Illustration by Oda Sofia
Story by Kimberlean Donis
It was in my sophomore year of high school that I decided I was ugly. I had the option of doing so because either people would deny my accusations to not seem racist or say nothing and affirm societal standards. I waited until lunch to tell all my friends that I had accepted my fate as being one of the ugly black girls and waited to release the news to my mother. And when I got home and broke the news to her, she didn’t say shit. All I got was the eye.
The eye is the thing all black mothers do; it’s that sharp look that pierces your soul and calls for immediate silence. Nobody ever sees it but you and when you catch it there is nothing to be done. So here we are, my mom and I just staring at each other. An incredible amount of anger radiated off of her, condensing into one sentence, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
That was the first and last time we spoke about beauty.
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, the darker the flesh, the deeper the roots. A song that I often recite as a crutch to face a system that chooses to fail me repeatedly. It used to work until the pandemic hit.
I spend all my time scrolling through endless amounts of content. Mostly the grim and sad, a few happy stories here and there and for me, all triggering. Black and brown communities are dying at disproportionate rates. The rate of black maternal mortality in New York has always been high, but coronavirus is exacerbating it. More black women are stuck with their abusers than ever before. Black women are now officially dubbed the forgotten victims and survivors of America.
We are dying left and right, we have been disappearing left and right. Now that I am stuck at home, I cannot willingly ignore this reality anymore in the name of mental health.
I have trained myself to digest but not internalize and I need to start internalizing. I struggled with reading headlines and often found myself distancing myself from my black identity. It seemed as if the more I denied my identity the less the shortcomings of America would affect me.
I kept trying to find short term solutions to dissipate this feeling of doom that has been suffocating me for some time. I can’t help thinking that this narrative of struggle is to be my own. I have sat on my fire escape for weeks, wondering how I can change my story from one of predisposed conflict to a narrative of resistance because I refuse to fall into the workings of black statistics just as much as I refuse to live in anger.
The notes I recorded in the midst of my ZOOM class are meant to be a reflection of the value system I lost sometime after graduating high school a year ago. Here is how I sought to reckon with the reality of my shifting youth and the loss of a support system in the middle of a pandemic. This is how I began to make sense of black femininity and the pain that often seems to come with it.
I often find myself returning to memories that have no words. Something about sitting on the swings with my best friends freshman year of highschool at the kiddie park right off of the Brooklyn Heights promenade has defined itself as one of my most pleasant memories.
We didn’t need to speak because our experiences were so tightly confounded. We were so often confused for one another; it was like we were one. We had secrets and inside jokes, but we also had the white guys telling us without saying the words we were just a little too dark for their taste. It was a roll of the dice, some days were good and some days were just brutal—like I am ready to drop out right here and now brutal.
Those moments are now all gone, months have passed. The fleeting sense of self that constantly pains me is paired with my inability to ground my blackness and femininity anywhere when I return home from college.
I have come to realize that we never discuss the real complexities of young black female relationships, the colorism and stories of sex and love that plague their development. I want to say that we had each other and our small little piece of reality, all our quintessential moments spent in silence and the world just came and messed it up. This pandemic has not only left so many physically trapped but emotionally stunted, I feel like a child inhabiting a space and existing in a city that is no longer my own. But I cannot solely blame the universe and all it’s misgivings; we also messed up for ourselves, the struggle just got too real and that realness divided us and threw us out into the world. Our inability to find solace in one another, to truly have faith in the system, opened us up to a life of hurt. And it makes sense why we could not have faith, this pandemic and so many other moments of injustice convinced us that hope was not accessible.
I can’t help but think about how my life would have changed if we chose not to allow the small moments, all the bad moments, to define us. Why couldn’t we just fight a little bit harder for each other?
Would I be happier, or am I convincing myself otherwise? Should I try to rebuild these relationships, or should I just leave the trials and tribulations of high school and our history in the past?
I’m going to leave these questions open-ended; in fact, they have to remain open. If they close, I think this chapter of my life would quickly disappear with them and I am not sure I am ready to say goodbye to a chosen family.
2. Reclaiming My Time
It’s hard to look around and not just vie for more time, to re-do everything, or just have the motions pass in the slowest of ways.
So often, I would sit and wonder what the pure high of high school was. What was the feeling of utter nostalgia you were supposed to experience? Why didn’t I have the time to fuck off and forget the real world runs at a different pace, why was I so hyper-aware? Where the absolute fuck was my coming of age story?
I don’t think I ever had a chance to experience what it means to be a quintessential teenager and I am not angry. There was never a point in time when I wanted a claim to the ease of whiteness. I simply wanted blackness to be granted some comfort too.
I need to understand when and why I decided that the narrative of carefreeness was never to be my own. I deserve my coming of age without a side of sexual assault and police brutality and it is about time that I curate and manifest the life I often used to sit silently on the swings envisioning for myself.
It’s odd that I found that reckoning with the mistakes of high school is my solution to the boredom of quarantine and to make sense of the narrative that blackness must exist in constant pain. I guess it just made sense to go back to the moment when I began to think I was ugly, because I now know that self-hate was a symptom of larger institutions and internalized fear.
The idea that high school is a place to make mistakes is a white narrative within itself. My error in ways cannot be wiped away, my shortcomings are often viewed as permanent, as a shortcoming of my character and being. I only have the chance to build upon my mistakes, forgetting has never been an option for me.
Quarantine got me to write for myself and as small a step it may seem, I haven’t done something for myself or for the greater good of others in quite a long time. This is a big step, I know so few black women who are cognizant of placing themselves first. I know that I can’t rewind the clock or change how much I internalized the trope of a white tiny dolly, a term a great friend of mine once created amid harsh middle school beauty standards, but for now, I will use the rest of my time during quarantine to not give a shit. A pandemic helped me realize that black femininity doesn’t have to exist in a state of constant pressure and that I can rewrite the narrative of my past, but more importantly that, I deserve to live in a moment of stasis.