Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-Up Black Womanby Jill Nelson
The face of journalism was forever changed after Jill Nelson came along. Volunteer Slavery, the memoir and explosive expose of her experiences in the white, male-dominated world of The Washington Post, served as a wake-up call to all Americans and placed Nelson at the forefront of the African American political arena.
Now, the bestselling author is/b>/b>… See more details below
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The face of journalism was forever changed after Jill Nelson came along. Volunteer Slavery, the memoir and explosive expose of her experiences in the white, male-dominated world of The Washington Post, served as a wake-up call to all Americans and placed Nelson at the forefront of the African American political arena.
Now, the bestselling author is back with Straight, No Chaser, a call to arms written in an effort to "look at the sum of Ablack women's? lives beyond the how-to-snag-a-man, am-I-pretty-enough and how's-my-hair concerns that dominate Atheir? daily existence." Nelson encourages black women-especially young girls-to develop a positive identity in the face of adversity and to look critically at their role models, many of whom she believes send mixed messages to the African American community. From Barbie to bra burning, Mike Tyson to the Million Man March, Nelson takes a personal and thoughtful approach to the empowerment of the black female.
"I write because I'm angry," Nelson declares in her introduction, setting the tone for the rest of this ranting and scattered book. She shifts awkwardly between personal anecdotes (including her 1950s and '60s girlhood in Harlem and and on Manhattan's Upper West Side) and essays on the problems she sees manifested in them, never really revealing her own inner complexities. The birth of Nelson's child becomes an opportunity to discuss racism, her relationships with men become excuses for essays on sexism, and the book's closing chapter is devoted to her ideas on violence and negative role models. As an African-American woman, Nelson says she is forced to stand on the bottom rung of the social ladder, and she devotes much of her book to allocating blameto white men, white women (including feminists), and black men. The African-American world as seen through Nelson's eyes is filled only with negatives: Supermodel Naomi Campbell is just "white beauty in black face"; African-American male sexuality is really "poontang proximity"; black leaders are "by and large useless opportunists"; and African-American women are all too often prone to having a "Niggerbitchfit." Even Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz are belittled as mere "professional widows." By the end, the reader has gained little insight into either Nelson or black America; this is especially disappointing since her experiences as a journalist for the Washington Postchronicled in Volunteer Slavery (1993)provide the author with a unique perspective.
Underdeveloped and unoriginal, this tirade fails to become the tool of empowerment for African-American women it claims to be.
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WHO'S THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL?
"YOU WANT TO DO WHAT? My mother turns from the kitchen table where she is sitting snapping string beans. It is the spring of 1959. I am seven.
"Work for Betty Crocker," I say. From outside, just below where we live on Riverside Drive in Harlem, the horn of a tugboat pulling a barge up the Hudson River punctuates my sentence, puncturing my confidence.
"Betty Crocker?" My mother says the name as though she's never heard it before. The syllables roll off her tongue like words of a foreign language she's never spoken: it makes no sense to her.
"The cake mix lady," I prompt. I know my mother knows who I'm talking about, she buys cake mixes sometimes as a quick treat for the four of us. Otherwise, my mother is truly the scratch cake queen. The queen gives the royal nod, gazes out the window at the river passing by.
"Those are some bad cakes," she says finally, shaking her head and turning back to her beans. "Easy, but they have a bitter aftertaste. I can't figure out what it is ..." Her voice and mind float away like the river, in search of that damn aftertaste. I want to stomp my foot, bang on the table, make those South Carolina string beans become Mexican jumping beans and dance in the colander, get my mother's attention from that aftertaste, those beans, onto me.
"I don't want to eat them. I want to bake them. For television." I say the last word slowly, with emphasis on each syllable, as if the fact that I'll be doing it on television makes my first career aspiration at least understandable, if not noble. In 1959, television is still relatively new, still fascinating. I think there is something adventurous about being on television, kind of like going into outer space. It will be quite a few years before it is public knowledge that the sole purpose of television is to sell things. Maybe that puts me in the vanguard.
My mother snaps a few more beans, lights a Viceroy cigarette.
"Why?" She looks me full in the face, her expression incredulous."Why would you want to do that?" She says this as if I've said I want to work in a morgue. Not that there's anything wrong with working in a morgue, someone has to do it, it's honorable work, just not suitable for her youngest daughter. Or oldest daughter, middle son, baby boy.
"They're perfect," I say. "I know I could do it." My mother looks at me, the smile in her eyes traveling toward her mouth. Maybe she sees I'm serious, because the smile doesn't reach her lips.
"All right. If you say so," she says vaguely. I hug her neck, inhale her bittersweet odor of cigarette smoke and perfume. "Did you finish your homework?"
"All but the arithmetic."
"Go on and finish before dinner." My mother, back to decapitating beans, stares at the river passing by.
"Who needs math to bake cakes?" Visions of myself handing perfectly iced layer cakes to Betty moments before she goes into the little television box, the chocolate frosting thick with swirls, peaks, many hills and hardly any valleys, dance in my head. When the commercial's over, I wonder, do I get to eat my work?
"Who knows? It might come in handy." My mother shrugs. "Maybe you'll change your mind and decide to be a mathematician."
This is the earliest career aspiration I can recall. I did not want to be Betty Crocker herself, but Betty's baker. I wish my choice was motivated solely by my love of food, or baking, or helping others, but this would only be partially true. I think that even coming from a middle-class family of affirming, ambitious, successful people, it had already been communicated to me through the culture around me that as a black female, I was essentially invisible. Subconsciously, I chose a profession that confirmed my unseen place in society.
But I did not understand this then. In the beginning, in the house of my mother and father, I saw myself everywhere. In my sister and two brothers, in the care and attention of my mother and the expectations of my father, in the experiences and privileges they struggled to provide us. I did not suspect that as I grew older, left their protection, I would have to fight to remain visible and be seen as I saw myself, although now when I think about it, there were many signs that this was the case, that attempts at erasure were what awaited me, I just did not know how to read them. Too, my parents, being good, loving, hopeful, and successful, told the four of us that we were visible, important, that life would be different and wonderful for us. And they did not lie completely, we sometimes are and it sometimes is. But what my father could not and, I surmise, my mother would not tell my sister and me is that as we grew older, ventured out into the world, left home and entered the world of white people and the world of men, as black women our entitlement to visibility would come under direct assault. I believe that my mother knew these things. The challenge was how to tell her daughters about the barriers that awaited us without making us feel hopeless and inferior.
My father could not tell us about the limitations of gender because he did not know them, and there was no need for him to tell my sister Lynn and me much. We were his daughters, I was his baby girl, and it was enough that we were pretty and smart and well behaved, that we represented him well. My older and younger brothers were truly important to him. It was to them, Stanley and Ralph, he told things because they were, like him, male. My mother, an educated, funny, vibrant woman, stifled her own career as a businesswoman and subsequently a librarian for love of my father and at his behest, functioned instead as his wife, mother of his children, keeper of his house. My mother did not complain and she appeared to be at peace with her choices. I realize now that the signs of her discontent were present in her aloofness, her tense cigarette smoking, her joy when she packed her bags to travel alone to Indiana for a meeting of the hair care business of which she was president, a position that came to her because her father was the company attorney. In the loving, casual parenting that she showed toward the four of us when my father was not home. Indirectly, she told me and my sister about the possibility of erasure in her high academic expectations, in forcing us to read all the time, in talking to us about what we wanted to be when we grew up and never mentioning getting married or having children, in always pushing us to not necessarily do the girl thing. If, immersed in reading the series of "Cherry Ames" books, we said we wanted to be a nurse, my mother asked, "Why not a doctor?" If the preferred profession of the moment was the glamorized 1950s vision of being an airline stewardess, complete with chic uniform and jaunty cap, my mother responded, "That's nothing but a flying maid. Wouldn't you rather be the pilot?"When I went through a phase of wanting to be an actress, my mother suggested I be a writer. In her quiet way, she pushed her two girls toward work that would afford us independence and visibility, knowing that she had conceded much of hers.
Although they talked to us about racism often, my parents methodically sheltered the four of us from the personal experience of it, and they were able, for many years, in the protected and proscribed world they created, to define being black solely as a positive experience. No one ever addressed me by a racial epithet. It wasn't until after desegregation of public facilities that I learned that the reason we didn't stop at gas stations on overnight drives--my father instead pulling to the side of the road, my mother opening both front and back doors to form a makeshift toilet stall, waking us in the back seat in our thin summer pajamas and pushing us outside to squat and pee before we drove on--was because there were no rest rooms available to black Americans.
If I was troubled as a child, it was about how to be female, a girl, a woman. The ambivalence I sensed in my mother's acquiescence to my father, the perception that there were feelings, ideas, and words kept neatly checked just beneath her surface, coupled with the lack of images of black women in popular culture, conspired to confuse me.
When I am young, many of the girls in my class want to be ballerinas, but I don't enjoy ballet class. Already I can see that I will never look fabulous in pink tights and a tutu, never have that frail, long-necked, I-can-see-the-blue-veins-under-the-skin look dancers have. It will be several years before the Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell dance companies burst upon the scene and into the consciousness of little black girls with troupes filled with big-thighed, high-assed brown women who fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Some of my girlfriends want to be brides when they grow up, but it is clear that my parents have greater expectations than simply marriage. I cannot figure out what brides actually do after their wedding day. No one ever says, which leads me to suspect they don't do anything for a while and then become mothers. In third grade when we study Indians I decide I'd love to be a Native woman of the plains with an understanding of the land, a papoose, and a tipi. But when we get to the part about the blankets infected with smallpox virus and Wounded Knee, broken treaties, free alcohol, and reservations, I don't want to be a Native American anymore, unless I can go back and change the past.
As for the pioneer women, it seems to me they do all the dull, routine work that keeps everyone alive and safe, but never have any fun. The pioneer women live in cramped, cold, smoky log cabins and spend a lot of their time being scared of either the Indians or drunken, sex-starved male pioneers.
The room I share with my sister is filled with dolls. Dolls from around the world, rag dolls,Japanese dolls in kimonos, Native American dolls in beads and buckskin, Dutch dolls wearing tiny painted wooden shoes. The truth is that I never liked dolls, instead found them frightening and sinister, plastic bodies little girls were told to mother and pretend we loved. Dolls did not reflect me, either what I looked like or who I wanted to become. Still, I coveted them because everyone else did, and I thought I was supposed to. My loathing manifested in the way in which I played with them, especially the pink rubber baby dolls. After school my friends and I twist off arms and legs, cut open chest cavities in search of the voice box, stick pins in the behind of a peeing doll to see if we could make its bowels move. We drew on their faces, hacked off their hair, applied finger- and toenail polish, stuck arms into leg holes, created custom-made doll monsters.
I absorb suggestions from television, books, and the culture around me about who I am supposed to be, what I am supposed to like. Each month when my mother's subscription to McCall's magazine arrives I beg her for the page with the cut-out Betsy McCall doll and doll clothes. Betsy is, of course, white. But then so were all the women in the pages of McCall's, Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook, and the other "general interest" magazines my mother read. Housewives poised in neatly pressed shirtwaist dresses with slender belts, caught in the act of vacuuming with an Electrolux, loading laundry into a Maytag washing machine, whipping up a Betty Crocker cake, mixing their conquering husband a drink of Johnnie Walker Red. They were all white, and so were their daughters.
The flesh-colored crayon in the giant box of Crayola crayons is certainly not the color of my flesh, nor are the flesh-colored Band-Aids manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. Even the peaches and cream complexion promised in the sales pitch for Ivory soap, "99% pure," is not for me. The children in Hi-Lites magazines were always white, as were the human superheroes in the comic books. I think the major reason me, my brothers, and most of the black kids we knew were into Green Lantern or Spiderman as opposed to Superman or Supergirl was because we could more closely identify with and aspire to become them than their white counterparts. In westerns I was always the Indian, never the cowboy. In Tarzan movies I identified with the Africans or the apes, not Tarzan. I wanted to be Sheena, Queen of the Jungle not because she was white but because she was female and pretty, one of the only women on television who existed independency of men.
I used to watch "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" and "The Donna Reed Show" and "Ozzie and Harriet" and "The Patty Duke Show," but never thought of them as real, or role models, or people to emulate. I couldn't figure out how television mothers always looked perfect and never yelled, or how it was TV daddies never seemed to work but their families were still able to live well. My harried mother yelled at us regularly and my father was always busy working, and hardly ever home. Most of the women on television were uninteresting, whether the wife/mother types on the family situation comedies, or low-level career girls like Marlo Thomas as "That Girl!" or Mary Tyler Moore as an overexploited associate producer. The women I was drawn to were the ones who, if they did exist in the real world were few and far between, or were total fantasy women. Emma Peel from "The Avengers," the private detective "Honey West," Jeannie who popped out of a bottle to conjure and control on "I Dream of Jeannie," or Samantha on "Bewitched," who could do magic with a twitch of her nose. Actually, I was most enamored of Endora, Samantha's bitchy, super-powered mother, who was opinionated, obstinate, and imposed her will as she saw fit. But these women were not real. By 1968, when Diahann Carroll became the first black woman to star in her own situation comedy, "Julia," playing a nurse and single mother widowed by her husband's patriotic service in Vietnam, I no longer looked to television for reflection and inspiration. At sixteen, it was becoming clear to me that in a country that sponsored the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the election of Richard M. Nixon, and the murder in Chicago of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the value to my life of seeing a pretty black woman on television was negligible.
The one area where black women existed in significant numbers was as entertainers, but even as a girl I knew these women were, because of their talent, exceptions, they did not serve as reflections or role models. Living in my parents' house I learned early from the sadness in their beautiful music or the overheard conversations of adults that the lives of musicians, particularly women, were harsh. Heard the stories of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. Even here, black women were most often disembodied voices crackling out of a record player or radio, without visual representation. Whatever glimpse I got of these women was usually limited to a head shot on the cover of one of my parents' albums. My introduction to Gloria Lynn, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah, and Billie was as voices, faces, and feelings, not complete women.
For many years I lived what I realize now was a sheltered and charmed life as a daughter of the black middle class. I knew, liked, and did not fear white people, there was no point. I went to private schools where my classmates were the children of liberal, and sometimes left, Jews, people who, like my parents, consciously chose to educate their children in a progressive, multiracial environment. They lived in a parallel universe of their own. Separate, and if not exactly equal, certainly no better. I did not question my absence from their world any more than I longed for their presence in mine. It was a comfortable separation, at least until I entered young womanhood and realized that the black world could not employ, feed, or sustain me, before I knew what being black, female, and in the minority meant in America.
It was not until I was twelve or thirteen, moving into young womanhood, with a nascent desire for sexual and physical identity and value, that I was forced to face up to my own invisibility as a black girl. I began to realize that more often than not my physical being--brown body, heavy thighs, uncontrollable hair--wasn't seen.
As a child I read Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rapunzel, in which the heroines are always white, always get the prince, live happily ever after, and always, always have long hair. In fact, if Rapunzel hadn't had that long straight hair to let down, the prince wouldn't have had anything to climb up to her tower on, would never have gotten to her. If I thought as a child these were just fairy tales and not reflections of reality, when I read The Gift of the Magi in junior high school English, where the man sells his prized watch to buy a comb for his wife's long, glorious hair, and she simultaneously cuts off her hair--the ultimate sacrifice for love--and sells it to buy him a watch chain, I learn that the importance of long, straight hair is not limited to stories. By adolescence, I know the importance of hair, that it is a point of entry, an attribute that women need to be considered attractive in this culture. As a black girl I learned early on that thick, kinky hair is without value, since rarely are even white women--the embodiment of beauty in a racist culture--with short hair presented as desirable. Hair, and lots of it, is required both for beauty and visibility. It is the beginning of what for most women is a lifelong obsession.
My brother Stanley and I sit on the stoop of the building we live in on 148th Street, before my father's financial success enables us to move downtown, to a better neighborhood, away from black people, which in American culture is up in status. We are hunched over, tightening our roller skates with one of those fat, silver skate keys we used back in the days before Rollerblades. I am nine, my brother is ten. He is chocolate-colored, round-faced, with thick, kinky hair cut close to the scalp in the style of the day for little black boys, teasingly called a "baldie bean." I am caramel-colored. Except for the difference in our complexions and the texture of our hair, we could pass for twins. My hair is parted in the center and hangs in two braids to the middle of my back. Its texture, closer to the straightness of white people's hair than to the tightly curled hair of black folks, is what black people too often call "good" or "pretty" hair. I learn this from adults, friends of my parents who come to visit and meeting me stroke my hair reverentially, an accident of birth or consequence of plantation rape that sets me apart from my sister and two brothers. Even as I enjoy being fawned over, I am made uncomfortable.
Two women walk past, glance our way. They are probably in their early twenties. "Ohhh, look at those long braids," one of the women says.
"Yeah. That girl gotta head of hair."
"She got that pretty hair, too," the woman says. She stops and stands looking down at my brother and me. "Can I touch it?"
I look up at her and for a moment do not know what to say. I want to ask why and then refuse, but I am afraid to, not only because I have been taught to respect adults. I am afraid that to deny this woman's small request will set me apart, make her angry, make her think that I am high siddity, fancy myself better than she.
"Can I touch it, baby?" Her voice is friendly, pleading, demanding, all at once. I nod.
She places both hands on my hairline, her fingertips in the part. She slowly, slowly, runs her hands across the crown, down to where the braids begin. Her fingers wrap my braids within tight fists and continue past the rubber bands, an inch farther to the ends. Her fists hold only air. As long as I live I will never forget the sensations evoked as this grown-up stranger caressed my hair. I feel simultaneously flattered and embarrassed, complimented and angry, all-powerful and profoundly powerless. "Thank you, baby," she says, continues up the hill. Unsure what she is thanking me for, I am unable to say, "You're welcome." I don't say anything. Instead, I bend my head down to the task at hand, furiously twist my skate key. One of my braids falls over my shoulder, swings in front me. Angrily, I flip it aside. Already finished, Stanley stands up, skates off, disappears around the corner. I hurry to catch up with him.
By the time I am fifteen, in 1967, we no longer live in Harlem, nor do I wear two braids. Four years earlier, when I was eleven, my father's successful dental practice allows him to move us from Harlem to the Upper West Side, to a building in which we are the only black family. My hair is shoulder-length now, and I try to wear it in a flip, straight to the collarbone and then ends turned up, kind of like the rich and beautiful Veronica Lodge in the "Archie" comics, although this is not easy. I want to be the Breck Girl from the television and magazine ads, every strand of shining hair always in place. It doesn't work. My hair inevitably balloons.
It is a sunny afternoon in 1967, I am walking across 125th Street toward Broadway and the bus downtown, when a voice calls, "Hey! You! With the big legs!" I look around, but can't tell where the voice is coming from, who it belongs to, or who it's talking to. The street is crowded with all sizes of women's legs in motion. "Hey! Schoolgirl, I'm talking to you," the voice yells. That narrows it down. There are only a few girls carrying books, shouldering book bags, or wearing those telltale plaid school uniforms which, even with the skirt hiked up and lipstick smeared on, still scream "Catholic schoolgirl!" I try to look around surreptitiously for the voice, find that it emanates from a group of black construction workers lolling around a building site. One of the men catches my eye, grins.
"Yeah, you, girl. Where'd you get those big legs?" he says, his voice an impossible combination of a drawl and yell. I am embarrassed and flattered. Feel violated, vulnerable, and seduced, a combination of emotions I will experience often and become familiar with over a lifetime interacting with men. I speed up my pace. Just past, I hear him call, "Hey, you, fine thing in the red dress!" I look down just to double-check, but I am not wearing a red dress. Now that I'm out of his line of vision, he is no longer talking to me, has moved on to the next female. I am both disappointed and relieved.
Fifteen years old, I am obsessed with the cosmic questions of young womanhood: Who am I? How do I look? Is my hair okay? Will anyone ever love me? Am I pretty? Even though I have not started dating, have barely been past second base, have no real understanding of what sexuality is, I can feel its presence, know that it is crucially important, to me and to others. Internally, it appears suddenly in spurts, then vanishes. I am at moments physically hypersensitive, aware each time thigh brushes thigh, a swinging arm touches the side of a breast, of the weight between my legs that throbs and subsides. The eyes of men, passing carelessly over me, leave hot trails on my skin. They confirm the external world's awareness of my sex. Feeling them, my body shifts, squirms, realigns itself, simultaneously preens and contracts. I hurry home, "Big legs, big legs, big legs" resounding in my ears.
When I am a teenager and blossoming into a full-breasted, big-legged, round-tripped young black woman, the prevalent symbols of youthful beauty were models. First among them was a skinny-legged, flat-cheated, knock-kneed blonde model from England named Twiggy.
Twiggy was to me and my friends, black and white, what Kate Moss is to many teenagers in the 1990s, the dominant image of feminine beauty. It does not occur to me at the time that there is anything at all wrong with Twiggy; all inadequacies are mine. She is not too thin, I am too fat. She does not look awkward, I am the one who is clumsy and out of place. Her breasts are not too small, mine are too big. Even though neither I or any of my friends even faintly resemble Twiggy, we see her image over and over in Seventeen and other magazines and with repetition she becomes our ideal. We diet, draw pale half-moons under our eyes with wrinkle erasing sticks in search of her startled, deer-caught-in-the-car-headlights look, mimic her style of dress, call one another "Luv." But the power Twiggy possesses derives not simply from her being the current embodiment of beauty, she is also a female cultural icon, arriving at the height of America's fascination with all things British. She is a total package. We want to not only look like Twiggy but be her. We want her life. Along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Carnaby Street, Twiggy is the latest fab import from England, the ultimate source of mid-1960s white pop culture, the feminine representation of the British invasion. The notion that all you have to do to be famous, rich, and beloved is to be a Twiggy clone does not seem either unreasonable or unreal when I am fifteen.
When I enter the house that day from 125th Street my mother says, "Is everything all right,Jill?"
"I'm fat, I'm ugly, I'll never be skinny," I wail.
"Skinny? Why would you want to be skinny?" My mother, five foot three and a hundred and sixteen pounds, hands me a tissue, exhales smoke. I sob harder. How can I expect my mother to understand?
"I don't want to be big this, big that! I want to be skinny, beautiful, famous, have everyone love me." My mother gives one of those patient here-we-go sighs.
"What brought all this on?" she asks. I tell her about my walk, how nice it was until the man called out to "Big Legs" and I realized he was making fun of me.
"I'm fat, I'm ugly, my legs are too big!" A fresh cascade of tears runs down my cheeks. What does Mommy do? Does she gather me in her arms, soothe me, assure me that I am perfect just the way I am? But no. Instead, she laughs. I sob louder.
"It's a compliment," she says through laughter. "Big legs, that's a compliment. Men like those big, pretty legs like you and your Aunt Florence have."
My father's sister, Aunt Florence, unlike most adults, listens more than she talks. She is not petite and slim like my sister and mother, but tall and "healthy" like me. In 1994, my Aunt Florence gets very sick and has both legs amputated above the knee. She tells me that I now have the pretty legs for both of us and not to waste them. When I go to visit I wear a dress or skirt, sit with our legs crossed. Recently, her voice filled with wonder, she tells me of waking up mornings with her legs aching after dreaming of dancing all night, her feet hurt too, taking Tylenol and waiting for it to work its magic on those big, pretty legs.
"What about you, your legs?" I ask. My mother shifts her weight, extends one of her legs. The muscle in the back of her calf bulges. My mother has always worn high heels on her tiny feet.
"I've got good legs, but I always wished they were bigger," she says thoughtfully.
"Really?" It is the first time it has occurred to me that except for breasts, anything on a woman's body should be bigger. Sad to say, this is a revolutionary thought.
"Really. You've got big, pretty legs, you should know that. Forget those white girls with those skinny giraffe legs. Next time you see your Aunt Florence, look at her legs. Yours are just like them, you should be proud of them. That man was just paying you a compliment." I wrap my mind around this statement and am soothed until my mother adds, "But it's low life for men to yell--even compliments--at you on the street. Whatever you do, never respond."
At fifteen, hurtling toward womanhood, in the end I am left more confused than before, unsettled by the sense of ugliness, violation, and thrill that the man's attention and compliment--once explained by my mother--made me feel, made uncertain by the knowledge of both my physical vulnerability and my need for bodily affirmation. I am embarrassed and frightened that in a world of little confirmation and much negation a few shouted words from a man, "low life" or otherwise, could make me, in such a short space of time, feel both ugly and beautiful, visible and invisible, frightened and seduced.
My mother is light brown, my father very dark. I do not think much about this when I am young except when they remind the four of us kids that to intelligent, good people skin color is an inappropriate basis on which to judge others. What was important was who you were, what you thought, the deeds you did. "Beauty is as beauty does" was an oft-repeated adage in our household, words I grew to accept as true. Still, outside the universe my parents created I could not help but notice that most of the beautiful women were white, and the few black women white people gave their props and admitted were gorgeous were usually very light-skinned, like Lena Home. Even in the black community, ninety-nine times out of a hundred if a black woman was described as beautiful you could bet your bottom dollar she was light-skinned. Attractiveness seemed to increase as levels of melanin decreased. There's an old rhyme that goes, "If you're light, you're all right, if you're black, get back, if you're yellow, you're mellow." I don't recall when I first heard it, but I was very young. I knew, according to the laws of my family, it was wrong to judge others by or to trade upon one's own skin color, but it was also clear to me that doing so had currency in both black and white communities.
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Meet the Author
A journalist for fifteen years, Jill Nelson has had her work featured in numerous publications, including Essence, USA Weekend, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Ms. She is also an on-line columnist for MSNBC. She lives in New York City.
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Jill Nelson's biography has been the single most influential read of my life. The book is superbly written and her story is one that i believe everyone should hear. Man, woman, black, white... this book provides the type of insight and understanding that will one day make this world a better place.
This book is truely honest and moving. She tells her story with such passion and conviction. I truely love her work.
It is wonderful and refreshing to see a woman of color writing to instill history and pride in our youth.