I’m Mo Sharpe, and I’m one of the new Associate Editors at Carefree Mag. I am excited to be a part of the team and look forward to interacting and engaging with all of you!
As for a little about me, after 17 years in the medical research and public health industry, I decided to pursue my hobbies full time. I own a floor cleaning business with my husband of 16 years. I also provide coaching and mentoring services for women who are starting their businesses. I am the Co-founder and Communication Director for Beyond The Streets Social Justice Task Force, Inc. Its mission is to protect and defend the human rights of our most vulnerable citizens. We achieve this by providing opportunities for community engagement, advocacy, and fostering positive relationships with local government entities to influence policy change. For the past 5 years served as a freelance journalist/editor, content producer, digital content creator, and host for different online publications.
Now that you know a little about me. Let’s get to the good stuff…
This Week’s Story
We have a thought-provoking story from writer Andrea Blackstone, the niece of Roots author, Alex Haley. I love this story. Andrea does a wonderful job of discussing her experience with trying to find her identity, and at times prove to her peers if she is “Black enough” to their liking with Alex Haley’s Queen as the backdrop on her journey. Colorism and skin tone is a delicate and controversial topic, and Andrea’s story walks the tightrope that many of us walk in our own lives.
Enjoy this wonderful read and share your reflections in the comments.
Associate Editor of Carefree Mag
Coming to Terms With My Identity
By Andrea Blackstone
When I was a little girl, my Black father encouraged me to play in the sun.
I dug in brown dirt while running free and bare-chested under beams of hot light. As I grew older, I was restricted to the protocol of wearing t-shirts, and threats of burned skin when the sun I loved proved too strong for me to endure unprotected. I sought out treetops and shade simply because basking in the glory of warmth too long came with a price. Although my skin darkened, pain wrapped itself around me. I was unsure why my father kept telling me to get some sun, but dad was my hero. If he urged me to do something, the advice must have been good for me. I kept playing in the sun until sunburn became a rite of passage. Then I grew to feel as though I looked better because I regarded dark skin as wonderfully made. In time, I envied ebony eyes and dusky hues. To me, my olive skin was not enough like my father’s. As a daddy’s girl, I wanted to be exactly like him. And on top of that, other people began to point out that I simply wasn’t.
One time in elementary school, another little girl peered in the parts of my sectioned hair informing me and others that my scalp looked lighter than theirs. One by one, the African American schoolmate compared hues of our peers, pointing out differences I never cared to notice. The ugliness of colorism began to pollute the innocence of youth. This strange experience unfolded as we waited to purchase lunch in a cafeteria line in elementary school. It foreshadowed episodes of intra-racism. On the other end of the spectrum, bold comments were unleashed by others who did not look like me, simply because I was given a partial pass to hear how discriminatory others could be. Noting differences was force-fed to me, although I could care less.
Photo by Mieke Campbell on Unsplash
Over the years, poisonous words kept creeping into my personal space from many angles. I recall rude names being hurled my way such as light “bright” and “pale”, but I was also called “Kunta Kinte.” Although I knew that the name wasn’t an insult, laughter that bellowed from kids’ mouths made me feel embarrassed in the very town where Kunta Kinte was said to have arrived in America.
My uncle—Alex Haley—had written “Roots” by then. I was teased because I was his niece. The irony was that my late mother, Lois Ann Haley, was my uncle’s half-sister. Mom was undoubtedly proud of her brothers—Alex, George, and Julius. My grandmother, Zeona Haley, was the boys’ stepmother. My mom shared a father in common with her brothers, but was not related to them through Kunta Kinte. Simon Haley was the DNA link. His daughter inherited many physical traits from him.
When she was a young girl, some individuals advised my grandmother to teach my mother to pass for another race, but my mother openly welcomed her blackness. She married a man who appeared to be her opposite. My father’s broad nose and rich melanin were my mother’s symbolic Black fist hoisted in the air. She stepped out of the box and married a visibly Black man who did not share the privilege of having two parents who were college professors.
When my mom was a child, her mother and father worked at small, historically Black colleges. Simon was a professor of Agriculture, and Zeona was an English professor. Although they did not make much money in their professions, prestige did accompany their education. Mom sat on a piano bench practicing her musical craft at home, in addition to diving into her studies. At some point, she attended Catholic school. My mother was groomed to succeed. She became a music teacher who specialized in piano. On the other hand, my father fought tirelessly to uplift himself through the military. He achieved the rank of Staff Seargent after receiving munitions training and being assigned to a dangerous job such as loading bombs on aircraft in a segregated era.
I opted to live with my father when my parents divorced. Countless people often remarked how much l began to look like my mother. Others questioned my relationship to my dad. Over time, I was forced to understand our differences in appearance. I quietly developed empathy for the way some people stereotyped my father. His broad shoulders and visibly Black features led some to draw presumptuous conclusions about him.
I sat quietly once as a policeman made dad walk in a straight line and count backwards, simply because he forgot to turn on his car lights after leaving a gas station. I sat frozen with fear for hours as the event unfolded. I wished I could have hit stop of a permanently recorded bad memory. All dad could do was comply with order as I sat in the car pondering why many people in the world seemed to treat my parents differently.
Regardless, I was a blend of two worlds. My hair was thick and wild. It was a mixture of every race that filled my bloodlines. It left me in tears most days because even my mother never figured out how to properly tame it. And when I grew older, I covered my confusion with braids and sometimes sewn hair weaves. I just wanted perfect hair—even perfectly kinky would’ve been okay—so long as it reflected one side of my DNA. On top of it all, I was unusually thin with long limbs like stretched string beans.
Photo by Alex Robinson on Unsplash
At many turns, I struggled with my blackness. One way I tried to learn more about it was by attending the same HBCU dad did. My presence was marked by pride and difficulty. Some girls threatened to beat me up. Others assumed that I was stuck up because of my appearance. I cried nearly every night for a year straight and even considered transferring because of this. A few caring mentors led me to stay put. I learned to thrust myself into my studies and feel grateful for the few friends who accepted me as I was. It became good enough. These girls introduced me to sisterhood. If color or size ever came up, it never divided us. We simply loved each other as people. And that is a beautiful element of true, Black sisterhood.
But one day the topic of Alex Haley’s “Queen” came up in one of my classes. The movie, starring Halle Berry, began to air on television. When a discussion brewed about the portrayal of the biracial enslaved woman who portrayed Alex Haley’s grandmother, I openly revealed my identity as her great-granddaughter for the first time. I inherited my small stature and lighter hue from her. Queen was a mixture of Black, Cherokee, Scottish and Irish. Like many, I too was a close descendant of a plantation daughter.
My mother displayed Queen’s picture in her living room atop a glass side table near my grandfather’s photograph. She began to share more about her with me after the movie aired. I took this as a collective sign to untangle my longstanding confusion over my identity. I always acknowledged my blackness, but it also forced me to face other parts of myself. Seeing Queen’s struggles portrayed on-screen helped me to heal and further shape my identity.
Today, I still can’t blow dry my own hair. My partner is teaching me many Black rites of passage mom never could. And when I peer in the mirror understanding that a Confederate colonel’s blood also runs through my veins, all I can do is accept that knowing my family history is a mixed bag of joy and sorrow. Queen’s father points out the irony of racial discrimination. Like it or not, we are not simply one race or another, even if the premise causes a segment of the population discomfort.
I no longer worry if I act, sound, or look Black enough. The days when I consumed weight gainer and thousands of calories, then lifted heavy weights at the gym just to pack on pounds to look more like a Black woman are behind me. I merely kept fifteen extra pounds above my natural weight and gave up on owning classic sisterly assets. When people tell me how thin I am today, it no longer stings. I think of Queen and how she inspired me to embrace who God made me to be. Confidence makes people back off and sees beyond the superficial.
My ancestor inspires me to keep going, even when life gets hard, or I simply feel awkward. When my mom took her last breath, I took the same photo of Queen she once displayed and placed it in my care. I now look at it daily, using this woman to inspire me to keep going, no matter how discouraged I feel. If she could raise my grandfather, and other children who made something great of themselves, I must strip down my inadequacies to nothingness and push until change comes. My grandfather’s mother was once enslaved, yet she played a role in producing an architect, a lawyer who also served as an ambassador, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and an accomplished music teacher.
My father’s DNA left marks of spunk and industriousness within me. Dad shut his eyes a final time during the pandemic. He helped to shape my identity, too. We did not always get along, but when I watched my father lay in a hospital bed through a screen, I felt proud of the lessons he gave me. I now realize that embracing my multicultural blood does not mean that I deny the genetic gifts of my father. It simply means that I no longer must prove who I am. I’m finally free to unapologetically be me.
Now, when my skin drinks the sun rays at the beach, I revisit my father’s attempt to help me embrace my Blackness. But all along, I already did. Knowing where I come from is all I ever truly needed.
Andrea Blackstone is a mother, award-winning journalist, media consultant, and author who resides in Virginia. She has worked as a freelance writer for community newspapers and digital publications, including Black Enterprise. Her professional passion is telling undertold stories. Blackstone also participates in contributing content to @alexhaleyfamily on Facebook. In her spare time, supporting veterans and embracing healthy living are some of her hobbies. You may find her @blackstoneandrea on Instagram.
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Recognizing oneself is dire to wellbeing. Greatly articulated
This was a very poignant article Andrea. The issue of color is so common in the West Indies.