The clearest memories I have of my mother and I are every Sunday before the start of a new school week, when we sat down for an hour or more as she straightened my naturally curly hair to a silky, straight finish. The only time I ever saw my natural curls was in the few seconds when I hopped out of the shower before I wrapped my coils up in a towel to rest pre-blow dry. I liked how they spiraled against my cheek and tickled my face.
But my mother hated them.
Whenever my curls appeared—much like when I wore a pair of hoops that were a bit too big or when I showed appreciation for a hip-hop song—my mother would cry. She cried because cracks were beginning to show beneath the “perfect ambiguous mixed child” facade she worked so hard to build around me and the rest of my siblings.
Being biracial can lead to later-in-life identity complexes, and I’ve had my fair share of them. But my roots were all around me growing up. My mom’s side is Black. My father’s is Puerto Rican. My grandparents hailed from Mayaguez and Ciales off the island on one side and North Carolina on the other. I didn’t need to make sense of who I was when I was younger because being composed of two parts simply felt normal. I saw the Black and Brown faces of my aunts, uncles, and cousins and knew that these people, no matter how different we were in personality or social circumstance, helped shape my existence.
Leaving the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) area, where I was born and the bulk of my family still resides, and moving to a devoutly conservative suburb of Arizona—where Mormon churches marked every corner and Republican propaganda leered on every house’s lawn—changed my mother’s perspective and protectiveness of me and my siblings. Though Virginia was still conservative, you couldn’t avoid Black and Brown existence and contributions to DMV culture. It was a little bit easier to “just be” without having to explain yourself and who or what you are.
When my parents first mentioned to my sister and me that we would be moving to Arizona, we were shocked. But they continued to lavishly describe the Southwest as beautiful and vast and new. I was skeptical, and saddened at the thought of leaving my aunts and uncles and grandparents behind: the people who constantly reminded me who I was and where I came from, and the people who initially showed me how beautiful it is to be both Black and Puerto Rican. Almost two decades later, I think back to that transitional moment and wonder if, really, my mother was trying to run away from the home and culture she never wanted to be in.
My mother’s reactions to my natural Blackness simply seemed odd when I was younger—things like not allowing me to participate in my school’s field day because of my “eczema,” when really she didn’t want the piercing Arizona sun to darken my already richly tanned skin. Or her being sure to mention, whenever I reached for a second after-dinner snack, that if I kept up my eating habits I’d “end up looking [thick] like Beyoncé”—as if that was a bad thing.
Though the comments were always unsettling, I shrugged them off because she was my mother. I waved off the concern of my hometown friends—who were all white or Latina—when I would explain her specific rules and they would almost always respond, “Why doesn’t your mom want you to be Black?”
I would open my mouth, try to find the words, and then stop—because I didn’t know the answer. I went through life passively trying to connect pieces of information and history that might explain why she was the way she was, meanwhile knowing I would never get a confirmation from her because she refuses to attribute her actions to internalized racism. All I have is a deep feeling in my heart that someone, one day, many years ago, hurt my mother, and made her believe that being Black is shameful.
This was something evident in the way she rarely vocalized the fact of her Blackness outside of our home. Often, her friends and acquaintances would comment on how “exotic” she looked, and she would play along, never wanting to say, in simple terms, “I’m Black.”
I was the first child who went out of state for college, and without ever having stepped foot in the city, I settled on moving to Chicago. While my mother made faces as if we were entering a war zone when she helped move me into my dorm, I had high hopes of finally being able to surround myself with faces that looked like mine. Chicago ended up teaching me so much—about love, womanhood, sisterhood, and adulthood. Being so far away from my family wasn’t so much a sacrifice on my end—it was a necessity. Far away from the overbearingness of my mother, I began to finally figure out what being biracial, what being a Black woman, and what being me actually meant.
Here were my steps to becoming: transitioning into natural hair, embracing hip hop through college boyfriends, binge-reading Zora Neale Hurston and bell hooks, getting my first round of box braids to sate a never-ending desire of wanting to be Zoe Kravitz. All of these steps were met with fierce opposition from mom. My hair (photos of which I tried to hide) looked “unprofessional,” she would say. Something as small as attending a Kanye West concert would be questioned, fiercely, as an act of defiance.
As I found my chosen Chicago family via college and my creative endeavors, I silently envied my Black girlfriends who had seemingly “normal” relationships with their mothers. Of course, no mother-daughter relationship is perfect, but at the least I never saw my friends brought to tears of frustration because they felt they couldn’t embrace who they are. I started visiting and calling home less, because Chicago was where I felt free, while Arizona and its blatant whiteness reminded me of what I was almost molded into.
There have been times when my mom and I have gone without talking for months, because I wanted to live without hearing the constant negative narration regarding where I lived and the people I chose to pursue friendships with. But blocking my mother from communicating with me didn’t bar me from hearing her at all—her words echoed in my head every day that I consciously chose to do something that I knew would earn her disapproval.
The easy thing to do would be to hate her. To resent her. Every day, friends and close ones ask me why I don’t do that, and the answer is because my mother’s apparent self-hate is not her fault.
No Black woman in America was ever born to feel safe, and when we’re convinced—through societal structures, media, even our families—that embracing the qualities that clearly define us as Black is wrong and unwanted, what can we pass down to our daughters? All this time, my mom wanted me to be accepted as easily as possible into a world that wasn’t made to greet me with open arms, and to her that meant blending in to reach success.
In a modern day world where Black women still make 63 cents to every white man’s dollar and where Black women are dying every day in hospital rooms where they come to give birth—you almost can’t blame a Black woman of my mother’s generation for thinking the way she does. Every parent wants their child to have a better life than their own, but that betterment shouldn’t come at the cost of one not being able to accept or own who they are.
Now, almost a quarter of the way through my life, I want that same success, but I refuse to hide who I am or go through life feeling as if there’s something wrong with me. Though my career is for me, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish to make my mother proud. But more so than my current and future accomplishments, or whatever accolades I may collect in my lifetime, I hope that at end of it all, she’ll be able to be proud of me for staying true to myself in a way that she never felt she could do.