Their Black Skin Baby Girl

AN ITALIAN DIARY: CHAPTER 1

Written by: Alessia Petrolito

Since I can remember, I’ve been my parents’ favorite subject; a little black skin baby girl, their first child, the one you are eager to frame in time by the second you get to hold. Over the years, parents would record films and pile boxes and boxes of old tapes and cassettes in dusty places. Those memories become an anchor for rainy days, a reminder for the future-being their child was going to be. Like the pictures you’ll look at, they pin a past that had relentlessly faded away. If you look at them, look at them closely, or you’ll never understand.

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Moncalieri, an Italian city neighboring of Turin, Piedmont.

Seria, Lei could have been one or two years old, dressed in red and white.
She already has that ‘I’m posing for you’ look. It’s winter season, and her grandparent’s ring yard was her favorite place to be. She liked to run in circles with the keeper, her grandpa’s wolfhound, guarding her back; Lillo was its name. She got keys in her hands, she held them tight, but they still sounded when skaked. She liked getting infused with their power, that ownness giving her confidence; her house is just upstairs.

She knows Lillo loved two people in the world; grandpa, its owner, and herself. Sometimes wolfhound’s had bad habits, Lillo had one; it was inclined to bite though it never would have hurt her. Still, this will later cost its life.

She loved to run in circles, feeling the breeze, and witnessing her grandpa taking care of the garden. She loved to be in his presence, her favorite storyteller; he fought the Second World War in Africa, he was one of the paratroopers of the Brigade “Folgore”, came back from British camps; recalled scorpions, famine, comrades’ deaths, and never spook much else about it.

From time to time, he patted his knees, and she crawled on top. His voice lulled her with charming princes, blonde princesses, stone castles, white ravens, fairies, dark queens, and spells. Those magical worlds opened her eyes and made her dream.

Interdetta, Lei was biting her lips, she looked uncomfortable, but it was just a feeling; she has that look, that ‘I did something, what am I supposed to do now?’ She stood her ground by the balcony door in her dad’s music room with her blue rain boots on. After pacing around with her goofiness, she stopped steady, ready to go. She knew her place, once her mind was made, nothing could have dissuaded. She climbs up and down the stairs to storm out and play.

When the sky clouds and late Autumn moved their way, Lei was always prepared for rainy days.

Protected by the fences, she looked at the house, adventured on a slow swing, then climbed the benches and ended up stumping on the concrete slab. 

The yard functioned as a ditch for the three-story house. Inside, forbidden chambers, hanging stuffed animals, mirrors, shiny heirlooms, and framed photos from afar past, the whole was her reign.

Her imagination grew big. First she devoured tales, then books. She approached drawing and colors, started making her own storytelling, her alabaster world reflected in her characters, and that was the beginning of all.

Santena-Villastellone, an Italian town nearby Turin, Piedmont.

Casa in Lei’s words. Her home, the new cosmos, their place, hers and her parents, had expended. She had another yard, her room, and her own pets. She played the guitar with her dad, just the two of them. There, nobody bothered when they listen to vinyl loud as hell.  Her dad’s love for music made famous Italian songwriters and bands fill the air with vibrant notes - Fabrizio De André, Edoardo Bennato, Lucio Dalla, Pooh – and mixed beyond borders with Rock, Electronic, Rhythm & Blues and Country music masters - Oasis, The Eagles, Queen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Donna Summer. Yet, her favorite theme was the Nonsense song (Titine) by Charlie Chaplin.

Evenings were cheerful. While mother cooked, father raced her in the living room, tickling and shouting. She bawled, aiudto (help), any time he caught her. Like any child, she mispronounced words; her parents still burst into laughs in memory of those swaps: T(s) with D(s), missed U(s) and sometimes Ss with Fs.

Before sleeping, her parents read to her about their favorite authors: Esopo, Pirandello, Buscaglia, Guareschi…They weren’t for children but she loved them even more. 

Ricci, Lei had weird curls. She had an Afro; nobody had Afro hair. Her head was spongy, hard to untangle, passersby’s took turns patting them and squeezing them or at least they tried. No ribbon stayed put, her mum used to cut them short and people started asking if the baby was a boy or girl.

Lei must have known; at two, she fiercely requested to get her ears pierced. She had her mom bring her to the stationery bookshop down the street and did not shed a tear. It helped but wasn’t enough, so annoyed by acquaintances, as just a mother can be, they both agreed and tried braids. It was a challenge. Her mother practiced hard, but she never really learned; there was nobody in her world prepared to teach her, she didn’t know how, she made up her own way, invented a routine, brushed them dry and hard, in the bathroom, or in the dining room with the TV on.

She twisted medium-sized braids, tightened them with magenta sewing thread; their reference was Rudy Robinson (Huxtable) – played by Keshia Knight Pulliam. Lei felt the character, wished to get that beautiful, combed hair, and got used to the pain. She could feel her roots scream and her mum losing patience but knew that in exchange, she was going to get something more valuable. Every other day, Lei got to brush her mum’s hair, she had to beg a little, but not for long. She caressed her straight hair while staring at her blue eyes. Toward Christmas time was even better; she got to put wreaths on top of her mother’s head. 

Grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, her family was big; everybody could see Lei wasn’t theirs.

Impotente. There were no words Lei couldn’t recall. Her dad said she was about three or four, they were standing in front of a building - her kindergarten - when she asked him why they called her out for her black skin, when it was brown…Lei even insisted they were wrong: “Look, look at my hands, and if you turned them, they’re pink like yours.” There were two other children with dark skin in town, she wasn’t alone, but it wasn’t the same. She had friends, other boys and girls, all adopted like her, they were just living too far to be seen every day. She was staring at her dad. He felt powerless to this day. 

Sorella. When she was three, Lei felt something was missing and asked for siblings; a brother, or a sister. She was captured by the stories read in her books, the cartoons she watched, and wanted to have that same bond with someone. She wanted so many things, amongst all living by her favorite characters. She wanted: to play Sailor moon, the Japanese lunar warrior, with her handmade magic scepters, and have her school friends play the whole team fighting demons and chanting the spells. She wanted to have her friends’ Lelli Kelly shoes, white and pink, silver and gold, perfect for any girl. At eight, her parents got a phone call, then a picture, the sister was born. She got to pick her name, Lei and her father were moved by music and film; Dr Zivago’s was their favorite at the time. And so, it be…

The same year they travelled the world to get her, she even touched her motherland soil. Her sister had native blood, pitch-black smooth hair, and eagle iris. They looked so much like their father’s own, Lei’s jealousy mounted on. 

School opened her knowledge to culture and tradition; her books changed tone. She was into history, wanted to feast with the Gods, fight with the Trojans, visit Rome and bath in milk like Cleopatra. She also wanted to be royal like Sissi, the Bavarian princess, and dream to be found like Anastasia, the Russian empress. She wanted to go to the ball and dance with her 19th century gown.

Carignano-Villastellone, Italian towns nearby Turin, Piedmont.

Figlia, people don’t see color, but they kind of do. Lei was her parents’ daughter; thus, she often forgot her origin. She was Black, had the skin, the hair, the legs. She was supposed to run track because Blacks are fast! Except she wasn’t fast. She wanted something else… She wanted to play the piano, do ballet. She tried, but something pulled her away, made her feel embarrassed by her own presence. 

She dreamed of being like the British Jamaican athlete Fiona May, naturalized Italian, and to play with her daughter while running and chewing at Ferrero’s pastries in the TV commercial. She self-trained, long jump all day in her garden. She enrolled in an Athletic team; at first, it was just a game. She had fun, made friends, got chickenpox (thanks to her sister) and got so fast she even won a small city tournament. With age, she changed school, upgraded categories; she wanted to belong, to fulfil expectations and make the team proud. Instead, she felt out place, again. She wasn’t fast, she had flat feet and a bad back, couldn’t jump for fear of worsening it. She gained weight and her trainer suggested switching to shot put. Even in that, she was average.

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Lei was a reader, an observer, longed for her books and her favorite movies. She looked for others like her, those lucky to be covered by the white stars on the blue-band, and the white and red-strips. She watched their flag waving on the podium, looked for the fewer foreign, black-skinned women, athletes, actresses and models: the only access to them was the screen.

She learned to use the crayon brown for her own skin, self-aware of how her teachers were attentive to her use of color. 

Gatteo a Mare, city by the Adriatic Sea, Emilia Romagna.

Spiaggia. Summer came, Lei must have been twelve or thirteen, sunbathing by the sea, her skin darkened, her breast rounded, and like that, she was no longer a girl. Next to the carrousel, while her mom and sister played, she kept holding her father’s hand, proudly, until passerby whispers and reprobation turned that feeling into painful shame.