The morning goes as it always does: my gramma gently pulls me out of bed at 6 a.m., an hour after she’s already had her Folgers, pursued her lips at the news, and quickly changed the channel to her soaps. I am five years old, standing naked in gramma’s goldenrod bathroom with my cousins. Gramma starts with our arms, brushing away from our bodies with a sudsy washcloth soaked in hot, hot water. I watch the steam radiate from the cotton, one foot still caught in dreamland. Next, she scrubs our necks, chests and stomachs, taking a rest because she can’t bend down deep enough to get our adolescent legs and feet. She sits on the toilet, finally attacking our chicken legs. After, she tells us to clean our vulvas. We giggle. She wets the washcloth again, scrubbing at our faces and behind our ears until the dark skin beams red. When she is satisfied, she tells us to get dressed in the outfits she’s laid out on the bed. Breakfast is downstairs. And we best not spill anything on ourselves.
This ritual continued from the ages of two to seven years old, until grandmother deemed I was big enough to shower by myself. Gramma had a system: supervised, timed bath before bed, and some extra scrubbing in the morning for good measure. Presentation was everything to my grandmother, and even if she didn’t say it out loud, she knew that we were reflections of her.
There’s no denying that I was probably the most impeccably dressed, best smelling kid in my school. I went to a predominantly white private school for elementary and middle school, which meant, for gramma and my mother, that we were constantly proving ourselves worthy to not only the teachers, but the other parents. White folks look for any excuse to deny non-white people their humanity, so you better give them a damn good reason to say something out of line.
Every day, gramma would send me to school in fresh nylons, a starched dress, polished shoes and my hair slicked back so tight I couldn’t sleep during nap time. I remember seeing the strained look on my grandmother’s face when she would come and pick me up from school, her handiwork completely unraveled: my permed hair frizzed up, my dress smeared with paint and juice, shoes filled with sand, skin reeking of play.
Black folks have always been stewards of cleanliness. From scrubbing white folks floors to the clean, precise parts in our hair, we make shit glisten. On days when I didn’t want to perform the ritual, gramma would always chide me, reminding me of the sacrifices her family went through, the Mississippi devils that haunted her nightmares to this day, how white people refused to use the same swimming pools as Black people, how the little white kids called her family dirty, slimy, nasty, gross. They would laugh at her nappy head, saying that she had nits, never mind the fact that it was really, really hard for Black folks to get lice. On one particularly heated afternoon, after I had taken out my hair for picture day, my grandmother slapped her hand against the driving wheel upon seeing my loose hair, angry because once again, I had undone her mornings work, but also because I had released the illusion. I was no longer packaged, no longer safe.
I spent my adolescent years in an improbably clean house. We never had white guests over as company, but grandma knew how people gossiped about, and she never wanted to give anyone an excuse to say that her house was anything less than pristine. Any mess that materialized came from my adolescent hands, and warranted a spanking, a timeout, and a lecture on the importance of keeping a clean home. Gramma’s hands were never soft like those of the sweet old ladies she kept company with, the ones who caressed my cheeks and smoothed my untamable hair. Hers were rough, cracked and stiff, with callouses that made whuppings unbearable. But these were the hands that oiled my scalp and detangled my naps. They spent ages submerged in ammonia, scraping microscopic pieces of food from kitchenware. They smacked mischievous bottoms, they soaked greens, planted tulips, prayed, handled popping oil like a pro, wiped sticky mouths clean, clapped along to Earth Wind & Fire. All while dealing with the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis.
Dirty was probably the worst insult you could throw at gramma. Cleanliness meant quieting the parts of yourself that were deemed too loud, too Black, too extreme for this narrow white world.
I always wondered why gramma put her body through the torture, sacrificing comfort for approval. Clean meant conforming. Perhaps instead she was seeking a sort of safety against the white gaze by leaning into it. Moving from Pelahatchie to Detroit to Denver never really mattered- white folks were white folks no matter where you went. Some were just able to be a little bit more polite in their racism. Because white opinion matters so much- it shaped policy, it controlled the media, it got buildings torn down, fences put up, told people to go back to their own country and burned as many bridges as possible in the name of self-preservation- we became yolked to it. It was an insidious attachment that created new definitions on how to live, and how to be seen.
In the memoir Heavy, author Kiese Harmon recalls a kid in his Catholic school class, Jabari, who oftentimes come to school in old, worn out clothes, stinking because he doesn’t have a washing machine at home. He is relentlessly taunted by the white kids at school, and even a teacher, instead of talking to Jabari, hints at Kiese and his friends that they should do something about Jabari’s….situation. Jabari, a kid who wants to fit into this white world, who is arguably the best writer at Holy Family, cannot be seen as such because of this title “gross” that has been bestowed upon him by white students and teachers alike. Kiese wonders how a teacher can truly teach a child they consider “gross.”
Gross becomes the new vernacular for describing undesirable bodies. The vernacular is different: Black folks will say you funky, you stank, you musty- white folks will straight up call you gross. That’s something that slices to the soul. Gross becomes synonymous to unworthy, undesirable. Since Blackness is so heavily policed, regarded as so dirty, a permanence must be attached to that undesirability. And we do this policing of ourselves and each other. No braids. Straighten your hair. Dreadlocks are unclean. They won’t kill you if you are wearing a neat, modest dress or a suit and tie. Don’t have tattoos- they’ll say you were a gang member. No wrinkles. Don’t give them an opportunity. Keep your hands in view and cross your legs. Shrink yourself. Become invisible. Thus we are overcome with the excess of not belonging, attempting to find some part of our excess that can rest easy.
I was always a rebellious kid, something my gramma would probably tell me is a gentler way of saying “goddamn hard-headed.” My gramma died when I was ten years old, but even by that time I had started finding myself through my own abundance. Bright colors. Loud makeup. Ripped jeans and a big mouth. I don’t think I was born with a filter. Respectability politics be damned: I wanted to spill over and be undeniably visible. I wanted to be heard, not ignored. I’m probably giving my younger self too much credit, but I sometimes wonder if rebelling was my very loud protest against the confines of whiteness that I not only experienced in class, but at home. No matter how much you want to control the narrative, white people will always have their own presupposed notion of what it means to be Black. My hair will always spark unwarranted conversation; my body is policed still in ways that I don’t fully understand. When I walk down the street in all my glitter and bright color, I don’t know if the looks I receive are ones of confusion, appreciation or disgust. I don’t shave my armpits and I keep my box braids down my back. I sweat out all my anger; I take long showers like I’m trying to scrub some of that rage away. But if I really want to get free, why would I tame the parts of myself whose appetite for freedom drives me forward?
The thing is: I can no longer bother myself with the white gaze anymore. Blackness is too rare and too unique to confine itself to the narrow limits of white hegemony. Black people are effortlessly beautiful. That beauty is dangerous- it inspires wildness, transcends borders, demands space that it is too often denied. Black will never be digestible; it’s not in its nature. You will try to conform to their world and it will leave you without breath. When we commit ourselves to undoing the white supremacy imposed on the Black household, we free ourselves to take part in all of our abundance.
When I saw the video of former soldier Gledon Oakley retelling his experience rescuing kids during the El Paso shooting, I first saw him as another man in military wares. In that uniform, he went from scary Black dude to upstanding, U.S. patriot. But then I thought deeper about how on that day he was just like any other shopper, how he probably rolled out of bed that morning and put on the simplest outfit he could find, how in follow up interviews he was uniformless, dressed down in baggy jeans, an old tee and a durag. Crying. Grieving. Powerful. Black people are superheroes, even in durags and gold chains.
Yes gross, like abundance. Like limitless. Like the sum of all our parts, and then more.
Ashia Ajani is a graduate of Yale University. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in Environmental Studies with a specialization in environmental justice and food rights. She is originally from Denver, Colorado, but currently resides in Jamaica Plain, MA. She was awarded honorable mention in the National YoungArts Foundation’s poetry section in 2015. She has been published in Atlas&Alice Magazine, The Journal, Pilgrimage Press, Sage Magazine, Brushfire Literature & Arts, and The Hopper Magazine, among others. She is a 2019 PEN America Writing for Justice Finalist. She released her first chapbook, We Bleed Like Mango, in October of 2017.