Strands and Roots

She combed my hair. I screamed, warning my elder brother to stop his mocking or he was seriously going to feel my eight-year old’s wrath. Tears streaming down my face, I cursed this black, curly mop atop my tender head. Why did it have to hurt so much? Why couldn’t my hair comb out gently like my friend Heather’s? Her auburn waves swished from side to side as she walked. My hair never moved; it defied movement. My favorite time of the day was when my hair was wet and in a ponytail. Although it dried to a curly poof, when it was wet, it swished for a few minutes. I felt pretty when my hair swished and immediately felt unworthy when it dried.

“Gabby! Look! You have blonde and red strands in your hair.” Sniffling and snotty, I ceased my sobbing. “I do? Where?” My mother pulled them over my head so I could see them and there they were. Indeed, this brown-skinned girl had blonde and red hair on her head. “But why?”

“That’s because your father is German and Irish, Gabby. See?” At that age, I wasn’t aware that red hair is actually not as common in Ireland as we all think it is, and I was swept up into the mystery of it all. My seemingly homogeneous black curly head was invaded by these straight blonde and red strands and I decided to find out where they started.
I used to study my face in the mirror next to my parents’ bedroom. Their union had created me, mixed me. I could clearly see that my skin resembled my mother’s although her tone seemed more of a true brown and I could glimpse traces of yellow and white in mine. My eyes were definitely hers: large and dark brown. I’ve been told that I have “mysterious” eyes. I think the only mystery is that you can’t see through them, like you can with blue and green eyes. I’m grateful for my dark eyes. My eyes hide the secrets I dare not tell. My hair I always assigned to my beautiful Puerto Rican mother, although her curls were looser and softer than mine had ever been. The day that my mother pointed out the different colors and textures of my hair, my mixed hair, I began to feel different.

Instead of studying my face, I began to spend time pulling my hair apart, separating the black coils from the blonde strands, desperately looking for the root. Where did this madness all begin? I could not explain it. There they were: different colors, different textures, co-existing on the same head, my head. This new discovery excited me! I used to look for evidence of my father in my features. I’d look in the looking glass and see brown, only brown, all over me. Now, I saw my father’s roots in my roots, even though the evidence was small. It seemed like only I could see these blonde and red strands. They were a private secret I kept inside. If anyone discounted my Germanic claim, I had the evidence in and on my head.

As a woman, I reflect on experiences like these and I think about the deeper significance of it all. What was eight-year old Gabrielle searching for? When people made jokes about her father, claiming that she wasn’t actually his biological child. She couldn’t be. She was brown and he was white. When people became investigators, picking apart her features and announcing which were “white” and which were “Puerto Rican”, as though the two are mutually exclusive. When people asked her why her name was Gabrielle and not Gabriella. When people made fun of her last name, Greiner, and asked why she had such a harsh name for a Latina. Oh she’s German? Maybe she had Nazi blood in her.
What was fifteen-year old Gabrielle searching for? When she got her first decent haircut of her life because none of the hairdressers in upstate NY were aware that curly hair exists. When she feared going grocery shopping with her father, lest the other customers think he was her sugar daddy or something. She made sure she always called him “Dad” and talked about “Mom” who was home cooking something delicious for Sunday dinner that night. When she faced questions as she got off the bus with her elder brother, her brother with the light skin. Her brother with the straight hair. “Is he your boyfriend, Gabby? Oh, your brother? You don’t look alike at all.” When she faced the daily micro-aggressions from white people and was rejected by Latinos at the same time, leaving her with her small family as support.

What is twenty-three year old Gabrielle searching for? When I check out travel books on Germany from the library. When I endeavor to learn German and end up laughing at how silly I sound, although this language is the language of half of my ancestors. When I make mistakes while speaking Spanish and feel such disgusting shame like a black cloud, hovering over me. They ask a lot of questions. “Oh, you don’t speak Spanish? What are you?” With every question, the rain drops fall quicker and thicker on my head, soaking my hair and impeding my vision. When I plan trips to Germany and Puerto Rico, even if I can never afford them, because I’m desperately searching for something. I think about eight-year old Gabby pulling apart her hair, searching for her roots, investigating for the evidence of her whiteness. That’s similar to what I’m doing now. But, I feel different. I’m not looking for my roots to prove myself to anyone, not even myself. My identity rests in a higher place, with my Heavenly Father. No, I’m looking for my roots because I can. I’m free to explore every aspect of myself. Even if I never learn German and my Spanish remains at a beginner level for a while, I am and will always be proudly Ricandeutsch, with my various colors of hair swirling atop my curly mop.

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NEGRA by Gabrielle Greiner

I never knew I was black.

Growing up, my blackness wasn’t taught to me, like how I wasn’t shown how to do my hair.

When I raised questions to my elders, “Why does my hair grow out? Like sideways, not down. And why is it so curly?”

The response glossed over centuries of relaxed history, denied the blackness in me, and simply was “Because you’re Puerto Rican.”

But, the Boricuas I saw on TV did not resemble me, rather they looked like they stepped out of a commercial for Pantene.

So, what does this mean?

I made my first Latino friend in college, when I was 19.

She was Mexican-American, with indigenous roots I could see.

See, the Latinos in high school did not like me.

I was too white, too educated, thought too much, and wanted too badly to be free.

Free from the stereotypes that the oppressor laid on me.

My back was tight and I could barely just be.

I was contending with my identity

Because I have the blood of both the oppressor and the oppressed inside of me.

I realized I was black just before 23.

Studying my Isla’s history had removed the blinders from me.

The Spaniards murdered the Tainos and through violent indigenous rape, eradicated them from our present reality.

They forced this foreign tongue down our throats and balked when we didn’t like the taste.

Spain did the same to my African ancestors, denying their humanity, refusing to set them free.

They claimed ownership of the black body, through slavery and forced intimacy.

Thus, a Puerto Rican came to be.

I think about my blackness and wonder, “Is this how the country sees me?” As black?

We all know what that means.

Or, am I midway between the binary? Inoffensive light skin. Beautifully standard English flowing off my tongue.

Oh, but that hair. Wild. Unprofessional. Must be tamed.

I doubt my blackness. My skin isn’t dark enough. My ancestors were slaves on an island, not here. I have privileges that my Jamaican-American friend will never have. But, she sees my blackness. She calls it out of me, nurtures it, sings to it while it grows.

My blackness cannot exist without my brother and sister. My blackness is a lover I call out to. My blackness follows the question marks. My blackness propels me toward eternity and calls to me throughout history.