Editor’s Note: “My Mother Never” is part of our Many Shades of Black series. Here we take a glimpse into how an African immigrant experience can different from an African American experience and how that difference shaped one person’s self-image.
— by Wayétu Moore
My mother never told me to stay out of the sun. I was never burdened with the tragedy of darkness, never locked my fingers across my brow for shade on rainless afternoons. I was eight the first time I was left playing in my front yard as my friends ran and sought protection when the sun was its brightest.
“You’re going to be black as tar if you don’t get out that sun!” their mothers would call through screen doors from the cool insides of their Memphis duplexes. And one by one they hurried back into their homes or to the skimpy shadows of nearby pine trees. As their faces twisted my way, confused as to why a girl as dark as me did not run from the yellow rays that would add to the ugliness of my life, I looked to my front porch for my mother. She waved at me and smiled. I waited for her to call me inside, to tease me for not running as fast as the other girls, but she did not.
She rested on the door pane and lipped words that I could not make out. Now I know that they must have formed edicts like “Be free,” or “I would not call you in if there were two suns,” or “Little girl, your darkness is beautiful.” The closest my mother ever came to sun-fearing was during a summer month of my eighth year. My sisters and I were on our driveway drawing a hopscotch board with colored chalk and as the sun reached the middle of the sky, Momma came quickly outside with a tube of generic brand, SPF15 sun block.
“What is this?” I asked as she took turns rubbing each of our faces and arms with the thick white cream that did not blend.
“Dat sun block,” she said.
“Why?” I asked baffled.
“Black peopo have a higher chance of skin cancer, ma chile,” she answered, rubbing voraciously.
“Who told you that?” I asked, wondering who had corrupted my indifferent mother.
“Oprah,” she said.
I knew Momma well enough to never argue with Oprah, someone who I imagined I would have to call Aunty Oprah if we ever met. She finished rubbing and the sun block looked like blue paint on our skin. She went inside to finish chores, content that she had somehow defended us from the only damage she thought spending a day outside could do. Otherwise, my mother celebrated with me when the sun’s edges stretched behind armies of clouds. She fed me Popsicle sticks when I came home from the neighborhood pool three shades darker than the other children on my block, not burned and peeling, but black and nearly invisible in the shadows. She told me stories of princesses who looked like me in the evenings when the sun simmered on my frail brown arms and donut-twisted pigtails, and its invisible embers flew from where I lay as the air from the corner fan reached my resting body. Even at summer’s apogee she let me run freely until I could taste the epic ball on my tongue.
Around these days of my childhood, I began to realize that my mother was different from my friends’ mothers. They were her friends, but Momma seemed an outsider to their similarities and jokes. She was a watcher of their sameness. When they laughed out loud, Momma smiled and nodded, a disguise for not knowing or understanding what had provoked their humor.
I noticed her broad features, her skin: a deep and smooth, dark-brown consistency, interrupted by only a small black mole a few inches below her right eye.
I noticed her nervousness when she spoke to people who did not understand her, southerners who had never seen a woman like her, or people like us in their towns and cities. My mother remained graceful and repeated herself slowly, as she struggled through a thick and unwavering accent to ask and answer questions. When I sensed her exasperation I spoke up for her, repeating the same words and inflections that she had used. They understood me. She was different.
One morning shortly after the sun rose above the clouds, I was at the supermarket with Momma and the cashier murmured the total. She looked impatiently at my mother as she rummaged through her purse, through old receipts that she should have thrown away weeks before. Her eyes surveyed Momma’s clothes, her ears rang with Momma’s accent and a forced grin boogied between her wincing lips.
“What, y’all African?” the cashier asked with a heavily drawled southern accent.
“Excuse me?” Momma asked and looked up.
“Oh, I just asked if you was African.”
My mother barely nodded.
“Yes,” I answered the cashier for her as my pigtails and dark eyes rose above the supermarket counter.
We had just moved to the US from Liberia three years prior. The cashier smiled at me and continued to wait for Momma to pay. It was mom’s “Liberianness” that annoyed her, and bewildered many others in our small southern town; but it was her difference that I give credit for my liberating childhood and freedom from the various complexes that stem from colorism. My mother was raised in an environment where most people were dark black; so she did not inherit the consciousness of skin tone that many black women who are raised in America and colonized countries inherit. In my adulthood my mother later explained to me that there were people who indulged in bleaching creams in Liberia in the 70s and 80s, but social status, power and beauty had other qualifiers. And because she lacked the consciousness of skin-tone, she did not pass it down to me. I am a deeply dark-skinned woman with moderate African features. Growing up I did not see myself in music videos or on the television, with the exception of women like Naomi Campbell and the casually objectified Grace Jones. I would hear jokes made about dark skin, but the words only fell off my skin. Never penetrating. When in elementary school we were asked to describe princesses, my classmates never described a woman who looked like my mother. And yet, because my mother genuinely believed she was beautiful, so did I.
So it is with frustration and sadness that I read of the emerging epidemic of skin-bleaching across the continent. Globalization, colonization—these come with woes. These come with unknowing. These come with fear. And who will save those daughters now if their mothers are no longer free? Who will name them beautiful?
Wayétu Moore is the founder & publisher of One Moore Book, a boutique publisher of multicultural children’s books. She is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Instagram: @wayetu.