Dark & Lovely

by Quanisha Smith

I’m the daughter of a crack-head. For over 50 years, my mother worshipped at the altar of heroine and crack. Unlike other addicts in the Projects, she possessed a healthy weight, and her Hersey colored skin appeared unblemished. As she inserted needles in peculiar locations, she was able to easily cover her neck and thighs. High collared shirts, knee length shorts, and spandex hide the track marks. She maintained an apartment, and apparently, her child too. So, few knew her vice.

The drug dealers who possessed her secrets treated me as a little sister. They reminded me of my curfews and furnished me with dollars to buy quarter waters and lays chips. Our other secret, I raised myself and found refugee with my grandmother. My grandmother, raised in Savannah Georgia, migrated to New York City with her older brother and aunts at the age of 10. In addition to raising her seven children, my grandmother became the guardian of five more- the children of her two daughters taken over to drugs. Her oldest daughter died from an overdose 11 months after having her first child. The second, my mother, succumbed to addictive substances at age 15 after having her first child. My mother had four more children between 16 and 32 years old. I’m the youngest of five with four older brothers.

“She had a special obsession with you,” my grandmother shared when I was 21 in response to my baffling thoughts. “Why didn’t you save me?” I asked, “I told you about the drugs and her treatment towards me?”

After a minute of silence, she replied in soft low voice, “You had your mother. I never had one. I thought that was enough...That’s why I would always ask if any men touched you; That’s why we made sure you had food and clothes. I thought if you weren’t molested or hungry, then you were fine.” Three years later, my aunts shared how my grandmother disseminated her own forms of emotional torment. I hardly believed given how gently she handled me. My family inherited a warped since of love.

My mother loved me as a young child. But when I turned six, I observed a stronger emotion growing in its place. No longer did she kiss me and tell me she loved me. The hugs stopped, too. Her gazed dulled, and she often looked beyond me. I felt alone.

According to her sister, the care my grandmother and relatives bestowed upon me ignited my mother’s jealousy. With my natural ability to learn anything quickly, my mother’s was able to justify her negligence.

It was the night before picture day and I noticed my roots needed a relaxer. I begged my mother to apply the Dark & Lovely perm she promised to use weeks before. “You’re smart, just read the directions,” she barked at me more concerned with her fatigue- one not due to cooking me a hot dinner, washing my laundry or straightening behind me. I handled those things for myself. After my mother cooked her crack, she ran from room to room, frightened that “they” were after her. After two hours, she fell asleep on the couch. Her head uncontrollably bobbed forward and sideways.

More concerned with my appearance than with persuading with her, I flipped open the paper instructions and tore off the clear plastic gloves. I can do this. I based my scalp from the large jar of Vaseline, and covered my forehead ears in the neck. I parted my hair in four halves as the instructional diagram outlined. As I seen mother do previously, I smoothed my roots with the back of the comb and finished by using my hands to rub it down the length of my hair, gathering it up into a ponytail. I looked like Alfalfa from the Little Rascals. My scalp tingled. Time to rinse.

As I closed my eyes, I welcomed the cool rush of water over my nape and crown. It soothed the burning at my edges. I picked up the neutralizer and joyfully felt my hair’s renewed smoothness. As I always did, I leaned up to watch the suds form as I massaged my scalp. All white suds. Yes, the perm’s all out.

I rubbed the leave in condition through my hair and blow-dried it with my pink Conair blow-drier. Just as my mother taught me, I greased my scalp with Indian hemp pomade and rolled my hair in the black foam rollers. With my headscarf tied firmly around my forward I tucked myself into bed. Like most nights, I stared at the shadow the window bars casted on my bedroom wall; I cried myself to sleep.

I awoke the next morning to the WBLS radio disk jockey’s voice blasting from the living room stereo. When I arose from my bedroom dressed in my new gap kids outfit my brother purchased for me a month prior: Royal purple leggings with a matching royal purple and black stripped button down sweater- My mother beckoned to me her.

Inspecting my fresh bang and bun, she shook her head approvingly, “See, I knew you could do it. You can do it all by yourself from now on.”

“Okay. Thanks,” I replied. Never asking her to relax my hair again.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Quanisha M. Smith is a writer, speaker, trainer and social justice advocate based in Philadelphia, PA.  As a macro social work master’s candidate at Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work & Social Research, she explores issues centered on Black women, leadership, and social change. Visit www.QuanishaSmith.com  to join a new community dedicated to mentoring current and emerging Black women leaders.