BLACK IS MY FAVORITE COLOR
My name is Andrea Byrd, but everyone calls me Andi. Black is my favorite color. Every day I wear black: black T-shirt, black jeans, black Chucks. Black reminds me of Mama. Black is Mama’s smile—a white swan gliding across a dark lake. Black is Mama wrapping me in her thin-strong arms before school. Black is her huge, fluffy Afro, absorbing all the visible light—a colorful dark—a rainbow crown on her head. Black is the smell of Mama’s strong coffee in our Detroit apartment. Black is Mama’s paint-splattered hand waving goodbye to me that first Friday of school last August. Black is the last time I saw her smiling.
“Andi!” Aunt Janine screams from downstairs. “You’re going to be late.”
Black is me under my covers, on my deep-space memory planet, not wanting to get up to face another day without her. Whir whir whir crunch crunch crunch chug chug chug. I hear Aunt Janine start the blender in the kitchen. It’s probably full of flaxseed, kale, and other nastiness. Full of healthy stuff Mama would never make me eat. But Mama is gone, ten months gone. I live with Aunt Janine and Uncle Mark in Grand Rapids now. It’s summer, again, the first one without her. Seventh grade is over, and I am headed to camp. I slide down my bed, out of my covers, and onto the floor because I am a slime-person. I used to be a girl, but now I am a blob disguised as a girl. A blob-girl named Andi Byrd. I don’t have wings, just a few shiny black feathers hidden in my heart.
“I’m up!” I yell downstairs. My attic room looks like it’s been raided by zombies. Every drawer in my dresser is thrown open, crumpled school papers and pieces of sheet music all over the floor. A green army duffle sits at the foot of my bed, overflowing with black jeans, tees, and hoodies—but mostly ugly khaki shorts, light-blue collared shirts, and, get this: light-blue KNEE SOCKS. Not even a blob-girl should have to wear knee socks. I groan just looking at Harmony Music Camp’s uniform, the socks balled up like Smurf poop in my duffle.
Harmony Music Camp hadn’t seemed like a terrible idea back in February when Aunt Janine and Uncle Mark presented me with the information. The fall months right after Mama died had been rough. I was angry, and Aunt Janine and Uncle Mark were the enemy. I barely left my room except to go to school, therapy, or mandatory family dinner. But then, in December, they’d told me they were having a baby, due in August.
“You’re going to be a cousin!” Uncle Mark beamed.
I didn’t know how to feel about the news, but I knew I had to at least try harder to fit into this new version of my life. I had to try to be a normal kid again, and maybe applying to some nerdy music camp wasn’t the worst thing. I liked music.
Uncle Mark filmed me playing “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe on trumpet, and Aunt Janine helped me with my application essay. Then we sent my audition packet off. To be honest I forgot about it after that. I forgot until a big envelope arrived, a big envelope with a “Welcome, Camper!” letter and a whole folder full of information and packing lists.
“You got in!” Aunt Janine screamed. “This is one of the most prestigious music camps in the country!”
“Good job, kiddo,” Uncle Mark said, patting me on the arm.
“I didn’t think I’d make it,” I said.
“Nonsense,” Aunt Janine said. “You’re very talented, Andi. That’s something your mom and I always agreed on. She’d be so proud of you!”
When Aunt Janine said that, I felt a light brushstroke of a tickle in my throat. Mama loved the way I played trumpet. Like you’re painting a picture with your notes, Andi. But the truth is I don’t play like that anymore. Not since Mama. Now, when I play, I play like a rusty bike. I seem like I’m keeping up, but all the notes in my head feel squeaky and choked. Aunt Janine and Uncle Mark can’t tell—they’ve never played a musical instrument in their lives—but I can tell. I’ve lost my soul-sound, my pizazz, my magic. Now I’d have to find it again, stumble my way back to the notes that tell a story. Now I’d have to do it in front of a bunch of other kids who were the best in their school bands or orchestras, all while wearing stupid knee socks. What kind of camp makes kids wear uniforms in summer?! An injustice, I tell you. Extra, extra stupid. I tie up my duffle, throw on a pair of black shorts, pull on a black tee and my Chucks, run a soft brush through my fade, and look at myself in the mirror. I like to keep it clean and simple—short hair, no jewelry, no makeup. My brown eyes stare back at me, my narrow face and blackberry-plump lips full of shadows. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I see Mama in my face. Other times, like right now, it’s just me looking back.
When I get to the kitchen, Aunt Janine is waiting in her light-pink workout suit, keys in her right hand, nasty green juice in her left. Her box braids are pulled into a tight bun on her head. Two pearl studs catch the sunlight on her earlobes. Saturday mornings are Aunt Janine’s Zumba time, and now that she’s pregnant (seven months, to be exact), she walks the track afterward with a group of expecting moms. Aunt Janine’s life is full of planners, gym schedules, and rules—so many rules it is exhausting. Aunt Janine is Mama’s younger sister, by three years, but she’s the bossiest person I’ve ever met and also the fanciest.
Everything in Aunt Janine and Uncle Mark’s house is tan—tan couches, tan curtains, tan pillows, and tan walls. Even their dishes are plain: Every one of their mugs matches, and there are none with pictures or words on them. Me and Mama’s apartment overflowed with secondhand furniture, our kitchen shelves jammed full of mismatched mugs. I keep a bundle of Mama’s paintbrushes in the Diego mug on my desk now, but the hummingbird mug stays empty. I’m going to drink coffee out of it when I finally get grown enough to actually like the taste of coffee. Coffee, with a splash of coconut milk and a dash of cinnamon, just like Mama made it. Aunt Janine doesn’t drink coffee—only green tea. I don’t really understand how two sisters can be so different; all I know is that before I came to live here last September, we only saw Aunt Janine on holidays.
“It’s better this way,” Mama used to tell me when I’d ask why, if Aunt Janine lived so close, we only ever saw her on special occasions. “Your aunt has never supported my choices in life, and I can only take so much of her looking down on me. It’s not my fault I started a family before her. She’s had so many blessings, but not a baby. She’s never forgiven me for that.”
Mama and I didn’t have much, but we always had enough. Plus, Mama was an artist—mixed media and paint, so she was forever finding scraps and turning them into treasure. Our apartment was full of her painting-sculptures, dangling wind chimes, pieces of fabric stapled or glued to canvas, bright metallics and neons. Our home was a collage of everything beautiful but forgotten. Now it’s like I’m stranded on a blank canvas. There are no bright colors: only Aunt Janine in her tan nurse scrubs or pink workout gear, and Uncle Mark in his white dentist’s coat or polos with khakis. And me, in my all-black everything.
“You and Uncle Mark need to get on the road; you don’t want to be late for check-in,” Aunt Janine says, handing me a variety box of granola bars.
“Are there any chocolate-chip-marshmallow ones in there?”
“No. This is an all-natural brand, Andi. No chocolate, but there is a cinnamon-raisin one made of real oats and honey. They even have a little protein. I thought you might like to try them.”
I grimace. “I’m good.”
“Andi, you have to start trying new things. God doesn’t like picky.”
I shrug and walk toward the pantry. (A) I don’t believe in God, but that’s none of Aunt Janine’s business, and (B) I’m not picky. I just know what I like. Mama let me cook and eat what I wanted. I take down a family-size box of Honey Nut Cheerios that I convinced Uncle Mark to get for me on our last shopping trip and pour some into a Ziploc bag. “This will work!”
“You know you’re just eating straight sugar. That’s how folks get diabetes. Food companies are out here killing us slowly with that processed junk.”
“Let the girl live a little, Janine,” Uncle Mark says, coming in from the garage, where the car is running. “Andi’s young. She’s healthy. There’s way worse cereal she could be eating.” Uncle Mark winks at me, but I keep quiet.
Aunt Janine throws Uncle Mark one of those looks that adults like to throw over kids’ heads, one of those looks that means STOP UNDERMINING ME! Then I feel Uncle Mark throw back a look that means GIVE HER SOME SPACE—HER MOM DIED! They do this a lot, communicate over my head, silently, with their eyes, as if I am a toddler, instead of an almost-fourteen-year-old. Mama never treated me like a baby, even when I was one.
FAMILY IS COMPLICATED
Aunt Janine has always been my aunt, but now that she’s my legal guardian, everything is different. Aunt Janine went to nursing school at the University of Michigan and then met Uncle Mark, a dental-school student, her junior year. By graduation she and Uncle Mark were planning their wedding, which Mama didn’t even go to because two months before the wedding she got drunk and told Aunt Janine that Uncle Mark was a “safe, basic white dude,” so Aunt Janine un-invited her.
Mama didn’t do anything easy or safe or predictable. Soon as she graduated high school, she was done with school. She bought a beat-up minivan and solo-road-tripped her way across the country. She’d camp in national parks and meet up with Outdoor Afro folks to hike and enjoy nature. She spent a year like that, living in parks out west, then she came back home to Detroit to work on her paintings and be part of the art scene. Then when she was twenty-eight, she got pregnant with me, on her own. She didn’t even tell Aunt Janine until I was almost born. That was another fight they had. I know, because Mama was always telling me about fights they had. “I love my sister,” Mama would say, “but I don’t have to like her all the time. That’s just how it is with family sometimes. Just because you’re blood related doesn’t mean you’re the same.”
Mama didn’t believe in baby talk or shielding me from “adult things.” My whole life she just told me the truth. When I came home from school in first grade and asked her why I didn’t have a daddy, she sat me down at our kitchen table with a file full of paperwork. “You know, Andi,” she started. “There are lots of ways to be a family. I wanted a baby, but I didn’t want a husband or a partner. So, remember when I told you that to make a baby you need an egg and sperm?”
I nodded. She’d explained the basic biology of how babies are made just weeks before. I knew all the anatomically correct names for things, even if I didn’t fully understand how it all worked.
“Well, I found a sperm donor so that I could make you. You don’t have a dad in your life, but there is a man who you’re biologically related to.”
“Can I meet him?” I asked.
“Maybe one day, when you’re a little older, you can try. That’s what this file is for,” she said, resting her hand on top of it.
“But why don’t you want a husband?” I continued.
“Because I have my art, a roof over my head, and you. That’s all I need.” She’d kissed me then, and left me sitting at the table with the file and some pizza. I was too little to read most of its contents, but I flipped through the pages anyway as Mama turned up the music in her studio, closed the door, and went back to painting. That night, when she tucked me into bed, I threw my arms around her tight. She smelled like paint and sweat. I squeezed her tightly and she kissed my cheek. I wanted her to know that she was enough.
“Good night, Andi Byrd.”
“Good night, Mama Byrd.”
“Have big, wide dreams, okay?”
Then she left and shut the door to my room. I heard her pour a glass of water and return to her studio. Most nights, Mama didn’t sleep much. It was her “big, wide dreaming” time, and the only time she had to paint, since during the day she worked full-time as a manager at Whole Foods on Mack Avenue. Mama didn’t believe in selling her art in fancy galleries or online. “Art is for the people,” she always said when Aunt Janine would complain about how her “li’l art projects” didn’t even make enough to feed us.
“We eat just fine,” Mama would say, waving Aunt Janine’s worries away. “Plus, if you ever came to an art walk or to a street show, you’d understand. It’s not all about profit.”
I loved going to art walk nights in the summer and fall. Mama would lay out her pieces against the curb and talk with folks. Sometimes she didn’t even take money but would barter instead: a painting for three huge tubs of shea butter or a set of handmade cloth earrings. “Everyone should have access to free art,” she’d say to me as we sat and watched people take in her bold-colored portraits painted on scraps of metal, wood, and plastic. “Let them look. Let them enjoy it.” Sometimes those nights made me feel proud to be her daughter; other times, I bit my tongue and glared as she spent hours talking with some stranger about her inspiration, telling them things she never told me.
Text copyright © 2022 by Mariama J. Lockington