I do not remember the first time I heard the phrase, “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” but I do remember how the words made me feel­­–exhilarated, heard, and seen. I no longer felt alone; I knew that someone had walked the dark-skinned path before me and created an affirmational comeback for ready use. The phrase was—and still is—a touchstone and a weapon, helping me defend myself against hurled insults. I loved how the phrase flowed off my tongue with ease, and I recited it as a child, with my whole self. I still use it today. These quips, comebacks, and verbal sparring matches are how we, as Black children, were taught to cope with internalized hate and racism. This is an ugly reality, but it is what we had. My older brother Willie had taught me not only in track, but how to defend myself against racists. I wrote about this in a poem, “Learning How to Run.”

So, when some white runners on Southside’s
Track Team called me: nigger.
You had already taught me this pocket-ready reply.
I’m not a nigger. I’m a negro,
when I become a nigger, I let you know.

The titular phrase of this essay, The Darker Berry, is taken from that powerful and humorous phrase. It became part of my solid foundation in gaining a sense of agency and a sense of self as a Black girl. Even as a very young girl, I felt there were two of me: a deep-mahogany girl, full of kinesthetic joy, ruling recess, and also a shadow-self, full of both fear and sorrow. As for joy, if you witnessed me from ages five to nine, you would have found me giving my little girl all in the outdoor play of hopscotch, hula-hoop, and handclap games. I loved these games wholeheartedly, and I took each one incredibly seriously. I truly believe they were my early understanding of poetry: rhythm, rhyme, and timing:

A sailor went to sea sea sea
To see what he could see see see
But all that he could see see see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea sea sea

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could outplay or out-dance me in those days. I lived in the moment as the hula-hoop went from neck to waist, to knees, to ankles. This is how I embodied “Be Here Now.” I was full of sass and kinesthetic wonder, like many Black girls. This is where I expressed my fullest self, and I did not need anyone to judge, teach, or correct me.

Yet, there was another part of me that cowered. I felt afraid, tortured, and full of sorrow. My large, amber eyes were giveaways. In our household, I was teased mercilessly about being a crybaby and a scaredy-cat, which was true. I was a highly sensitive child. I was often the butt of many of the family jokes because of my personality. Constantly, I was told I was too loud, too Black, too mannish, too messy, and too much. By the time I was five years old, I had internalized those negative messages. I felt like I did not deserve the space I took up or the air I breathed. Instead of feeling protected, I felt the complete opposite. Mama would say, when I ran to her for help, “If you can dish it out, you can take it.” I was five at the time, the youngest in a family of six. I was not dishing out anything.

As early as six years old, I remember retreating into books for solace and escape. For some reason, I love Peanuts. I really found myself in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. These books mapped a way out with their misfit characters. I was a tomboy who did not fit the traditional and conditional box of being a girl. These books helped me cope with my feelings of not being enough or feeling like I was too much and not fitting in. Unfortunately, at that time, I was not introduced to any Black authors or Black characters who could have reflected me and the problems I faced. Yet, books saved my life.

During that time, my mom considered my natural hair a burden–mind you, I had very fine, easy-to-comb hair, but my mom wanted to make combing my hair easier. She put a relaxer on my already-fine hair. She and her friend placed me in my baby brother’s high-chair in the kitchen. This experience was momentous because the rest of my siblings were in the den, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas! while I was scarred emotionally and physically. While my mom and her friend spread lye on my head to deal with its unruliness, I felt like I had transgressed with the 4C, tightly coiled hair on my head. The product they used was called “Curl Out.” The box had a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman. This alone should have told them this product was not for me, that this was a bad idea. They proceeded. The relaxer made my hair fall out and left scars on the back of my neck. This moment did not stick. At my core, I knew nothing was wrong with my hair in the first place. I loved my mother, but this was a bumbling move. They had botched my hair and my spirit by spreading lies through lye. Later, when I tried a relaxer in my teens, the sides of my hair began to fall out, and the dermatologist told me that I was allergic to the chemicals in the relaxer and that I should never use it again. I took him at his word. I cut my hair off to a short afro and began wearing my hair naturally. I was chastised for this taboo. I was told I was ugly. My mom told me I would never get a boyfriend with my hair so short.

I preferred my natural hair—whether in dreadlocks, an afro, or some other natural style—and I am pretty sure this preference stems from that horrific moment in the kitchen in Tacoma, Washington, on McChord Air Force Base. Now, I have very little hair, having been diagnosed with Stage 3 multiple myeloma. I know now what I knew then: that losing my hair was never really about my hair, no matter the negativity I received from my family and others.

It wasn’t until I was in the fourth grade that I got my first Black doll. She was a deep sienna hue. For the first time, I saw myself reflected positively, and I loved her. At my core, I knew I was inherently bright and beautiful, but it was a hard-won reckoning, fighting the Black community’s internalized hatred of dark skin and white people’s inherent racism. School also held its challenges, as I was often the one Black student in my class. Integrating a classroom was a hefty feat for anyone, let alone an elementary student.

For the most part, I enjoyed school despite the messages I absorbed about white standards of beauty and intellect. I suffered from being the only Black person in a sea of white people, year after year. I internalized what was put upon me about not being smart or pretty enough. Still, I excelled in reading and the arts. I loved the song “Get Along Home Cindy Cindy.” I sang it passionately in music class. Why this song? I do not know. I love the upbeat tempo. I think, even in elementary school, I was already a die-hard romantic. Even though I had a terrible singing voice, my music teacher adored me because I sang with my full self. This was the power of me–pouring my all into the arts or into sports. One day, I got on the merry-go-round after the principal had told everyone to get off. I had come later, so I had not heard the command. I was just going round and round, wondering why no one else was on it. The principal barked at me in front of everyone. I was told to go to the office. My next class was music and the teacher had us sing my favorite song, but I would not sing. She was crestfallen, and not even “Get Along Home Cindy Cindy” could lift me out of my depths. I was smarting over the injustice of it all. This is the feeling I have carried most of my life: misunderstood and put-upon.

The arts did save my life, though. I do not know where I would be without them. Our family was part of an aftercare “Head Start” program. My sister Velinda would come and get me when school ended, and we would head to the gymnasium for the enrichment program. I remember the first day, walking in through the doors of the gym. Music was playing. The floor was littered with batons and hula-hoops. A teacher was there, and she was teaching interpretative dance. My whole soul lifted. I finally found a way to express myself: through dance. I already knew what to do—it was if I just had to be reminded. This is the day I truly believe I became an artist. I loved the aesthetics and beauty of dance. I knew how to move and let the music overtake me. What I could not say in words, I could say through movement.

I have no doubt about why I took on the mantle of being a teaching artist. This experience gave me a pathway to walk and a lens to view myself and the rest of the world. It was my chief way to communicate. I needed this mode of communication. I struggled with some learning difficulties, but with dance and running, I needed no instruction; I just excelled. I struggled in math, and I carried so much shame about my inability to do arithmetic that I hid my math papers marked with a frown under the crawlspace of our duplex. Back then, words like “dyslexia” were not used. I knew I had trouble with numbers. I also had trouble identifying d from b. My parents and teachers did not know or care that I had already begun to absorb a message that I was not enough.

From middle school on up, I distinctly remember in class, when we were studying or discussing any topic dealing with Black literature and Black history, many of my white teachers would include the minimal coverage devoted to Black history but would ceremoniously end the unit with the question, “Does racism really still exist?’ This questioning served to undo whatever we had just covered, delegitimizing our culture. As a child, I already knew these white teachers were not only culturally incompetent but also leading with a dangerous arrogance and ignorance. This knowledge bred mistrust in me, and I viewed most teachers or professors with suspicion. Did they not know American history and the impact and fallout of slavery as an institution? I remember thinking about how privilege makes many whites both ignorant and arrogant. This is not to say that I did not have good teachers; I did, but they were few and far between.

Early on, I learned to put my head down and study the subject at hand, but I also learned to go to the library and to seek out poets and scholars to help me navigate the treacherous racist minefield. I began to deal with addressing both nuanced and blatant racial transgressions through writing. I am shocked and dismayed by how little those particular white people understood how structural racism permeates every aspect of the United States. It felt injurious to be taught by teachers and professors who were so ignorant. They are the same people who will say, “When are you going to let the past go?” What part of systemic torture and erasure of my people will I be able to let go? These are the same people who know their genealogical histories through family trees. They visit their homelands. They know their family crest and coat of arms. Many of them have come from varying degrees of benefits, via their ancestry and lineage, through land and wealth. Yet, as I strived to survive and to find and claim my history, they were offended and—much worse—they tried to silence and halt my search for an understanding of my familial and cultural plight.

When my father retired from the Air Force and we moved from New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base to rural South Carolina, I experienced complete and utter culture shock. This transition allowed me to contextualize history and understand my parents a little more. I was in their home state, but I was not ready for the segregated South. I was not ready for the unspoken mores of knowing my place. My siblings and I did not know our place. As Air Force brats, we were liberated from that mentality. We walked and talked a bit too freely for most of the whites and the Blacks from Piedmont, South Carolina. We were often told we wanted to be white when, in actuality, we were just being the freest versions of our Black selves. I was fine as long as I was one of the best dancers and runners, but when I had my nose in a book or when I excelled in school, the pushback came. These admonitions came from members of both the Black and white communities. I was an “other.”

South Carolina made me experience my Blackness differently. I remember when the Black girls on the track team donned sunblock (not for skin protection) and hid out under the shade in the trees, when we were not running, because their mamas told them not to get in the sun so that they would not get too black. Yes, I felt put-upon when the boy next door wanted the light-skinned girl down the street, even though he and I were the best of friends and had so much in common. I was the young woman of substance. I was too young to know this was hardly a fetching characteristic for boys. Then, my first love broke my heart by leaving me for a bright, almost-white woman. His departure was for the best, though; we were not equally yoked. I was a thinker, and he was not. I would have had a bigger heartbreak if we had married, but needless to say, I was still broken-hearted by his betrayal. He was a victim of being color struck.

I had my share of suitors, but it was not until college that I began to bloom. My Caribbean boyfriend thought I was beautiful, but he wanted me to know my place. That relationship did not last. My next boyfriend was white. He eventually became my fiancé, and then my husband. We had twins together. We have now been divorced for 27 years. He was the first guy to say, “You do not know, do you?” I said, “What?” He answered, “That you are beautiful.” I was graceful and stylish, and I exuded a certain joie-de-vivre. I would get the occasional, “You are pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” I never thought of myself as pretty, but I knew I emanated a radiance from the inside out. I had a generous heart, strong features, and an athletic build—also, a strong will and a straightforward personality. From a young age, I remember believing what Zora Neale Hurston had written: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me how anyone can deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

I think I had to fight really hard to embrace who I was since my father did not care for me, and he took every opportunity to let me know. He never once told me he loved me. He never once told me I was beautiful when I was a little girl. Now, as a mom and grandma, I cannot imagine not pouring love and adoration into a child. He was, obviously, emotionally and mentally unstable. Yet, I continued to rise above and override all of his negative messaging. This is an ongoing process. All girls want to be loved and adored by their fathers. I knew I did not want to inhabit my father’s dream-deferred syndrome. Though he was a proud, handsome, talented, and intelligent man, he eventually became broken by the system and his inner demons. My father should have been a world-renowned jazz, blues, and gospel pianist. Yet, he could not get out his own defeatist way. Though our relationship was mostly conflicted, I credit my father for the artistic and outspoken aspects of myself. Yet, my father gave way to alcoholism, prescribed narcotics, and an untreated mental condition. All he endured, I do not know, but I did get glimpses of how America—especially the South—helped break him.

I use poems and essays to help me breathe and unpack the trauma of being Black in a white world. The racist/prejudiced gauntlet was ever challenging. From birth, I felt like I was destined to be a social justice warrior. I was born the day before King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech,” and on the day I was born, W.E.B. Dubois died. As a poet/mystic, these astrological placements felt like my birthright. I could not articulate my pluck and resiliency when I was a child, but I grew to understand that what my family considered rebellious was the resistance of a poet, and a Black girl, and ultimately a Black woman insistent upon blooming instead of bowing my head. I needed this obstinance to navigate what the world would hurl at me consistently. I use these poems and essays to help me breathe and unpack the trauma of being Black in a white world. As a poet/writer, that is what I do. Here, I also honor my hard-won triumphs and celebratory moments as well. In this essay, I bear both the ruin and the fruit.