An Excerpt From “Skin. Hair. Color.”
by Alicia Peebles
Sometimes I dreamed of myself as Puerto Rican, sometimes Native American, sometimes Japanese. It depended on the friends that I made. Even at six years old, I knew that something about my skin color made me less…something.
But what? Less beautiful? Less desirable? Less intelligent? Less of a person?
I had the same disease that Maya Angelou had in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I felt that I had been made black by mistake and one day, I would wake up with long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and skin the color of vanilla ice cream. Sometimes I would have freckles. Other times I would have a beauty spot on the left side of my mouth. Other times I would have brown hair and olive skin. But my default was white.
Why was my default white?
Because everything that I saw as good was white. My teacher? White. The kids on TV? White. The smart kids in school? White. The rich kids? White. The kids who always got in trouble? Black.
When a black woman does not have her hair chemically straightened, she is said to “wear a natural.” Chemically straightening my hair was a disaster because I didn’t have the time or the money to go to the beauty salon every single week to have the new growth straightened. My hair always ended up breaking and falling out. I wear a natural because it is cheaper and easier to manage.
As a child, I learned that sweating and swimming and anything else that could cause my hair to get wet was a bad thing. If my hair got wet, it would have to be straightened again, or it would have to be braided.
Braiding my hair took at least six hours. Straightening it took two. The choice was easy.
Straightening my hair, before I invested in a hair straightener, consisted of dragging a chair next to the stove and sitting on it while my mother combed my hair with a “hot comb.” A hot comb is a metal comb that has no heating mechanism of its own. It is placed on the stove and allowed to heat up until it is smoking. The comb is then run through the hair until it’s cool again. The process of running the comb through the hair is called “pressing” the hair.
A perk of having good hair is that it takes less pressing to get my hair straight.
Unless you get caught in a rain storm with no hood.
When the hot comb was first introduced by Madame CJ Walker in 1910, it revolutionized the world of black women because finally, they could make their hair straight and wear it like the white women. Now, it’s considered obsolete and dangerous, but the desire still exists for ramrod straight hair .
In the 1940’s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed “The Doll Test.” Black and white children were asked to pick the doll that they found the prettiest. All of the black children chose the white doll. The results of this test were the cornerstone for the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
In 2006, the doll test was performed again. This time, the only black children who chose the white doll were the girls.
It is Christmas and I am 4. I am excited because I see presents under the tree and I know that I am getting the Barbie that I asked for.
When I open my Barbie, she has chocolate skin and coffee eyes.
“Mommy, why didn’t you get me Barbie?” I ask.
“I did!” she responds.
“No, you got me Barbie’s friend!” I yell as I throw the box down and kick it away from me.
At the end of the 2006 doll test, a black little girl was asked which doll she looked like. She paused for a moment, with her hand over the white doll. Then, as though catching sight of her hand triggered her memory, she slowly pushed the Black doll toward the investigator. That little girl was forced to realize the same thing that I realized 10 years earlier; Black is ugly, we are black, therefore we are ugly.
While walking through Fred Meyer, I came across the “Ethnic” hair care section. What caught my eye was an inconspicuous box on the end of the shelf that I recognized instantly.
Years ago, on the night before we were supposed to return to Washington after a summer in Mississippi, my family had a big barbeque at my Uncle Albert’s house. I was playing with some cousins when Mercy called me over to her.
“Mama told me to put some sunscreen on you so you don’t get no darker.”
Aunt Ella had been dragging me away from games all summer and smothering me in sunscreen, so I wasn’t suspicious of this.
I should have been.
“Since Mama thinks you’re so pretty, let’s just go ahead and make you lighter”, Mercy sneered as she rubbed the cream into my arm. I am not sure whether skin bleach actually burns when you put it on or if it just burns when it is applied roughly, but I was immediately aware that something wasn’t right.
“Ow! Mercy stop, that burns!”
“Shut up. Mama’s been rubbin this stuff on us for years and we ain’t dead. You’ll be fine.”
“But I don’t want that stuff on me!”
“Too damn bad.”
I try to yank my arm away. Her long fingernails dig into the skin on the back of my arm and I begin to cry.
Her legs are crossed at the ankles behind my legs and her knees are digging into my hips.
“Mercy, please!” I’m begging. My grandmother notices that I am in distress.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Nothing, Aunt Sis. We was just playin,’” Mercy lies as she lets me go. I attempt to move away from her but I trip over her feet and land on my face in the grass. I crawl across the yard to my mother.
“You smell like bleach. What happened?” my mother asks.
“Mercy put some stuff on my arm and it hurts.”
“What stuff?” Aunt Ella asks from her spot next to my mother.
“She said it was sunscreen that you told her to put on me.”
“I didn’t tell her to put nothin’ on you! Mercy, what did you put on Alicia?”
“I jus- I put a little skin bleach on her. She’s a crybaby, it didn’t hurt that bad…”
Aunt Ella is not buying it. She escorts Mercy into the house and I get rocked and fussed over and kissed until my tears are dry.
Alicia Peebles is a recent graduate from Whitworth University. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, Alicia plans to attend Pharmacy school in the Fall of 2014.