After finishing Genesis Begins Again I wanted to live with the experience of reading it for a day or two before I wrote a review. I have now had the opportunity to do just that.
Genesis is thirteen years old. We first meet her as she is coming home from school–bringing friends with her for the first time–to find all her family’s possessions on the front lawn and a lockbox on the front door. Genesis has been through the eviction process multiple times, but never before directly in front of her peers. This episode shatters her hope of belonging within this particular group of girls–something that felt possible up until the time they arrived at her home. Genesis transforms this event in her head into another block in the foundation of self-loathing she has been building for years.
In 5th Grade two girls in Genesis’ class put a piece of paper on her desk. It was a list titled: 100 REASONS WHY WE HATE GENESIS. Genesis not only kept the cruel list but has continued adding to it herself:
#73: Because she’s always getting put out of her house…
#85: Because her friends dump her when they see her stuff on the curb like a Salvation Army pickup…
The most distressing thing for Genesis is her appearance. Genesis is a dark-skinned African-American in a culture that associates light/white with positive attributes and dark/black with negative ones. Her self-talk in the mirror will tear at your heart:
Look at you with that wide nose, my reflection says.
I pinch my nostrils down.
And those big lips.
I smash my lips tight.
And that nappy head.
I finger the tangles loose.
Don’t get me started on how black you are.
I want to say something, but what? That I think I’m cute? ‘Cause I’m not. That I have good hair? ‘Cause I don’t. That I’m not dark? ‘Cause I am.
Who you think’s gonna love you with the way you look?
…”I can’t stand you,” I say to my reflection.
It is in this exchange between Genesis and her reflection that I felt slammed by two things simultaneously: (1) a deep ache because I’ve had that type of conversation with my own reflection and I know how much pain is twisted up inside it; and (2) the realization that, although I know what it is to feel self-loathing, it has never occurred to me to hate the color of my skin–because I am white and have grown up in the United States.
Having been evicted from their home, Genesis and her family rent a new house in a different neighborhood which requires Genesis to start again at a new school. She now finds herself in a primarily white environment–something which she has not experienced before and exponentially multiplies her feelings of being an ‘outsider.’ She encounters both peers and adults in this new place who both support and challenge the beliefs she holds about herself. Genesis spends a large amount of time trying to come up with an idea–a course of action–that will change her appearance. She believes–as so many young girls do–that if she can change what everyone sees externally it will translate into better, more positive personal relationships and experiences.
Genesis loves to sing, although she would never consider singing by herself in front of anyone. The Chorus teacher at her new school introduces Genesis to the music of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Reluctant at first, Genesis discovers that the music of these women speaks to her in a way she has never before experienced. She seeks out biographies of the women, searching for a greater understanding of how they were able to create the extraordinary musical experiences she can hear on the Cds. Genesis sees in these women–and their stories–echoes of her own life circumstances and emotions. She begins to think about how she can find her own voice as a way of expressing all she holds inside herself:
I recall every bad memory, every negative word, because when I sing, I’m gonna conjure the loneliness of Billie Holiday, the joy of Ella Fitzgerald, the soul and longing of Etta James. I’ll sing for every girl who feels like…feels like me.
Genesis Begins Again is a powerful book. I identified with Genesis’ struggle with self-loathing and opened my mind to a different perspective about what it means to grow up dark-skinned in a culture infused with bias toward lightness/whiteness. The impact for me came from how these two concepts(one with which I am deeply familiar, and one which is out of my personal experience) intersected.
I have always read for two main reasons: (1) I needed an escape from reality; and (2) I was also searching for answers or ideas–trying to find my experiences and emotions reflected in a character or a story and learning how she found her way through those struggles. Genesis Begins Again was such a powerful read for me, as a white adult; I can only imagine how much more powerful it could be in the hands of a young girl who shares Genesis’ thoughts, feelings and struggle with her appearance.
Genesis’ journey from self-loathing to the very beginnings of true self-discovery is raw, heartbreaking and inspiring. As many times as my heart contracted with pain for Genesis, it also opened and sang with her as she began to acknowledge the possibility that she brings so many wonderful qualities and abilities to the world. Genesis is a magnificent role model for young girls desperately searching for who they are and the many reasons to celebrate it.