Diary of An Invisible Black woman Wood Ave: A Birthday Atonement
Essay by Sacha Elie
As I make my way down the grand staircase, the smooth whiskey warms my chest in the cold chill of the Mark Taper Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. I quickly maneuver around the usual crowd of the white retired theater patrons. I bum rush towards the lady’s room making it my sole mission to avoid the long line that always inevitably ends up circling the entire restroom.
I am what seems to be 30th in a line of women. But wait - multi-colored women. I’m taken back by the unusual amount of black and brown elegantly dressed women. Only Oscar winner Tarell McCraney and Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad can be responsible for drawing in Zamunda’s best on a Sunday afternoon. It's September 24th and-
I'm whisked away, and I’m taken back to Edie Murphy’s classic rom-com hit ‘Coming to America.’ The scene in which Zamunda’s finest appear in their most extravagant traditional garbs, as they sip champagne to toast the arranged engagement of Prince Akeem, played by Eddie Murphy, to the very beautiful Imani Izzi, played by actress Vanessa Bell.
For those of you that don’t understand the euphoria of this moment, it’s because as a woman of color, or as a person of color, in general, you always notice if you're the “Only person of color in the room.” When entering any new environment, A mental note is always taken. This is anywhere and everywhere, schools, classrooms, gas stations, work environments, social events, libraries, bars, restaurants, movies, get my drift? Call it instinctual, comforting or simply taking a mental note, just in case shit goes down! As a person of color, its second nature, you automatically ALWAYS are aware of your surroundings.
Once the realization sets in that you're not ALONE, a very subtle exchange happens between us people of color. Let's speak specifically between African American men and women. Since I can mostly make references to my own experiences. Perhaps you’ve seen it? But never fully registered it or understood the true meaning behind it. It’s a very subtle exchange that happens next. Most likely a nod between black men, and/or a smile between black women.
It’s a sort of recompense in a way. It’s a silent exchange of communication that proclaims; I See You! Which as a minority, to be truly seen is a rarity in this country? When we silently acknowledge one another, it's as if for a split moment, you belong to a secret society where you feel safe and protected. We are communicating telepathically “I got your back!”
I haven't been surrounded by this amount of beautiful and regal African American women since my visit to the Essence Festival the summer before. To have it happen by happenstance, well it felt beautifully overwhelming as I exchanged, countless after countless smiles with each passing woman.
My eye catches a graceful and extremely stylish older African American woman as she applies the finishing touches of her mauve lipstick.
“Great Color!” I timidly say.
“Thank You,” She says confidently. She smiles and finesses the final touches of her hair.
I awkwardly smile back and respond.
“You remind me of my mother. It was her signature color in the 80s.”
Abort! Abort! Am I calling her old? Out of touch?
“Today’s my birthday!” I blurt out.
Every year around my birthday, I rummage through old photos of my mother in her prime. Her hair ponytailed to the side, sporting her favorite mauve lip ware. Each photo stamped with her signature smile. Welcoming and warm.
“Happy Birthday! “The woman smiles warmly. “Enjoy the rest of the show!”
“Miss? The stall ahead is free. “A voice mentions. I feel a sudden lump in my throat as I enter the empty stall ahead.
The cool water runs through my fingers as it awakens me from my mildly tipsy slumber. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I think of the beautiful woman with the mauve lips.
Memories of my deceased mother flash through my mind. I smile. I catch a reflection of a woman long gone. Only to reveal seconds later, my own image staring back at me.
I’m 36 today. This birthday marks a milestone. It’s been eighteen years since she died. The last day I spent alone with my mother she was frail. Cancer ravaged her insides leaving her to nothing but skin and bones. Her cheekbones perturbed outward, her eyes shut frozen, a result of the pain medication.
I walked into the dark hospital room where she laid. I gravitated to her bedside and held her hand. I whispered softly into her ear, hoping to ease some of the pain. She was irresponsive. It was only a matter of time the doctors said. She most likely wouldn't make it through the night. A woman once filled with so much life, and fight, now was unable to breathe and move on her own. She was unable to be the mother I so desperately needed her to be in that moment. But, unlike the doctors, I knew my mother. We were thick as thieves.
My mother gave birth to four children, we all knew she had a favorite. The youngest, but I never felt it, and most importantly I never cared. Because she was my favorite. She was both my mother and my best friend. We spoke about everything and shared everything. We shared clothes, talked about the lack of boys in my life, unwarranted sex talks. We spoke endlessly about our deepest hopes, dreams, and desires.
So, I knew my mother, and with her, where there was a will, there was always a way. On our last day together, we found solace in our wounded hearts. I held her hands, and like that silent exchange shared between African American men and women, she squeezed her hand into mine and mine into hers. We held each other tightly throughout the night exchanging telepathically: “I got you your back!”.
For eighteen years I was lucky enough to have my mother. And for eighteen years I’ve also had the unfortunate luck to know what life is like without her.
“You have an active imagination!” My mother would say.
The drive home is unbearable. The lump in my throat continues to grow. I feel an overwhelming emptiness rise as a flood of tears begin to roll uncontrollably down my eyes. And then, suddenly I remember!
My mother's voice echoes in the distance, as she joyously sings along with my father in their thick Haitian accents; “Doin' the Butt”;“Yeah-ee yeah. Yeah-ee, Yeah-ee, yeah-ee-yeah.”
The seven-year-old version of myself cringes both with embarrassment and excitement as I watch my parents ruin the lyrics to E.U.’s, classic 1988 hit “Da Butt.”They screech out loud with laughter, holding their stomachs in from the pain.
They relish in the deliciousness of watching their oldest prepubescent son, rap, while their two youngest children, my then four-year-old younger brother and I joyously dance around our kitchen with our pillow stuffed derrières to “Da Butt.”They were young. They were happy.
They immigrated to the United States in 1972. Modern explores of a new frontier. They arrived in a new land where they didn't speak the language. Born into an all-black nation. They interacted with a handful of “moun blans” white people. In search of the American Dream, my parents left Tiburon, Haiti, and landed in Boston, Massachusetts.
Ten years later my parents became the first black Haitian settlers to buy a home on Wood Ave. The house where I was born. Back then Wood Ave was a quiet working-class neighborhood. The type of neighborhood where the families living there were all working towards the American Dream. Nice houses with white picket fences, or as much as they could attain too, living in the urban suburb of Hyde Park, MA.
Each year on my birthday I find myself wondering about the teenage boy, that lived across the street. A young boy, now a man, I never meet. I often wonder if the name of the street is as embedded into his core memory as it is in mine. As far as I am told, times were different back then. Wood Ave. was a neighborhood where people took care of each other. A place where kids, white kids, were safe.
I frequently wonder if that teenage boy still remembers my mother? If she or I ever cross his mind.
My parents had family over in what was their traditional weekly Sunday dinner. Sundays were set aside for our families to commune in food, drink, play, and laughter. It was a time to be merry before the harsh realities of the week began.
My two older siblings, my then five-year-old sister, and nine-year-old brother were playing outside with cousins when chaos erupted. The neighborhood men, grandfathers, and sons alike barged onto our front lawn, whipped with arsenals ready for war. They were armed with baseball bats, weapons, clubs, knives, and fists.
“Take the children Inside!” my father and uncles shouted at the women.
My aunts scattered, some in tears fearfully screaming for their children to find shelter. My mother, being the fearless woman, she was, turned her fist into a weapon and begin to hit vigorously the man that had been hitting her husband, my father, repeatedly with a baseball bat.
I’m told that the teenage boy pushed my mother onto the ground. And with his fist punched her repeatedly in the stomach before discovering a baseball bat. He continued to beat her in the stomach over and over and over again. She was 8 months pregnant with twins.
I do not know the remaining events of that day. I can only imagine they were too painful to revisit. On September 24th, 1981, my mother was forced into an emergency C-section, losing one child and delivering another.
Years later, I heard that the mother of that teenage boy pleaded with my mother to drop the charges. My mother consented. If the tables were turned. I don't think I would be so forgiving. She deserved better. My parents deserved better. This was not the American Dream my parents boldly set off to create.
My parents rarely spoke about the events that lead to my birth. In fact, I would have never known if it wasn’t for my active imagination. I always felt like there was something missing as a child. I would make up for it by playing with an imaginary friend, a sister.
I was eleven when my mother sat me down to explain the horrid events that led to my birth. I’ve blocked out most of it. It’s a story too painful to think about let alone express. The loss. The anger. The rejection. The loneliness. My parents barely spoke of her, I never knew there were two of us until that day.
The 2016 presidential election marked the rise of unspeakable hate and bigotry in the U.S. It never disappeared or laid dormant. There are countless similar stories left untold that continue to happen each day. But I can’t help but wonder if that teenage boy along with the rest of the mob that flooded onto my front lawn that day, have ever attempted to live across the street from families like mine ever again. To make amends for a life never lived, for a mother’s forgiveness, and for a young child's atonement.
Or I can’t help but wonder if you and the rest of your group blame families like mine as the catalyst for a series of events that unfolded into the disintegration of your neighborhood? Leaving you all to reminisce about “The good old days on Wood Ave.” A time when America was simple, a time when it was great.”