There's a guy who lives on my corner I call Homeless Jesus. He talks with a slur and every day advises me to "smile more," regardless of the fact that I thought I was smiling. And I mean actually smiling, like with my mouth and with my eyes. But none of that matters to Homeless Jesus, because according to my street therapist, black girls as a monolith simply don't smile enough. They're non-smilers — even when they are.
See, there's something funny that happens to black girls on their way to puberty.
The first time I called another girl a bitch, I was 12. Her name was Natalia, and she was the first person I met who cursed without looking over her shoulder, blurting out the word f*** on the playground like someone taught her how. She never smiled. Instead she wore a casually practiced smirk that seemed to say, Nothing you're saying matters.
Natalia got her hair cut at the salon where my mom and I lived (in the two rooms in the back). Her hair had an asymmetric shape that made her look like a teenager, despite the fact that, like me, she still wore a useless training bra. She was, like, the coolest girl in sixth grade, and I wanted to be friends. Figuring the best way to go about that would be by insulting her in front of the girls, when someone asked me what I thought of Natalia, I said, "She's a total bitch," my voice shaking only slightly.
Of course, word got back to Natalia about my nerd attempt at being the bad girl in front of the girls. You know the ones: They had secret sleepovers they forgot to tell you about on Friday but had no problem remembering the details of by Monday. But instead of being pissed, Natalia was sort of proud. "Well, I guess I am," she said, and instead of slapping me across the face, she slapped me on the back. I was in.
Before then, I'd been operating solely on the periphery of coolness since starting at Catalina Public School, the local public school. My mom thought I'd had enough of the heterosexual propaganda perpetuated by the Avalon Christian Academy, the one-room, little red schoolhouse at which I'd spent my most formative years.
After a month with "the normal kids" at Catalina, I figured that cool and Christ didn't mix. I'd have to start cursing and stop caring if I ever wanted to be friends with Natalia and perhaps get kissed by Justin Ramirez — if I was lucky. So when I called that clearly damaged girl a bitch in 1992, I was doing it less because I thought it true and more because I thought it necessary. Inviting her over to play with the new black Barbie my mom had bought me wasn't going to do it.
Everyone called me Olive Oyl. Because if Melanie Griffith in Working Girl had a "head for business and a bod for sin," I had a head for study dates and a body for "just friends." In high school, I waited patiently for puberty and parenthetical hips that never came. When you're 16, brown-skinned, skinny and unkissed, Lil' Kim lyrics might as well be hymns. Eventually I'd learn that finding men wasn't miraculous.
But that first lesson I got as a girl — that looking like the Joker wasn't cool — kind of stuck, even though I'm happy about life and keep my teeth white. So I'm partially responsible for the too-cool-for-school stance that permeates the "Mad Black Woman" campaign immortalized by filmmaker Tyler Perry. It's the trope that says black women are less than actual human beings with layered emotions and varied reactions to the world around them. Instead they are über-cool comic-book caricatures, always unaffected by the reality rushing toward them on a daily basis. Black women, then, live above the world, as opposed to in it.
Some of them simply disappear. On the cusp of 13, they stop being little girls and instead morph, telephone-booth style, into tiny superheroes. Before they know what's hit them like a speeding bullet, these former civilians begin to hide behind a mask of invisibility. Their secret identities — sweet, innocent, fearless, approachable — become just that. Secret. In public — perhaps too afraid to be their regular selves, for fear of disappointing the faceless masses who couldn't care less — these little women become warriors in a fight they didn't start. And their weapon of choice? Not smiling.