Black Girl Running

Russell Lee - "Little Negro girls playing," Lafayette, Louisiana, 1938
Russell Lee – “Little Negro girls playing,” Lafayette, Louisiana, 1938

When I was a little Black girl with barrettes in my hair, I loved running, skipping, and jumping. I loved waking up and being able to move. I wasn’t very fast, a shame for a girl in a Jamaican family for sure, but I loved running around all the same. There was so much joy in moving my body. Skipping down the block to my own private song, I felt like a dancer. Swinging on the swings in my neighborhood park, I’d pump my legs to go higher and higher so that I could kiss the sky. Riding to the corner store and back on my bike with the training wheels, pedaling faster and faster, I’d let go so I could zoom down the hills, the wind whipping my braids behind me. When the weather was too hot or too cold, I was content with running around our small apartment, getting on my mother’s one last good nerve, until I fell into a giggling, gasping heap. All those things were so much fun. And all those things made me feel free.

Carefree Black girls have always been a thing, although the hashtag might be more recent. I know I’m not the only one who has those memories. And I know I’m not the only one who had their Black girl body watched, mocked, and surveilled damn near to death.

The thing is, despite all this running around, I was a chubby kid. I was almost 5 feet tall and damn near 100 pounds in the third grade. I remember being weighed by the school nurse, who clucked over my measurements. I remember, the constant comments by my family and family friends who told me to eat less.

For the record, that made me eat more.

Year after year, I got bigger and bigger. My fatness became an albatross that I wore around my neck, the way the older girls in my neighborhood wore gold nameplates.

Over time, my body became a thing separate from me. I think I learned to hate it because I viewed myself through contemptuous eyes of others. I didn’t know then that they were hating the little Black girl and boy inside of them that I had the nerve to be. They wanted to hurt that vulnerable young thing, so they hurt me. I was an easy target. I was slow, fat, and bad at sports, at least the ones I tried. I learned to accept being the last chosen for the team, being ridiculed for the clothes I wore, and being scorned when I tried to do new things. I stuck to the things that didn’t get me bullied (as much) by adults and children alike. That pretty much left me with reading and watching cartoons.

Eventually, it became impossible to reconcile appreciating my body for all the amazing things it could with the fact that it was too big and too brown and definitely too poor.

By the time I got to the sixth grade, I was so glad for recess to be over, although I missed double Dutch immensely. I was ready to be a big girl and sit with my friends at lunch and talk about classes and boys. I didn’t want my body to be a spectacle anymore. But, if anything, puberty brought a whole new set of problems.

I rediscovered that black girl running when I got to college and started going to parties. I went to a women’s college for undergrad, but men showed up when we had parties at the Betty Shabazz cultural center. I always wanted to dance with dudes at the Betty, but, they weren’t really checking for me back then. Still, that didn’t stop me from getting in the middle of the dance floor and breaking it down every chance I got. I would forget to check to see if I was the biggest girl in the room, a thing I did constantly back then. For some reason dancing was the link to the Black girl I was once was. I never felt self-conscious or stupid or that people were watching, judging me. And people were watching and probably judging too. But when I put my hands in the air and waved them like I just didn’t care, I really didn’t care. I was in my body, gloriously present, sweating, grooving, gyrating, and at one with the rhythm of Lauryn Hill, DMX, Jay-Z, Outkast, Juvenile, and whatever else was popping in the 99 and the 2000.

These days, I’m a 30-something year old Black woman trying to get back some of the freedom that that little Black girl had. I’m not sure I can get back to being that carefree but I’m going to keep trying.