A Tale of Two Faces

A Tale of Two Faces

America In Black
The Root

Marguerite Matthews

The writer’s paternal grandparents, left, and her parents.
Photo: Marguerite Matthews

America. In Black. is a weekly essay series that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.

My mother tells me I look like my grandmother, a brown belle whose features I know only through faded photographs and choppy 8mm film strips. I try to imagine the experience of a woman with whom I seem to share a face, with her growing up under Jim Crow in the 1910s and 1920s as a black girl in Elizabeth City, N.C., and maturing into womanhood in Atlantic City, N.J. I don’t know much about her, but I know she was a badass because she wore pants, traveled the world without her husband, and bore her first child (my father) in her 30s. My grandmother dared to defy the norms of her time, and in that way, I think I look like her, too.

My friends, on the other hand, tell me I look like my mother, a bronze beauty whose eyes I have been swallowed by for more than three decades. As a child, I looked into the sepia-colored face of my mother’s childhood and declared she was me. She was born and raised in California to Spanish-speaking parents from Texas who were desperate to escape their Mexican-ness and assimilate into white American culture. Without any desire to be or pass as white, my mother bathed her skin in the sun even after warnings of getting too dark and risked being disowned for marrying a black man. A true chingona, my mother has lived life on her own terms. And I hope I look like her in that way, too…

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