You learned to be a Black woman from a variety of sources.
First there was your own mother. She owned one bottle of perfume, which was her signature scent. She owned two pieces of make-up–one black eyebrow pencil (which she used on her lash line, to darken her eyebrows, and to add a mole on her left cheek) and one tube of deep red lipstick (which she used on her lips as well as smudged on her cheeks for rouge). She always had two jobs, making the notion of a “stay-at-home-mom” a myth to you until you were an adult an actually met these kinds of women. One of her jobs was always for “extras” for you and your siblings: karate and music lessons, the opera, and vacation bible school. The other job was for the “necessities”–consisting of rent, bills, and a handful of utilities (one or two of the latter, mysteriously, in your name).
At one time she had a collection of wigs. A huge, reddish-colored afro, a jet black page boy, and long wavy brunette locks. These wigs were arranged on her dresser next to her box of colorful costume jewelry, sitting atop white foam stands in the shape of heads. Once she let you decorate the heads with magic markers, so that now they each had a different smiling face, complete with big, upside-down-U shaped brown eyes and heart-shaped smiling lips.
Second, there was your father. He called your mother “Angel” and gently squeezed her bottom when they thought you were not looking. He called you “Precious” and sang you songs while your head rested on his chest, the sound rumbling in your ears and soothing you to sleep. He went to your school to complain to your principal about the time a classmate told you that God made a mistake and burned you when he was baking people, and the time your teacher said you couldn’t be the princess in the play (even though you were the only one who had remembered all the lines and spoke them loudly enough) because she needed your “rich Black voice in the choir.” Being angry so that you did not have to be. He kept every drawing, every short story, and every report card you ever drew, wrote, earned. He taught you to drive and taught you your times tables.
Your favorite photograph of him is black and white, frayed at the edges, depicting your father, his father, and his maternal grandfather. In his arms he is cradling a small bundle wrapped in what looks like a floral bed sheet. All three men are smiling broadly, a spotted dog sitting at their feet, looking up at the bundle. That bundle, you have been told, is you.
Third, there was Bill. Maybe he was your uncle. Maybe he was a family friend, or neighbor. He wore clogs and tight pants that flared at the bottom, and told the best funny jokes and had the best witty sayings. He taught you how to “switch” when you walked, and how to cross your legs when you sat. He had the best music collection, and let you make mix tapes whenever you were over visiting. He had the best magazine collection–International Male catalogs and Playgirl–and pretended not to notice you looking and giggling at the pictures whenever you were over visiting. He walked through the world as if he were the star of the show, and allowed no negative reviews to detract from his performance. And when you walked through the world with him you felt like a fabulous co-star and were grateful for the reflected limelight.
Finally there was your grandmother. She matriarch-ed a sprawling brood of grandchildren, children, elderly relatives, cousins, church-folk and various other people. She never made a secret of the fact that you, though, were her favorite. You were the eldest grandchild, first of all–and the eldest of her eldest at that. But you were also her kindred spirit, sharing her taste in and love for oral storytelling and novels. Cousins laughed and prodded you to put down your book and go outside and play. Forty-five minutes later when you were back inside with a nose bleed or scraped knee, she sat with you to talk about the latest book you were reading, and maybe gave you one of her recently finished novels to read. She’d make you hot chocolate made with a real slab of cocoa instead of powder. She’d take out the special china cups and saucers she rarely used and the two of you would sip out of your delicate, gold-rimmed cups in the dining room, which she also rarely used. Later, you might watch her afternoon “stories” on TV together; later still you might help her snap peas for dinner.
As an adult, you were secretly relieved when she died. It had been years since the two of you talked of books and soap operas. She was buried in a dress you helped pick out. She left you her good china.