Coming of Age as Black Girl: A Letter to My Niece

Shamecca Harris
  • A lyric essay exploring the nuances of Black female identity in American society and imparting a sense of wisdom and hope to budding generations of Black girls.
6 min read

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
— Audre Lorde

 

Dear Amaya,

I waited so long for you. Well before your mother told me she was pregnant, I prayed for a baby girl. I imagined our future play dates at random New York City landmarks that I’m far too old to patron on my own. I envisioned your reaction to your first Nathan’s hot dog at Coney Island, the way your eyes would light up at the 122-foot long fossil dinosaur at The Museum of Natural History, and I assumed we would have the same taste in music so I created a playlist of love songs and sang to you often and always off-key.

You arrived in the early morning of Christmas Eve weighing six pounds and three ounces. When I saw you for the first time, it dawned on me that it was possible to love something, albeit tiny and wrinkled and covered in guts, more than I loved myself. It felt as if I’d reunited with an old friend and when you opened one eye to wink at the world, I swore that you recognized me too. As the doctors whisked you away to the nursery, your mom lamented about not being able to do her annual holiday shopping.

“I’m so sorry,” she mumbled. “I’ll buy you a gift next week.”

Even after pushing something the size of a football out her vagina, my big sister was worried about me. Born nearly 9 years apart, we have developed more of a mother-daughter relationship over the years. With our own mother working long hours overnight to fill three bellies on her own, my big sister stepped in to fulfill many of her duties. I can recall your mother making me breakfast in the morning, taming my stubborn hair before school, and teaching me to read well before I was old enough to tie my shoes. At bedtime, she’d read me poems and stories in her best foreign impressions. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was my personal favorite and I’d eagerly anticipate the holidays so I could hear her twist her New York tongue into a British accent. We are all grown up now, but there is no doubt that without your mother I would never have survived the darkness coming of age as a black girl. My only compensation to her is to light the way for you.

When you were about six-months-old, I took up the habit of documenting your every move on my smartphone. While you didn’t speak in any language I understood, you were relentless in your determination to express yourself by any means necessary, and I was often in awe of your innate ability to wear your emotions on your sleeve. Over the course of the day, your expressions shifted seamlessly between infectious smiles and sad pouts. I grew equally fond of all of your faces, capturing them on camera as often as I could. One day, after seeing your photo online, a former classmate asked me who you were and if you belonged to me. When I told him that you were my niece, he casually responded, “Wow, your niece is very…black.”

The words echoed in my head. “Your niece is very…black.” Black. He said it as if blackness was some sort of birth defect, as if he, himself, weren’t a few shades shy of a Hershey’s bar. I thought back to the first time the male gaze crushed my spirit, how grown men marveled at the gradual spread of my hips in my navy school uniform skirt. “You grew up,” they would say, flashing devilish grins as if they were all in on some dirty secret I wasn’t old enough to know. My body didn’t belong to me anymore; it belonged to the world and, so long as it did, it could be gawked at, scrutinized, and violated and there was nothing I could do about it. I refused to let this man, or any other, run away with your self-esteem before it had a chance to bloom. After a long silence (and several deep breaths), I unclasped my fists and found the words to shield you.

“She is, isn’t she?” I replied. “A beautiful black queen!”

 

Girlhood, as a concept, is often associated with an era of innocence, a fragile period of time in a woman’s life where her gender identity is largely negligible. Save for the dolls and hair accessories, a girl’s priorities are likely indistinguishable from a boy’s. She is as free as he is to foster her imagination, to see the world as both her oyster and her playground, to be carefree. This period of girlhood is relatively short-lived and, for black girls, in particular, it is even more rare. A carefree black girlhood, an existence unbound by social conventions of race and gender, will inevitably be disrupted. I can’t protect you from this reality. You will continue to grow, you will continue to change, and you will continue to be shaped by the world. As James Baldwin once put it, you will come to terms with the fact that “you were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being,” They have come to this conclusion for no other reason than the fact that you were born poor, black, and a woman in a country where the ideal is to be wealthy, white and male. And while this fact might cripple your self-esteem at times, I am here to remind you that your worth is not determined by something as arbitrary as the slit between your legs or the color of your skin. Yes, you are black and a woman, but you are also divine.

I can’t point to any specific moment in my life I learned this lesson for myself. I suppose it is the result of many years of searching for my worth outside of a paradigm that insists that I have none. In response, I guess you could say I developed my own paradigm. I employed the advice of “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde and I have defined myself for myself, which is something you must endeavor to do as well lest, in the words of Auntie Audre, you be “eaten alive.” I do not refer to Lorde as kin as a mere comedic gesture. She is your aunt, as is Auntie Angela Davis. Auntie Maya Angelou. Auntie Sistah Souljah. Auntie Beyonce, Auntie Oprah. Auntie Michelle Obama, and all other black women who dare to live freely and intentionally within the shackles of America’s “isms.”

So, my sweet black girl, as you continue to make sense of this incredibly complex and often contradictory world, I urge you to call upon the spirit and legacies of these women and live with all of the infinite power you have inside of you. The world won’t always appreciate your greatness, but you must never forget that you deserve your place within it. Your Auntie Mecca will be with you every step of the way. I love you infinitely.

 

Peace.

 

 

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