The following is from Jennifer Neal's Notes on Her Color. Neal is an American-Australian author, artist, and occasional stand-up comedian. She is a graduate of The Florida State University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. She has written for NPR, Playboy, Gay Magazine, The Cut, The Root, and many other publications. She is a MacDowell Fellow and a Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist. She lives in Berlin where she works as a freelance producer and translator.
My mother could change the color of her skin. From what I’m told, it was a gift she inherited from her mother, who inherited it from her mother before her, passed down from blood to blood along with diseases, artistic hysteria, and a predilection for loving the wrong men. My great-grandmother was an Aniyunwiya witch and used to change color before sneaking into settlements to gather supplies and conduct trade.
I was told that she could assume the form of the most respectable white governess and handle herself in a way that made others believe the color change was more than just skin-deep with mannerisms, words, posture, and a general air of entitlement that lodged deep within her bones and held them hostage like a duplicitous marionette. That all changed the day she met my great-grandfather outside the general store in Osceola County. It’s named for the slaughtered chief whose pronunciation its white residents butchered long after his death. My great-grandfather was tall, brawny, with large shoulders like coconuts and thick, long legs roped in muscle. He wore only a pair of filthy trousers and sat in the dirt next to a pile of horse manure, bound to a horse cart by a slipknot looped around his bruised neck and shackles around his wrists. As he waited for his master to return, he met eyes with the woman he would eventually marry in a fire ceremony beneath the North Star. My great-grandmother had been the color of fresh milk, but quickly blushed into her natural rust-colored state when she saw his copper-colored eyes. He watched this transformation, all while holding her gaze, and when she stood before him with soft red skin and sharp cheekbones, he just smiled up at her and said, “Well, would you look at that.”
My mother also told me the tale of when my grandmother, who had long suspected my grandfather of indiscretions, turned into a deep crimson red the night an unknown light-skinned woman showed up on their front lawn. The woman held a bottle of cheap whiskey in her hand and shouted at the Florida midnight air, demanding that my grandmother release my grandfather. She said that they were in love, and nothing would come between them—not even my grandmother’s twenty children. My grandmother emerged from the front door, the screen door swinging shut behind her on its rusted hinges. She walked down the broken porch steps, gripping a shotgun in her weathered hands, as red as new blood. A single shot rang out into the sky, cutting the silence into roaring shards, and then she pointed the gun at the woman on the grass.
“If you ever come back to my house or see my husband again, I’ll kill you,” she said. The woman stared at my grandmother for some long moments, then dropped her half-full bottle of whiskey on the starved grass and walked away, disappearing into the night.
I wish I knew more about these people, but I only know what I’ve been told. There aren’t any books dedicated to their memory, or birth certificates to confirm their screaming entrance into this world. The only proof I have that they existed at all is that I am here to ruminate over who they may have been. When I struggled to fall asleep as a young girl, my mother retold the stories of these people time and again, her voice reinventing the chronicles of our predecessors—their smells, shapes, colors, and misfortunes. She constructed whole landscapes out of fragmented memories, and she developed the individual characters needed to occupy them. She was good at that—giving me just enough material to trigger the obsessive corners of my mind, which happily filled in the scaffolding around her words like concrete.
I was obsessed with the idea of being related to a witch. I first envisioned my great-grandmother as a toothless miscreant with green, scaly skin zipping around on a broom, raining plague and curses down upon the surrounding plantations. She salted the earth with the sound of her maniacal laughter in the wake of destruction. But as I grew older and began to peruse the dusty shelves of history books at the library, my great-grandmother became an empathic healer, one who set bones and fought injustice, who gave bold speeches about freedom, and who died defending precious ideals against vicious tyrants and fragile empires.
I didn’t know the true manner of her death. My mother never told me. Instead, we martyred her at valiant last stands on sacred land or assassinated her in the driveway of her own home—always dying in the arms of the only man she had ever loved. In our darker storylines, my great-grandmother was betrayed by the ones she protected, forced into exile in the tropical wilderness of Cuba, or gunned down onstage by faceless men in long coats with deep pockets—wondering how it had all gone so wrong. We changed her story often, swapped endings like trading cards. As she took her final breaths, it was never the bullet or the noose that killed her will to live—it was always, and inevitably, heartbreak.
My mother sprang from her mother’s agony as a woman determined to design her own with my father, who rose to the challenge. During his time at law school, my father would sometimes visit a local church to hear my mother sing. He admired the way she straightened her kinky hair into a wavy coif that fell across her face, kissing her lashes.
Then one Sunday morning, my mother debuted as the new soprano in the church choir. She wore an oversize violet robe with sleeves that swallowed her hands as she moved from side to side clapping to the rhythm. When their eyes met from across the room, my mother said that both her voice and her senses abandoned her—replaced instead with a faint whisper in her ear that said, “You can heal him.” My father waited for her after the service, introduced himself as “the most broken man in the world,” and she ran away with him three days later with a promise to fix him. His wedding gift to her was a brand-new piano that she learned to play, but never truly mastered. Her gift to him was a failure to keep her word. Ten years later, they had me—to fix them both. When I cried, she went to the garage where the old piano was cloaked beneath a tarp, and played melodies that put me back to sleep, giving me harmonious dreams.
I was named after an angel who could resurrect the dead. But she neglected to mention that scripture clearly states the world needs to end before I could do just that. And whenever I brought up that important detail, she smiled at me and said, “We’ll rewrite that chapter some day.”
This folklore was necessary. I know that now. Preserving our histories required a degree of invention because we knew so little about the people who made us this way. Not their ages, not their faces . . . not even some of their names. Any knowledge of who they were was lost in the footnotes of history, having decomposed in much the same way that their bodies did under the dirt that buried them. So I borrowed from the lives of the people I read about in history books, slipping them in and out of the skins of my forebears, mixing memory with history, to fill the rot of my family tree—of which I still know so very little. For the sake of whatever lurks beyond the visible realm of this life, I sincerely hope they don’t mind. I didn’t bother questioning this unique mythology of ours until I was well into creating the one that would save me—and destroy everything else.
Excerpted from Notes on Her Color by Jennifer Neal. Published with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Neal.