I was raised by beauty queens. Living, breathing, pageanting beauty queens. I was put into modeling school in 4th grade. If you don’t believe me, I will call my aunt and have her dig up the footage and photos from the Crest Commercial I screen tested for. I sang, danced, did the 1/4 and full angel turns and learned the proper way to exit a car while wearing a skirt. I will say please and thank you, even if you are mean to me, because that is the proper thing for a lady to do.
When I moved to Florida, it was to live with my Grampa and his second wife, who I call my Grandma and who welcomed me into her side of the family like I was born into it. Grampa had seven kids (5 sons, 2 daughters), Grandma had six kids (all daughters), and besides my Mom and “real” grandmother, my entire family lived in Florida.
I had lots and lots and lots of cousins, but only on my Grandma’s side. My Grampa’s children didn’t produce a lot of grandkids, and when they did get married and have children, they moved away.
Of the cousins that came together on the holidays, I was the oldest. Looking at family photos is so funny, because I was surrounded by a bunch of blue-eyed Irish towheads. All those blondes and then there was me, a little chocolate chip muffin with shining brown eyes and hair bigger than Alfalfa from Little Rascals.
I love my family. They are a dichotomous bunch, with my Grampa’s side full of loud, drunk or high Italians. High on what, we don’t talk about, but I love my uncles dearly. Every single one of them is self-employed with their own companies.
My Irish aunts, their husbands and their children are some of the most loving and welcoming people you will ever meet.
I was so lucky to grow up so close (geographically and emotionally) to my extended family. Every family has its quirks though, and with one as large as mine the quirks are many.
Out of all my aunts and uncles, I spent the most time with my Aunt Marianne, my Uncle Joe and their three daughters. Their eldest, Katy, was the third-oldest in our group of cousins, so she and I did the most hanging out when we were growing up. We played with our barbies together and she came to me first when she found out Aunt Marianne and Uncle Joe were getting divorced. She didn’t even want to say the word, “divorce.” I was only 10 or so, but I told her I knew everything would be okay. Grandma and Grampa had both gotten divorced, I told her, but they loved all their kids just the same. We focused on quietly making outfits for our barbies that day. I always chopped their hair off. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because Uncle Steve burned off a bunch of my hair with relaxer at his salon. That’s why I do it myself now. But I digress.
Fast forward quite a few years, and Aunt Marianne has been Mrs. Florida twice (with two different husbands), as well as Mrs. International and little cousin Katy was Miss Florida 2002.
The world of pageantry is ridiculous. I was in modeling school probably for 3 months before I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to pursue that as a career. Make no mistake about it, pageantry is a career and Aunt Marianne thought I would be very good at it. I hated it. There was no way I was going to miss hanging out with my friends. I was in 4th grade and I wanted to start dancing again. I left modeling school behind and began my pre-professional career in dance.
The thing about pageant contestants is that in general they are so pretty, but you only see the surface. The contests are superficial for a reason. Once you start digging, sometimes you find ugly things. Katy is probably one of the few exceptions to this rule. She is sweet, eager and naive.
Aunt Marianne kept her very sheltered, most likely because she knew what succeeding in pageantry meant for many girls and Katy wasn’t to follow that route. Katy got married the same weekend I got engaged in 2005, and that white dress actually meant what it was supposed to on that day. You know many other virgin beauty queens from Florida? Yeah, I didn’t think so. This is what my family is like.
But in her efforts to shield my cousins from the big, bad world of Central Florida, Aunt Marianne sometimes went too far.
One day after the divorce, Katy and I were sitting at the counter and eating cookies. She and I were talking about what kind of men we wanted to marry when we grew up. I said I didn’t know whether I’d marry a Black man or a White man, and I kind of wished I had a crystal ball so I could see what my kids would look like.
Aunt Marianne was listening to the conversation and decided to pipe in.
“The girls aren’t to date or marry Black men,” she said. “If Katy married a black man, she would not have my blessing and I would not attend the wedding.”
I was just in shock. I’m 10, for Christ’s sake. I argued with her for a minute about it, but it wasn’t really my place. I was a young lady and ladies don’t argue. I remember crying that afternoon and being so sad and angry. I thought it wasn’t very fair that Katy wouldn’t be able to marry whomever she wanted. I didn’t even think of the implications Aunt Marianne’s comment had regarding my very own parents and my race.
I’ll put it out here that the two sides of my family don’t usually hang out together. I always assume it’s because we wouldn’t all fit in a mansion, let alone my grandparents’ lanai. Another reason might have been a little back and forth on race relations.
The Italian side had dropped an “i” off of our last name due to prejudice against Italian-Americans in Buffalo, NY (where my family is originally from). Some of my uncles and my aunt later put the “i” back on the surname when they turned 18. I always thought I would, too, but I began getting published at age 18 and I wanted to keep my byline.
My mom got knocked up by two different Black guys. Her sister also married a Black man. My Aunt Patty Jo (on the Irish side, and she’s no longer called this since she moved up north), moved to Boston and later married a biracial man. I lived with them when I moved back to New England.
I’ve been told joining my extended family at the age of 7 changed how my relatives saw Black people. I was a sweet little kid, smart and kind. I had good manners. There was nothing scary about me, save my Alfalfa hair. My Aunt Patty Jo said it was because of me that she could marry a mixed man. My grampa hadn’t been such a fan of Black people before me. Maybe because they kept getting his daughters pregnant? I don’t know.
The best part of all of this came when my Aunt Marianne remarried and wanted to adopt. She wanted a biracial baby boy, but they didn’t want to place him with two White parents. Willing to do what it took to get that baby, my Aunt Marianne pulled out childhood photos of me and Katy, little brown and White beauty queens in training.
“I always loved Emily like she was my own,” is what my Grandma tells me Aunt Marianne said when she gave me the news.
I laughed, perhaps a little bitterly. Aunt Marianne is now raising two gorgeous little boys, one of them biracial, the other one White, with her third husband. I hope she lets them marry whoever they want to when they get old enough. By now, she should know the beauty of us mixed folk is far more than skin deep.
Edit: A few of you have gotten in touch with me about taking care of your little mixed children’s hair. A friend of mine suggested these sites to me a few months ago, and they are really good resources for products suggestions and haircare tips:
NaturallyCurly.com (My friend also recommends the book, “Curly Girl.”)
Nappturality.com (This site has message boards where you can go on and talk with other people dealing with “going natural.”)