The Only Two Black Girls at Boarding School
Confronting racism and colorism in friendship and literature
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The other African girl was tall. She had a broad, square-shaped body with muscular arms and legs. Her skin was like onyx, very black and shiny from the baby oil she smoothed on after her morning bath. Her name was Agatha and she was from Kenya.
When I first arrived at St. Mary’s in the middle of the term, she sat on her bed watching as Auntie Harriet helped me to unpack my things. All of the other girls were lounging on the sofa and armchairs at the front end of the long, narrow dormitory. They were painting each other’s toenails bright pink and eating a large tin of Quality Street chocolates. I noticed that they were all white or Asian. The girls had not looked up when Auntie Harriet and I walked in with Sister Miller, who asked me if I had brought a hot water bottle to sleep with. It could be rather cold at night in this part of England. It didn’t get cold where we were from, did it?
I was often the only, or one of very few, black students at the schools I attended. My father worked for the United Nations. In Year Three at an international school in Rome, a boy refused to hold my hand during a game of Ring Around the Rosie because his mother said that God left black people in the oven too long. That meant that we were mistakes. The teacher corrected him: Colored people are just like us. I was not supposed to correct teachers, so I didn’t say anything about her use of the word colored. Everyone in my class called me burnt toast behind my back for months. Then, a popular girl started putting twigs in my big curly hair at recess and laughing at how they did not fall out. Once, I grew hot and I shoved her hard. I was pleased that she skinned her knee and that she looked ugly when she cried. For a full year, until we moved again, I did not have a single friend. From those experiences, I learned to observe carefully. I learned there were ways to make it so that race didn’t matter, or at least so that it didn’t matter as much.
“Agatha,” Sister Miller said, motioning for her to come over to us, “this is Nadia. She is from Ghana.” She said it like “Gay-Na.” “Is that near Kenya?”
“Not really,” said Agatha. “Nice to meet you.”
My father taught me to say, when people asked me where I was from, that I was Ghanaian. I overheard him tell a friend that my American passport was just a practicality. It would enable me to go to college in the States without any trouble. And, it would easily open up doors for me that had taken him many years to jimmy open. He sounded angry about all of this. He said the word American as though it was an insult. My mother, who left him — left us — when I was two, was Armenian-American.
A few days after that conversation, a woman on the metro in Rome asked me if I was Indian. She was looking back and forth between my father and me with a furrowed forehead. People often walked up and asked me questions like that. The woman’s tone suggested that she couldn’t figure me out and she didn’t like it. “My daughter is black,” my father snapped. The woman hurried away. “Don’t ever be confused about that,” he said to me, as though being confused was a choice, as though blackness was a simple thing.
I am not proud of this, but when I met Agatha and observed that we were to be the only two black girls in the dorm, I was relieved that she was dark-skinned. I was relieved that she had a wider nose, nappier hair, and fuller lips than me. I was relieved because this meant I would not be at the bottom of the racial pecking order. To be clear, I did not believe that this pecking order was just or right. My father was dark-skinned and so were many of the people I loved and respected the most. But it did not matter what I believed. The rules were written long before I arrived at St. Mary’s, long before Agatha and I were born. I knew the rules well because they shaped my life, and also because I was obsessed with literature about people like me: Black people, in-between people, people who complicated the rules.
In “Why I Love Black Women,” sociologist and writer Michael Eric Dyson wrote:
The preference for (light skin) finds painful precedent in black culture. It dates back to slavery when the lightest blacks — whose skin color was often the result of rape by white slave masters — were favored over their darker kin because they were closer in color and appearance to dominant society.
Mulatto slaves, as they were then called, were often viewed as more intelligent and were thus assigned indoor domestic work instead of strenuous outdoor, manual labor. Many were taught to read and write, and in some cases were even granted freedom before it was required by law. This preferential treatment was designed to stratify the black community and to establish whiteness as the ideal to be aspired to, even among black people.
After the American Civil War, these divisions persisted, as lighter-skinned former slaves had internalized their privilege. They often distanced themselves from darker black people through marriage and the establishment of separate civil and cultural organizations. And the transition into freedom was easier for light-skinned black people because of the stereotypes that white people held about blackness. In his book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, Walter Johnson notes that dark-skinned slaves, particularly men, were believed to be more prone to violence and theft and incapable of controlling sexual urges. After slavery, darker-skinned black people found it more difficult to find paid work.
The same forces that led to the privileging of lighter-skinned black people in America were also exerted in Africa during colonialism. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon writes that “the colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.” This truth was evident in Rwanda, for example, where first German and then Belgian colonists favored the Tutsi tribe over the Hutu tribe based on the Hamitic hypothesis.
This hypothesis, believed by many Western scholars at the time, held that there were two races present in Africa: the Hamitic race and the Negroid race. The Hamitic race was thought to be a superior race of people who originated in northern Africa. British historian C. G. Seligman went so far as to claim that all significant discoveries and advancements in African history, including those of Ancient Egyptians, were achieved by Hamites. He argued that Hamites migrated into central Africa as pastoralists, bringing more sophisticated customs, languages, technologies and administrative skills with them. Hamites were believed to be more closely related to Caucasians. Tutsis were believed to be descendants of Hamitic people because they had more ‘European’ features. Hutus were believed to be fully Negroid. Tutsis were therefore allowed more access to education and jobs. Ethnic identity cards were introduced to ensure tribal division. Many have argued that this division was at the root of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, during which members of the Hutu majority murdered as many as 800,000 Tutsi people.
After pointing to the wardrobe and telling me that I should put my things in it, Sister Miller disappeared into her small private room in a corner of the dormitory. We heard the theme song for Coronation Street through the open door. Agatha sat on the chair next to the bed that was to be mine. She listened to Auntie Harriet and me as we chatted about how I should make sure to wear two pairs of socks if it snowed and how much money I would get each week for the tuck shop. Agatha nodded at everything we said as though she was somehow a part of our arrangements.
Auntie Harriet tied her shoulder-length box braids back with a hairband that had been around her wrist. She took all of my things out of my small suitcase and placed them neatly in the drawers. My new green and red school uniforms were hung in the closet and a teddy bear was placed on my pillow, even though I was twelve. Then, Auntie Harriet hugged me and told me that she would come back to get me in two weeks. She would bring a hot water bottle. I was to spend every other weekend with her in London.
“Nice to meet you, Agatha,” she said, “I hear that Kenya is a very nice place, very advanced for Africa.”
“Yes,” said Agatha, nodding more vigorously.
I had come to St. Mary’s because my father thought that all the moving around was disrupting my education. He had left his small village for boarding school in Kumasi at the age of nine. Boarding school, he believed, would teach me to be independent. It would provide more educational rigor and discipline than the American school in Rome where he had recently been transferred back to from the Kampala office. He called the school in Rome “Foolishness International.” When we went there for a tour, the principal let us peek into the classrooms while lessons were in session. Later that day, my father told my stepmother that the children seemed to spend all day painting with their fingers and expressing their opinions. How could they have opinions when they didn’t know anything yet? Nobody knew anything until they were at least eighteen. First you should learn facts; then you can form opinions. Anabel laughed.
“That is not how they think in America,” she said, “Everyone is entitled to an opinion, even children. Facts or no facts.”
In the dining hall that night, I learned that all of the girls in my dormitory — the Year Nine girls — were to sit together at every meal. Agatha told me this as we stood in line to be served our shepherd’s pie and sides of peas. She had not left my side. She showed me where the toilets and the showers were. She explained the schedule — what time the bells for breakfast, assembly, church, and classes would ring. I had already gotten this information in writing from the boarding mistress that morning, but I let her tell me anyway. As she talked, I watched the other girls. I wondered why Agatha was not with them. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, looking at teen magazines and gushing over boy band members. If there was something wrong with Agatha, I didn’t want to inadvertently become associated with whatever it was. I hoped that race was not the issue, but I did not rule it out as a possibility.
Agatha set her plate down at the very end of the table, leaving a space on the bench between herself and a pretty blonde girl with rosy cheeks. The blonde girl looked like the girls in the school’s brochure, the ones who had been running around in the field of geese. I sat across from her rather than across from Agatha. I could feel Agatha staring at me, but the boarding mistress said grace so I was able to close my eyes to avoid looking at her. A twinge of guilt tightened my heart and I resented it. It was not as though I sat so far away from her, I told myself.
“I’m Nadia. What’s your name?” I asked the blonde girl as the room filled once again with loud conversation. She perked up at my question.
“Are you American?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, sensing immediately that this was the right answer. My father was the one who had exiled me to this school. I couldn’t be expected to follow his rules about nationalities now. I was alone and had to fend for myself. If my American accent (courtesy of my international school education and the summers spent with my mother in Massachusetts) was an asset, then why should I not use it to my advantage?
“I’m Claire,” she said. “Everybody, Nadia’s American.”
It quickly became clear that Claire was the most important of the Year Nine girls. The other girls watched her while they talked. When her upturned nose wrinkled, they started to stammer, reversing what they were saying. It also quickly became clear that Claire did not like Agatha. Claire doled out her attention evenly, giggling at jokes and smiling at each girl as she asked them a question or approved of an opinion. But she never so much as glanced at Agatha, who ate her meal in silence.
After dinner, we were allowed to watch a film in the common room. Claire selected The Wizard of Oz from the sparse collection on a small bookcase against the wall. There were not that many films the nuns deemed appropriate for young ladies. Nobody else even attempted to weigh in on the decision. As I settled into a beanbag chair and Claire turned off the lights, Agatha walked by the common room in her pajamas, a book in her hand.
“Thank God she’s not coming in here,” said Claire. “She smells so horrible. Didn’t you notice, Nadia? It’s really awful, isn’t it?”
All of the girls turned to look at me.
“Oh, yes,” I lied, “It’s so bad. I’ve been holding my breath all day.”
Everyone laughed and Claire pressed play.
The next day, when my father called, I could barely bring myself to speak to him, I was so ashamed.
In George Schuyler’s 1931 novel Black No More, Dr. Junius Crookman develops a revolutionary process that can make black people white. Max Disher becomes one of his first customers after he is rejected by a white woman. Black Max becomes white Matt. He marries Helen, infiltrates a white supremacist organization, extorts millions of dollars, and absconds to Europe. Meanwhile, as more and more black people become white, black leaders lose their power and America loses its cheap labor. The country is in turmoil. Then, it is discovered that it is possible to identify “new” white people because they are several shades lighter than “original” white people. So, America throws out notions of white superiority and, instead, everyone rushes to purchase skin darkening creams. Now, black becomes beautiful. Through satire, Schuyler illustrates the absurdity of racism.
“My sociology teacher had once said,” Dr. Crookman tells reporters during a press conference, “that there were but three ways for the Negro to solve his problem in America…To either get out, get white, or get along.” There was no way for me to get out of St. Mary’s, though I begged my father. It seemed that getting along would be difficult without Claire’s approval. So, I stooped to what Max did. I rejected blackness, and embraced whiteness.
That week, I carefully considered every move I made. I got to know each of the Year Nine girls and to understand their places in the social order. Claire’s full name was Lady Claire Suggitt-Jones. Her father was a member of the House of Lords. Her mother was a beautiful socialite who was frequently in the pages of Hello Magazine at polo tournaments and ribbon cuttings. Most of the other English girls were of a similar ilk — either titled or moneyed. My family could only afford the school fees because they were paid by my father’s employer. Claire’s sidekick, Veronica Ivanenko, was the most beautiful girl in our year, more beautiful than Claire but without any discernible personality of her own. Her father was a Russian millionaire. Her parents were divorced and her mother was now dating a famous pop star. The three Asian girls were all from Honk Kong. They would occasionally wander off together, speaking in Cantonese. Of them, Patricia was the leader because she had a wicked sense of humor that even Claire, who prided herself on being quick to jab a precise joke into the fleshy part of other people’s stories, had to admire. Around Claire, Patricia was quieter, more prudent with her dry wit. She too, it seemed, played by the rules.
I began to develop my role in the group. Because I was believed to be American, I was expected to behave like the teenagers in the American television shows that the girls watched a great deal of. Luckily, I had watched the same shows. I was supposed to roll my eyes frequently at the stuffiness of life at St. Mary’s. This was not difficult to do. I did find St. Mary’s stuffy. I was also supposed to have some experience with boys and other forbidden things like cigarettes and alcohol. I didn’t have any experience with any of those things, but it wasn’t difficult to pretend that I did. Nobody knew me. Because I had often found myself without friends in the past, I had spent a lot of time alone with nothing but books and my imagination to keep me company.
Always, Agatha watched me. As I walked to the tuck shop with Claire and Veronica, she followed close behind, her eyes searing my back. Once, I entertained the girls by arguing with Sister Miller who wanted to tear the pages about dating and menstruation out of our magazines. Puritanical suppression of ideas, I called it. Agatha listened, but did not laugh when everyone else laughed. Since her bed was across from mine, sometimes she would walk over to try to talk to me before lights-out. I didn’t ignore her, but I didn’t encourage her either. I answered her questions in as few words as possible.
“The food here is not nice, is it? Do you miss eating food from home?”
“Not really,” I said, even though every time I went to Auntie Harriet’s for the weekend, all I wanted was foo foo and peanut soup.
“Is there a place in London where you go to do your hair? I need to get my braids redone.”
“My Aunt does it,” I said. In truth, Auntie Harriet took me to a place in Wembley once a month. I felt bad for lying about that because Agatha’s hair was starting to look bad. There was a lot of unbraided growth. The extensions in the front of her head were hanging onto her short baby hairs for dear life. But I didn’t want to risk losing my status by inviting her to come to the salon with me.
A month after I started school at St. Mary’s, I began to find Agatha’s braids everywhere. I found one in the shower and one in the entrance to the laundry room. One of the Belgian nuns who washed our clothes (I never learned why the nuns were assigned jobs based on nationality. The Belgians did laundry; the Irish worked in the kitchen) handed it to me thinking that it might be mine. Given that potential confusion, I made sure to dispose of every braid I found, wrapping them in toilet paper and throwing them into the garbage. Meanwhile, Agatha’s hair was looking more and more desperate. She tried to cover it up with headbands and ribbons, but they weren’t much help. Unlike me, she had no family in England. I was the only African girl she knew.
One day, during P.E., it was warm enough to play field hockey outside instead of playing handball in the gymnasium. We all changed into the very short green skirts and matching bloomers we wore for sports activities. We ran three laps around the field to warm up. Claire and Veronica jogged right in front of me.
“Look at her go,” Claire said pointing at Agatha. “She looks like a gorilla. Like a giant ugly gorilla.”
I picked up speed and passed them. It would be easier for me to pretend not to have heard her. I ran faster than I had ever run in my life.
That night, at dinnertime, Veronica found one of Agatha’s braids in the bread basket as we stood in line for roast beef and potatoes. She shrieked so that everyone turned to see what was happening. Claire picked up the braid with a napkin.
“Oh my days,” she said. “It’s Agatha’s filthy weave. It probably has insects in it. I’ve completely gone off my food.” She said this in a loud voice for all to hear. She dropped the braid on the floor dramatically.
The hall roared with laughter. I saw that even Sister Harris, who had a soft spot for Agatha, chuckled.
“Nadia,” Claire squealed, “Are your braids going to fall out like Agatha’s?”
“No,” I said trying to sound light, “mine are not fake like hers.” I decided I would put a photograph of my mother up on the wall behind my bed. She had olive skin and straight, silky hair. Never mind that I barely knew her.
Behind me, I heard a tray slam down onto the counter. I turned around to see Agatha walk calmly but stiffly out of the dining hall.
After that, Agatha stopped trying to talk to me before lights-out. She stopped watching me.
In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Pecola longs, painfully, for blue eyes. She idolizes Shirley Temple and detests her dark skin that even her own mother deems ugly. She is tormented at school. She sees whiteness as the key to being loved. She obsessively eats candies, the wrappers of which are printed with a photo of a blonde-hired, blue-eyed girl named Mary Jane. She hopes that eating the candy will transform her eyes to blue. She also appeals to God. But she only receives her blue eyes through madness after she is raped by her father, gives birth to his child, and is thoroughly shunned by her community. She decides the shunning is because everyone is jealous of her blue eyes. Perhaps her fixation on blue eyes as opposed to white skin speaks to a deep-seated knowledge that it is the world that needs to change, not her. Because she cannot change the world, she chooses to see it differently, through different eyes.
I too chose to blind myself, but I chose to blind myself to the horrible way in which Agatha was treated. The narrator of The Bluest Eye tells us this of how people felt about Pecola: “Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health.” I cannot claim that I did not relish the fact that I was accepted by Claire while Agatha was not. I cannot claim that under Claire’s blue-eyed gaze, I did not, despite my guilt, glow with health.
On Friday, Auntie Harriet came to take me to London. Agatha was sitting on her bed reading a book. She had headphones on. She almost always had her headphones on in the dormitory now.
“Ay!” said Auntie Harriet, catching a glimpse of the state of affairs on Agatha’s head. “We should take her with us to Wembley. Does she have no one to braid her hair?”
I could not think of a reason that would make sense to Auntie Harriet as to why Agatha should not come with us. So, Auntie Harriet spoke to Sister Miller and then to Agatha who looked up at me, surprised. Agatha called her parents in Nairobi to ask for permission.
As we walked out of the dormitory, Claire stared at us open-mouthed. There would be questions, questions to which I was already thinking up answers.
“Thank you,” Agatha said to me quietly in the car. Tears filled my eyes. She had nothing to thank me for. I knew I would be nice to her as long as we were in London, but things would not change when we were at school. Not if I could help it. She observed me, smiling a sad little smile. Then, she turned to look out the window. It was grey and raining. It was always either grey or raining or both.
“Whatever these English people did to deserve this weather,” said Agatha, “must have been bad, very bad.”
The memory of how I treated Agatha still causes me to hang my head, to gnaw at my cuticles, to feel an uncomfortable remorse. It has led me to reckon with my own relative privilege. I know, from life and literature, how insidious racism is, how destructively absurd. I used to look to literature to help me understand how to exist in an often racist world. I sought to understand the unjust rules, and admittedly, how to make them bend in my favor.
Now, I read to understand how to reject them, how to rewrite them. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes:
The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.
This realization is deadly because it forces you to see how you are implicated in racism and the violence that results from it. It is subtle because complicity is often made up of small decisions and actions. Complicity is an unspoken word, an unasked question, an unextended invitation. It is the decision to sit across from a blonde girl rather than a black one. Complicity is an act of distancing. It is willful blindness.