“Good lord, girl. You swelling!”
The girl looked down at her belly, then beyond it down to her shoes, at this she was secretly satisfied. She was not pregnant and in punishment for her tardiness, her body had begun to form pockets of fat on her lower back, and a rounding belly that no amount of cardio had the power to overcome.
Not even one foot in the door, she mumbled low below her breath. Out of habit, she began tugging at the belt loops, tucking her fat into the denim band, like her mother had taught her many years ago.
She peered up into the mechanical eye, still waiting for someone to open the door. Her brother had helped her to save up and purchase one of those fancy doorbells, with the camera attachment, for her parents twentieth anniversary; and now the girl had the unfortunate duty of standing on her parents’ porch, judged beneath that very same contraption, being reprimanded about her weight gain for all the neighbors to hear.
“Oh my goodness, Honey wait ‘til you see your daughter,” Mrs. Arcineaux said to her husband, her voice echoing through the speaker clear and crisp. In it, the girl sensed a tinge of joy, and the girl wondered if it were due to her homecoming or her weight gain. Her mother had been prophesying about it since the girl was thirteen. You won’t be able to eat like that forever, you’ll see, she’d threaten.
The girl remembered this and made yet another futile attempt to cover the extra fluff in her cheeks. Not that her father would care. She imagined him smiling politely to her mother, offering his best show of polite hospitality, before staring indifferently at the television screen. But this marked a special occasion. This was her first time home in three years, and the truth was, she missed the pale yellow house.
“Mom, can you open the door” she screamed from the stoop.
The girl sucked her teeth, her bottom lip folded inward as she surveyed her childhood home. It was cute, smaller than she remembered it. Investors had taken a sudden interest in their neighborhood, and as the neighbors sold their family homes, the corporations took to building condos several stories tall. The other homes on the street became larger than life, making their own home look squat and minuscule in comparison. But, they had converted the garage into a den and, from the looks of it, repainted the shutters. Set off to the side, was a small garden of red peppers, collards, and okra plants. And next to it was a row of bushes, where the girl would sometimes be sent to pull a switch when she was still small enough to catch spankings.
“And your hair, et petit, what are you doing to your hair?” her mother called over the speakers once more.
The girl instinctively passed her hand over her tiny afro. Last semester, she took an African American history course and ever since had been cloaked in various dashikis she purchased from Chinese vendors on eBay. Her enlightenment extended up to the root, and after a few chapters of Malcolm X’s autobiography she went into the bathroom, armed with kitchen shears, and chopped off everything but a single inch of new growth. The result had been a shock for the girl as well, and to soften the blow she purchased large hoops the size of shackles from the Korean beauty supply.
However, as she stood there, on her family’s steps, she felt the pang of insecurity hit her deep in the pit of her stomach. Sure enough, her mother’s reaction had been expected. Mrs. Arcineaux was an old school southern woman, with old southern ways. No matter, she had taken her strong beauty regime and drilled it into her youngest daughter. For as long as the girl could remember, there had been firm rules on her appearance and behavior, and walking around all nappy-headed was a major infraction.
Just as the girl’s resolve weakened, the door swung open, and her brother pulled her into a great hug.
“Mom’s right. You are getting fat,” he said with a chuckle, before pulling at one of her tiny coils.
“I am not,” she protested. The girl took a deep breath and squeezed her waist in. She grabbed her bags and walked into the only home she had ever known.
Everything was the same. Right down to the smell of hot water cornbread in the oven. Littering the front hall was a hodgepodge of frames- a parade of relations and kinsmen she had never met. Off to the side was the living room, which housed her mother’s cream-colored sofa set swathed in a clear plastic covering that stuck to your thighs. Alongside it was a formal dining table and a matching china cabinet where her mother showcased her silver. The girl pushed past it quickly, a habit from childhood when it had been off-limits.
She found her father in the den watching the news in his favorite La-Z-Boy, he looked up briefly and smiled at his youngest child. The girl noticed that he had grayed a little more, which complemented his terracotta skin in an unexpected way. She wanted to stay there, grab a book and curl up next to his chair. But, she knew there were more hellos, and so she pressed on.
In the kitchen, her mother was kneading dough. Her silky black hair was pinned back, and the girl noticed, for the first time, how much they looked alike. Both had cocoa brown skin, with deep-set chestnut eyes. She had also inherited her mother’s smile, which she had gotten from her mother and her mother before that.
Mrs. Arcineaux was short and quite pretty, and her voice was smooth as honey. When she was only sixteen she began singing lead in her church choir, a big honor, and it sent all the boys to chase after her.
Mrs. Arcineaux loved to talk about those days, before marriage, when every Tom, Dick, and Harry had called on her from her granddaddy’s stoop, each begging to take her to a movie. That was many years ago, and the girl had begun to know the story by heart. Ready for her mother to pull out the old photograph; her coke bottle shape had stretched into something more akin to a fishbowl now.
“Girl…what kind of costume?” her mother said looking at her daughter, bewildered.
The girl had chosen a pattern of orange, black, and white Kente to wear home. “You like?” The colorful African prints were very different from the crop tops and halters she begged for in high school. Since she had been away at University, the girl had learned the Kente cloth designs were powerful cultural symbols that represent history and philosophy. “It’s our culture!” she declared proudly.
Her mother pinched her lips tightly, afraid of what may slither across her tongue. She tried to think of the right words to say, but before she could, another voice shot out.
“Hell if it is. We ain’t never even been to Africa,” her brother chimed in. The girl rolled her eyes. She had known they wouldn’t understand the importance of carrying on the customs of their people.
“It’s true,” her mother offered, grabbing plates from the cabinet. “We ain’t no more African, than we is white…”
The girl rolled her eyes, she had known they wouldn’t understand the importance of carrying on the customs of their people.
That night, to the girl’s delight, there was collard greens and oxtails, sweet potatoes and macaroni with cheese. In the oven, was the hot water cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. She had to restrain herself from sitting at the foot of the stairs, lest they say something else about her new fat.
“Oh, Christine, baby, we’re so happy your home.”
The girl looked down, at the food in front of her, her mouth-watering from anticipation, and felt the pang of guilt.
“I made you something special,” her mother continued. The woman walked to the refrigerator and pulled out her best crystal serving dish. She presented a bowl of bourbon banana pudding.
The girl looked into each of her parent’s eyes. Then she broke, letting out a stream of indecipherable words before finally saying, “So, from now on I want to be called ADEAZE!”
“Wait, huh?” her brother spoke, but all of them looked on, waiting for her to clarify.
“Yes, Adeaze! It is my new name now.” She pressed on though her voice had an uncontrollable tremble. “You do not have to understand my hair, or my clothes, or my body- but my name! I want you all to call me by my name- Adeaze!”
“And, what is wrong with Christine?”
“It is not me. It does not represent where I come from”
“And where is that?” Mrs. Arcineaux asked in a measured voice, placing portions of pudding on everyone’s plate but Adeaze’s.
“Same as you…the Motherland.”
From the other side of the table, her brother snorted, before breaking into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Her father, however, had stopped eating and was staring at Adeaze, waiting for her to explain.
“May I please have some?” Adeaze asked, looking at the crystal bowl her mom had placed just out of her reach.
“I don’t know you!” Her mother laughed, snatching the bowl even further away.
Her father, who was the least amused by the declaration, quietly excused himself from the table.
It wasn’t until after dinner, well after bedtime, that Adeaze saw Mr. Arcineaux again. He was on the stoop, swaying in the old wicker rocking chair. Adeaze sat at his feet, as she did when she was a girl.
“You know, Christine had been my Mama’s, your Big Mama’s name,” he said after some time.
Adeaze hadn’t known, her father never talked about his parents. They had passed before she was born. All Adeaze knew is that there had been a fire out in Oklahoma. All had been lost, her father narrowly escaped.
“Come with me.” He stood from his chair and led her back into the house. He walked over to the wall of frames, never checking for his child, but knowing instinctively that she was right there.
That night he sat on the plastic coverings in the formal room and pointed out various aunts and uncles. There was a photo of Great Gran’ Daddy in his military uniform, and another of Big Mama cooking in her restaurant. Some photos of Mama and Daddy holding hands, or kissing. Photos Adeaze had never seen before.
Then, he pulled out a large book, full of news clippings- some as far back as World War II.
“Baby, I ain’t go to no fancy college, like you. My daddy was raised on a farm his daddy ain’t even own. We were sharecroppers for a long time. And, I’m sorry you ain’t come from no Kings and Queens.” He paused then, looking down at the book in his lap. “But… but I rather have you hate the truth than invent a lie.” He stopped and looked at Adeaze then, to make sure she understood. “Baby, this here, what we got, we worked for! Our family, we built this here country, brick by brick. We toiled this here land, season after season. And it breaks my heart that you somehow got it up in you to be shame.”
He passed her the book. “This is our culture.”
“I…I…I’m not shame,” Adeaze said feebly. She didn’t recognize her voice.
Her Dad got up. He was tired and told her he was turning in for the evening.
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