Baxito, A girl running while riding a bicycle tire, 2015, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The worst thing a little Black girl can be is fast. As soon as she learns her smile can bring special treatment, women shake their heads and warn the girl’s mother: “Be careful.” They caution the mothers of boys: “Watch that one.” When adult men hold her in their laps too long, it’s because she is a fast-ass little girl using her wiles. She’s too grown. She tempts men and boys alike—Eve, Jezebel, and Delilah all in one—the click of her beaded cornrows a siren’s call.
Fast girls ruin lives.
Even as a girl whose pigtails unraveled from school-day play, I was fascinated with sex and romance and why boys looked up girls’ skirts and why people climbed between each other’s legs. Why did fathers kissing mothers on the back of their necks make them smile such a soft, secret smile? Why did boys stand so close to girls in the lunch line? Why did my sister sneak her boyfriend over, even when she knew Mama had forbidden it?
Why did Mama tell my father, with her eyebrows raised, that the only book I’d read from the Bible was Song of Solomon? Yet I knew not to say anything, because being a girl and talking about sex would mean that I was fast, that I was trouble, that I’d end up with a baby before I finished school. I didn’t want to be fast, but inevitably my experiences with sex and boys began early and I learned to keep them hidden away.
My memories of kindergarten are mostly fuzzy, but I remember eating green eggs and ham that my teacher used food coloring to dye, reading Sweet Pickles books, the boy who kissed every girl during nap time, and the two boys I kissed under the back porch.
The nap-time lover, an oak-brown boy made of angles, would wait until he was sure the teacher was gone, then make his rounds. He was a lousy kisser. He’d mash his mouth against ours, lips closed, twisting his head back and forth like the actors in the old black-and-white movies we’d watch with our grandparents. I’m not sure why he started kissing us, but we girls were supposed to keep our eyes closed and remain passive, even as giggles lifted our shoulders from thin foam mattresses. One day, he came around and I kept my eyes open. I wanted to know if he closed his.
He did not. We stared at each other until our faces softened into brown clouds; then he licked my mouth. Why did adults like doing this? It was too wet and smelled of peanut butter. To get revenge, I stuck my tongue into his mouth. Then we battled, our tongues bubbling saliva out of the corners of our sticky lips. I’m not sure what the prize was, but he finally pulled away and laughed before moving to the next girl. Based on the rounds of “Yuck!” and “Ew!” that followed, he tried to slip other girls his tongue with varying success.
Over the next few days, he started bringing a handkerchief to wipe his mouth between girls. There were fewer exclamations of disgust. I’m not sure if he stopped the wet kisses or if everyone became used to them. With me, his kisses began to taste like peppermint candy but remained sticky. We kept our eyes open. I put my hand on the back of his head once, like the women in those same old black-and-white films. He grunted softly, the sound you make when you’re surprised nasty-looking food tastes good. His response scared me, but I liked it. At five years old, I already knew that if you liked what boys did too much, no one would like you. Girls called you names. Boys rubbed themselves against you while you waited for your turn on the monkey bars.
I never touched him with anything other than my mouth again.
I don’t remember how he was caught, but the nap-time kisses stopped. I think I missed them. Taking the required nap became difficult, because I was tense, listening for the rustle that meant someone was moving from his blue-and-red mat.
I soon found myself under the back porch at home with one of the little “mixed” (now called biracial) boys in the neighborhood. He had an Afro of loose waves, like Mr. Kotter from the TV show, and blue eyes that changed colors, especially when his white mother called him home. He never wanted to go. One day, she yelled his name, and he pulled me under my porch and stared at me. His breath did not smell good. It smelled of hunger, a stale metallic scent, but when he leaned in to give me a kiss, I accepted it.
I put my hands on either side of his face, and he did the same. We pecked at each other with our mouths, thumbs invading each other’s eyes, as we tried to imitate adults. And then his neighbor showed up—another boy our age. He was brown like me, with hair that blended into his skin but filled with close waves his mother made sure he brushed down all the time. His eyes were the same color as his skin but with black-black lashes. Those eyes were wide as he breathed out that he was going to tell we were being nasty. I reached out and kissed him, too. I don’t remember how he tasted, but I know he stopped talking.
I’ve lost track of how long we were under the back porch. The boys took turns kissing me. I took turns kissing them. My mother called me from the kitchen, and I hurried from our little cove. The boys’ mothers would just yell and yell until they came home, but my mother would come look for me. I shot into the house. My heartbeat fluttered my shirt. I could smell those boys on me—the foreign stink of their spit and sweat a secret reminder of my adventure.
Boys were quiet when you kissed them. They didn’t tease you for being skinny or bucktoothed or smart. Boys followed your lead when you kissed them. Boys let you rescue them from home when you kissed them. But kissing boys meant you were fast. Being fast meant you had babies nobody wanted and women talked mean about you. When you were fast, old men smiled at you with half of their mouths and invited you inside when no one else was home. Fast girls ruined lives. I didn’t want to be fast. I wanted kisses that were secrets I controlled.
Teenage motherhood is nothing new to my family, but it’s something my mother wanted to stop with her, as far as her two daughters were concerned. My sister, Izzie, is what Mama calls a pullout baby. She was born almost two years before Mama’s high school graduation. When my sister was a teenager, I saw a note Mama had written her: “Always use a rubber.” I giggled at rubber, such an old-fashioned term by then. Seven years separate me and my sister, and I’d been hearing Mama’s voice deepen with warning for a long time: “Don’t bring no babies home unless you can take care of them.”
My sister developed early. Until high school, she was always the tallest girl in her class. Her curves constantly fought against the age-appropriate clothes Mama bought for her. Mama knew how grown men could be, so she tried her best to keep Izzie a child as long as possible. Luckily, my sister went along with that plan. She’s the sweet and obedient one. Perhaps that’s a part of being the firstborn in the family. We have a younger brother, J, so that makes me the middle child, the baby girl. I’m my father’s firstborn. I am a mess.
I was a scrawny child who always carried books around. For a long time, my family called me Bugs, as in Bugs Bunny, because of my overbite. Family friends said I was cute, but it didn’t seem like boys thought so. At least, the boys I wanted to like me never did. I’ve since learned this is how life is, but until junior high, I felt overlooked for the girls who already wore training bras, had professionally styled straight hair, and who boasted of boyfriends at other schools.
My sister came of age in the eighties. Izzie watched all those Brat Pack movies—Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, plus stuff like Weird Science and One Crazy Summer … and I watched right alongside her. I sat next to her and watched MTV until the music videos started to repeat themselves.
So I listened to these songs and watched the videos; I watched the movies and saw my sister clutching her hand to her chest because a white girl who sews her own clothes got to kiss the rich, popular guy. I saw teenage love played out as Forever Love, as overcoming class divides and teaching the rich kid that poor people are cool, too. I saw that white girls got to bring home boys and yell at their parents and be wanted, even if by someone undesirable. No adult was monitoring them to make sure they weren’t tempting grown men. In the movies, no white girls were considered fast. Instead, they were pressured to have sex, not stay away from it.
Black girls were tucked way in the back of the extras or in the second row of the dance number, their hair looking burnt from too much straightening, their makeup chalky, and with no love interest more significant than a dance partner.
There were plenty of sassy Black teenagers on television, in characters like Dee Thomas on What’s Happening!! or Tootie on The Facts of Life. These girls always had a smart remark ready on their lips and got plenty of laughs, but just like in real life, every crush they had led to lectures or scolds: “He’s just using you.” “You don’t know any better.” “Don’t make any decisions you might regret.”
Images of white girls in love came easily, but everywhere I turned, Black girls were warned.
In the fifth and sixth grades, school friends started to become pregnant. My mother wouldn’t let me go to their baby showers. She said it would condone their situation, and she didn’t want me to think it was okay to have a baby before I got to ninth grade. These preteen moms looked like they were in high school, but they had boyfriends who should’ve been in college. The girls wore gold jewelry and had haircuts like women with real jobs—tapered in the back with curls crunchy from holding spray in the front. They had figures that betrayed their ages and minds and could barely solve word problems, and yet they were the ones labeled “fast.” And maybe they were. Maybe they’d felt compelled to race to catch up to their bodies and ended up at a finish line they didn’t expect.
I remember one girl asking me why the grass was always wet in the morning. I replied, “It’s dew,” and she said, “No, it’s clear.” She thought I was talking about feces, as in doo-doo. And this was a child being blamed for her own middle school pregnancy.
I was not unaffected by my classmates’ becoming pregnant young, even as I remained fascinated by sex and love. I was scared. Teenage pregnancy was a family curse, and every time I looked in the mirror, wondering when my boobs and booty would come in, I worried it would happen because of “an accident.” I was the only one of my friends who was shapeless and without a boyfriend, or even a boy I was talking to. The girls started making noises about introducing me to friends of their boyfriends, and it scared me. When sixth grade began to come to a close and my mom asked me about where I wanted to go for junior high, I told her I wanted to go to a magnet school. Mama assumed I wanted a more challenging curriculum, but in reality, I wanted to leave my friends behind. I was afraid that if I stayed with them, I’d end up pregnant, too, and as much I hated having my body policed by the elders in my community, I did not want to be fast either.
I wanted to be loved.
Nichole Perkins is a writer from Nashville, Tennessee. She examines the intersections of pop culture, race, sex, gender, and relationships. Nichole is a 2017 Audre Lorde Fellow at the inaugural Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat and a 2017 BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow. She is also a 2016 Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow for poetry. She hosts This Is Good For You, a podcast that highlights the pleasures of life. She formerly cohosted Thirst Aid Kit, a podcast about pop culture and desire, with Bim Adewunmi, a producer at This American Life, and was also a cohost of Slate’s podcast The Waves, which looked at news and culture through a feminist lens. Her first collection of poetry, Lilith, but Dark, was published by Publishing Genius in July 2018.
Excerpted from the book Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be, by Nichole Perkins. Copyright © 2021 by Nichole Perkins. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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