The Portrait

About Love and Race

“The Lord knows how to give generously, but He has no idea how to distribute things evenly among His children.” Maman often mumbled these words beneath her breath as she struggled to braid my hair.

I understood her remark perfectly, though I sometimes wished I didn’t have ears to listen, or eyes to see her disappointment. She said very often that my short, black hair was too stubborn, that my skin shade was too deep, that I was too tall, that I was too thin. The Creator must have run out of supplies when He was designing me. She didn’t mean to be hurtful, I knew. But she couldn’t help comparing me to my next door neighbor whose hair fell on her slender back, whose tender skin was the color of amber, whose eyes shone like the moon.

Maman never said it aloud, but I could imagine her thinking that the Creator must indeed have been in a delightful mood when he sketched Belle.

Belle was the envy of every young girl who lived in Lagune. Including me. She was the pride of every mother in town, though she didn’t belong to them. As they often said with a dreamy look in their eyes, Belle was the closest thing to an angel in Lagune. There were times when I wished that Belle didn’t have such a big heart. Besides dazzling beauty, Belle had a gentle, considerate nature, and a gift for drawing.

Like me, Belle was an only child, raised by a single parent. The difference between us was that her father didn’t choose to leave. He died when Belle was just three years old. Maman said that my father, on the other hand, disappeared like a flash of lightning. He didn’t even have the courage to see her through her pregnancy.

When Maman was with child, she lost both the man who could have been my father and, on the night she told them about her pregnancy, her parents after they called her a harlot in public. She hadn’t seen them since. That was fourteen years ago.

Oddly enough, Belle was my best friend. We were both the same age. Often, when we went for a walk, the boys would follow Belle as if she had magnetized them. They would try to touch her hair and Belle would get upset and order them to leave us alone. As if they even noticed me. When I went out with Belle, she became the sunflower, and I the weed.

Belle’s mother was named Luna. Luna Armand. She was as dazzling as Belle. Maman said that before Luna’s husband died, Luna used to be full of life. “It’s a pity that such a beautiful woman should waste away inside a box,” she would say, “It’s a terrible waste. Terrible waste.”

But I tried so hard to ignore the lump that stuck in my throat when I caught Maman admiring Belle from afar. To worship Belle is to worship God, I thought. To admire me is to welcome darkness.

I didn’t understand why Maman complained about my hair when her own hair had the same texture and length as mine. People often said that we resembled each other: dark, short kinky hair, mahogany-shaded skin, pearly white teeth, and deep brown eyes.


One Saturday afternoon, I was crouching on the floor while Maman sat in a straw chair to braid my hair into little boxes. As usual, we had settled under the sour orange tree in the back yard. The sun was at its highest point, yet a soothing breeze enveloped our bodies. I watched a sea of leaves dancing in a gentle swirl of dust. I was mesmerized. Maman braided and twisted and sang. She never sang unless she felt carefree and glad. That afternoon, as Maman braided my hair, she sang such hopeful songs that I almost cried. She sang about the power of dreams, the power of hope, the power of love, the power of faith.

They say poor folks like me don’t dream
They say poor folks like me can’t swim
But I laugh it off and plunge deeply into the sea
A mouth-full of water can’t keep me in the abyss.

When Maman finished braiding my hair, she asked me what I would like for my birthday the following month. I replied that anything would do just fine. “Really Marie, I do sometimes wish you were a little more demanding,” she said, her laugh lines stretching.

“Maman, I know things are hard. I know that most of your savings go for my tuition. So please, don’t worry over me. I know that you care and really, that is more than enough.”

Maman was working for a mulatto family in the city, a few miles away. She left the house at dawn and did not return until dusk. She said that the Rocher family was kind. Her duties included cooking, cleaning, and looking after their children.

Unlike many other women in similar jobs, she had her weekends off with pay. And during the summer time, Maman did not have to work much because the Rochers spent most of their time in Europe. They would not return to Haiti until the end of August.


My birthday came two days before school resumed in the fall. The Rochers had returned and sent for Maman. I wished that she didn’t have to travel several miles to go to work, but our survival depended on that one job. I wouldn’t bear it if I had to leave school suddenly, like so many of my classmates.

Towards the afternoon, I cooked Maman some vegetable stew and set the table for the two of us. I went to the backyard in the thicket, to the banyann and coconut trees and took a bath in a baignoire. I lay in the tin tub until the moon threatened to expose my nakedness.

Inside, I was deciding whether to wear my Sunday best when Belle walked in the house with a rush of excitement. “Bonne fete, Marie! I can’t believe you turned fifteen!”

“Merci,” I said shyly.

“I’ve got something for you.” Belle handed me a box and told me to open it.

I snatched the box open and in it there was a sketchbook with a pencil. I thanked her and gave her a hug. “That’s not all,” she said, her eyes beaming. “Open the first page of your sketchbook.”

I did as she said and saw the loveliest sketch I had ever seen. It was a sketch of me. Really it was. The brown supple skin, the short black hair, the deep brown eyes. They all belonged to me. I rushed to Maman’s room to look at my reflection in the mirror. I hadn’t looked at myself in a long, long time. Belle was standing behind me as I stared at my face in the mirror. For an instant, I saw only her. I studied every strand of her hair and counted every freckle on her face, her eyes that only voiced kindness, her skin that glowed beside me. And then, there was me. I glowed too, and I forgot for a moment that I was me.
This girl, staring in the mirror, wearing this simple white, cotton dress, had the softest skin and the brightest eyes. Her neck, her slenderness makes her look like a giraffe. A pretty brown giraffe all the way from Africa. Oh Maman, if only you could see me the way Belle does.

I turned around slowly to face Belle. With tears in my eyes, the words struggled to come out, ” I don’t deserve your gift. I’m afraid I haven’t been a good friend. You see, I have not always liked you like a friend should. I mean, it’s not because of anything you did. It’s just that I sometimes wish people would fuss over me the way they fuss over you. I love you, but at the same time, part of me can’t help being jealous of you a little.”

“I understand, because I am a little jealous of you too,” replied Belle.

“Why? Why would you be jealous of me?”

“Because the only thing I have going for me is my drawings. But you, you’re good in school and you make every one so proud. That is the most important thing,” said Belle, handing me a small towel, which she had picked up from Maman’s big wooden bed.

“Thank you for a most wonderful gift.” I whispered, holding her hand. I dried my eyes in the towel and smiled.

Several minutes later, Belle said that she couldn’t stay much longer because she had to run some errands for her mother before it got too dark. When she left, I went to the reservoir to fill a bucket to water the plants in the far corner of Maman’s room; her room was occupied only by her bed, her plants, an armoire, and a mirror.

Outside, the stars were beginning to appear in the sky. The moon hung like a slice of melon. In the nearby thickets, I could hear the melodious chants of the insects. I sighed happily and gazed at the stars, thinking that the brightest star belonged to me.

Once the plants were watered I splashed some cold water on my face and applied some sweet-smelling, soothing skin lotion. I picked up the sketchbook again to examine the drawing. God, I thought. Could it be that you took your time to design me after all? I smiled, knowing the answer was yes.

I was about to have supper alone when Maman walked through the door. I flung my arms around her, kissed her, and cried that Belle had given me the most heavenly present. She announced that she was pleased that I was pleased. “I’ve got something special for you too,” she said, almost in a singsong. “It came all the way from Paris.” She added that the Rochers did her a huge favor by purchasing it. I had never received anything from a foreign country before, so I was a little anxious when I opened the pretty, pinkish box Maman handed me. In it was a jar of cream labeled: Miracle Cream that will lighten your skin to a more beautiful you (it was written in both French and English).

After reading the part of the instruction in French, it became clear to me that Maman wanted me to bleach my skin. I placed the cream on the earthen floor, my eyes getting moist. “Eske sa m panse a se sa? Is this what I think it is?” I whispered, feeling a fist in my throat.

Maman looked at me, sadness in her eyes as she said, “Pitit fi mwen pwodi sa koute m preske yon mwa nan sa m touche a. Ba l yon chans non. My daughter, this product costs me nearly a whole month’s salary. Won’t you consider it?”

January 18th, 2005 by