How I learned to love myself as a black woman
My Aunt Cornelia taught me to find my true self
Last week, my family gathered in tiny New Hill, North Carolina, for a memorial service to celebrate my aunt, Cornelia McDonald. She had died in January at 65 after living for five years with cancer that ultimately left her weak and in a morphine haze for much of her final days.
Especially when she was receiving chemotherapy, even the faintest scents could set off waves of nausea. So in her final months, her bedroom in the Chapel Hill apartment she shared with her youngest sister didn’t smell like much of anything. But the Aunt Cornelia I knew smelled like well-traveled sophistication: a mix of Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume, the buttery softness of whatever fabulous leather handbag she happened to be carrying, and good lotion.
She didn’t always smell like that.
Aunt Cornelia grew up the daughter of sharecroppers in Wake County, North Carolina. Her father, an abusive man who died when Cornelia was 14, repeatedly moved his wife and 10 children from one backwoods locale to the next, none of which had indoor plumbing. In her memoir, I Wanna Tell You My Story, she wrote:
Each shack we lived in was even more dilapidated than the last. I was so ashamed of these shacks that whenever someone came to visit, I would run and hide ….
The shacks were unbearably hot in the summertime and extremely cold in the wintertime. I remember using my coat on top of the cover because the fire would go out. In the middle of the night I would shiver trying to get myself warm.
In the summertime, we fell asleep wherever we could because we were so tired from working hard in the tobacco fields. The gum from the tobacco would stick to our hands and our hair.
The old shacks were surrounded by a well and an outhouse. One of my chores was to take the slop jars from the house. I would gag all the way to empty them deep into the wooded area, far from the house.
Because she hated the slop jars, and the outhouse was not much better, Aunt Cornelia often wet herself as a child, a habit that was probably exacerbated by the fact that my grandfather used to beat her with a brush broom. When she went to school, she was ostracized because she often smelled.
I thought about that story as I sat in a chair in Chapel Hill after one particularly perilous night near the end, holding on to her hand. Her skin, as usual, was soft and incredibly smooth. Aunt Cornelia would always light up with pride when her doctors remarked about her skin and how well she took care of herself. It signified how far she had come and the example she set for me. While she was still alive and lucid, I began to thank her.
“Thank you for loving me even when I wasn’t easy to love,” I said.
“Thank you for seeing me.
“Thank you for teaching me about black people.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Thank you for teaching me to love myself
One of my earliest memories of Aunt Cornelia occurred when I was about 5 or 6 years old and this unfamiliar woman showed up at our house. She was 6 feet tall, sporting a wide smile and a booming voice. She had dark brown skin like my father, and her natural hair was cropped close to her head.
She didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met before, certainly not in the small North Carolina Air Force town I called home, where my parents reacted with mortified laughter when I came home one day and told them I wanted to take clogging lessons.
I was in a community theater camp that summer. Small yet imperious, I informed Aunt Cornelia I was writing a play. Snow White, I said — an adaptation, clearly.
“You can be a tree,” I told her.
I couldn’t know the memories that childish proclamation must have evoked. In I Wanna Tell You My Story, Aunt Cornelia wrote about how cruel her classmates could be:
I will never forget the days when I was on my way to class and the cool guys were standing on the school steps making fun of all the uncool people. I felt especially good about myself this one day. My sister Geneva had bought some deodorant, my mom had gotten a piece of green cloth and made me a shift dress. I had on green fishnet stockings. When I passed the guys walking into the building they said, “Ho ho ho! Green Giant!” Everybody laughed – including the teachers. I just wanted to disappear into the ground.
You can be a tree
Even when I could have been a giant trigger for her, even when I said hurtful things without knowing it, she didn’t retreat into herself (a favorite tactic of mine as I grew up). She loved me anyway. She had faith that I wasn’t just a tactless little brat. She spoiled the dickens out of me and, like all good aunts, took it upon herself to rescue me from bouts of parental insanity. She found humor in the phantom pain that echoed through her and helped me overcome my own awkwardness in the world.
She saw how we were the same.
Of all the lessons she gave me, learning to love myself and my body was the most difficult. It was much easier to find reasons to despise myself, and they occurred with such abundance: my hair is too short, my arms too long, my feet too big, my belly and thighs and face too round. My general nature is just all-around difficult. And I’m prone to cataloging and internalizing slights.
Aunt Cornelia grew up wishing she looked more like her sister Florene, who had lighter skin and longer, more loosely textured hair than she did. I wanted hair like my sister Carol, who is 11 years older than I am. She had long, loose, bouncy curls that grew more rapidly than my tightly coiled naps. Our mother, who is not African-American, is a petite, olive-skinned Dutch woman. My father used to recount his grandmother jokingly advising him to marry a light-skinned woman so his children wouldn’t be ugly.
Like Aunt Cornelia, I grew up longing for normal-sized feet, not the podiatric monstrosities that had me in a ladies size 10 shoe when I was 10 years old. She was “Green Giant.” By the time I was in fourth grade, to my classmates I was “Bigfoot.”
Like feet, outsize bosoms are common among the McDonald ladies, and they present similar challenges. It’s difficult and expensive to find bras that are pretty and feminine and also perform well as over-the-shoulder boulder-holders. My mother was responsible for buying my bras when I lived at home, and once I’d reached a C-cup by eighth grade, it didn’t take long for me to notice that the ones she bought for me didn’t correspond with my size. They were always too small, as if she was trying to will my body to stop growing in inappropriate directions.
The underlying message I took was that my body was unruly and made others uncomfortable. The worst was when adults would talk to my parents in front of me about the curves that had suddenly sprung from nowhere, as if I didn’t know what they meant.
Aunt Cornelia tried like hell to spare me the pain of bodily dissatisfaction. She’d tell me to look in the mirror and tell myself I was beautiful and capable and amazing, like the Soraya she saw. Most of the time I didn’t heed her instructions. They seemed cheesy, and frankly it felt like lying to myself.
But Aunt Cornelia kept delivering perfectly customized compliments as I grew into adulthood. “Who taught you how to beat your face like that?” she’d ask if I showed up with a fully made-up face — and she didn’t bull– me because she knew I’d spot it immediately.
At the beginning of January when I came to visit, I took a shower and came out to her bedroom wrapped in one of Aunt Cornelia’s big plush towels. “I’m gonna flash you,” I warned her. I opened the towel and did a little shimmy and she laughed.
“You’ve got some nice t—–s!” she exclaimed. “That’s how mine used to look.”
I had put on a black and pink balconette number, and my aunts cooed in awe. “That’s a pretty bra,” Aunt Gail said through the iPad. “Where’d you get that?!”
After years of unsolicited jeers, come-ons and street harassment, I put on weight after college and part of me was happy with the sexual invisibility that came with it. But that didn’t last long, and I grew frustrated and unhappy with myself again.
I learned to embrace my body and its imperfections when I stopped obsessing so much about what size and weight it was and focused more on what feats it could accomplish.
When I triumphantly called Aunt Cornelia to inform her I was training for my first triathlon and relay the sense of satisfaction I felt when I completed my first 30-mile bike ride, giant thighs and all, she told me about experiencing similar revelations after running the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco. Now, my sister and I are training for a triathlon this fall, which we’re doing together in honor of Aunt Cornelia.
Thank you for seeing me
Aunt Cornelia showered me with all sorts of fabulous stuff my parents would not buy, as aunts do. But more importantly, she let me pick out clothes and accessories that corresponded with my personality and not someone’s idea of what a “good girl” should look like.
When I was in high school, she took me shopping at a Loehmann’s in Los Angeles and bought me a pair of $200 Via Spiga boots that had a 4-inch stiletto heel. Aunt Cornelia was well-acquainted with the melange of horror and dread that accompanied the prospect of having to wear men’s tennis shoes or hideous granny clodhoppers as a result of being the owner of a pair of enormous, narrow feet that looked like boats protruding from too-skinny legs.
I didn’t have to say it out loud. She’d been there, too.
Aunt Cornelia didn’t just let me be myself, she encouraged it, and when she noticed me shrinking into some preconceived notion of what someone else said was cool or appropriate, she’d remind me it was OK to be me.
“I love that word: agency,” she said to me once.
I was 20 when I exhibited some agency of my own.
I’d finished an internship at a paper in Mississippi, and my father had come to help drive the Mazda he’d bought for me back to North Carolina, with a pit stop at my sister’s house in Atlanta. In the course of casual conversation, my editor told him that I’d recently taken a weekend trip to Florida to visit my boyfriend, and this clearly bothered my father.
I remember him bellowing through most of Mississippi, and probably Alabama too, about not wanting a daughter with “hoochie mama tendencies.” (This was before “slut shaming” became a common part of the lexicon, but that’s exactly what it was.) Mostly I remember cringing into the passenger side door, trying desperately to will myself to disappear into it.
By the time we reached Atlanta, I’d had enough. When it was time to leave my sister’s house and continue to North Carolina, I’d decided to stay. I handed my father the keys to the Mazda and took out all my belongings.
“How are you going to get back to school?” he asked me.
“I’ll figure it it out,” I said.
I was so scared. I didn’t know much of anything, but I did know I never wanted to feel again the way I’d felt in that car.
My aunt believed in having control over every aspect of her life. Aunt Cornelia was the first adult I ever heard say the word “p—y,” as in “No, I don’t owe you any p—y just ’cause you took me to dinner and you drive a Mercedes” — a line from a story she told me about a onetime suitor. He did not make it to a second date.
She went through a phase of sexual conservatism, which she ditched for a more sex-positive approach after having a growth removed from her uterus. This was also after she’d directed and starred in a production of The Vagina Monologues.
That was when Aunt Cornelia began to dispense unsolicited advice concerning the quality and frequency of orgasms: “Girl, you better get you a B-O-B.”
“B-O-B?” I asked quizzically.
“Yeah! A Battery Operated Boyfriend!”
Thank you for teaching me about black people
Aunt Cornelia taught me to trust my own judgment about how I should run my life. And she taught me about black people and how wonderful we are.
She used to work as a pediatric nurse for UCLA’s hospital, until the 1994 Northridge earthquake prompted her to skedaddle back to my grandmother’s house in Holly Springs, North Carolina. She brought back all sorts of treasures with her, among them an embroidered settee, masks, sculptures, vases and mud cloth from Africa, and an Ernie Barnes print of two men playing basketball and another of four men running track. It was such a contrast with my parents’ house, which my aunt described as “nice, but Waspy.”
“What’s Waspy?” I remember asking her.
My parents had a classical, jazz and NPR household, which made my Another Bad Creation cassette tape, a present from my sister, practically contraband. But in Aunt Cornelia’s car the radio was tuned to hip-hop and R&B, and when she started going through menopause, we’d cruise up Durham’s Highway 55 with the windows down in the middle of winter, blasting Lauryn Hill.
One summer, my aunt was an artist-in-residence teaching drama to children in a Durham housing project called Few Gardens. The same summer, I was a day camper at Duke Young Writers’ Camp. Aunt Cornelia used to roll up to Duke’s campus in a big, un-air-conditioned eyesore of a van, usually with her charges, and pick me up.
She didn’t say anything to me, but I saw the way she treated the kids and took heed. My aunt wasn’t condescending, and she wasn’t overly prescriptive. She taught me there’s no shame in being poor, that it’s not a moral failing. Watching her work, I learned important lessons about respectability politics and not looking down your nose at other black people.
In her book, she reminded her readers not to judge people — not if they were poor, not if they smelled. “You never know what someone’s going through,” she wrote.
My parents didn’t want me to go Howard University, but it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. And I probably wouldn’t have made it without Aunt Cornelia.
My father, who’d attended North Carolina Central because educational segregation and economic circumstances demanded it, didn’t think I should go to a historically black university. He thought I could do better. I proudly told my parents Howard was the school of Toni Morrison and Thurgood Marshall and Zora Neale Hurston. It was more than good enough.
When I was at Howard, I started to believe that the lessons Aunt Cornelia had been trying to teach me began to take root.
I was at this place with all sorts of black people, from all sorts of backgrounds, and plenty of them were smarter than I was. The girls, in their impossibly high heels and their perfectly coiffed hair, seemed like they were from a different planet. My freshman year, I was perfectly happy to walk around with a bright pink L.L. Bean backpack, wearing hippie skirts and Jesus sandals and drinking from a Nalgene bottle. I went to Amnesty International meetings and anti-Iraq War protests.
That summer, my parents wanted me to come back to North Carolina. But I had other designs, ones that set me on the path to where I am now, here at The Undefeated. I shared a rented rowhouse on Florida Avenue for a summer, working an unpaid internship with BET.com during the day and a paid job at the downtown Barnes & Noble at night. When my earnings fell short, Aunt Cornelia helped cover my rent, subsidizing the work I needed to do to become a professional writer.
She was a fantastic live storyteller, a woman who created The Moth for herself before The Moth was a thing. She would sweep into a room or onto a stage with perfect posture and a brightly patterned scarf wrapped intricately around her head. She had a way of relaying painful incidents that would cause audiences to erupt into peals of laughter, the kind that made tears spring from enjoying yourself so much. Aunt Cornelia remains the writer who was my biggest inspiration, champion, and the most trusted judge of my work.
Having an aunt who was a poet and playwright who performed pieces about poverty and abuse and being the descendant of slaves was like having your own personal Maya Angelou, except much cooler. She used to randomly break into Nina Simone or Tracy Chapman. Now, I sing Erykah Badu lyrics aloud to myself.
Four years at Howard taught me I could wear my hair natural and paint my face as I pleased. I could develop whatever sense of style I desired, sport a giant Afro or a sleek blowout. More than anything, it taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and be black doing it, and that was enough. Howard taught me that I was enough, providing the most powerful bulwark of all against a world that still insists in myriad ways that I am not, and that black women just like me (Hello, Rep. Maxine Waters and White House correspondent April Ryan) are not enough, either.
I arrived at Howard a feminist, but my experience there showed me what was possible in a world where blackness was valued and celebrated. It made me impatient with racism and white supremacy. It changed me from a person who looked at such ills and thought they were bad to one who finds them unacceptable.
And when I returned home after four years there, I didn’t have to say any of that out loud. It was in my body, in the way I carried myself, in everything about me. Aunt Cornelia took one look, and she just knew.
“I don’t know what they teach y’all at Howard. But thank the LORD,” she said, drawing the word out into multiple syllables, “you didn’t stay here.”
I knew exactly what she meant.