"Making Sense of What Killed Me" by Ciara Bailey
Second Place for High School Prose
When I was four-years-old, I learned that I was bad. Not because I would sneakily throw away my vegetables after dinner; not because I would resist my totally unfair bedtime of 8:30; not even because of the time that I broke Mama’s souvenir magnets on the refrigerator (and pinky promised her that I really didn’t do it). I learned that I was bad because I was black.
It started in preschool. Like any adventurous four year-old, outdoor playtime was the highlight of my day. I had my best friend by my side as we played countless games, tapping into our vast imaginations. I didn’t know she was white. I didn’t even fully understand that I was black. At four years old, I didn’t quite grasp the concept of race. All I knew was that with her, I could be myself. But everything changed when she suddenly stopped playing with me. I asked, “What’s wrong? Can we still play together?” Expecting her to say yes and proceed to invite me over to the monkey bars, I extended my hand to her.
But instead, she told me, “You can’t play with me because you’re not white.”
Puzzled, I glanced at the callused, white-ish palms of my hands and replied, “But I am white! See?” I’m trying to recall what happened after this, but I can’t remember. I just know that I never spoke to her again.
Even twelve years later, this experience weighs heavily on my heart. Sometimes I wonder if that conversation impacted her as much as it did me. On that day, I learned that I was bad because I was black. I doubt she even remembers those simple yet hateful words that I can never forget. I hate racism because at four years old, I felt unwanted.
As an eight year-old, I learned that dark skin is bad. I remember in third grade, there was a boy in my class with very dark skin. He was always the go-to person to make fun of— sometimes jokingly and sometimes not. One day at lunch I was sitting with a large group of people and among them was this dark-skinned boy. Per usual, people were bothering and laughing at him. I couldn’t stand to see this go on any longer, so I told them to leave him alone. “Who cares how dark his skin is? Back off!” I was pretty brave, I think.
Someone responded, “Ciara, you have ugly dark skin, too. And you know it.”
Of course, I cried. I also told myself that I would never stand up for this boy again because I didn’t want to be made fun of next. For the rest of the year I was careful to keep quiet when he was being picked on for having dark skin. Sometimes I mouthed the words “I’m sorry” when he was being bullied, but I don’t think that was enough. I regret not standing up for him. He and I live in the same neighborhood and occasionally I see him in passing. Each time I see him, I wonder if I should apologize for what happened almost ten years ago. I wish I could. Maybe someday I will. I hope that the racially-motivated bullying he experienced hasn’t affected him, but I’m sure it has. I just want him to know that he isn’t bad because of his dark skin. I hate racism because it scared me into being a bystander of bullying.
Sixth grade was the year that racism really got a hold of my spirit. I hated how I looked. At twelve years old, I was suicidal. Looking in the mirror with tears streaming down my hot, red face, I grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down all the reasons I hated myself. “Wide nose. Big lips. Bad, puffy, afro hair. Dark skin.” Now, I realize that this list was just a compilation of typical black physical features. I wanted to kill myself because of internalized racism, Euro-centric beauty standards, and colorism. This experience is so painful to talk about. I rediscovered this list in my cluttered room about a month ago. I cried for the old me. I was in so much pain at such a young age. I wish I never hated myself because of my chocolate skin, my big and beautiful hair, and every other part of me that is a big middle-finger to European beauty standards. Years of therapy might help me undo toxic thoughts and self-hatred. Hundreds of milligrams of medications may help stabilize my mood. But there is no permanent fix for the pain and trauma that racism causes me and so many others. And still, every now and then I start to dislike my dark skin or my wide nose. I hate racism because this is a battle that I will have to fight forever.
In tenth grade, I found a solid group of supportive and like-minded friends. Most of them are black girls who have some of the same stories and experiences as I do. Finally, in my predominately white school, I feel comfortable in my skin. Every once in a while, I come to school with my hair in an afro. In my heart, I am no longer ashamed of my dark skin. In fact, I feel most alive when I am outside on a hot day as my skin welcomes the sun’s warm and loving rays. Now, that’s not to say that colorism doesn’t creep into the corner of my mind and make me want to hide sometimes. But it means that I have grown so much and I am proud of how far I’ve come. I am glad that I don’t constantly feel the need to conceal my blackness anymore. But recently, I’ve encountered a new obstacle.
I have dealt with countless personal racist experiences from microaggressions to blatant anti-blackness. But over the past three or four years, I have become more socially conscious. So, I, along with anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to the news or checks their Twitter feed, have noticed how racism affects my people as a whole. Every 28 hours, the police murder someone who looks like me. The dark skin that I have learned to love is seen as a threat, especially to law enforcement officers. Every day, I worry that I or someone I love will become another hashtag. It hurts to know that it is not unrealistic to imagine such a nightmare. As a black person, it is difficult to live a carefree and confident life while operating under racially oppressive systems. As a black person in America, living in fear is the default. It has to be, because race is a matter of life and death. I hate racism because I am sick and tired of being scared.
I am in eleventh grade now. And in so many ways, I have healed since preschool. But it is a difficult and never-ending journey, at least for me. Even still, I subconsciously carry the heavy burden of these negative experiences in my everyday life. Sometimes, when I go to a party, I wonder, “Will they not want to talk to me because I’m black?” Sometimes I edit my Instagram selfies to make my skin look lighter. Sometimes, I fall back into the pattern of hating my black features. Logically, I know that I’m not bad because I’m black, but I’m still working to undo sixteen years of internalized racism and colorism.
This is me trying to make sense of what killed me. But, in many ways, I am alive again. I am alive because I have grown into a strong Black girl who has learned to question everything she is told. I am alive because my struggles have pushed me to boldly redefine who I am. I am alive because my progress encourages and uplifts me in times of hopelessness and despair. I know that my painful journey can help people just like me. I use my story to comfort others. My race does define me. My experiences do define me. I find strength and comfort in knowing that my ancestors’ spirits are with me everywhere I go. No one can take that away from me. My identity is a prize and my story is the most valuable thing I own. Thanks to what killed me, I am alive.
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