My daughter is black. Skin like turned earth. Eyes the color of midnight. A black freckle on the underside of her wrist matches mine and another just to the left of her smile. This land does not make space for her so I gave her a pickaxe before I taught her to walk. When we have been separated for a time, I greet her by pressing my nose to her face where the lush springy hair feathers and lays flat against the skin to breathe in a scent that is familiar, that is me. All the memories of her since birth come flooding, in a flash, and we are again grounded, home.
My daughter’s first name is a woman born in 1814 Virginia.
A woman who was made free at the age of 15, by the man who owned her, so she could bear and tend his children. A woman plucked from one captivity only to be shoved into another new plantation, new geography, and new soil that did not require her hand. Years of pretend emancipation came to an abrupt end with his death and she would flee north with the children to escape re-enslavement. The lack of a patriarch and a constant craving for what they once had, scattered the children. Freedom is a taste not easily wiped from the tongue. Some went seeking fortune. Others took full advantage of their skin and disappeared into whiteness.
None returned to her whole.
My daughter’s second name is carried, most vividly, in the ache of a rural Tennessee woman of disputed racial identity.
It is said that no word crossed her lips in service of jest or kindness after the night they stole her husband. Very tall, very proud, and very black, he was dragged from their bed by robed and masked men and hanged in his yard as she and their children stood witness. A punishment for the crime of marrying a white-looking and handsome woman. Later photographs display her steely-eyed and grimaced, her black hair wrapped twice like a noose around her neck.
I am black. Skin the color of wet sand. Eyes like dusk.
Hair coiled except for a swatch that has no pigment or curl and turns itself auburn in the summer sun. There is a birthmark on my back, a right of soil, in the shape of a country with too many original sins to name. A country that does not record my signature on its manifest. I am simultaneously passenger and stowaway. How many trips north ’til I’m free? How many nights ’til the robes and masks stop coming? Like the women before me, I am moored to and marooned on this land without the required currency to guarantee safe passage.
Dear America, it is cold out here on this road where your daughters have no home, no shoes.
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Photo credit: Isha Gaines