Mothering in Black, White and Red

When I was very small, my mom only bought me black baby dolls because she wanted to do right by me.  She was familiar with the studies where little brown girls reject black baby dolls and she wanted to be sure, as a white mother of brown daughters, that she was raising my sister and me with a secure sense of self. I named my first baby “Oakmeal” after my mispronunciation of my favorite breakfast food. I still remember the funny look I got when I told the nice old black lady in the park that my baby’s name was Oakmeal.  One morning when I was being cantankerous, mommy pretended to draw Santa and his reindeer with the honey before pouring the milky snow over the steaming pile of oatmeal.  My mom’s daily honey drawings on oatmeal became more rushed and abstract as I searched the lines for meaning. How was I to know that Oakmeal might be a nod to the tradition of racist names like Buckwheat and Farina? I was just a little caramel colored girl clutching my brown plastic baby, named after my best word for comfort and the improvisational art of mothering.

With one man, my blonde haired blue-eyed husband, I have birthed three daughters and one son a – rainbow of hair, eyes and skin.  The oldest and youngest look more like me with browned butter skin, espresso eyes and chestnut hair.  The middle two girls have blueberry eyes and apricot skin.  One has hair the color of stoneground cornmeal, the other has red hair and freckles like a Georgia peach. I did not name any of them after food, but for this story I will.  My son is Shoofly Pie. My daughters are Rhubarb, Popcorn and Dumpling.

The first doll I asked for by name was Strawberry Shortcake.  In the photo of me opening the doll on my fourth birthday I’m wearing a cardboard party hat held on with a snug elastic string.  My head is cocked to one side, my lips parting in wonder.  I’m sure the Saturday morning commercials for the doll had something to do with my longing for her. She had pale, freckled skin and straight red hair but I wanted her for her fake strawberry smell.  I don’t think my mother or I would have ever imagined that my first-born daughter would look more like Strawberry Shortcake than like me.

  Cabbage Patch Dolls burst on the scene in the mid 1980’s and deepened the pressure on my mom to get me the right doll. Parents waited in the freezing rain for these things.  Toy store aisle fights broke out over these dolls.  Children carried them like status symbols.  “See how much my mother cares, I have two.”  We lived in Washington, DC where the supply of black Cabbage Patch Dolls never met the demand.  They were flying out of the stores before they even made it onto the shelves.  Mom wrote me a promissory note one Christmas that we would go to Toys R Us and I could pick out my very own Cabbage Patch Doll as soon as they were restocked.  Maybe the staff didn’t believe that my mom was serious that she wanted a black doll for me, maybe there was a miscommunication, but I could see the disappointment in my mom’s face when they led us into a back room in the store and not one of the dolls were sewn with chocolate brown cloth or with black yarn hair.  I remember the store lady pointing to the doll that was closest in complexion to me and saying how she had an “olive” tone.  (I still don’t understand that expression since the olives I eat are green, very dark brown, black or a lovely deep wine red.)  The problem with the “olive” doll was that her hair was only one-inch long.  I wanted a doll with hair I could braid.  Mom was nearly in tears because we had taken the time to drive out there on a Saturday afternoon in February only to be presented with a room full of white dolls.  “It’s Ok mom, they’re cute too, I assured her.” 

An orange haired doll had a birth certificate that caught my eye, Netty Jobina.  “Mommy, look at her middle name, it’s only one letter different than mine!”  My parents named me Josina after Josina Machel, a revolutionary and freedom fighter who was the first wife of independent Mozambique’s first president, Samoro Machel.  My sister was named Coretta after Coretta Scott King.  We were being groomed to be young black revolutionaries, or at least the multi-talented wives of them. My reach for this white doll with the orange hair seemed off script. Since there wasn’t a doll that matched my colors, I was looking for one to match my name, trying to make meaning from this epic fail of a shopping day. “Look at her, mommy, her name’s almost like mine. I think I’ll adopt her. She’s the one for me.” So, I brought her home and loved her, still never thinking that I would actually bear a child with that appearance.

            The morning Rhubarb was born the midwife proclaimed with surprise, “Look at that red hair and her skin is so fair!” I hadn’t even held her and I felt this strange otherness in the way the midwife expressed her shock. Had she not been squatting by my shaking bloody thighs, would she have believed this milk white child was mine? Red hair is a recessive gene that means both parents must pass the gene onto the child for it to be apparent.  My husband’s uncle has red hair, so it wasn’t surprising to know that he had the gene.  Up until my daughter’s birth, I didn’t know I carried a red hair gene.  Since all my mother’s people have dark hair, we are almost certain that Rhubarb must have gotten her red hair from my African-American father.

 Rhubarb is sitting in church with my dad when a white couple sitting in the pew in front of them turns around and stares, “How did you get a red headed granddaughter?” the husband asks. Without missing a beat my father calmly responds, “My great grandmother was raped by a red head.” This was more than the church folk bargained for, they just wanted to make small talk, to laugh and stare at our family variety show. Who wants to talk about rape on a Sunday morning in church? The wife pats her husband’s arm and he says something about the weather.  It’s cold isn’t it.

My father’s grandmother, my great grandmother, Virginia Mae Murray, had light skin and thick reddish-brown hair.  The family liked to say she was part “Indian.”  According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his 2014 article for The Root, “High Cheekbones and Straight Black Hair,” African American people have often written mythological Native Americans into our family trees rather than acknowledge that those physical features came from European enslavers and employers who raped our great-grandmothers. My father told me about the source of his grandmother’s reddish hair after Rhubarb’s birth demanded that the whole story be told.  It is still speculation, a theory based on circumstantial evidence.  But this it what he told me:

When my great grandmother, Virginia, was a girl, her paternal grandparents, her mother’s employers, paid for her violin lessons.  They invited her to accompany them to trips to the seashore because they said they needed the help. Maybe they wanted their granddaughter to develop her musical talent and see the ocean, maybe they wanted to spend time with her away from prying small-town eyes and let her know in some small way that they loved her.  But they were never family to one another in public or on paper.  Still, she carried memories of times as an insider/outsider in their home and she carried her father’s red headed gene that passed unseen until the birth of her great-great granddaughter, my little Rhubarb.   

            The only Cinderella movie my girls know is the one starring Brandy. When they were very little, whenever they would see a teenage girl with long microbraids they would say, “Oh mommy look she is so beautiful, she looks just like Cinderella!”  When one of Popcorn’s friend comes over to play, a few of her extensions fall to the bedroom floor.  Popcorn clips them into her thin blonde hair and tosses her head back and forth imagining she has a head full of shimmering black braids, just like Cinderella.

            Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States forbade interracial marriage and therefore made it legal for white men to rape and bear children with black women without having to claim any personal or financial responsibility for their actions.  The “one drop rule” meant that if a person had one drop of African ancestry in them they could still be enslaved or subject the rules of the American Apartheid.  By those antiquated and divisive terms I would be a mulatto, my children quadroons and if my offspring choose to bear children with people considered to be white then my grandchildren could be octoroons.  My children mock these names and joke that they are baboons or macaroons.  Shoofly Pie tells me I’m racist to keep talking about the history of these old rules and ways, tells me I’m wrong to teach my children to identify as black in a world that sees them as white.  I tell them that there has never been a time in US history when the white community openly embraced a brown person with one white grandparent as white, but that there is a legacy of people with one black grandparent belonging in the African American story. “Anyway, I’m not white,” Popcorn insists as she colors herself with a brown crayon.

            A friend from Congo braided my hair in tight cornrows and Rhubarb wanted them too.  I warn her that it will hurt.  She insists that she wants the braids, she wants us to have the same hair, if only for a week.  She did not wince or cry once as our friend’s fingers deftly parted and pulled her hair into thin lines of braids. We took a picture together, all smiles.  That night the tears come.  She can’t sleep.  “Take them out, take them out!” she screams.  It took so long, they look so pretty.  I want her to wear her braids to school the next day, to prove to her white peers that tell her I can’t be her mommy, to prove to them that she really is black.  I want her to keep the braids in for me.  Her face is red hot from crying. “You don’t know how I feel!”  She shouts. And she is right.  Studies have shown that red headed people have different responses to pain and anesthesia than the rest of the human population.  I am slipping my fingers through her hair, undoing every braid, accepting the fact that none of my children have hair that lends itself to tidy cornrows, twists and Nubian knots. Accepting that we have nothing to prove.

            Popcorn is getting ready in the morning and emerges from my bedroom with thick handfuls of coconut oil in her hair.  Her head is glistening.  We don’t have time to shampoo her hair before school.  Rhubarb and Dumpling give her funny looks.  I swallow my pride and shuttle her off to school.  She walks confidently through the doors, her blond hair looking dark and stringy, like it hasn’t been washed in weeks. That afternoon I sit her down and tell her, “Honey, my hair drinks up conditioner and oil. Your hair looks better without adding oil. You know I don’t use shampoo, but you need to shampoo your hair, right now.”  My mom didn’t know about coconut oil and conditioner.  Coretta and I screamed as she dry-brushed our curls every day, parted and pulled, securing the pony tails with colorful hair balls. Now, Coretta wears her hair short and natural, I’m keeping mine long and loose, curls flying in every direction, combing it only with my fingers and holding it up with a chopstick.

            A neighbor who grew up in a Thai refugee camp is lamenting her daughter’s crate full of free naked Barbies.  While she and I talk, our daughters are doing their best to clothe them, give them a story, line them up, make the best of the ones with the chopped off hair, missing legs and pen marks on their flesh.  “We used to make dolls from river stones,” she tells me.  They would rock them in their arms, hold them, give them names, wrap them in leaves and lay them down for the night.  Her daughter is overwhelmed with the bounty of another girl’s rejected collection. None of these rejected dolls have names or stories like her mother’s smooth river stones.

            My children do not look like Oakmeal, the first brown baby doll that my mother taught me to love, but that doesn’t mean that she failed in teaching me to love my blackness, love myself and love the children that I would bear.  My mother did not fail in teaching me how to name what and who I love.  Rhubarb was made wholly in love, but her hair tells the story of both a father that loves his family and the unnamed man who planted a seed that he would not tend. My little red-haired daughter helps me to talk honestly with anyone who asks about a painful story of rape buried in my genetic code, to talk honestly about our complex history of family and belonging.   I call her “my little newspaper,” black and white and red all over.


Photo credit: Jean Cooper

Josina Guess
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