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  • Writer's pictureKayla Williams

A White Box of Tile and Steam

Updated: Apr 6, 2021


“Black Women Matter” by Miki J. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


The water cascades down a disenfranchised copper body as I begin the daily ritual of washing. Standing in a white box of tile and steam, a stream of embodied thoughts crawl into small crevices of the mind. The skin I touch is smooth with few blemishes reminding me of caramel. Why does it remind me of caramel? Caramel and Copper are two out of a million ways to describe skin coloring on the human body. There are a ton of other foods, beverages, and objects used to pinpoint how delicious, wanted, and commodified the colored body is. I learned this not too long ago on my first date.


***


I remember my first date. I was 19, and it started as a scene from a movie. The unexpected meeting and a note that read “Coffee?”.


We were in an H&M fitting room. Him, the customer, and me the employee. He shopped here before, I remembered. The first time I saw him, I wanted to interact with him…so I told him, “I love your hair.” He was a Ginger built like Thor, and I was in love with Marvel movies. He smiled at my compliment, and out of courtesy or honesty, he told me, “I like yours too, very exotic.”


That was the last time I saw him until now, walking him to his fitting room and boldly saying, “Oh hey, I remember you.” To my surprise, I wasn’t the only one that had a good memory.

After he tried on his two chino pants, one beige and the other navy blue, he brought them to me expertly folded and gently placed his hand on my back and said, “Have a good day, Beautiful.” I nearly lost my mind at that moment, but I had 5 hours left of my shift, surrounded by a pool of narcissistic customers. I had to keep it together.


While hanging the chino pants on my table, a piece of paper fell onto the floor that said “Coffee?” and a number. It was him. Once I got home, I texted, and as fast as I pressed send, he replied.


On our first phone call, I got acquainted with his thick Russian accent. It was something to get used to, but I was up for it. On our first video call, I got acquainted with his deep appreciation for Black women. He revealed it by showing me his painting of a naked black woman that hangs above his bed, referring to her as his “Chocolate Dream” followed by “but, not anymore because you are.”


I never understood the fine line between appreciating vs. fetishizing the black skin until Thor’s remarks. Why when a person looks at a woman of color, they feel it’s okay to call her exotic or compare her to things she is not? Am I someone’s Chocolate Dream? Can’t I just be a woman? The dichotomy between the women of color and white women’s experience is something to be examined. Most white women will never know what it’s like to be referred to as a list of sweet candies because of their skin color.


***


While scrubbing the milk chocolate with a peony scented body wash, a sudden feeling of detachment surfaces. Hands reaching toward the neck for cleaning, the area of the body responsible for voice production, I think about how hard it was to begin using mine.


***


In European spaces, I often found using the black voice was not allowed. I never wanted to be the angry black woman, so I would often stay the silent black girl. It was the stereotype that many women of color had to endure when they spoke. Don’t sound too angry, even though it’s passion. Do not raise your voice because it’s threatening. God forbid you to make someone uncomfortable with your blackness. So slowly, you begin to silence yourself until the throat becomes a pit of coal, and not even a hiss can be heard. The silence that happens to women of color doesn’t happen voluntarily each time. Sometimes it is taken. The silencing lies in the framework of our intricately orchestrated society.


Black mothers of sons that have been murdered for all to see put their hearts on the line and use their voice to bring awareness, but they are never heard.


Collette Flanagan founded Mothers Against Police Brutality after her son, Clinton Allen, was killed by a police officer in 2013. Sybrina Fulton ran for a seat with the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners after the murder of her son, Travon Martin, in 2012. Lesley McSpadden ran for city council in Ferguson, Missouri, about five years after a police officer murdered her son, Michael Brown. All of these beautiful outcomes from a tremendous heartbreak, yet these mothers’ voices receive less attention than the voice of the Portland Moms, a group of women who found themselves compelled to protest when George Floyd was murdered. They call themselves the “Wall of Moms” and received national attention, and you can’t help but wonder if it was because they were white.


The blatant disregard for the black female’s voice shows up in more ways than one. Our intellectual productions aren’t represented enough in academia or preserved. How many women of color writers do you see on your syllabi? Our voices are only amplified when it refers to what our bodies can do and how good we can make a person feel. Explicit songs like WAP by Cardi B featuring Meg Thee Stallion or P*** Talk by City Girls are seen as empowering and often make appearances on my Spotify playlist. Still, it loses its power when you notice the record labels those women are signed to are run by white men, and those men profit off the voice and bodies of black women, making 400 years ago feel as close as my radio.


***


Soap-suds and wet skin bring my attention back to the daily ritual. A ritual that I have done a thousand times, but this moment feels different. As the caramel hand runs down the neck to the clavicle, slowly reaching toward the breast, I feel a lump in my throat. In a sea of wetness, I begin to notice the accompaniment of a shower building in my eyes. Tears fall, and the water does too. The black woman’s breast isn’t safe either, and I begin to brood.


***


I can remember the shift from no breast to breast, vividly. It was the prison bars that I had to strap around them that created the memory and the unwanted grab from a boy in elementary school that said, “Look at those toys.”


Toys unbeknownst to the boy was an accurate way to describe them. The black women’s breast in history was treated in the like; used, used, used until they were no longer needed. Let’s take a look at the history. The slave trade presented many advantages to western society. Benefits that were created on the backs of the black body. Slaves worked the plantation for long treacherous hours in the hot sun with no reward. Yet that is not all they were forced to do. The work of slaves expanded overtime into domestic work, and the female slave became highly valued in the market. They cooked, served, cleaned, and were often used as objects of pleasure by their owners. After a while, female slaves were forced to breastfeed and act as wet nurses to white women, again with no reward. Wet nursing by the slave was popular in Europe in the 17th century and quickly reached America.


Interestingly enough, this practice was an excuse for white mothers to avoid breastfeeding and forgo the messy part of motherhood. Once an enslaved mother gave birth to a child, she was quickly placed to work for a white mistress and nurse their child. Leaving the enslaved mother’s child without milk.


Wet nursing is a distant echo, still having an influence on how breastfeeding is practiced today. White mothers breastfeed their children at a much higher rate than black mothers because of past trauma. Many older generations of black mothers refused to breastfeed because they wanted to forget the pain, and it slowly stopped being practiced down the generational line. Now, if you search breastfeeding on google, you would never know that it wasn’t always a “white” thing.


***

I can’t stand in the shower anymore, so I sit on the floor of the tub staring up at the ceiling, trying to get the tears to stop falling. It’s a slow kind of panic. One that doesn’t show up until you are alone, having to wash off years of systematic wounding. I have many parts left to clean, but my heart won’t allow me to continue. If I were an Otto Bohler painting, the shape of the body would be a black silhouette curled into a ball on the floor, not knowing where I begin or end. Flashes of Sarah Baartman crosses the mind as I am reminded the shape of her body didn’t have the luxury of being profiled in a painting but exploited for the world to see as a freak show attraction.


Hands clutch the stomach, and I want it all to stop. The distant reminder that I can never escape generational trauma, cultural trauma, a complicated kind of trauma. A trauma that makes it hard to say that my black body is mine, even when I am washing it.


Resources:


Akhalbey, Francis et al. “The Disturbing History Of Enslaved Mothers Forced To Breastfeed White Babies In The 1600S — Face2face Africa”. Face2face Africa, 2018, https://face2faceafrica.com/article/the-disturbing-history-of-enslaved-mothers-forced-to-breastfeed-white-babies-in-the-1600s. Accessed 27 Jan 2021.


“What #Portlandmoms Tells Us About Whiteness And Motherhood”. Bitch Media, 2021, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/portlandmoms-whiteness-and-motherhood. Accessed 27 Jan 2021.


“Sarah Baartman”. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Baartman. Accessed 27 Jan 2021.


“Black Breastfeeding Is A Racial Equity Issue”. Healthline, 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/breastfeeding/black-breastfeeding-is-a-racial-equity-issue. Accessed 27 Jan 2021.

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