I remember when I first started to feel inadequate. I remember that day so well. We were standing in our favorite place, in front of the bathroom mirror. In my mind’s eye, I can still see six-year-old me seated crossed-legged on a step-stool, with Mommy’s oversized pink terry robe wrapped around my little body. Oh! Mommy and I loved to take pictures of ourselves. It was the best thing, and it used to make me so happy. I still remember how Mommy held her digital camera at a distance that day. How she’d pouted her lips, and I pouted mine just like hers.
“Mommy, we’re twins,” I said when she showed me the picture we’d just taken.
We were about to take another when Aunty Ihuoma, Mommy’s friend, knocked on the bathroom door. Aunty Ihuoma’s face always morphed into a sneer every time she saw me, and she always had something mean to say to me. Aunty Ihuoma had stayed the night. It was barely dawn, but I wished so badly for her to leave. I never understood why she always called me names. The worst of all, the one she seemed to like the most, was Blackie Charcoal. Yes. Blackie Charcoal. That name made my chest hurt. I so wished Mommy would tell her something mean right back, but Mommy never did. Mommy just never said anything back to her.
“What are you two doing in here?” Aunty Ihuoma asked as she snatched the camera from my Mommy’s unresisting hand.
I told her we were taking pictures.
“Na who ask you?” She snapped at me and clicked her tongue.
The harshness in Aunty Ihuoma’s voice made me nervous. I didn’t want her to see it, so I picked up a toothbrush and began to play with its bristles.
“See how you are shining like Oyinbo, white woman!” Aunty Ihuoma said to Mommy. “This your cream is powerful, o!”
“What’s the name again?”
“Fair and Fantastic,” Mommy said.
“And this your hair, shebi na Brazillian?” Aunty Ihuoma asked.
Mommy shook her head. “No o! Indian. Four hundred thousand naira.”
“Kai!” Aunty Ihuoma exclaimed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Aunty Ihuoma looking at me. Her purplish-black lips were downturned in the ugliest sneer I’d ever seen on her face.
“Kai, dis your pikin wowo o! She no even resemble you at all!” She said.
Her words made stomach hurt so bad that I wondered if I needed to go number two.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Aunty Ihuoma had just called me wowo, ugly. I wanted my Mommy to be outraged, but she didn’t seem fazed. Instead, she began to tell Aunty Ihuoma something about a new toning cream she wanted to buy.
Maybe it’s true, I thought to myself. Maybe Aunty Ihuoma is right, and I am Blackie Charcoal. I didn’t want her to know her words had hurt me, so instead of crying (I’d cry much later, in my bed at night), I looked in the mirror. I took a long look at myself: my eyes, my lips, my nose, and the color of my skin. I’d never looked at myself with that much intensity and scrutiny. Suddenly, everything seemed different. Aunty Ihuoma had been right all along. Perhaps being in front of a mirror, as she mocked me, made it easier to see in real time. I looked nothing like my beautiful Mommy. Her blonde, shiny hair ran down her back and swished back and forth against her waist when she moved. When she brushed it, it was with so much ease. It was nothing like my hair, which coiled and tangled and had broken too many brushes and combs. Mommy’s skin was the color of ripe yellow mangoes, and if she didn’t have those dark brown knuckles, and knees, she’d look just like the white women I’d seen in the movies on TV.
Why am I so black? I wondered. Lips quivering, eyes fixed on the ground, I pondered whether to say it, especially in front of Aunty Ihuoma. I blurted out the words before I could stop myself. “Mommy, I don’t look like you.”
“Huh?” Mommy said. She was applying her ruby-red lipstick; her eyes didn’t waver from her reflection in the mirror.
“I’m too black,” I said.
This time Mommy put down her lipstick, looked at me, and smiled. “Don’t worry, Nne,” she said, tugging gently on my relaxer-straightened ponytails. “It’s nothing a good toning cream won’t fix. When you’re old enough, I’ll clean you up; you’ll be the most beautiful girl in the world. You’ll be fair and fantastic.” She winked at me, picked up her lipstick again and with steady hands continued rubbing it against her lips, humming a familiar tune. I hummed along with her. I was so happy. One day I’d be older, and Mommy would clean me up. I didn’t know what that meant, but Mommy said I’d be beautiful. I’d be fair and fantastic, and I couldn’t wait.
With a big smile on my face, I squeezed my eyes shut and stuck my tongue out at Aunty Ihuoma.
“Blackie Charcoal,” Aunty Ihuoma said, then stuck her tongue out back at me and walked away.
On my sixteenth birthday, Mommy gave me two bundles of blonde Indian hair and a jar of toning cream with the words, FAIR AND FANTASTIC, SIX PERCENT SKIN BLEACHING CREAM, printed on it.
“It says bleaching cream, Mommy.” I said.
” Ehen? And so what?”Mommy asked with a frown on her face. “Abeg, this one will not bleach you, it’ll just tone you and clean up your color.”
I couldn’t unscrew the cap fast enough. I slathered the cream all over my face and arms, and although it felt uncomfortably warm and tingly, I felt good. It was one of the best birthday presents I’d ever received.
For many years I applied one toning cream or another to my skin every day, and you’d never catch me without a blonde wig or weaves. Still, I hated looking in the mirror because every time I did, I’d hear Aunty Ihuoma’s voice and I’d see Blackie Charcoal looking back at me. I was sad for a very long time because my search for the one toning cream that would wipe Blackie Charcoal away had been futile.
But things are getting better. I’ve decided to accept myself. Why? I have a daughter now, she’s six, and like me, she’s as dark as night. I can’t set her up to go through the insecurities I continue to suffer. I won’t let her watch me reject my true self while exalting a false identity. You see, her hair is like the fluffiest cotton candy, and her skin glows like the surface of the water when it captures the midnight moon. God, she looks so much like me, yet when I look at her, all I see is perfection. She’s the most beautiful thing in the world, and I want her to know that. But I don’t think she’ll believe me if I tell her, I have to show her by embracing my midnight black skin, and cotton candy hair.
Because of her, I can finally see myself; because of her, I now understand that only true beauty can beget something as impeccable as she is. Through her, I found me. The wigs are gone and in their place is a big ass Afro. The creams have all been thrown out. And though my knees and knuckles have been scarred forever, the rest of me made it back to a beautiful shimmering shade of black, the darkest on the spectrum if there’s such a thing.
My daughter knows how beautiful she is. I tell her every day, especially when we’re in our favorite place: in front of the bathroom mirror. I kiss my reflection, and she kisses hers. My heart swells with pride each time she says with excitement and giggles, “I love me so much, mummy.” She’s my pride and joy, my fair and fantastic. I know she’ll meet an Aunty Ihuoma one day. I hope that I’ll be there to tell her Aunty Ihuoma to get lost. But if I’m not, I pray that unlike my mother, I’m always in my daughter’s head and heart reminding her how beautiful she truly is.
Art by Insecta Studios