Queen: Making Peace When There is None to be Found
Mori took great pride in her race, but she also prided herself on being the “right” kind of black person. Not too loud or boisterous, just this side of reserved, entirely inoffensive.
It was not as if she had actively sought out white friends; that’s just how things had turned out. And when she saw the black kids at her school, congregated together as if they were a part of some clandestine order, she would pity them and their close-mindedness. And, unbeknownst to her, they would pity her arrogance.
She was dark-skinned. Or at least she had been, before all of the creams that her mother now periodically brought home. At first she’d been a little surprised, offended even, at the implications. But gradually, like a roof caving underneath the weight of compacted snow, she had given in. And every time she noticed her skin change, she felt . . . better. Prettier. Consequential. It was difficult not to, all things considered.
Mori remembered a particular night years ago when she'd overheard her mother, who had evidently assumed that she and her sisters were asleep, speaking on the phone with someone. She couldn't have been more than seven when she had perched atop the stairs, small round face and unruly hair partially obscured by the thick wooden bars of the staircase as she listened to the conversation.
“Girl, yes. Yeah, my youngest one. My baby Mori's so pretty. Looks just like her daddy, and you know how fine he is. And that hair! Jesus, why couldn't I have been blessed with it? It's bigger than she is!”
At this point, Mori’s face could hardly accommodate the enormous smile that had grown throughout all of this bragging on her behalf. Then it came, as impossible to anticipate as the next location of a lightning strike.
“Could you imagine if she was lighter? Lord, she'd be a sight!”
Mori found it difficult to adequately describe how she’d felt at hearing those words, but she'd eventually decided that it felt a little like this: it had been as if someone had tied strings around parts of her body, her toes, her fingers, her braids, even her nose, and they’d pulled her upwards, up, up, up until she troubled clouds in their tranquil ambulation, until the birds envied her freedom, until she was mere seconds away from exiting the atmosphere and leaving this plane behind, capable of living on those praises alone. And then, it was as if all of the strings holding her up had been cut.
So when her mother had rushed in with canisters of creams guaranteeing "lighter, brighter, and better" skin, she’d smothered her initial misgivings and taken them. This was what it took to be “a sight.” To be the “right” kind of black person. Mori assumed that her white friends, her white teachers, her white neighbors could not understand someone too different from them. She didn’t give them the chance to learn. And she assumed that her mother's views on black beauty were representative of those of the black community as a whole.
Assumptions can be dangerous.
Morowa was quiet around those who knew her—even those who knew her particularly well—but her silent disposition shifted whenever she visited her grandmother. Esther Claude was a wildly intelligent woman, one educated at a time where being black was a cardinal sin and being a woman made things much worse than they would have been otherwise. She had been pretty, and even now some vestiges of her former youthful beauty could be found in her face: the twinkle of a midnight eye, a knowing little smile. And she was dark, darker than Mori. So dark that her skin seemed to glisten and shine, that all her body appeared encompassed by panel upon panel of undulating cocoa skin. The old woman was striking in Mori's eyes, and although she did not verbally acknowledge it, Mori was aware of their uncanny resemblance.
So whenever Mori went to visit her grandmother and talk, whenever she chanced to glance at her altered complexion, she tucked her guilt away beneath a veneer of flippancy and spoke. About hair, about food, about how What's-His-Name was dating Who's-She, about how she couldn't stand her sisters.
But that day, as Mori was walking along the road that would bring her to the base of Douleur Hill (on top of which her grandmother lived in a wide one story house), she’d overheard a few black boys her age talking. The tallest one had skin the color of cinnamon and eyes as mischievous as any she’d ever seen. A sharp jawline accentuated a strong nose and chin, and Mori could feel her face heating up as she watched the boy roll his sleeves up to his elbows.
“. . .not what I meant,” he'd been saying.
Mori was hidden in the shade of some trees, and even the birds in the branches beside her were silent as she eavesdropped.
“And what were you saying, Cay?”
“All it is is a preference.”
Mori’s eyes widened, and as if the birds in the trees could sense her discomfort, they left her in order to avert theirs. As Mori walked along the long black shadows casted by the trees, she wondered what it was like. To be preferred.
When she arrived at her grandmother's house she was quieter than usual, better able to listen. And listen she did. She listened as her grandmother told her about the graffiti she and her family had woken up to find plastered across the exterior walls of their house one Saturday morning, about the eggings that her grandmother had suffered through as she attempted to walk to school, and perhaps worst of all, about how the teachers at the town’s then newly integrated school willfully ignored anything that she had to say. As if she was less than them.
"So you agree that things have changed, right?" Mori leaned forward expectantly after hearing all of this, and her fingers dug into the arms of her grandmother’s ancient vermilion armchair.
Her grandmother looked up, fixed her with the jet stones that sat embedded within her weathered face. Everything about Mori’s grandmother seemed to have a story behind it. The wrinkles below her eyes were the sun-soaked rock ridges that she and her sisters used to clamber up in their youth; the patches of discoloration were the murky puddles that she and her friends would disturb heedless of the potential mess; her dark mouth and its pronounced Cupid's bow the blackberries that she and her brother would abscond with while their mother would bake in their tiny, brown-walled kitchen.
Her grandmother laughed. “Changed, yes. Better, no.”
And when Mori looked at the rest of her grandmother's body, etched along her figure was evidence of the bitterness that walked, fingers interlaced with the sweetness, the pain that sat atop the pleasure like oil on water.
The deep brown burn scar on the back of her grandmother's hand was shaped like Lesotho (one of the few African countries that Mori had ever heard of), part of what remained of the wound that the old woman had sustained at the hands of the little mixed boy down the street from where she’d lived who, upon arriving to the conclusion that she was too dark, took the liberty of chucking a bowl of lye at her as she walked home from school one day. The lye ate away at the lapis-lazuli sundress that her grandmother had given to her for a birthday several years prior, and her growth had made it so that much of her legs were exposed, the dress finding it impossible to keep up with the caprice of puberty. The lye ate away at the coffee skin underneath, exposed the vulnerable pinkness that had no business being exposed. But the lye couldn’t eat away at her grandmother, could not reach where it would actually make a difference.
“The thing about change,” she remarked as she tucked a stray silver braid underneath her headscarf, “is that it's hard to predict. Baby, I agree with you, I do, but don't you think for one second that this world will adjust for you, how you want it to, how you need it to.” The old woman placed her hands on the arms of her chair to support herself as she rose. “The boy that threw that lye at me," she waddled into the kitchen and Mori followed, fascinated, “I felt bad for 'im.”
“Bad?” Mori was stunned. How could her grandmother feel bad for someone who'd given her chemical burns, someone who’d disfigured her so severely?
Her grandmother turned to her, her gaze unflinching. “Yes, child, bad. He hated himself, his blackness, so much that he tried to take away mine. Ain't that sad?”
“How can you be sure that's what it was?”
“He looked at me with these eyes while I was on the ground, all rollin’ around and screamin’. Now, I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but I was sure it was bad, so strong was the hate I saw on his face. Tell me, baby, how could it have been anything else?”
She’d turned around then, her back to Mori while she put a pot of water on the stove. Mori watched as she extracted another pot from one of her ivory cabinets and dumped a pre-arranged bowl of tea leaves into it. The painted birds along the bowl's rim, coal black little things with tiny white eyes, stared back at her pointedly.
The old woman shuffled to her seat and Mori sat across from her.
“But Mama, how can you say things haven’t gotten better when they have? No more segregation, positions in the government for us . . .”
Mori’s grandmother sometimes got this look in her eye as if she was reliving something.
“Nothing's more corrosive than the hate we develop for ourselves.”
Mori looked down at her hands as her face grew hot, steam beginning to rise from the pot of water on the stove behind her grandmother.
“Morowa,” she was the only one who called Mori by her full name, perhaps because she was the one who had given it to her, “boys blacker than the bottom of my cooking pots can’t stand black women. Don’t that beat all? I see kids tryin’ to change themselves to fit a pre-made mold that they helped create: walk this way, talk this way, act this way so you can be accepted.”
Mori was still looking down at her hands, taking note of their latest shade: an intermediary color that fell somewhere along the spectrum of medium brown. Teak mixed in with chocolate to make something unidentifiable. And she could feel her grandmother's eyes boring into the top of her skull.
“And Morowa, how can things be better when my own daughter has taught her daughter to despise her skin enough to change it?”
Mori looked up. She had often thought that one of the strongest things about her grandmother was her voice, a guidepost at the center of a tempest. It burrowed into Mori's soul, called forth the tears inside of her even as she actively attempted to hold them back.
“And Morowa, how can things be better when the queen can’t realize she’s royalty?”
Mori looked up then and smiled, her eyes full. And then the levees broke. Mori’s grandmother reached across the small breakfast table and took her hands in hers as the Nile flowed from her granddaughter's eyes. Esther's eyes. And at that table sat the libraries of Mali, the varied sands of Nubia, all of the prosperity of the Ivory Coast. And the steam of the tea-water seemed to envelope them, seemed to become an atmosphere that Mori no longer wished to escape, praises or no.
Mori’s grandmother could not help but notice the gross irony of it all. Was this the trade-in? The cost for social progress? Black people’s sense of identity, their perception of themselves? If that was the case, Esther could honestly say that it was not worth it.
“What did you do?” Mori wiped her eyes with the back of a trembling hand.
“What did you do to the boy that burned you?”
“I married him.”
Mori’s eyes grew disproportional as she looked on at her grandmother.
Mori recalled the wedding pictures above her grandmother's mantle; she’d always thought that they complemented each other beautifully, and when her grandfather had died . . . so too had a part of the family’s general spirit.
“Emotional man,” her grandmother’s blackberry lips stretched into a smile, “you know he used to apologize at least once every day?”
“For fifty years?”
Mori's grandmother nodded, her eyes content. Mori found it difficult to fully comprehend the extent of her grandmother's nature. Her ability to forgive was too mature for Mori to grasp, too thick for her to wrap her mind around. But as she looked on at what, in all likelihood (at least, if she ceased the use of the creams), her face would be decades from now, she understood one thing: her grandmother was at peace.
Her grandmother reached for her hands again. In the periphery of her vision, Mori noticed that the white eyes of the painted birds looked at her with something that could have easily been construed as approval.
“Do you remember the Serenity Prayer, baby?”
Mori went to sleep with those words on her lips. She nodded.
“‘Lord grant me the serenity,’” began her grandmother.
“‘To accept the things I cannot change,’” Mori rasped, her voice weakened by the crying.
“‘Courage to change the things I can . . .’”
“‘And wisdom to know the difference.’” The words were barely above a whisper. Mori's grandmother squeezed her hands and she looked up, not sure when she’d broken eye contact.
Mori looked into her own face and said, stronger this time, “And wisdom to know the difference.”
The ceramic bird eyes gleamed.
Juliana Lamy is a seventeen-year-old girl who dabbles in poetry but holds a profound love for the novel.