When I was a girl I cried because I didn’t want to be black. It was before I can remember, but my mother tells the story of the time I asked her for white paint to paint myself. As she tells it, it was because of my father: when people called him black, he said that he was light.
Actually, his name is a bit ironic. His name is Claro (“light”) Diversent, but his skin is like a dark night. Now I am twenty-nine years old and I have a ten-year-old son, who also has a dark complexion. He also renounced his race. I tried to understand and looked for reasons. I closed my eyes and went back to the time when I was in third grade.
I remember the head of my elementary school’s cafeteria, Zenaida, an older woman of about forty-five, wrapped in flesh and black, like me. At lunchtime, or if we bumped into each other in the hallway, she would tell me off because I was a little disheveled.
I had curly hair — what people call thick and abundant “pasas” (raisins). She insisted, between screams, that black women should wear braids so that their hair always looked presentable. Actually, I hated braids. They tightened my scalp and stretched the skin on my face. I used to have headaches for days.
“Who does your hair? Where is your mother when you leave for school? You look like a hedgehog!” the enraged Zenaida would scream at me. She never knew that my mom left early for work, that my older siblings got me ready for school, that since I was eight I dressed myself and did my own hair.
For two weeks we were in Tarara, a vacation town on the beach. One day I shamelessly let out my hair to go for a swim. Until then nobody was making fun of me. Zenaida was horrified when she saw me enter the cafeteria with that Afro. She tried to grab me to fix my hair. I had a dreadful reaction. I threw a tantrum that you wouldn’t believe.
Maybe that woman wanted to help me with my appearance and demeanor. But she never treated me with kindness. When she disparaged me, I just kept quiet. Her words hurt. I would arrive at class, lower my head, and start crying. I never said a thing to my mother. I felt guilty; I don’t know why. I didn’t want to complain and be an inconvenience.
I had never felt ashamed of my hair before. I enjoyed letting it out. It was so gratifying to rub my scalp after letting out the stiff buns and freeing myself from the squeezing. That all changed after Zenaida’s scoldings. My classmates and then my siblings started calling me “ball of thorns.”
Today my reality is different. I control my “pasas” and change my looks: I straighten my hair, I cut my hair, I wear an Afro and also braids; but I never stop being me, I’m never ashamed of who I am, a black woman. Because of that I am able to make confessions and help my son understand, and be proud of, himself.
I appreciate my nature, but nevertheless, I recognize that racial stereotypes hurt. And hair style is only one. The women with braids, the men with close cuts. These are the rules, according to society. It signifies that black people continue to deny their physical attributes.
Translated by: Benjamin