By Lena Habtu
“palatable” is a product of my experiences as a young black girl at a predominantly white school. Particularly, it’s my examination of the concept of palatability, and what it means to prepare yourself for consumption.
i’ve always known i was black. i knew the basics: my body was encased in a chocolate skin, and my hair defied gravity in the most wondrous ways i knew the abstracts: that Way Back When, people like me couldn’t do the things that white people could for some reason. the cloudy obscurity of racism was a foreign concept, and i slept soundly knowing that i lived in the Now, when things were Good. it came with the elation i felt seeing the headlines broadcasting the election of the “first black president of the united states of america.” i never questioned why there hadn’t been one before. i understood my blackness in the way one claims to understand gravity, i knew it was there, but i’m not sure i could explain to you what it meant. i knew my blackness in its purest tangibilities and the hushed stories we’d tell of the Dark days but then i stepped into the white white world of cookie cutter girls, powdered sugar pale, with their lululemon leggings and dull, lifeless hair. i wasn’t one of them, and it showed. my mom did everything she could; she took me to lululemon and bought me the leggings, silver iridescent logo glistened on my calf, a receipt of my belonging i told myself that i was different, but in a good way. i didn’t straighten my hair or lighten my skin. i loved my curls!!!1!1! i didn’t try to fit in. didn’t i? didn’t i nod and smile and muse and hum and play along when my peers mentioned White People Things, dropped tibits into conversations i’d never be able to relate to. didn’t i make it a point to prove my worth when i could? centuries of social mobility neatly wrapped up in whether i (this silly little black girl) knew the name of the obscure broadway show (spoiler alert: i did) didn’t i make it a point to be more sweet than spicy, to sugarcoat my complexities, i’d pat myself on the back for refusing to conform then turn around and pretend to navigate this white white world with ease. and even now if i laugh too loudly with the cocoa skinned girls, the girls like me, and one of the pale cookie cutter girls glances over, toothpick thin and sickly sweet, i smile (demurely, we are not threatening creatures) and pipe down and i wave, making my body, my voice, and my being soft and small enough for them to sink their teeth into with ease. because really who am i if not palatable?
When asked to “narrate the time you became conscious of your racial identity” in an exercise for my Women and Literature class, I was hesitant, unsure if I could pinpoint the exact moment of the awakening of my racial consciousness. As I wrote, I began to hone in on the specific experiences that accompanied entering my first predominantly white institution in sixth grade, and what that meant for me as a young black girl.
Lena Habtu, simply put, is a poet. She is passionate about advocacy and community organizing, but the outlet through which she processes and recounts lived experience has always been poetry. Her works have been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.