Cover Story: Black-Eyed Susans

A poor, righteous teacher questions gold fronts and cowrie shells

Una-Kariim Cross

This is amirror image.

She's shifting her weight from foot to foot at the bus stop on Linn Street, "player" emblazoned in white gothic script across the butt of her tight jeans.

I'm at the stoplight giving silent props for the throwback '80s hairdo: a backswept Mohawk with cornrows on the sides and a crimped ponytail in back. That's ghetto elegance.

She sees my Soccer Mom Volvo, my less-than-manicured natural hair, and thinks I'm mean mugging, thinks I'm self-righteous and full of judgment. Her eyes narrow.

She turns away as the light turns green.

This time she's pushing a stroller past my stoop. I smile and say, "How you doing?" and she looks surprised that I spoke. She glances at my scuffed-up clogs and the coffee-stained keffiyeh around my neck and says a cautious "Hi" while her toddler stares at me from his stroller. His forehead's creased and his eyes are worried, but he waves and she laughs a little.

I watch them walk away and wonder if and when I'll be a mother. Damn.

I'm in line outside the club and here comes this bitch again. She's using her cell phone like a walkie-talkie, subjecting everyone to words and chirps. Her freshly done acrylics gleam beneath the streetlight. Her handbag is white festooned with a constellation of sherbet-colored LVs.

At least two of my nails are chipped. My cell phone and wallet are crammed in the pocket of my jean jacket. The guy I'm with is talking to me about a book we've both read, but he can't stop looking at her.

Ladies is pimps, too.

We are black and we are women, but solidarity is often the last thing on our minds. Instead we look at each other across a gulf of mistrust and insecurity, believing in a myth of scarcity that keeps us fighting over beauty standards, romantic partners and the relevance of our class status.

Sometimes we call each other Sis or Queen to pretty up our predicament. It's a step in the right direction, but it'll take a lot more than terms of endearment to stop cordoning off black womanhood into sections marked upwardly mobile and 'hood.

At some point we have to move beyond the intraracial identity crisis, lest we spend another 50 years spinning our post-Civil Rights wheels.

Confused yet? I was, too, until I went to Ghana.

Six years ago I crossed the Atlantic Ocean with a random assortment of 10 other black women. We were daughters of hard-working mothers, most of us made fatherless by the penal system, irresponsibility or other forces beyond our control.

We hailed from Minneapolis, Detroit, Oakland, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Atlanta and small towns in between. We were all on a journey into ourselves by way of West Africa.

By the time we stood together in the women's dungeon of Elmina Castle, we had gotten past the irony of the place's name. This wasn't a castle.

It was a holding pen, a processing center, a torture chamber. Centuries earlier, on the same rocky Bay of Guinea shore, captive black women had stood where we now stood awaiting their unknowable fate in the purgatory of the Middle Passage.

One minute it was just another stop on our tour, the next it was a spiritual awakening. The 11 of us held onto each other and swayed like long lost lovers, reunited by the memory of our shared history. Some of us gagged when we looked up at the balcony over our heads. From there, European sailors and slave traders chose which kidnapped woman would be his for the night.

Some of us ran our hands over the grooved stone walls where snapped minds compelled fingernails to find a way out. Others fell to our knees, ashamed of how we'd been using our relative freedom.

Prior to that day we had baited and one-upped each other. We formed exclusive alliances and marked our territory. We were perms against naturals, promiscuous against prudish, Zane against Zadie Smith, omnivores against vegetarians. All of that stopped after the afternoon at Elmina.

Years later I met Dorothy Gaines and Kemba Smith, two black women who had served time in federal prisons on drug conspiracy charges. They both got caught in the net of mandatory minimum sentences because they loved men who hustled. Jotting down a phone message, waiting at the wheel while their man made a stop or just refusing to snitch landed them in prison.

Meeting these women and hearing their stories was another reminder of how meaningless our self-inflicted categories are. My Ivy League education and world travels haven't kept me out of complicated relationships. Crime pays a lot better than a minimum-wage job, and public education ensures that everyone isn't college material.

How is that woman waving up at the Justice Center window any different from me?

We are separated by dumb luck.

We are separated by my fluency in middle-class culture.

We are separated by her lack of access to or her refusal to conform to that culture.

Four hundred years ago, we would have been in the same boat. Literally.

I like to think we would have spent those months of hellish travel trying to figure out a way to save ourselves. We would have pooled our resources and our experiences to create a way out of a painful and humiliating mess.

When did the gulf between the bus stop and the driver's seat, between the stoop and the stroller, from one end of the velvet rope to the other become more vast than the Atlantic? ©

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