When I was a kid, I knew what the worst parts of me were—my hair and my mouth. My hair was nappy. My lips were big. Nearly every kid around me knew something similar of themselves because nearly every one of us had some sort of physical defect—dark skin, nappy hair, broad nose, full lips—that opened us up to ridicule from one another. That each of these “defects” were representative of all the Africa that ran through us was never lost on anyone.“Africa” was an insult—African bush-boogie, African bootie-scratcher etc. Ethiopian famine jokes were all the rage back then.
Did we want to be white? I don’t think so. We didn’t want to look like Rob Lowe or Madonna. We hated and mocked Michael Jackson’s aesthetic changes as viciously as we mocked each other. What we wanted was to be on the right end of the paper bag tests. We wanted hazel eyes. We wanted wavy hair. I had neither hazel eyes nor wavy hair. But I also didn’t suffer in the same way that I saw other kids around me suffer. I was not dark-skinned. And, more importantly, I was not a girl.
Even back then I somehow knew that it was a boy’s prerogative to be handsome or not in a way that it wasn’t a girl’s prerogative to be pretty or not. Boys had so many other ways of scaling the social ladder—humor, a killer jump-shot, or a reputation for violence—that were unavailable to girls. As I got older, I understood that this wasn’t merely a mark of West Baltimore, but of something grander. Biggie’s “One More Chance” was an ode to this distinctly masculine advantage:
Heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever
However, I stay Coogi down to the socks
Rings and watch filled with rocks
And my jam knocks...
Never has “however” been used to greater effect.There was no “however” for a girl deemed “black and ugly.” There were no female analogues to Biggie. “However” was a bright line dividing the limited social rights of women from the relatively expansive social rights of men.