to My grandmother’s encouragement, along with her delicious Creole dishes, helped me develop self-love during a time when I struggled with it.
My grandmother would pick me up from school every day and we would always go together to get any ingredients we needed for dinner. I had dark skin and thick, curly hair, while my grandmother could easily pass for being white. Some people were unsure of our relationship, but they usually didn’t ask about it out loud.
One day at Schwegmann’s, the supermarket in our neighborhood, the cashier kept switching her gaze between me and my grandmother, looking puzzled. Eventually, she inquired, “How did you two end up together?” My grandmother smiled proudly, ruffled my hair, and replied, “This is my granddaughter,” as if I was a coveted trophy she had earned. She repeated it again while taking her change, grabbing her groceries, and accompanying me to the car.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was a woman of Creole descent from New Orleans, Louisiana. The term “Creole” was initially used to identify individuals of African heritage who were born in the New World, in order to differentiate them from those who were enslaved and born in Africa. In modern times, the term is more broadly applied to people in Louisiana who have a mix of African, Spanish, French, and Native American ancestry, as well as their customs, language, and traditions. Due to their close proximity to European settlers, many individuals within this demographic were able to attain certain privileges in the 19th century, such as education and opportunities for trade, business, and property ownership. I use the term “relative” privileges because even though my grandmother was born in 1931, she still faced poverty and lack of education and identified as black despite her lighter skin tone.
She was raised in the 7th Ward alongside other Creoles and her French grandmother. While she spoke Creole at home, she could only recall short phrases by the time I was born. Her long black hair was styled in loose finger curls. Despite being warned to preserve the family’s bloodline, my brown-skinned grandfather confessed that he couldn’t help but stare when he first met her, mistaking her for Spanish.
My mother’s daughter, who is also my mother, married a dark-skinned African American man, and I inherited his appearance. When I was four years old, my older cousin told me that I was considered unattractive because of this. I was told that I would have to marry a very light-skinned man to make up for my dark skin, possibly even a white man. This would give my future children a chance at a lighter complexion. The remnants of the societal hierarchy based on skin color affected all aspects of my social life. Even though my Catholic school was integrated, there were still three distinct categories: white, light-skinned, and black, which included me. Some people were genuinely curious and would ask if I was adopted. They couldn’t understand how I could look so different from my supposedly beautiful mother.
One time, a friend of my mom was discussing the new lineup of actors on the American show Melrose Place. It was mentioned that they were planning to add a black woman. “I just hope they don’t try to include a stereotypical character,” my mom’s friend said. “People need to see that we can be beautiful too.” I agreed, as I had been taught to believe that this type of comment was reasonable. The social hierarchy determined who was included in events, who was considered a friend or a potential romantic partner, and most importantly for me, who was deemed worthy. At the young age of six, I began to expect rejection from my peers and retreated into myself. I avoided talking to strangers, felt anxious when forced into conversations, and sought solace in my grandmother’s Creole home.
My parents were busy with work, so my grandmother took care of me. I spent a lot of time with her, accompanying her to church, the mall, the grocery store, and even her workplace at the unemployment office. She affectionately called me “her legs” because I ran errands for her, fetching her wallet, slippers, or car keys. In the evenings, she would let me comb her hair, which was straight like my dolls’. When my mother came to pick me up, she would thank my grandmother, who would simply smile and say I was no trouble. Despite having 11 grandchildren, I was her fifth favorite and sometimes I would even fall asleep in her bed when my mother didn’t come.
I am unsure if it was our profound sense of isolation that brought us together, the stillness within the house that was a result of that isolation. When my grandfather returned home for dinner, he would then change his clothes and leave for the evening. If my grandmother knew where he went, she never mentioned it. I yearned for the close-knit families I saw on TV shows such as the Winslows from Family Matters and the unique bonds of Full House, as well as among the children at school. I would gaze at the fair-skinned girls with long hair and wonder what it would be like to feel valued.
My grandmother and I had food as our common bond. Her cooking was renowned, especially her fried catfish, potato salad, and jelly cakes. I was fortunate enough to be able to enjoy her delicious dishes every day. While soul food and Creole food have similarities, Creole cuisine has its own unique roots from South America, Europe, the West Indies, and West Africa. My grandmother’s specialties included shrimp étouffée, red beans and rice, gumbo, stuffed mirlitons, jambalaya, and pralines.
She mostly made food based on her own preferences, but occasionally during car rides home from school, she would ask me what I wanted and stop at Schwegmann’s to get the ingredients so she could make something just for me. After we returned home, I could smell the dish starting to come together, like the ham in the red beans or the condensed milk and sugar for the pralines. Cooking together was when my mother spoke to me the most. It was during one of these cooking sessions that I learned my uncle was similar to me in that he enjoyed cooking because he loved to eat, until he became interested in girls and needed to lose weight.
While we were preparing the shrimp, my companion shared with me the story of her brother who struggled with alcoholism. She would spend every night following him, attempting to guide him towards making better choices. Unfortunately, he ultimately passed away from cirrhosis of the liver. Once we finished cooking, she would arrange the table for us to dine together. We were able to enjoy our meal in silence, our utensils clinking against the plates like conversation and our synchronized bites creating a sense of connection.
At the age of 12, my mother relocated our family from New Orleans to a small town in Connecticut. It was a place where there was a clear distinction between black and white. However, things started to change as I saw more dark-skinned celebrities on TV who were beautiful. I began to grow into my own skin. During all the time I spent at my grandmother’s house, I would read, watch TV, and imagine myself as one of the characters in the stories, trying to see myself as valuable. As time went on, this became less of a conscious effort. By the time my grandmother became ill, I had made friends and even had a boyfriend. I attended dance parties in fraternity basements, my sorority’s step show, and Homecoming events. Unfortunately, I had less time for my grandmother who had suffered a stroke and was now immobile. Even our phone conversations became challenging because she struggled to find her words and seemed to be unable to speak at times.
I was in the Dominican Republic at the time of her passing, as I had just begun a year-long fellowship with a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending dark-skinned Dominicans of Haitian heritage from discriminatory citizenship laws. I returned for her funeral and recited a Bible verse. Upon returning to the DR, I was devastated, but reminded myself that I had no valid reason to be so. After all, she was not my mother.
Currently, I have a daughter who bears a resemblance to my grandmother and shares her name. Her experiences are vastly different from mine at her age. She effortlessly transitions from one social event to the next. She resides in a boisterous household with two lively brothers. Occasionally, she looks up at me while I’m getting dressed and expresses her desire to have the same brown skin as me. Our home is in Oakland, California and it’s been five years since I last visited New Orleans. However, I continue to prepare Creole cuisine, including red beans and rice every Monday and gumbo on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
My daughter used to be hesitant about eating it, but now she is beginning to take more bites. She assists me in cutting the yellow and green onions and searching for bay leaves in the pantry. After we finish cooking, I observe her eat before trying the food myself. It feels as though I am searching for something that I cannot identify. Occasionally, my past feelings of isolation resurface. However, my grandmother’s home was not just filled with pain. She showed me love when I was unable to love myself.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s On the Rooftop, published by Magpie, is available for purchase at £9.99. You can buy it for £9.29 on guardianbookshop.com.