On November 27, 2019, I tweeted “the love of my life, my maternal grandmother, momma-me became an ancestor this morning.” Within the tweet is a video of our last moment together: I’m nestled into my momma-me’s chest as her frail, 84-year old hands dig into my faded teal-blue afro, trying to explain my recent transition to a plant-based diet. As her hands comb through my scalp, my mother interjects, “She’s a vegan,” which prompts my momma-me to clock her head to the left, until she eventually rests her head on top of mine. It’s an age-old tradition that I’ve always shared with my momma-me, and now with my mother.
In a series of follow up tweets, I wrote a brief in memoriam of my grandmother’s influence on me, “Her first grandchild born out of Texas; her first grandchild to graduate from college; her first grandchild to secure her Master’s degree. My grandmother was unable to read articles, so my mother would read them to her, she was the source of my inspiration as a writer.” I closed out my virtual mourning process with an ode to the woman whose life inspired mine, “My grandmother always said that I was her greatest joy and inspiration, but she was mine.”
In 1935, my momma-me Helen Marie White was born into a family of farm laborers in Minerva, a small rural town in Texas approximately 68 miles from Austin. Her childhood was defined by summers in the scorching hot sun as she accompanied her family members to pick bushels of cotton and pecan. In those moments, she bonded with the sun. She was never afraid of getting darker; in fact I think she found peace in the brief moments where the sun kissed her “high yella” skin and sandy brown hair, inherited traits from her father.
From a young age, she was described as a Southern beauty, a regional term that evokes an Antebellum South ideal of beauty. As she matured, momma-me internalized those beliefs into hatred. She did not want to be seen as beautiful if that meant that her sisters were not allowed to participate in femininity, a privilege not afforded to dark-skinned Black women, who were seen as property, tools utilized to sustain the supply and demand of the state’s agricultural industry. Momma-me’s sisters were unable to participate in the Southern ideals of beauty. The social contract of the South wouldn’t let them, but momma-me was able to “pass” as a white woman.
“High yella,” a country twang on high yellow is a descriptor for light-skinned Black people. In momma-me’s time, the term was also used to identify the presence of a white ancestor or an extramarital affair, where “milk man’s baby” was added to strengthen claims of infidelity. Situated within the binary system of the nation’s racial hierarchy is colorism, defined by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color” in 1982, 47 years after momma-me was born.
Although she lacked the academic language to describe her experience, momma-me was knowledgeable about her privileges as a light-skinned woman. In her time period, “high yella” people were highly encouraged to marry each other because their descendants would be afforded educational and professional opportunities outside of the agricultural industries. In an alternative timeline, my momma-me would have elected to participate in that ideology, but then she never would have married Ollie Jones, my paternal grandfather. She never would have birthed my mother, Veronica Jones, and I wouldn’t have been born. My momma-me decided to marry a dark-skinned Black man and birthed eleven children, because it was her autonomous decision to live the life that she wanted to pursue.
Out of her 11 children, three were “high yella,” but my mother, a brown-skinned woman, is one of three that inherited her sandy brown hair. As a child, my mother suffered from severe illness; her concerns were often ignored by medical professionals at the time, but my momma-me was her fiercest advocate. Momma-me witnessed the death of her father at a young age because a “white” hospital refused to treat him, despite his ability to pass. The trauma from that experience influenced her advocacy and relationship with my mother, the daughter who inherited her father’s sandy brown hair color. In the years that led up to momma-me’s death, my mother moved back to Rockdale, the rural town where she raised, and served her mother’s caretaker until she passed.
My mother described her skin tone as “caramel,” a mixture between momma-me’s high yella and my grandfather’s dark skin tone. She was not able to pass, but was classified as a Southern beauty because of her waist-length sandy brown hair. Her childhood nickname was “Lil Helen” because she was a splitting image of my momma-me. Despite their shared kinship over hair color, my momma-me emphasized equal treatment among her children, even when her dark-skinned children teased their mother for being a white woman or the milkman’s baby, and used a variety of slurs that were appropriate for the racial ideologies of the time. She loved everyone of her children ferociously.
When my mother experienced severe complications with her pregnancy, momma-me flewed out to take care of her daughter and new granddaughter, a “lil sandy hair baby” named Taylor. My sandy brown hair linked me to my mother, my grandmother, and my grandmother’s father. In me, my momma-me not only saw herself, but her father and those who came before him. In my family, they saw me as “Lil Veronica,” the extension of traditional belief where the daughter inherits the spirit of her mother.
That’s why she always kept her hands in my hair; greasing my scalp, checking for dandruff and ensuring that I took proper care of it. As an adolescent, I didn’t understand my momma-me’s interest with my hair, so in the spirit of young adulthood defiance, I dyed it. Her “lil sandy hair baby” was the first one to don teal, hot pink, rose gold, magenta purple, and everything else. Though she never said it, I think she was proud of my decision, because it was an autonomous decision that reflected the life that I wanted to live. In middle and high school, skin bleaching creams became widely popular, and she highly encouraged me not to use them.
My grandmother came of age in the birth of the nation’s beauty and cosmetics industry, her adolescence was filled with advertisements for relaxers and brightening creams. Decades later, she saw her granddaughter seduced by the light-skinned models in the print copies of Seventeen and Teen Vogue. Every morning, she watched as I obsessed over the light-skinned musicians on MTV and VH1’s music video countdown shows. She was there when I traded in my braided protective styles for a sew-in weave, the first time I felt inches down my back. At the time, I was the physical embodiment of the anti-Black messaging from the beauty and cosmetics industry that surrounded me, but my grandmother never allowed me to purchase the whitening cream that sat perched at the beauty supply checkout counter.
I didn’t understand why my “high yella” grandmother didn’t want me to lighten my skin until years later, when I sat down to hear her life story. Every session ended with me nestled into her chest while her hands were knuckle-deep in search of my sandy brown hair.
On October 6, 2019, I recorded my last storytime session with my momma-me. It’s a one minute, 32-second audio segment that lives on my phone. At times, the audio will randomly play, and my studio transforms into a resting place for my momma-me’s voice. After my last conversation with her, I grew the dye out of my hair, so I’ve completely regressed back to my natural sandy brown color. Looking back, I’m so grateful to have had a “high yella” grandmother who encouraged her children and grandchildren to be physically proud of their Blackness in an era where it would have been easier to pass and relish the benefits of the nation’s racial hierarchy. I’m so glad she said no and pursued the life she wanted to live because now I get to share her stories with y’all, and hopefully my future daughter, when I’m knuckle-deep in her hair.
It's a cliché, but this year was supposed to be our year — full of independence, opportunity, or at least a few weekend afternoons spent with more than 10 friends with fewer than six feet between us. But with COVID-necessary social distancing, a shitty job market, and closed campuses, 2020 hasn't given us much to work with. Past generations have had to deal with a recession, social upheaval, and changing norms: We've had to deal with all of it at once.
So, what now? What do we do with our careers, our relationships, and our lives? How do we move forward when we're still stuck in our high school bedrooms? These stories are for us — filled with the resources, blueprints, and people who are finding ways to turn all this garbage into something like lemonade.