Start Looking At The Back Of Your Hand - Ashley Henry
This is a guest post written by Ashley Henry, a fellow HBCU graduate, Brown Beauty, word enthusiast and writer of WhoAskedAshley. When I approached her with the idea of collaborating she took the lead and challenged me with a topic that young girls of color need for us to discuss. While your scrolling through her site, also check out her Instagram, Enjoy Beautiful!
“Before you walk into this house you better start looking at the back of your hand!” My mother yelled. She was visibly disgusted with me and my behavior in that moment. Of course there were times I was scolded as a youngin’. But whenever my mother said that phrase, her patois was tinged with a little something extra special. Something poignant and sour. Something to ensure that I listened. Something to ensure that I understood. Something to ensure that I would not forget.
As is natural with every child growing up, there comes a time when you seek acceptance from your peers. Your surroundings fuel the desire to be like what you see. Who wouldn’t want an easier time navigating this harsh human existence? The young mind gravitates toward the ease of acceptance and seeks to learn behaviors according to what is observed as “normal” or “cool”. As the daughter of two jamaican immigrants growing up in a very vanilla New Jersey suburb, I am sure you can imagine what surrounded me on a day to day basis and what was permitted at home were two very different worlds that I had to reconcile on the regular. I knew my battle with reconciliation was failing that day whenever my mother had to boisterously remind me to “start looking at the back of my hand” before I came walking into her house.
This was my mother's way of clearly expressing displeasure with my behavior, while shading tf outta me simultaneously LOL. In one short, loaded phrase my mother was able to relay the following:
“Little girl if your dumb bobbleheaded-ass don’t take a second, look at the back of your hand, realize that yous black af and not white like all of the kids you spend each and every day with at school and start to recognize what that difference means in terms of how you navigate this world, then you got another thing coming for you.”
Fist of all, I cannot wait until I am bestowed the same magical black-woman-exclusive power of packing short phrases with so much shade, life-lessons, and meaning. So until that time, writing pieces examining the flawless execution of this skill observed throughout my life will have to suffice. Secondly, I took this phrase to mean that for black people in this country, self-preservation isn’t just as simple as adapting to what is around you. That blueprint doesn’t work for us in a society built upon the racial issues we struggle with in this country. What’s more is the fact that my Jamaican ass mother and father come from another country where race relations are very different, and were learning to navigate the same spaces day in and day out, while simultaneously attempting to raise respectable little black girls who were aware of their place in the world.
Raising kids is hard. Wanna know what’s harder? Raising little black children in “Merica” There’s literally no manual that teaches people how to do it, and literally the smallest mistake you make as far as the projection of your own trauma onto a child can mess them up for life LOL. No my parents are not perfect, but I am blessed to say that they did a wonderful job with what they had at their disposal. They met in the 80’s in NYC. A cool Jamaican Dj from The Bronx smooth talked his way into the life of a youthful and vibrant Jamaican woman who was new to the city. A few years later, I was born and my parents were living in an apartment in Hillside, New Jersey, close to NYC, family, and everything they held dear. Two years later while pregnant with my sister, my parents had to make some real life decisions. Public school in Northern NJ was not up to my mother’s standards, and being of modest means they knew that private school was out of the question. So they did what they had to and made moves into a little condo in Monmouth County, New Jersey. An hour and a half south of the city, this was a place they knew no one and were some of the only brown faces around, but the high tax rate ensured the public schooling was swell.
Now that I am older, I’ve grown fascinated by the conversations black parents have with their children surrounding the development of the awareness of their blackness and the role environment plays in these discussions. I’m sure there is nuance to this conversation based on a variety of factors, but in this American culture dominated by eurocentric images there are always as mother would say, “those moments”. My sister or I would try to cop an attitude with her in the way we saw one of our friends do with their mother. I would ask why my hair didn't lay down as well as the other girls. Much to my dismay, my mother loves to recount one of the several occasions we were at an African Braiding Shop and I asked if they could “put a little blonde” in my braids. I remember they all laughed in my face LOL. My sister would come home upset that her friend told her she couldn’t be Baby Spice in their band and that she had to be Scary Spice because she was black LOL. All of these things seem simple. But this was the tip of the iceberg.
As we grew older, other things came to light. My highschool crush who everyone knew also had a crush on me decided to take another girl to prom. I’m pretty sure predicated solely upon the fact that he didn’t want to be the one to take the black girl. My 16-year-old self was humiliated. At my elite magnet high school when it came time for college applications, people that were friends with me for the majority of my life suddenly began talking about how unfair it was that I would have an easier time getting into and paying for college just because I was black (which was bullshit then and is bullshit now). I would speak to my younger sister as she went through middle and high school. She would tell of similar scenarios in dating and social life. Friends would come and go because as they grew more comfortable around us, their true colors (aka racist tendencies) would begin to show. They made us “exceptions” to what they thought they knew about black people. We weren’t “really black”. I didn't have the language to articulate everything I was feeling at the time. We would share these woes with our parents day in and day out, and they would have to explain to us that these things happen, why they happen, and try to assure us that none of this made us less than. As a black parent you have to be ready for these moments, ready to deal with them the best way you know how. I know that each and every time my parents would remind my sister and I of how beautiful and smart we were, I would release some of the insecurities the outside world caused me to have about who I was. Teaching and exposing us to our real history was another potent way my parents instilled within us a sense of pride in our blackness. From reading with us to shipping us off to spend summers in a little country town in Jamaica with our grandmother, the responsibility of teaching black history couldn’t be left to our school lessons alone.
Don’t worry about me. My black ass woke up. Throughout the trials of middle and high school I stopped caring about fitting in. I buckled down on my school work. I had a small and diverse friend circle that grew smaller as more and more white people I considered “friends” slowly eliminated themselves with ignorant statements during the college application process and racist grandmothers they tried to keep tucked away. Suffice it to say, the white friends I have to this day have gone through a rigorous vetting process unbeknownst to them lol. By the time I was 15, my suburban upbringing had me ready for the nearest black college tour I could find and by 17, I was headed off to Howard University. Long story short, (LOL) I am eternally grateful for my parents’ sacrifices and more specifically, for my mother’s memorable lessons. I now take her phrase to mean if I am ever feeling inadequate in my existence, the only reminder of my greatness I need is permanently and perpetually in my field of vision. Right on the back of my hand.