When I was younger, I always thought people would be kind as a rule of thumb. Living in Mississippi all my life, I learned that wasn’t true. The state of Mississippi ratified the 13th amendment officially in 2013, and as of June 2020—removed racist confederate symbol from its state flag. The mindset of some of its citizens mirrors how slow the state is to change.
My mama once told me: “You teach people how to treat you.”
Mama is dark-skinned; the kind of dark-skinned that glitters in the sunlight, but doesn’t pass a paper bag test. Her kind of dark has been making people uncomfortable since she was born. But to me, her dark skin was so smooth and beautiful I got jealous every time I looked at her. I did not like my own skin. My skin was never seen as beautifully light or dark. I have a lazy complexion that lied somewhere in between. Kids I played with placed values on Black skin tone, and used it to their advantage:
“We’re lighter so we get to be in the front.” That’s the trump card many of them played against me.
I worked hard to scrub these people from memory. They affirmed that there was nothing special about me in any way. I believed them until my mother taught me better. “Mama I wish my skin was as pretty as yours. I wish that people noticed me.”
These were the kind of statements I began to tell my mother. She looked surprised, “Thank you baby, God did it not me.”
Mama does not wear makeup. The most she does is a bit of eyeliner whenever she feels fancy. But mama never touches her skin. She says God blesses her with her dark skin so she loves it and takes care of it. She will not cover it up. Mama loves herself so that others can see how to love her, too. She is unapologetic about who she is so you have no choice but to accept her, to, too. I wondered why God felt I should be so average then. When, my mother caught on to how I felt about myself, she sat me down for a talk. Mama pulled me into her arms so tightly I couldn’t move. In that moment, it was her arms and the smell of her skin that kept me grounded. The sweet smell of mama’s skin, and her favorite flowery perfume, filled my nostrils and comforted me. That scent hasn’t changed since the day I first remember it. My safe haven was being right there in her arms, breathing her.
“There is nothing more beautiful to me than you. People will talk about you for being dark, light, or brown. Regardless, remember mama knows you’re beautiful.” Mama said as she squeezed me.
My tears mixed with her sweat. I cried under the weight of her arms and her love. My world is my mama. I love mama’s dark skin because she loves it so maybe that can work for me too.
Mama is heavy-set with large working hands. She is no stranger to hard work. When you are of a larger size society makes it harder to move through life. I guess that’s why I was so terrified of gaining weight. My middle school years consisted of blossoming and coming into my own skin as well as my body. I did not know what to do with this new body that people began to notice. I didn’t know what to do with stares from boys or praises from family members.
“Girl you sholl filling out. Ya Daddy gone need a shotgun when you get older.” Aunties teased. They also said my little figure was so cute that I had better hold on to it. But mama liked to cook and I loved to eat. It didn’t affect me for a long time, but soon all the eating began to show as I moved through high school.
“Ouuuu, girl you done put on a few pounds. Haven’t you girl?”
Now, my aunties offered diet tips. Their comments hurt both me and mama. We’d share glances across the room whenever insensitive words flew into the air. It made me happy to know that I had a partner in this struggle. Mama was big, but I loved her regardless. I knew those who really loved me wouldn’t mind a little weight. But mama knew how hard it was to be thick. Mama knew about all the aches, the blood pressure pills, and doctor visits. Those shared glances became declarations that she would begin to cook healthy, that we would start to exercise. I don’t see anything wrong with my body, but I know the possibility scares mama.
“Girl, we gonna drop this here weight and be fine as wine. Unless you want to be hurtin like yo mama, you gotta slow down baby.”
These phrases are on repeat around the house. We work on us together, and protect each other from the opinions of others. She tells me that people’s opinions are a waste of time because you can’t please everyone.
“The only thing that we can do is be the best version of ourselves” she says. “Give em something to talk about.”
Mama did not finish school. Instead, she attended the school of life, and learned to survive. She made it to where she is now despite the odds and statistics. Even still, school is not a choice for her kids, it’s mandatory. Each morning before school mama says,” Do good, think good, be good, you are good.” She says she didn’t have people to encourage her to make school work so she will for my siblings and I. Every report card we have ever gotten is saved and tucked away. I was always so excited to bring them home for mama, and watch her light up. Mama’s smile, when you have made her proud, is the best thing in the world. She looks at you like you can do no wrong. This, of course, made me strive for good grades, but in hindsight, it also damaged me a little. I was terrified to bring home less than perfection. Throughout high school it was a challenge to continually bring home stellar grades from increasingly hard classes. Stress became my companion. When I got my first C, I broke down and cried so hard. My peers couldn’t understand, but I knew I wouldn’t get that smile from mama. That day I got off the bus with tear-filled eyes, and walked slowly towards the front door. Everything around me seemed much more amplified. The bright sun hurt my eyes, the birds chirping annoyed me, and the heat only made the situation worse. Then my mother opened the door and greeted me with a smile.
“Why you crying, baby?”
I handed her the report card in response. She saw the grade and said, “I know how hard you were trying. I know my baby is smart despite this paper so next time we’ll just have to do better.” I stood there in disbelief, expecting to be yelled at or whooped. I realized mama never made it to the point where I am academically, so everything I do she will be proud of me. I realized that mama created this life for us with less than what I knew now, and I still thought she was a genius.
My toughest critic is me.
It blows my mind to think that people don’t see the beauty and intelligence of my mother just by looking at her. She taught me how to treat and respect her, and she does the same to everyone she meets. Mama learned fast that people would not respect a dark skin, overweight, highschool dropout, unless you gave them something to respect.
Mama used to clean houses for white families. She worked hard doing their laundry, cleaning multiple rooms, and anything else they could think of to write on their lists. They often tried to figure out ways to cheat mama, demean her, and not pay her going rate. Yet and still mama did her work with a smile. She took care of their homes and our’s. Mama’s gift of hot freshly ironed clothes every morning made me feel loved and thought of. I always wondered how in the world she could get so much done before we even woke up in the morning. The white families knew her value, but seldom compensated her accordingly. They underestimated her, too. What they didn’t know was that mama had a curriculum ready to teach those white folks how to treat her properly, and she wasn’t afraid to use it. She looks them straight in the eyes at all times because she is their equal. She did her own research on what people were paid for the job that she does, and required it. She did what she could to stay well-versed in current events and politics. Nobody was gonna talk over mama’s head and if they did they weren’t gonna know about it. I was often encouraged to employ those same tactics in my day to day life. Many summers were filled with me, writing new words and their meaning from the dictionary. She would challenge me to create stories from these new words and sometimes teach them to her. Mama encouraged me to be as well learned as possible in religion, politics, and academics.
“An education is the key to the world.” Mama said.
Looking back, I imagine she was trying to save me a lot of hard lessons. Skinned knees and aching fingers from cleaning wasn’t the life she wanted for me. As far as she could see, the only way to escape it was to be as educated as the people who begrudgingly signed her checks.
Mama didn’t come from money so there was always a struggle. I came along in her early twenties. I remember the sweet homemade caramels mama made, when we didn’t have the money for real candy. A drop out with a kid, and no husband.
People assumed mama was ghetto, ignorant, and a host of other things. Each time she met these assumptions with kindness and character. People quickly realized that mama was not a stereotype. She is, instead, an individual worth listening to and getting to know. Mama can walk into a room full of white, black, or blue people and be perfectly fine with her station in life because she knows her worth and knows how to teach people that worth as well.
Mama can not spell a lot of words and she sometimes needs help with numbers. But in no way is mama stupid and in no way will she stand to be treated as such. Mama can tell you exactly how meals you can make with packs of meat and vegetables, from the “pick five.” She can tell you exactly how much medicine to take, and when you’ll be better without batting an eye. Faked sick days from school were impossible. I think Mama was a doctor, too.
Mama can hear a speech, the news, or a song and tell you exactly what they are trying to convey even if she doesn’t know some of the words. Mama can stretch $5 to make a meal.
My daddy didn’t graduate either. He works two jobs and brings home both paychecks straight to mama. Mama knows which bills to pay and which bills to extend to keep the house running. I don’t think schools teach that. I think Mama is a manager, too.
Lucky for me, I have my mother to teach me all the things she has picked up over the years. If you ask me, mama’s the smartest lady you could ever meet.
Mama has modeled for me how to move through the world no matter what hand I’m dealt. Everything that I encounter she has, somehow, prepared me just by being herself in a society that is not built for her. If you let people degrade you— they will; if you let people abuse you— they will; and if you let people affect your self esteem and sense of self—they will. That is why you must teach people how to treat you. I let people know my standards. Because my mama said so. I teach people that my skin is beautiful regardless of imperfections. I teach people that I am to be respected because I respect myself. And I reteach myself these things when I forget. In times like those I think back to how my mama taught me to treat her, and as a result taught me how to treat myself. So much of her is me. In writing her, I feel like I’ve put myself on the page. I’m memorializing mama in these pages because one day, my memories will be the only place to learn from her. My heart breaks at the prospect of losing my best friend and life-long teacher. I’m hoping that these black and white words will be my guide for everything that she wants me to know when that time comes. In the meantime, it feels good to know the hardships I will face in life won’t be my downfall. Especially when I can remember Mama’s dark skin, heavy arms, the sweet taste of her caramels, the smell of her love, and still push through.
LANETTE DISHMON is from Jackson, Mississippi. A city she claims is rich with history, both good and bad. Her interests are reading good stories and writing good stories. “Participating in the Catherine Coleman workshop was a great experience and opportunity.” Dishmon states. She attends the University of Southern Mississippi, where she works toward a B.A. in Psychology. Dishmon is a first generation student but has a great support system beginning with her wonderful mother so she’ll be just fine.