I ve been thinking about you a lot lately. Not you as you are now, but as you were when you were born.
For nine months, everyone in the house was on edge, ever since your mother, my sister, announced she was pregnant at age nineteen. Your Granny was disappointed, but tried to make the most of the situation. She spent a lot of time shopping for baby clothes and parenting magazines. Your Granddaddy, as you've come to learn, is quiet when angry, and mostly spent his time shaking his head. I was only nine years old, and just tried to stay out of everybody's way.
Your birth was a welcome release of tension, as if all had been forgiven. Everyone cooed over you, with your big eyes and bright skin. We gave you your mothers old nickname: "Squirrel." We dressed you up in that same yellow-ruffled baby dress your mother and I had worn years before, and got professional pictures taken. Now, you can only tell our three baby photos apart because you were drooling so much in yours. I know we joke about you stealing all the attention from me, but the truth is: The house felt happy and full during those years we all still lived together.
I've been thinking about that baby a lot. You were quick to laugh and fascinated by everything you saw. We all used to wonder aloud what you'd be like as you got older. As a baby, you knew nothing of the definitions the world was going to press onto you later in life--black, female, Southern. Nobody was yet telling you who to be like, who not to end up like. The world had not yet told you who you were, who you could or should be. You just were.
I was set/en years old when the world first told me who I was. I had a crush on a white boy in my class with blue eyes and too much hair. Every day on the bus ride home, we would duck down low between the seats and sneak kisses back and forth. One day, his older brother caught us in the act, laughed, and screamed, "I can't wait to tell Mom and Dad you were kissing a nigger."
It wasn't my first time hearing that word--but the version my family spoke ended with an "a" (I almost told him he pronounced it wrong). This was my first time hearing it said like that, like it was a dirty word, difficult for him to even hold in his mouth. And he'd used it to describe me.
I think I've been running from that moment and that word my whole life. A nigger isn't smart, so I became Type-A obsessive over my grades and accomplishments. A nigger's hair is kinky, so I sobbed every day until your Granny finally relented and let me perm my hair. A nigger spoke a certain way; so I sounded like I was raised by the Brady Bunch.
This is hard for me to admit to you and to myself, but my opinions of black people, including your mother, followed this behavior. Growing up, your mother was a lot like she is now--aggressively confident and headstrong. To her credit, I don't think your mother ever believed the story the world tried to tell her about herself.
She wasn't naive. She just learned early on that...