My Memories of Traveling While Black
"I don't think I'm better than you. I have as much trouble with my hair as any girl. My White mother didn't know what to do with it and these eyes? I don't think that they do anything to MAKE me a better person."
The chaperone, a Black woman, scanned the faces of the two girls, as well as mine, to get a handle of the situation. She breathed in deeply through her nose and closed her eyes. I'm sure she considered that traveling with Black students down to the country some 200 miles south of home was going to be an issue. I just don't think she thought that this would be the issue.
She said nothing and let my comment ride it out. The girls, only a few years younger than I at the time, looked embarrassed that I said something. Not that I heard them. That was done on purpose. I was meant to hear it. But I wasn't meant to respond.
Traveling down South gave me plenty of opportunity to hear those exact words from Black girls darker than I. They told me I could pass the Paper Bag test, a colorism issue for many Black folks, and they teased me for it.
Though the brown paper bag test is antiquated and frowned upon as a shameful moment in African-American history, the ideals behind the practice still lingers in the African-American community. Modern-day colorism rears its ugly head in the day to day lives of Black Americans every day. - Rivea Ruff
It would be the number one reason my sister and I would ever fight anyone and, believe me, girls went straight for my scalp to pull out my hair when that happened. We didn't tell our parents about every incident because we thought we'd be in trouble for it. It wasn't until Spike Lee's 1988 movie School Daze that I realized just how big an issue of colorism this was. That became even more clear after reading Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye while I was in college.
It is why, even as light as I am, that I cannot wake up one day and forget about color. If I turned too brown in the summer months I was accused of "trying to be Black" or when the winter months of paleness got me teased in the other direction. "You are so White." or worse, "You're high yella."
On our way down South we took sandwiches so we wouldn't have to stop. On more than one occasion, my father would have to assess a situation before we stopped to ensure that we wouldn't be harassed for being with him. By the time the sun got to us at the end of the summer, we looked more like we "belonged" with him and didn't get asked by strangers if we were supposed to be with him. There was freedom in our trips back home to Chicago and the nuance of that was lost on me as a child. Sure, it was exciting to finally be going home, but the freedom of the ride? I didn't understand that as a child.
The implication that our father kidnapped us was a constant reminder that this nation didn't recognize us as a family. Moreso this was an issue with me and not my sister who is darker with brown eyes. When it did happen, though, it only ever came from White adults, mostly women whose children were nearby.
I recall that both of my parents were questioned by friends or family about their intentions of raising us. What I didn't comprehend was the true meaning behind this question. "Are you raising them as Black or White?" was what they didn't say, but it was there. Both gave varied answers that ranged from "We're raising them as children in our family" to the pointed "We're raising them the way the world will see them: as Black."
Which is how it worked out even visiting our Northern relatives on farms throughout Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas. If I jumped in the pool and my hair magically changed texture I was forced to answer questions about it. Why it does that and what I can make it do and how come it looks so nappy.
All of this is why I see color in everything, good or bad. I'll take the accusations now because this shaped me and the space I occupy. It's why when, recently, a distant relative on The Cuban's side of the family, someone told a story about accidentally buying one of Hallmark's Mahogany cards. He was telling the story as if it were some joke because HA HA I BOUGHT A BLACK CARD FOR A WHITE PERSON and everyone, including The Cuban's parents, were immediatly uncomfortable and shifted in their seats because why was he telling this story in front of me?