“Keep your chin up, Ciara.” Her mother pressed cold fingers at the bottom of her face, forcing it forward. She was angry, not at Ciara, but at the world for making it seem like she had something to hide away from. Something to be ashamed of. “You be ashamed for something you chose to do, you hear? Like those nasty men rotting away in jail cells for their own bad and wrong decisions. The darkness of your skin is not a curse. It is a blessing.” Ciara nodded.
It didn’t feel like a blessing, not when the pretty blonde princesses at her school taunted and pulled at the thicker hair she had. Not when her ‘kind’ was bashed on the news, and certainly not when she had to use a different water fountain.
Ciara wished, then, that her skin would change.
She prayed with hands held firmly together, so sure her prayers would be answered. So sure the burden of being different, of being distaste on other’s tongues would be taken away through the night.
“Chin up, Ciara.” The tall, heartless, and very, very white gym teacher scolded, scowling. She poked at Ciara’s chin with a long black stick, as if afraid to touch her. Ciara trembled and obliged.
The other girls didn’t get sticks to their chins, the other girls weren’t scolded, the other girls didn’t have to walk all around the school for the entrance specially labeled in big bold letters.
Because the other girls were white with their pearly white teeth that showed when they smiled and the whites of their eyes gleaming with delight every time Ciara was poked and the whites of their socks going all the way to their knees.
And though Ciara had these things too, it was different.
“Chin up, now, darling, why so blue?” The old man was bent over, throwing crumbs to stray pigeons, though Ciara could see his eyesight wasn’t too good. His throws were straying off to one side while the little pigeon cocked her head in dismay, making little hops to get to the food. He hadn’t looked her way, but he had heard her sniffle, and she knew he hadn’t seen her yet. Hadn’t seen she was one of them.
Even at her age of 12 and a half, she didn’t really know what them even meant.
She knew, though, that even with his aching bones and light grey hair, the old man possessed more power than she ever could. Ever would.
“Chin up…” she whispered to herself at the mirror, tracing the shape of her face beneath her fingers, tracing the bones and the lips and the nose and the hairline and all the features she had grown to hate. And how couldn’t she have? How couldn’t she have when the whispers and stares burned holes through her dark skin and the difference was evident when she sat on the one table, set apart from the rest, with the two boys and one other girl who were like her.
She thought that human was the only classification, but as she grew older she learned different.
Or was taught different.
If she stared life and everyone right in the eye, with her chin up and her back straight, would they give her more respect?
“Chin up and eyes at me when I’m talking to you.” The dean was a woman with a shrill voice and small glasses and she made even the white girls cry. Ciara hadn’t done anything wrong, but it didn’t take a genius to know she had been framed.
And it took even less of a genius to know that if she knew what was good for her, she would go along. She’d apologize. And that’s what she did.
All because the giggling girls wanted to trip the poor skinny boy and didn’t want an ounce of trouble. Didn’t want to take responsibility. Because they were cowards. Because they had no morals.
That’s what Ciara’s mother told her at least when she came home crying with the extra homework she was given to ‘make up for her mistakes’ and the whole class had laughed, even her ‘allies’.
“Chin up, and sign up too, so everyone can read it.” Ciara felt strong. She felt strong even as the weight of the cardboard sign made her skinny arms ache. She felt like maybe something could change if enough of them tried. Ciara had begged her mother to let her skip school and go to the protest. She had begged on both knees, stretched please as far as it could go.
Of course, her mother said yes.
Her kind neighbor took her to ensure she wouldn’t be lost, and helped her write large words on a ripped up box.
‘We want equality.’
She held the sign up proudly, and she walked and walked and walked.
“Chin up, they smell your fear.” a woman whispered in Ciara’s ear, ever so careful, ever so quiet. Ciara trembled as the policemen ventured closer, armed and suited and with cold looks in their eyes. Showing no mercy.
And for what?
They were mere people hoping to be treated as such, holding up paper that wasn’t harming anyone.
People were filed into small stuffy trucks, and though Ciara steeled herself for taking one for the team, she was spared.
“I’ll keep my chin up, Mama…” Fourteen-year-old Ciara stood, wet grass seeping into old shoes and tears falling steadily at her cheeks. The sky was crying too, and rain dripped down, sogging up already wet dirt and turning it into mud.
People die, and she knew that. But not her fierce, strong-willed mother. Those types of people only die when they’re killed.
Killed by people who are supposed to uphold the laws, not make their own. Killed for no reason besides spite.
Ciara pushed her dark hair behind her ear and looked with steel eyes at the small stone with her mother’s name written in ugly letters.
“Chin up as you walk, now, I’m so proud of ya’ll…” The dean stared at the tall white girl as she said it and Ciara didn’t think she meant it to anyone else. Nonetheless, she forced her lips to curl into a smile as she adjusted the ill-fitted cap and gown.
Hers were old, of course.
Old because a little black girl with no mother couldn’t afford, couldn’t dream to have something new and special in the good kind of way.
Not special in the way that the four black kids in the class didn’t get their certificates at the same time as the rest of them. They didn’t get clapping or snapping or smiles, only minor good jobs and good wishes.
Eighteen-year-old Ciara still held her head up high.
You’re lucky, she could practically hear her mother whisper, braiding her hair.
Lucky to be alive is what she was.
“We can finally walk with our chins up in some sort of pride,”
“Any one of their kind lost is a point to us.” Ciara heard someone from the large crowd murmur. She stood, feeling broken as they took the man’s body away. She had seen the bullet hit his chest and heard the simultaneous gasp of one-half of the people gathered.
She hadn’t known him, not really.
But he was another advocator, another person, another human being who lost his life fighting for what was right.
The whites there gathered with their arms crossed over their chests and their noses curled in disgust.
Ciara dug her nails into her palms, wanting to yell words they wouldn’t forget.
But she knew who would get in trouble in the long run.
“And we will keep our chins up and eyes forward in solidarity…” Forty Year Old Ciara spoke with confidence to the mass of people that were gathered. They wouldn’t sit for injustice anymore, they were tired. Tired of being treated like a different species.
They couldn’t stop all of them.
They could try, but they were stronger together.
Ciara’s heart squeezed as she saw some lighter faces amongst the crowds. Some people finally coming to their senses and realizing what they did wrong.
She could’ve sworn one of them looked like the same girl who’d tripped the skinny boy long before, her smile apologetic and her sign as large as the rest of them.
They all proudly marched forward, hoping for a better tomorrow.
“Chin up, there are greater things to come.” Though Ciara’s voice was weak and her hair grey, the little girl stopped in her tracks. She had an all too familiar look on her face. Ciara walked slowly forward and embraced her in a hug.
Things were changing, things were improving, but it would be a long time before things were ideal.
“Remember who you are, yeah? Hold your head up high and don’t forget it.” Ciara swiped her frail fingers at the small tears that had escaped the little girl’s eyes.
She wasn’t the first or last to be taunted, but she was the first to hold her head up high when she saw them next.
Because maybe all it takes is a little bit of courage, a little bounce in your step, a little bit of a raised chin to make a difference, however small.