I am seven.
Wiry little person whose once neatly pulled bun is now a rowdy afro with a small pulled tuft in the middle where the ribbon still holds on for dear life. My girlish mary-janes are brown with dust, buckles undone sometime between break-time and now. One once-white school-sock pulled up while the other is in restful slumber around my ankle. I am outside the school gates, laughing with my friends, as we slap our hands together in rhythm to the sacred made-up game passed down to us by the Big Kids.
And then. She walks past us. This woman, tall and beautiful, skin the color of caramel, and hair flowing down her back. Is it real? Is she real? Like an angel, she and her red bag walk past us, and in that moment, none of us speak- but we all know we want to be her.
I am fourteen.
Standing in front of a the blank-faced auditorium of grey uniformed people slouched in the backs of their seats, hoping silently that this be over. As we, myself and the three girls on my right, screech adamantly the words of Maya Angelou. Words we only memorized because she said what we believed we also ought to say.
We regurgitate stanzas of an oppression that we in our fourteen years could never understand. We, on that stage, embrace a Blackness, an Afrikanness which we will immediately after go off and shed like a costume, as we get back into our straight hair and color contact lenses.
I am twenty one.
The words of Angelou are no more than an echo of a past life as I obsessively hold onto the fist-sized rolls on my sides, willing them to disappear. My popular boy tells me I am beautiful, and that is enough for me to forget about them and smile. The world seems perfect; this small campus community, this world in which doors open at a single touch and existential fears are overrated, and your life…your life is the best life you can live because you are guaranteed that out there- the world will be yours. I’m doing an artsy course because I tell myself I don’t want to wear monkey suits, and silly shoes, and I want to work on my own schedule. I plan my four years to perfection, and all goes off without a hitch. I graduate magna cum laude, and the world is just waiting to know my name. I am perfect. Everything is perfect.
I am…I’m not sure anymore.
I’m in a grey monkey suit, and on my feet are silly shoes I can barely walk in. I smile effortlessly- like I’d practiced in the mirror before; today is the first call of two hundred applications- an unpaid position with potential to grow. I don’t care, I need it, even if for the papers. I continue to hold the effortless smile as they say to me in the best possible terms that I’m just not the right look. And nod in the most understanding fashion- like I’d also practiced in the mirror. And I walk away, feeling angry, wanting to punch the world in the face for its fake promises.
On the street corner, in front of a school gate, a group of girls playing that hand game passed down by the Big Kids. Their hair an afro mess half pulled up by ribbons. They stop their game. They are staring at the woman in the grey suit and the red bag. And that woman? She smiles at them and waves, hoping these seven year olds will do it differently this time.