has led me to uncover pieces of myself that I avoided for so long. Her question reminded me that I didn’t want her to feel how I felt for the past 28 years. Sometimes the smallest people have the biggest questions and how we respond can lead to growth and opportunity or keep us living with rose colored glasses and a false sense of security.
Stories have the power to heal. When you open up, you begin to release emotions and feelings you’ve been holding onto your entire life. This helps you to begin to truly heal.
As I continue to reflect, make time, and find the strength I need to be able to articulate my story, I’ll add to this.