A Personal History On Growing Up Black
Keiona Williamson, whose work covers Black life, culture, politics and the ways systemic racism permeates American society (like managing large scale projects such as The 1619 Project and more), reflects on her childhood in a personal narrative about growing up Black, entitled “Auntie Grace’s House. In it she writes about the all-too familiar coming together of family and the values we share across the diaspora.
(Art Credits: Writer’s own.)
My auntie Grace used to call me her lil cool breeze. A nod to my name, Keiona. The root Keanu, Polynesian — but specific to the Hawaiian language, it can be interpreted as a cool breeze characterized by the romantic view of the mountains.
I loved feeling like I was her favorite. I remember her as a skinny woman, like Eartha Kitt. A diva. She smoked joints out of a long lady pipe cigarette holder and wore turbans that seemed ordained with gold. She had high cheekbones and a raspy voice.. Just like Eartha. She was just…so… cool. So when big holidays were coming up, we always listened in on our mother’s conversations deciding the plans. My cousins and I hoped our moms would feel like or be in the mood to drive the hour from Sacramento to Vallejo to go to Grace’s. It was my grandmother, or Nonnie as we all call her, who took her kids and set inland to Sacramento — she wanted out of the Fairfields, the Suisuns, the Vallejos, the small cities, and set her sights on Sacramento when my mother was in high school. Although only an hour away, this move broke her off from the big ship and we became our own little tribe. “Peaches and her kids” they called us. Nonnie to me, my sisters and cousins, and Peaches to her, her sisters and her cousins. So if we stayed in Sacramento it would be just us. We loved that too. That meant more comfortability but less cousins to play with. We’d scurry around the house like little rats poking in every creak and every crevice looking for our costumes. I demanded to be Beyoncé and so, you know, my costume had to be grand. Kelly and Michelle took their cue from me, the star. We ripped and cut and pieced together our camo for “Survivor”. I sang my part while getting performance-ready, making sure to channel the sass and class of a woman scorned who’s being the bigger person. “Now that you are out of my life, I’m so much better” I practiced.
We knew my mom and nonnie would be in the kitchen. Uncle Binky on the grill, although Uncle Terrence was the better cook, he was the younger son. Mary J Blige would turn into Fantasia would turn into Amerie would turn into Ashanti. We’d listen to Lyfe Jennings on the way to auntie’s house. Or maybe E-v-E… Once the food was ready, everyone gathered around the entertainment set on our Rent-a-Center sectional, while we had one of the lil kids introduce us— the big kids— and our performance. Nonnie was always so impressed with us, “Who taught you that?” We, always so proud, said, “We taught ourselves.”
But when we could go to Auntie Grace’s house, ooo was it a show. We got to go to DD’s or Ross to get new fits; Payless, if we were only going to wear the shoes once, Burlington coat factory or MJM for shoes if we were going to keep them. We’d sit on floors between our mother’s legs getting our hair greased with Blue Magic and Jam, hair pulled tight with rubber bands, and decorated with knockers or ballies and barrettes. Peaches and her kids (and their kids) were gone always look like a million bucks.
Walking into Auntie Grace’s house was always awkward at first. You knew before us cousins, all who haven’t seen each other since last year, could warm up and get over the shyness. But before we could even get to the room the cousins were in, you had to get through the aunties. “Who’s baby are you,” they’d all ask before the kisses or comments about your weight or asking about some accomplishment our nonnie had dutifully bragged to them about. “We Meshia’s kids,” we’d say under our breath. Everywhere you looked inside of Grace’s house, her backyard, her front lawn, the garage through the haze of ganja smoke, whether the men were playing dominoes on the fold-out table or the women heating up the food in the kitchen, or the older adults in the living room reminiscing on their childhoods or the teenagers sneaking back in from their walk around the corner, or us, the cousins, finally warmed up playing hide and seek in the back rooms… no matter what we were doing, we were all happy to be there. We were all filled with [the kind of] joy that here, in our little enclave, we saw each other and were seen. We filled up each other’s cups and we laughed and played, and fell asleep in our mothers’ laps hours after they first told us we were leaving.
I felt that same joy a few weeks ago when our family met on Zoom to mourn the death of my Auntie Grace. I didn’t get to see her in the last years of her life…. It’s almost like she was unfamiliar to me outside of my childhood imagination. Auntie Grace, who is really my grandmother’s aunt, which makes her my great-great-aunt, my mother’s great aunt, passed on May 9, 2020, a little over two weeks before her birthday. And in the fashion of our family, we needed to gather. We needed each other to fill and refill. We are in a global pandemic and so our only fill was online now. ‘Cousin you in Sac? Where you been,” the cousins I played hide and seek with shouted over the old people figuring out how to work this thing. I brought my 6 month-old son into the camera and for the first time in the last few weeks, I have hope. Hope that soon, I can take him on the hour’s drive to meet his family. Hope that his cheeks will get pinched and that he’ll fall asleep on the bosom of the aunties sometime soon. I hope he’d know that joy.
Keiona Williamson is a freelance writer covering Black life, culture, politics and the ways systemic racism permeates American society. She studied political science at Howard University in Washington, DC and left to work on voter registration campaigns where she and her team registered about 13,000 of Los Angeles’s Black and brown residents to vote. She finally landed in New York where she’s been working full time in The New York Times advertising department supporting a team of 60 sellers and managing large scale projects like The 1619 Project and more. Keiona is the mother of a 6 month old son, Mahdi. Keiona hopes to inspire Black self-actualization through her work and writing.