You don’t know me from Adam but my mama told me about you the other day and I knew I had to write you, had to send a letter back through time, back 49 years, back to the spring of ‘69 where you will be 16 in a few months and I have started and stopped this letter at least a hundred different ways because I didn’t know if you would want to hear from me or care about what I had to say, which is just that I think you’re bad in the Blackest way, which is supposed to be a compliment, only I’m no good at this. Since I was five I’ve been tripping over my tongue at the mystery of teenage girls, those no-longer-little-but-not-yet-grown girls who seem to be free from everything but they mamas.
Mama said you was awful but I know that she was just mimicking her own mama and you can’t trust half the things grown women say about they daughters especially when those daughters get to the age of hiding all their best things behind the locked doors of their frowns. I think you’re bad. I think you’re good. I think you’re super cool and wonderful and beautiful and I love what you’ve done with your hair.
I knew we was meant to be friends when Mama told me the question you asked that bad man your mama picked: “How would you like to have a knife through your hand?” And I laughed.
And I can hear you saying “Tee hee, hell” because wasn’t shit funny about that, so let me explain. It was a laugh of recognition. You ever had a stranger walk up to you and just start talking and all the while you wonder who this is taking up my time and being all in my space and then something about the way they laugh makes you remember that you talking to your own cousin, the one you don’t see often but have seen enough to ought to have known better? And then you laugh because you are feeling foolish and relieved and maybe a little bit mean all at the same time and when all those feelings start to bubbling up together they can only come out in a few ways and laughter is probably the most socially appropriate so it was that kind of laugh. Like, Oh! It was you, girl? All along? Why you ain’t lead with that?
See, I been chasing you through the streets of Louisville and then on the yard at Howard and then in Indiana and then in Atlanta and then in the pages of books and then in my notes for a long and boring project called a dissertation and you been right here in my face. The entire time. My Sam. My ace boon. My bad somebody. My Hazel.
Before you say “who the hell” let me tell you about Hazel/ Sam. I met her in my early twenties just when I was wondering how to be okay in a place that tried to make me leave every day. And Toni Cade Bambara had been dead over ten years by then, but had left the gift of Hazel, a little girl character who bops through her short stories holding adults accountable for all the things they try to pull off on little kids. And I knew then that I was not Hazel, but that didn’t stop me from loving her on sight because by then I had spent a short lifetime chasing down Hazels in school halls and clinging for dear life. Because girls without sisters don’t always know what it is they are looking at in the mirror and they grow into walking question marks, and the best thing a question mark girl can do is find a best friend who has all the answers. And Hazel/ Sam was that friend. The kinda girl who’d much rather knock you down than stand there with all that talking. Hazel/ Sam was my best friend Kara who, in middle school, took one look at me and the company I chose and said, “You need to be with us.” I got up and followed. And Hazel/ Sam was Danielle, my best friend from fourth grade on who, in high school, smeared Vaseline all over her face so that punches wouldn’t land, then took a glass bottle down the street to find out who had been picking on her little brother. She’d been planning to make them stop, whoever they were, by breaking glass with their faces. And Hazel/ Sam was my best friend Konika, who knew all the latest dances and taught me how to glory in the miracle of this community of limbs we call a body. We practiced for hours in our driveways, using our bodies to talk back to Janie’s Nanny, who said that Black women were the mules of the world, because, burden or no burden, ain’t nobody seen a mule dance yet. It was you I was dancing with all along. That’s what my laugh said.
See, my mama filled your life and then mine with the only predictable people she knew-- characters who never woke up crazy without reason, which is kind of how daughters see their mamas until they ask the right questions about the girls they carry in their eyes. She gave us a thousand safe, imaginary not-mamas all huddled together in a bookshelf in the basement where I spent a large part of my childhood playing Barbies and reading and not growing the thick skin I would need for the rough and tumble ways of boys. That’s where I met the Macteer sisters who were also Hazel/Sam trying to save they best friend Pecola from the crazy of wishing to be White. And had Pecola survived to be your age and in her natural mind, I know one of those Hazel/ Sam sisters would have taught her how to ask Cholly, “How would you like a knife through your hand?” without blinking once. But Pecola got broken before she could learn to save herself.
I guess that’s why I’m telling you all this, Sam/ Hazel. I just want you to know that I know the way big people break little girl brains by leaving them to save themselves from things they ought not ever see. I’m just so proud of the way you saved yourself by turning fear to wish (as in, “I wish he would try” instead of “I’m afraid he will do”) and wishing us both whole. Because if you’re White and rich, childhood is the last time you have to survive the decisions of others but if you’re Black and not rich then childhood is just practice for designing a livable life on the other side of “despite.” And all that practice leaves imprints that become part of us until we don’t know the difference between a scar and birthmark.
Can I show you my scars? See those identical brown marks where the bones connect wrist to hand? These are the spots where I rest my wrists on the keyboard because they stopped teaching typing well after you graduate from high school and long before I start, so I had to learn to get fast my own way. Because the way my mama filled both our heads with so many words, the one-at-a-time letter choosing just won’t work when it’s time to say what I have to say. These scars mean I had a thing to do and I did it the best I could do. It means they are beautiful if you see beauty in functioning, in doing what you have to do, in making a way out of no way.
It’s a miracle you made a way. It’s a miracle I finally figured out that you are the girl I’ve been looking for, the girl I tried and try to emulate when life tells me to put some steel in my spine. It’s a miracle that I found you before too late, that I can laugh my recognition instead of crying it like Nel does when she realizes that Sula is her very own Hazel, her very own book of answers to questions she never even had to ask out loud. Only Sula’s gone by the time Nel knows, so Nel is just holding onto the shell of her former friend, a body without a spirit, when she says, “Girl, girl, girl, girl, girl…”
It’s a miracle you still there in my mama’s eyes, hiding behind all those years. Hey, girl. Hey.