When an opinionated grandmother and a fiery outspoken mama tag team the raising of a baby girl, chances are that kid is eventually going to have no qualms brandishing her own thoughts. So is the story of the Harris women, starring me as the cantankerous mother and my now 13-year-old as the surly, snarky-commenting-making child. It’s a wild ride, man, this parenting a teenager thing. I feel like there’s always something I’m forgetting to tell her, something she needs to know, but I have somehow not reinforced enough.
Once, in a moment of panic after I had a series of random thoughts, I speedwalked into the bathroom while she was in the shower to offload a piece of information I was sure I’d forgotten to share.
I pulled open the door and shouted in. “Skylar!”
She thrust her head around, covering herself with the shower curtain like I didn’t birth that body, much less see it in various states of nudity throughout her lifetime. “Huh?”
“You do know that you can get pregnant from humpin’, right? All it takes is one squirt that gets too close and it can happen.” I was relieved. Phew. Got that one out.
There’s never been a harder eye roll than the one I got that day. “Mommy!” she half-gasped, half-wailed. “I knowwwwww.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t, but she heard it there first. It was sporadic and a touch nutty, I admit, but I felt like I needed to tell her just in case I hadn’t before or forgot going forward.
But one thing I’ve been upfront about in our house, one thing she should have down pat is a strong sense of her Blackness. It’s been part of my self-appointed mission to raise a child who sees the beauty of who she is, not only in the loveable idiosyncrasies that make her an individual—and what a little individual she is—but in appreciating the amazing race of people from which she was born. I wanted her to connect with our history, our culture, our traditions on the Black American side as well as the continental African and Caribbean and Afro-Latino sides, too.
I felt that a young woman with confidence and sense of self who could identify with her roots on both a communal and familial scale was better equipped to shake off the BS she was surely going to run up against in a world with an axe to grind against Black women and dudes with bags of wolfish tricks to unfurl on unsuspecting little lambs. I wanted her to be like “Whatever sucka, I know who I am,” all sassy-like because she knew better to bow, beg, or settle for less in any circumstance, whether she’s sitting in the lobby of a Fortune 500 company for a job interview or trying to thwart some touchy-feely boy’s attempts to put his hands down her blouse. (Lofty aspirations, I realize.)
“So is Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll and Diana Ross and Dorothy Dandridge,” I shot back. If you’re going to get caught up in vintage celebrity worship, I said, why can’t it be dedicated to someone who looks like you?
Knowing how purposeful I’ve been about instilling an appreciation for our beauty—I mean, I didn’t let the child watch a Disney movie until I felt comfortable that she knew loveliness didn’t necessarily come packaged in porcelain skin or rosy red cheeks — I don’t know why my child would’ve handed me a T-shirt with Marilyn Monroe on it and looked at me with pleading expectation when we were in Target on Saturday. Is this chick serious? I thought with my inside voice. Because my outside voice might’ve said something that didn’t sound anything like a nice mommy.
“She’s pretty,” she sulked, lip drooping down to her flip-flops, clearly taking the shut down personally.
“So is Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll and Diana Ross and Dorothy Dandridge,” I shot back. If you’re going to get caught up in vintage celebrity worship, I said, why can’t it be dedicated to someone who looks like you? No one knew who those people were, she whined, and she couldn’t find a T-shirt with them on it. We both know she never looked.
This Marilyn Monroe fanaticism is new. And it wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it wasn’t based solely on the way the woman looked. If she could name a movie, rattle off some facts, imitate her breathy version of the president’s happy birthday salute, I’d be a little more on board with her newfound fan status. When she remained steadfastly dedicated to Ariel over Princess Tiana, I didn’t care. When she professed her undying love to Justin Beiber along with a million other little Black girls, I didn’t trip. He’s a cute little boy. Seems nice.
I’ve got nothing against Ms. Monroe. It’s not her fault the mechanics of pop culture have heralded her as the best thing to throw on a pair of boy briefs and puff out a set of full lips. But this blonde bombshell thing from my daughter felt all wrong. So as I pointed her in the direction of the rack from whence the offending garment came, I wondered if I’d done enough to really instill an appreciation for the beauty of Black people in general and Black women specifically. In all of the surrounding her with our us-ness, could she still have missed the point?
It’s just one T-shirt, I know. Hardly cause to freak out. And between begging for T-shirts with white ladies on them, there are glimmers of hope that she does in fact get it. But I need that pride to go down to the core. Embrace diversity, yes. Celebrate other races, cultures, ethnicities, sure. But recognize the beauty that lies within first and foremost. That’s all I ask.