Can I?

Having a sibling close in age is a blessing – it’s like growing up with an automatic best friend. And when you have a twin it’s even more so the case!  From birth you literally do everything together and are subject to an almost identical adolescence that builds a deep understanding and unshakable bond with another person from an early age. And in a life where what we all desire the most is companionship, having that relationship from the very start lessens the magnitude of that yearning.

Trust me, I know. Twenty Eight years ago my sister was born thirty seven minutes after I was (which is long for twins but obviously close in the grand scheme of things), and we have been inseparable most of our lives.  We’ve always had separate identities, though, and are polar opposites in almost every respect of our personalities: she is the fun, creative type while I have always been the boring bookworm; she eats healthy (or at least tries to) while often the only vegetables in my diet are the lettuce and tomato on my cheeseburger.  However, despite our differences we’ve managed to maintain largely the same circle of friends and have similar interests – so growing up, everyone knew that when you saw one, the other wasn’t too far behind.

We never experienced any real sense of separation until college.  She stayed local and went to the university in our hometown while I traveled almost 1,000 miles to attend college in Atlanta. The one question we were constantly asked as high school graduation approached was “how do you feel about separating?” One of our classmates even wrote an article in the local newspaper about us! The fact that anyone (let alone everyone we encountered) would be curious about that decision and its potential impact on our relationship is a testament to how close we were. But honestly, I was never concerned. Although it was the early 2000s, there was such a thing as cellphones, and Skype made its appearance soon after we graduated so I knew I could still talk to her whenever I wanted. Living separately didn’t seem like a big deal at all – it actually made me excited!

I wanted to see who we’d become once no one knew us as “the twins”; how we’d do when we were forced to make friends and build real bonds with other people. Essentially, I was excited to see how we’d fare on our own out in the world – and if I do say so myself, I think we did pretty damn good. She maintained friendships from high school and grew really close to her freshman-year roommates, got a boyfriend and juggled a part-time job with school work and externships, while I also developed friendships with a group of girls right away and soon added sorority sisters to the mix, I built bonds with several professors and graduated with the highest GPA in my major.

Fast forwarding a bit, we were reunited in New York City a year after we graduated from college. But I don’t mean that to sound like we didn’t see each other for 5 years… We visited each other often during that time, though we were very much living and thriving in different cities.  Yet when she joined me in NYC it was like we had never parted. We obviously were older and more mature, but becoming roommates again was like sliding my feet into my favorite fuzzy slippers. It was home.

My other half was back, and we did everything together! I dragged her out drinking and partying with my law school friends and linesisters, and she made sure we visited funky new restaurants and gourmet meatball stands, went to farmers markets and tried spinning classes. But don’t get me wrong, like any other roommates we have our issues.  She hates how I let my dishes stack up in the sink for days and then go on cleaning sprees of the entire apartment (including moving her stuff from where she left it), and I can’t deal with how many different hair products she has brought into our tiny apartments over the years and how she never (ever) closes the medicine-cabinet or cupboard doors, but somehow the living arrangement has largely worked for us.

However, we’ve now been living together for over 5 years and unfortunately all I’ve been able to think about lately is having my own space. I guess it’s only “unfortunately” depending on how you look at it. We’re almost 30 years old and I’ve only lived alone for a total of 15 months of my entire life – and I don’t think my sister ever has.  Some would argue that THAT is what’s unfortunate. That you need time alone to grow as an individual, to push your own limits and relish in your own space.

Having a roommate, even though you may love her to the moon and back, causes you to have to compromise always.  You have to be mindful of leaving your stuff in common places, sharing the TV, and not accidentally eating her special spaghetti sauce (oops). You have to consider her feelings when you invite people over – after all, maybe she wanted to sit on the couch in her pajamas and twist her hair!  But at the same time, you are entitled to invite whoever you want because it’s your space, too.  So maybe she finds herself twisting her hair in her room…  Though they seem minor, these types of things can wear on you over time. And I feel like we all come to a point where we are just ready to have our own space – and we shouldn’t feel bad about it.  Yet for some reason, I can’t shake this feeling of guilt.

At this age I feel like there will be a sense of finality to separating; this time would probably be the last – are we ready for that? Does she feel the same way, or will she take it as rejection or abandonment? Is it the right time for us to branch out and away from each other? Are we missing out on personal growth by continuing to rely so heavily on one another?

I guess part of growing up is being honest about what you want and need in order to be your best self. And maybe part of being the “older” sister is sometimes bearing the responsibility of making the first move, pushing your siblings outside of their comfort zones – reassuring them that they can do it by first having the confidence that you, yourself, can.

But, can I?

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Sometimes I shave my legs…

I was 12 years old when India Arie’s song “Video” first debuted. Given the time period, I’m sure I caught its premier on 106 & Park and I am equally sure that I didn’t fully grasp the significance of the lyrics or message of the song at the time. But it randomly popped up on a playlist I was listening to today and it just validated my soul in a way that I wasn’t anticipating.

I’ve never really been a “girly girl” – unless you count the 5-year-old me who would only wear skirts and refused to go anywhere without a purse. But at some point in middle school I discovered baggy pants and comfy sweatshirts and the rest was history. (But, then again let’s be real, it was the age of TLC and Aaliyah by that time so it’s probably safe to say that every little Black girl in the world was a tomboy.) And to make matters worse, my mother had no patience for doing my and my sister’s hair so we usually had some combination of braids and beads that let us run, swim and play uninhibited.  We were kids and didn’t care if we got dirty or plain and simply looked a straight-up mess. It wasn’t until junior high school that I started getting my hair done and learned what wonders makeup could do to the average face – but, still, by that point I had started playing basketball pretty regularly so my hair was often pulled into some kind of pony tail, and sweatpants with Adidas flip-flops and socks became my outfit of choice.

Even when I graduated from high school and went on to my illustrious alma mater, Spelman College, the first two years you could still catch me in class and walking around campus in hoodies, basketball shorts and, you guessed it, flip flops and socks. But then, almost overnight, at some point during my sophomore year I went from being flip-flop-wearing-Marissa to tight-dress-whipped-hair-Marissa.  Some might attribute it to pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (skee wee!) that year, or perhaps it was because I turned 20 years old and finally grew out of my childish ways. Whatever the reason, the new me had arrived.  I was fresh out of a relationship, had a new social circle and was one year closer to being drinking age. All the necessary fixings for a make-over.

I started to care about wearing designer labels, having a bathroom sink full of makeup and beauty products, ensuring my hair was laid before I stepped foot outside my dorm and always being caught up on the latest issue of Cosmo. But along with that new sense of style and beauty came a yearning for color contacts and hair extensions, an unhealthy jealousy of women who I thought were more attractive than me, and a hatred for all things nappy. It was truly perplexing. Somehow, on a campus full of women of all shapes and sizes and representing the full spectrum of hair texture and skin-tones, one definition of “beauty” remained pervasive in my eyes. And although I often received affirmation of my attractiveness from men and even other women, rather than boosting my self-esteem hindsight suggests that it actually had the opposite effect – it created a dependence on external validation of my beauty.

It wasn’t until I came to what has become my personal mecca, New York City, that I started to recognize and believe that beauty cannot be defined by, or confined to, mainstream standards. I know Atlanta is the self-proclaimed mecca for Black folks, but there’s something that happens when you come to New York. The Black people (and really all people) here are so varied and interesting, representing the eclectic mix of the African diaspora around the world and, most importantly, exuding a freedom and confidence to be their true selves.  Once you’re here you can’t help but embark on your own path of self-discovery. And at every turn, no matter what road you opt to take on that journey, you are greeted by people who understand you; people who truly see you.

A year after moving here I walked into a hair salon in Brooklyn and told them to cut it all off. I was nervous, scared, worried and plain and simply freaked out – but there was also a sense of calm that came over me as I saw my tresses start to hit the floor.  I think in the back of my mind I knew that there were more than a few women who I would see in class the next day who were going to fawn over my natural curl pattern and tell me all the products and techniques that were going to work so well on my hair type.  I knew I had people.  I no longer cared whether others thought I was cute or stylish or if I was measuring up to mainstream ideals of beauty and style.  I was wearing the clothes I wanted to wear, and loving the deep brown of my eyes and chocolate hues of my skin — and, most of all, I was loving my natural kinks and coils.  As I walked out of that hair salon, that need I had had for external validation quickly converted to an internal confidence as I realized that I was finally going to be seen. If my life was a movie, it would be at that point that “Video” would have been cued so that as the camera spans out above me walking down the street the audience would hear India singing beautifully: “every freckle on my face is where it’s supposed to be, and I know my Creator didn’t make no mistakes on me.”

Well said India, well said.

A Different World

By the time they were my age my dad had taken a job with the city of Buffalo and my mom with a local bank, they were married with two children, had two cars and had already bought their first home.  By comparison, right now I am renting an apartment that’s too expensive to be so small and require me to walk up four flights of stairs (but is in a really great Harlem location and has a washer and dryer in the unit, amen), and I’ve been single with little to no prospects for longer than I’m willing to admit in public, and I either walk or rely on the subway, buses and Uber to get me wherever I need to go – but I also brunch frequently, have way too many clothes, and I make it a point to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year.

So what’s the difference? My parents were toddlers as the Jim Crow era came to an end and teenagers when MLK prophesied of his trip to the mountaintop.  They are from a generation where the sting of segregation and institutionalized racism still permeated every aspect of their lives.  I, on the other hand, came into this world in the late ‘80s when all the hard work of prior generations was beginning to show some impact.  Also, by that time my parents were established in their careers and, although not wealthy in any sense of the word, were comfortable in the life they had built.  I had the privilege and pleasure of growing up in the house my father built with his own hands in a middle class neighborhood, went to a magnet high school that was ranked #4 in the nation at the time, and at the age of 20 I saw a Black family move into the White House.  And although I was (and continue to be) very aware of the struggles of being Black and a woman in this country, I was never made to feel inhibited by those labels.  As my favorite author once said, “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all” (Zora Neale Hurston, How It Feels to Be Colored Me).

Don’t misunderstand, my parents had strong role models as they grew up and they truly believed that they could do anything that they set their mind to, but they were also taught that they’d have to work twice as hard just to get half as much.  They put themselves through college, and because they had big responsibilities at relatively young ages they weren’t able to take advantage of what they would call the more lavish lifestyle choices I’ve made for myself.  My father was 1 of only 3 Black students in his class at Cornell and my mother ultimately had to switch to night school so she could balance her time working and raising young children. Further, they were raised in a time where the Black “family unit” was an important symbol – it represented stability, civility and, in some ways, protection.  As a result, their focus at my age was doing whatever they had to do in order to build a strong foundation for their family and to give their children the best opportunities for survival.  My primary focus at this point in my life, however, is simply building a strong me

My generation seems, more than any before us, to have moved away from our parents and our hometowns without looking back, and we are instead taking up residence in some of the busiest metropolitan centers of the world. We stand ready to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to us as we figure out what exactly we want our lives to ultimately look like – even taking destiny into our own hands at times to create the opportunities we want without concern for how we might be perceived by others.  There are many of us who are indeed buying homes, getting married and settling into the stereotypical “adult life”, but it seems like most late-twenty-somethings these days are still weighing their options, thinking 3 moves ahead before deciding when and where to put down roots.  Even those who maybe never left their hometowns remain hesitant to simply accept the lives their parents had because they can’t seem to shake an internal yearning for more.  We are still exploring ourselves emotionally, creatively, financially, religiously, and professionally.  We are unapologetically selfish and resolved to immerse ourselves in any and every single thing that we so desire without any feeling of shame, remorse or inadequacy.

We, Black and Brown Millennials, have the audacity to throw on blinders as we consider that job promotion, career move or new business idea such that the issues of whether we want to be in a serious relationship, get married or have kids become secondary (and sometimes tertiary) concerns.  We are too busy dropping a few thousand on that trip to Phuket or Dubai to think about if it’s the right time to own rather than rent our homes. We aren’t spending time researching which are the best school districts to live in because we are researching best brunch spots instead.  Some may call it naïveté or recklessness, but I choose to see it as the freedom to find my happiness. And not my happiness as a “Black woman,” but rather my happiness as Marissa Coleman.

And while my maternal clock does often cause me to compare my life to what my parents had at this same age, what I’ve realized is that I have something my parents didn’t: the luxury of time and the autonomy it fosters.  Today, people are living longer and having kids later in life so I can take this time to leisurely weigh career goals, travel prospects and ideal proximity to family and friends.  I don’t have any major responsibilities or external pressures influencing what I do with my life or when I should do it, and that’s a freedom that I am now learning to appreciate.

So although I envy what my parents had and continue to have (they’ve been married for 42 years, talk about pressure!), I really wouldn’t change a single aspect of my life so far.  I’ve been blessed with opportunities that my parents and grandparents prayed I’d one day have, and I am going to do everything in my power not to let their sacrifices be in vain. Besides, they love being able to come visit me in “the big city”, and they view it as their opportunity to try restaurants they’ve seen on TV, visit the Schomburg and shop for vintage furniture in Brooklyn.  Between NYC and visiting my brothers in Atlanta, they now have places to go and things to do.  And my brothers have already given them grandchildren so they seem content to let me be for now…

From Her Lenox Stoop…

I had a little pep in my step as I trotted down the steps of my new 4th floor walk-up, out the brownstone’s vestibule doors, and onto what the locals call “The Avenue”.  On this particular late December day, Lenox was alive with tweens just out of school, college kids with suitcases headed to the subway, and the new age corner entrepreneurs asking if I wanted my hair braided.  I turned onto 125th street to find even more hustle and bustle as old ladies boarded express buses, street vendors called out sales, and tour guides rounded up their flock.  The heart of Harlem was my new neighborhood and I felt like my own personal Renaissance was about to commence…