By Earliana McLaurin
After dreading spending the summer with her strong willed grandmother, a young Earliana learns the true strength in “black beauty”. She finds that no matter how different we may look, we all have the capacity to feel and, more importantly, be kind to one another.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Matties-Story-From-Darkness-into-the-Light
- Within a family, how do the (significant) adults teach a child to ‘look at’ or ‘see’ the world? In this family how did the grandmother teach the child? How did Miss Mattie teach the child? Might the understanding have a different outcome?
- In the story there was emphasis on the color of the child’s face and neck, and on the contrasting colors of Miss Mattie’s skin. Is this a story about perceptions of skin color and race or is this a story about family?
- The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans by Kathy Russell
- Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones
- African American/Black History
- Education and Life Lessons
- Family and Childhood
Hi, my name is Earliana McLaurin. And this is an excerpt from a st… uh, a larger story entitled Miss Mattie’s Story: From Darkness into the Light.
Uh, the story takes place in Lockport, Illinois circa 1995, so that would make me 11 at the time. Uh, I was staying with my grandmother during the day because my mom, she worked. She worked during the day. My grandmother, at the time, was knocking about, I dunno, 65, strong as an ox and mean as a bull if you got on her bad side.
I remember that day was a hot June morning. I know… I remember it was hot because we’d been outside all morning.
First, we put the laundry “on the line” complete with old school wooden clothes pins. Then we cleaned off the lot next to her house that she owned. And then we were weeding the garden behind hers house… her house when I just, I had to stop.
“I, I’m getting thirsty, I said, then I handed her the shovel.
She had on this big, uh, sunhat and I remember she looked up and she said, “Well, I suppose it is getting’ hot. And it is about lunchtime,” and she walked in the house.
“Thank you,” I whispered and I followed behind her.
Now at my granny’s house, you couldn’t sit down for a meal until you “washed up” and this wasn’t just like washing your hands. You had to wash your hands, you had to wash your face and you had to wash your neck, which was a big bone of contention with both my mother and my grandmother, like, my entire life.
If you can’t tell, my, uh, skin on my neck is a little darker than the rest of my body. My grandmother, however, interpreted this as dirt and has been —- bent on lightening the skin around my neck. So much so that every time we would get into it, I’d just say, “Maybe it’s just that way.”
You know, ha, as a kid, I never thought about, oh, this is darker. It must be bad. I gotta get rid of it, you know. You know, I’d always considered my skin to be brown – beautiful shades of light and dark brown. Yet that day, before my butt even hit the chair, my granny checked the back of my neck.
“Oh, after we eat, I think we’re gonna walk on down at Thelma’s to see how her tulips are doing.” My grandmother said, making her famous tuna salad sandwiches.
Now this was good news. Miss Thelma was my… one of my grandmother’s friends. She lived down the street and she had converted her garage into a candy store. So, naturally, I was excited to go.
“Well, you know, we got to swing on past Mattie’s first.”
Uh, Miss Mattie. Miss Mattie’s house, I was not excited to visit. Miss Mattie was my grandmother’s best friend, who lived, uh, directly across the street. Earlier that year, Miss Mattie had suffered a stroke. And so, one side of her face was kinda, kinda droopy. And so much so, that when she smiled, only one side of her face moved. And, uh, to an 11-year-old, I’m sorry, that was just kinda creepy, like Halloween mask creepy. So, I did my best and I tried not to stare. — forbid, I get caught by my grandmother, starin’. So that day, uh, we, you know, finished up lunch, and my grandmother grabbed Miss Mattie’s plate, which she always did. I never understood it. Miss Mattie could walk; she could use her hands so I didn’t understand why we had to always take her a plate.
But, you know, like we did almost every day, we make a short trip across the street to her house. My granny calls for her, she comes to the door, and I remember looking up and looking at the left side of her face and thinking, “Man, she’s dark but kinda pretty.”
Because, see, on the left side, Miss Mattie’s face was this smooth unblemished dark chocolate color. And it was always a little shiny, not like greasy, but like, like the chocolate swirls you see in candy bar ads on TV. But I also remember that day, looking up at the right side of Miss Mattie’s face and all I could see was the droopy Halloween mask. So, of course, I immediately put my face down. You know, we were almost to Miss Thelma’s. You know, it’s just right down the street.
And I hear my grandmother say, “Oh, we got tuna today with some tomatoes from my garden.”
I’m thinking, “Why is she’s so happy?”
And I look up, I chance a look, and she has this great, big smile on her face. Now this was sayin’ sumpin’ for my grandma. She only reserved this big smile for, like, Christmas and birthdays. So, I was confused. But, you know, I just kept my head down. She, you know, bid her goodbye and off we went down the street.
We walked about ten steps before my grandmother said, “Earliana LaTish McLaurin. You were starin’ again.
“I’m sorry!” I said, trying to keep up with her. “She just looks so weird.”
“Weird? Earliana, Mattie’s sick. She can’t help the way she look. It’s part of her sickness. Mattie’s, wha… still same old Mattie, uh, laughin’ and smilin’. As I recall, changed quite a few of your diapers when you were a baby.”
“But will she always look like that, I said.
“Well, it’s affecting her whole body now and her medicine is so expensive.”
“Oh, but her family helps her, right,” I said, because, you know, back then that’s what you did. Even if you weren’t related. Black families helped other black families.
And my grandmother, at this time… by this time, we had gotten to Miss Thelma’s and we were right in front of her gate. And she looked at me and she said, “Mattie ain’t got no family, baby. You know her. What little money she gets has to cover her medicine and all her bills. Don’t you worry about old Mattie. She got plenty of family. Me, you, de folks at church. Mattie goin’ be just fine.”
She handed me a dollar and went on around back to Miss Thelma’s flower garden. I went over to candy store and I remember just standing there, you know. Normally, I’d be poring over each candy. But that day, I remember just standing there, and thinkin’ about Miss Mattie because, see, you know, as an 11-year-old, huh, I couldn’t imagine being so sick and alone all the time. Every day. Every night. I remember going back and handin’ my, my grandmother the dollar and just tellin’ her I didn’t feel much like any candy.
Later that night, we were eatin’ dinner and Miss Mattie was still on my mind. My grandmother could tell because I was just pushing around my mashed potatoes.
And she said, “You, you okay, baby?”
And I said, “Yeah, I’m just thinking.”
And she said, “Well, when you done thinking, uh, you want to watch some Wheel of Fortune?”
And she started clearing up the dishes and the food. And I remember sitting up and droppin’ to the floor. I was like, “We, we’re not going to take Miss Mattie a plate?”
And she said, “Well, you know, I try to give Miss Mattie her space.”
“But, Granny! What if she’s hungry right now!”
You know, in my mind, how did I knew this information. It was like, if Miss Mattie didn’t have any family, then we were her people and, and we had to help. We had to.
“Well, you know, if Mattie was hungry, she’d call and.”
“What if she’s too sick to call, Granny? Why, she’s all by herself. I can take it over there. Let’s just take her plate.”
And I get up and I start to get a plate down from the cabinet. Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t too happy about walkin’ in the dark in Lockport, Illinois in the mid-90s but I felt like Miss Mattie needed us more. So, you know, we get the plate and off we go. Mis…she called for her. Miss Mattie comes to the door. And this time, I remember looking her right in her face, right in her other worldly, chocolate, slightly droopy, chocolate face.
And I said, “Here you go, Miss Mattie. It’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. I made sure Granny put some meat… some gravy on the meatloaf and the mashed potatoes because that’s the best. Ha, ha.”
Miss Mattie, not used to me sp… actually speaking, heh, sorta chuckled. And, you know, she said, “Why thank you, baby,” and turned to my grandmother.
You know, up until that moment, I had never even thought about it but I realized that beauty, beauty had to be more than just the color of my skin, you know. That as crazy as it sounds, Miss Mattie’s face was kind of like my neck. A little dark, maybe weird to some but it certainly didn’t need to be scrubbed away or hidden. Miss Mattie had always been perfectly nice to me. And after knowing how she struggled, and what she was going through, I could no more deny her beauty than I could her dignity as a human being.
The last thing I remember was handing her the plate, and puttin’ my head down, kinda looking at my granny ’cause I was just waitin’ for her to chastise me because, you know, you supposed to let the adults talk first. And I remember looking up, and all I saw was this great, big smile on her face. That same, big birthday smile. Except this time, it was just for me.