Right now, at eighteen, I’m supposed to be finding myself. I’m not supposed to know who I am or know what I’m about. I’ve been alive for a millisecond- as my boss’ wife told me, I’m still in the opening credits of the film that would be The Life & Times of Jamaica Ponder. The camera is still panning down my suburban street from an aerial view. I’ve barely been introduced- maybe made a cameo. What I know now is not considered knowledge but speculation. I think I like certain things, but I don’t really know that. I won’t know until I know and by then I’ll be forty and expected to know so it won’t be impressive, just standard. They tell us that we’re not allowed to know who we are- we don’t have enough to go off of. And that’s supposed to be okay with us. Maybe it would be okay with me, had I not known who I was for quite a while now: knowledge not speculation.
Had I not known, maybe I would have accepted this. But I don’t. Or at least, I didn’t.
There are things that we live through which we completely forget. Most days, actually. Unless something monumental occurs, the days sort of blur together in a sad shade of memoriam. Weeks pass and we can’t remember what we had for dinner or what we learned on Tuesday. Where were we at 6:45 on August 8th 2012? Why don’t I know the answer? Why don’t you?
Our lives evade us and we don’t notice until we’re forced to stop and reconsider. We know everything about ourselves yet we can’t remember a grand percentage of our specific actions- we only recall the motifs. When I was 8 I liked the color blue. At 13 I had my first boyfriend. I got into college for the first time in December 2016. I know the gist of my life- hell, I could probably write a book on it. But 1/2 of it would be speculation- how I think I would’ve felt in certain situations if the current version of myself were dealing with it. But that is inherently wrong. The current version of myself has no place in 2012. She didn’t exist then and she won’t exist tomorrow.
I say I know myself and I believe that I do- but only the self that I am right now, in this moment. Not the self I once was nor the self I am to become. I know this version of myself because I’ve been given time to understand her. Sometimes our evasive lives move too quickly and we miss certain variations of who we are. We’ll never get that back; never really understand that fleeting mindset; never remember.
I didn’t understand that until I Know Why The Cadged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Within the first several pages Angelou thrust me back into a version of myself I had all but forgotten. Perhaps not purposefully but in an attempt to rid myself of embarrassment.
“Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about “my daddy must of been a Chinaman”… because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts. Because I was really white and cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number two pencil.”
And with that I remembered hating myself. Being small and dark as hell in the middle of the summer, with tiny braids scattered across my head and coloful barrettes that made clinking noises everytime I walked, as they hit against on another, adorning the end of each little braid. Being angry, and feeling that anger drag me to the industrial sized bottle of lotion in my bathroom and coating myself in it. Feeling as though that wasn’t enough and scouring the shelves for the sunscreen. Thinking that spf 50 meant that it would stay on for fifty years. Searching even more diligently with the hope that it was true. I remember screaming that I wanted to be white as my mother wiped the sweet smelling mixture of lotion and sunscreen from my skinny black limbs.
I don’t remember ever feeling ashamed for that until now. I didn’t give myself the chance to feel shame. I just forgot and moved on. But now I find myself unable to move past that image and wondering how in the world I could possibly forget.
I do not know that version of myself. And yet, as I remember and I see myself in retrospect, I think most women of color in America know that small, angry Jamaica. That self loathing little Maya Angelou. That sunburnt, nappy-headed lil’ thing who will remain the same way until she learns to see the world as hers and to see herself as someone who belongs in it, as opposed to some dark skinned intruder in a place in which she has no business loving herself.
I know who I am right now. I know that I’m lucky to see beauty in this version of myself, where before I saw something that ought to be anything besides that which I was meant to be. If anything- that I know.