What would you have accomplished by now if during all of the days of your life you understood your brilliance, beauty and worthiness to be self-evident? Imagine if you never questioned the loveliness of your skin, the sex appeal of your body, the gloriousness of your crown of hair, the attractiveness of your facial features, the capacity of your brain, the creativity of your mind, or your worthiness as a citizen of the universe?
I ask this because as I think about the thirty plus years on this planet, I lament the fact that I have spent too much of that time questioning myself. That time could have been spent, reading, learning, singing, dancing, laughing, playing, doing community service – anything but spending time absorbed in thoughts of self-doubt.
My first memory of really being sad and doubting myself occurred at age eight when after already having a relaxer for four years, I wanted a Jeri curl. It was 1988 and Jeri curls were all the rage. The hairdresser had the brilliant idea of putting the Jeri curl chemicals over my relaxed hair. But when it was all done my hair was still straight. How disappointing! But disappointment turned to horror when my hair fell out in clumps that very evening. The entire top portion of my hair was gone. There was no choice, I had to cut it all off and then the drama began. I went from being constantly praised by family members and strangers as a beautiful girl with nice long hair to actually having someone mistake me for a boy. Neighborhood kids teased me by calling me a boy. I thought that life could not get any worse. But it did.
I moved from a mixed parochial school in Brooklyn to a predominantly black public school in Queens and for the first time I learned that not all black is perceived as equal. “African booty scratcher”, “dark and crispy”, “big nose” and other taunts would be thrown at me as soon as any conflict emerged. Puberty was setting in and I had become taller, darker and my nose likely widened, but I certainly did not look very distinct from my pubescent classmates of African-American and Caribbean parentage. But perhaps I was most saddened when I looked up at my grandmother one day and in a spontaneous way she exclaimed “you lost your beauty”.
These words would haunt me for over a decade of my life. I would cry at the thought of it. And although I could always see the beauty in my own reflection, I wondered if I were lighter, had long hair again, or had a skinnier nose would the world then begin to see it.
Years later, my father would explain that I looked different as a young child and that “you’ve lost your beauty” is a common Ghanaian expression for when someone loses his or her childhood face. Maybe it sounds better in Twi, my family’s native Ghanaian language, but in English and to American ears it sounded incredibly harsh. Of course my grandmother did not intend to emotionally scar me. She had praised me profusely before that one comment and certainly has praised me since.