When I first met her, my Aunt Sheila was cracking jokes during my birth. The air was smoldering, the kind of heat that’ll strangle you in your sleep if you’re not careful. The humidity of the season was heightened by the growing chatter of voices flocking towards the confines of a county hospital delivery room.
Because this was her first time, because my mother was the baby in her own family of six siblings, my birth took place in front of an audience. My boisterous family jammed so much of themselves into that snug room, it’s a wonder my mother could even hear my Aunt Sheila, who for the past hour or so had been hunched over within eyeshot of my mother’s ever so slightly expanding vagina.
“Girl, hurry up and have that baby,” my Aunt Sheila teased.
Ten years my mother’s senior, Shelia had watched my mother blossom from a skinny girl sashaying around in her big sister’s skirts into the frightened soon-to-be mother now laying in front of her, gripping the free arm of my soon-to-be father.
“I’m trying!” my mother wailed, her tears and sweat mixing in her throat indiscriminately.
My father, not really knowing what to do with his free arm, slid it beneath my mother’s neck as she convulsed upward in pain, pushing in rhythm with the contraction.
When it was time for me to come, my father held on to my mother and said, “I hope it’s a boy,” his handsome smile revealing his giddy, childlike pride.
“I see the head,” my Aunt Shelia shouted from behind the doctor. “It’s a—”
Sheila paused to make eye contact with my father. “It’s a boy.” She smiled her sweetest smile.
“Yes!” he said.
“Just kidding, she said.
“Sheila, you play too much.” My father scowled.
My mother forgot about her pain and laughed so hard she almost didn’t notice me.
The doctor handed a clean-as-can-be baby girl to my mother for the first time.
“Why does your baby look so white, Zakkiyya?” my Aunt Sheila blurted out.
“Sheila!” my mother shrieked.
“Look at her—she’s whiter than the nurse!” My Aunt Sheila pointed an accusatory finger at a very confused and cautious Caucasian nurse.
My family will recite this story to me again and again until it sticks to me like white on rice. Like a tiny piece of spinach wedged between not-so-white teeth. Until I realize they were trying to pay me a compliment—my whole family reminding me that, while I’m not a boy, I’m smart and pretty and this has something to do with my pigmentation’s inheritance.
It will take years for me to understand this, to confront the jagged edges of this, and to make peace with the realization that our fair skin is the filmy residue of a forgotten and distant ancestor’s twisted tastes. But for now, we poke fun at its persistence.
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