Who are you to tell a star it has no sparkle? to tell a rose it has no fume? to tell a swan it has no grace?
I used to watch them from afar, those girls. The ones who wore the tangerine and cerulean muumuus overlain with golden hoops and porcelain beads, gems and jewels of every color imaginable. Some of them wore beautiful scarves around their heads, decorated with elephants and geometry, while others let their natural hair down, as wild an untamed as their movements. They danced to music I couldn’t hear, but somehow knew every beat. Loud, raucous backbeats on big djembe drums, and accompanied by a disharmonious marimba and accented by whoops and caws.
Their beauty was something primal, something otherworldly, like African goddesses come to Earth for the sole purpose of sharing their majesty with the rest of us. I saw the men they swooned with their swaying hips and explosive limbs, watched how they danced with them like they were underwater, spilling in and out of each other like streams of ruby red ribbon.
And though their fire burned through the eveningtime like the pillar that led Moses to Canaan, I had to go inside when the sun went down and get ready to go to sleep.
How were they so much more beautiful than me? How did their charcoal skin shine like onyx while mine merely sat upon my face, pimpled and vitiliginous? How did their natural hair roil into magnificent coils while mine stretched out frizzy and wiry on top of my head? How did their bodies swell and pinch in all the right places like a water jug while mine lay flat and plain?
Don’t worry, Nyala, my mother would always tell me. One day you will be as beautiful as your mother. She would raise her arms in the air and twirl, giving me a big grin that showed her white teeth and purple gums. She would vest me in the kaftan dresses she wore as a girl and wrap my hair in silk, smiling and kissing my forehead. My sweet little bata. One day you will be a queen.
I went to school with my head in my daydreams, hoping the hours would speed by so I could go home, but there would always be something to snap me awake. Black. Ugly. Dumb. I can’t even pronounce her name. Look at her, she’s darker than coal. Ugh, why does she smell so bad? Why does her hair look so gross? Why does she even go to school here? She needs to back to Africa.
And slowly, day by day, I stopped watching the girls dance. I would go home and powder my skin with flour to look as pale and milky as possible. I would wake up early every morning to straighten my hair before school, and I traded my dashikis for tee shirts and jeans. At the same time, I stopped seeing my mother’s purples gums, too.
I can’t believe you, Nyala, she said. I can’t believe you would let white people make you ashamed to be black. What happened to my little bata? But she never understood. Not every little black girl can grow up to be an African goddess. Most of us just grow up to be black.
But one day, many years later while I was at the market, I felt a familiar tingle in my toes. As I was turning to leave I saw three girls dancing into the store, their hair wrapped in silken head scarves, long shawls draping over their black skin like stars hanging from a midnight sky. And while I still could not hear their music, I knew it was playing. My heart fell to the floor, never having once imagined I would see these goddesses so close. One of them looked in my direction, smiled, and looked away, and as I scurried along past them to leave the store, I heard her whisper, She’s got big lips for a white girl.
When I got home, I stripped down completely, pulling the clothes from my body and washing the makeup from my skin. In the mirror I saw one of those girls, with charcoal skin and curly hair. Over the years my figure had grown like theirs, and I could faintly hear the banging of the drums begging my body to dance. I had finally become a goddess. While I was so busy trying to be a duck, I had turned into a magnificent black swan.