I wrote this piece a few weeks ago for my Cuban Literature class in response to the novel, Cecilia, and its movie adaptation. It would take me an entire dissertation to express my feelings about Cecilia and how difficult it was to read for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the amount of violence depicted in general, but also the way black women were portrayed as a shameful specter hovering over anyone of mixed ancestry, as well as sex object, workhorse, the list goes on…There was also a moment in the text where an enslaved woman was banished from the house she worked in and sent for punishment on a plantation for daring to breastfeed her own child at the same time as she was supposed to be nursing her mistress’ baby. At that point, I had to put the book down for a few days.
I wasn’t going to post this on my blog, because frankly I just wanted to move on from any kind of engagement with that text. I changed my mind, mainly because I feel like a lot of the conversation about color privilege and colorism turns into a debate over “who has it worse.” We didn’t create the system of binaries that rules our lives, but it exists and we are responsible for perpetuating it in so far as we have internalized it. I’m not attempting to point fingers or to make anyone feel they must account for a privilege that at times comes with a horrific history, and one that is beyond their control. The assignment was to write an address to the title character, Cecila Valdes, a mixed race Cuban woman, with a darker skinned friend, Nemesia, who often plays the sidekick role complete with the suggestion of envy of her “more beautiful” friend. I’m not interested in shouting over someone else’s suffering, and I hope that comes across in the piece.
Note: The phrase “worst kind of woman” comes from the film, during a scene in which a white woman insults Cecilia presumably for being immoral and a temptress.
You are the worst kind of woman. You are fluid in more ways than I will ever be. A toss of your hair over a bare shoulder is a lazy curl of your lip is an almost imperceptible crook of your finger is a higher arch of your foot than the flatness of mine. You are always liquid over whichever terrain you pass and I’m the rock cracking under the heat of people’s disgust and pity, impervious to the coolness of your water. You are the worst kind of woman because I’m supposed to hate you.
In Accra you are striding over open drains and floating above the smell of over-ripe vegetables, you are that half-co one dey be waaa…the black one no shedda be bad but some time she be too dark. You are Ceci Yellow you’re too fine ooh come let us look at your hair! You are bony fingers knocking your scalp in disbelief while they marvel at the absence of thread and tracks to keep your locks in place, running over the smoothness of your skin as if it is butter that has merged with your muscle to disguise the undesirable blackness below the surface. In Accra, you are the jealously guarded crush-girlfriend-mistress-turned-wife, you are the one who bakes to a pleasant warmth in the sun like the crumbling edges of a slightly overdone pastry. You are to be possessed and reviled and glorified and stamped onto the pages of notebooks shoved in the backpacks of desperate teenage boys who cannot see past their own reflection shining in your forehead. You are the worst kind of woman for them because somehow they will aspire to your brightness while rubbing hatred deeper into their own chests, and the worst kind for me because I’m supposed to hate you.
In Havana, you are close enough to white to flow in through the windows of grand mansions and from one set of pale arms to another. Mulatta, you are also far enough from me that you can storm through the termite-infested door of my house before ripping it off its hinges and breaking it over my head. My helmet of cottony wool hair is not enough to shield me from the oppressive radiance of your smile. You are the worst kind of woman, they say, with loose limbs and an even looser grasp on good Catholic guilt. You are the worst because the white men lie in icy bed sheets next to their wives coated in lace and inaccessibility and imagine that they are grabbing handfuls of your light, because the black men spit in the faces of women who look like their mothers and imagine they are kissing yours, because we are all supposed to bob and courtesy and despise your grace.
I don’t know that I actually believe that you are as terrible as they say– nyornu bada, puta, bad woman. I have been trained to stare into your light brown velvet covering trying to find the seams so I can snatch it from you and sew it onto my own body. I’m supposed to crave the innocent, swirling hairs that stick to your forehead and the nape of your neck, while snagging the harsh reality of my dry coils on zippers and unattainable beauty standards. I cannot be who I am without spending hours staring back at a reflection that harbors too many shadows, one that is always already disappointing before I have even pried open my eyes to take a look at it. There is no way for me to exist without making your existence about me. There is a cavity inside my chest devoted to you where I can squeeze every last drop of the special treatment you enjoy, so that I too can flow and sway and waft into rooms with the scent of jasmine and stale sweat.
Cecilia, I keep you in the spaces behind my knees, and on the flatness of the back of my neck, so that it is increasingly difficult to walk. I do not envy the bitter taste clinging to your lips, the lingering memory of being created out of a bit of me and a bit of those who hate me intertwined with your veins. The fact that I am attempting to distil you into your constituent parts is more evidence that I have indulged in the addictive syrup of a system that blurs our vision and does not wish us to see each our reflections in each other’s pupils. You body is more than a site for national myth creation and pornographic fantasy. You are more than a backboard off which I can bounce off my insecurities and my desire to be a little less touched by the sun. I do not hate or pity or even love you just because your mother could’ve been mine. I cannot even claim kinship solely based on the fact that they ultimately see us as the same black bitches when it is convenient for them, only drawing lines according to color gradients and nose width when it serves a higher purpose of entrenching power.
We are the worst kind of women because we transcend the deviance of our own beings, because we rip gaping holes in the fabric that keeps our arms strapped down so we can’t reach for each other. We are the worst kind of women because we are perpetual reminders of unadulterated arrogance that cannot be snatched out of us no matter how hard they scratch or grab, standing astride their notions of purity and respectability, smoking the ash of the conflicts they imposed on us and blowing them in their faces.
Image: Still of the actress Daisy Granados from film Memories of Underdevelopment (which we also watched in class.) She also played Cecilia in the film adaptation of the novel.
I really wish I was in your Cuban Literature class
It’s definitely my favorite class in grad school so far!
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