My daughter has chosen and been chosen by the little girl across the street. They laugh warm puffs into the streetlight’s glow and chase each other around giant trees, light-up sneakers tracking every move. They gather leaves, rocks and unidentifiable fruits of the neighborhood trees and pile them on a patch of dirt they call "the store." Their inventory spreads with the dark of night and the mothers are the only ones thinking about bed. We (the mothers) try to navigate language barriers by sharing our dead loved ones and plans for upcoming holidays. Meanwhile, our girls know that laughter is the only language that matters tonight, and they are speaking and learning each other in ways that make me envy the young. In every octave of laughter, I hear love.
Toni Morrison’s spectral witness to the unfolding of the events of Love describes the moments I have witnessed: “If such children find each other before they know their own sex, or which one of them is starving, which well fed; before they know color from no color, kin from stranger, then they have found a mix of surrender and mutiny they can never live without.”
Mutiny follows the imposition of bedtime; the girls surrender when we promise they’ll play together again. It has been a long time since I have known the love my daughter is learning: addiction to the laughter of a friend. Although there must be some genius in the distillation of language to its crudest form, a social media transmitted "LOL" has nothing on the laughter between children. In real-time, laughter begets more laughter begets the joy of being seen.
In a professional-led playgroup, I learned strategies to make the most out of playtime with my daughter. Watch her play. Wait for an invitation. Join. Acknowledge the things you see her doing. Ask her questions about what she likes. Frequently tell her how much fun you’re having with her and how good playing makes you feel. In other words, be present. See her. Hear her. Know her. Love her. Children who choose each other have not yet unlearned these seemingly simple directions, which are the basis of caste-free love.
The differences we learn to see (“starving from well-fed, color from no color, and kin from strangers”) age us past the laughing love of the unrefined. We are taught not only to see, but to judge the difference we see. We believe this discretion sophisticates us, that it will help us gain entry to the master’s house.
It is no accident that literature about Black girl friendships and the navigation of various caste systems developed alongside some of the first articulations of contemporary Black feminism. Rosa Guy’s The Friends, and Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love, plus Morrison’s Bluest Eye and Sula all explored relationships between girl friends who had chosen each other in spite of the dividing lines they’d been taught to respect. If Black girl pain highlighted the intersections of various oppressions, Black girl laughter showed the possibility of survival. Double consciousness gave way to double-dutch consciousness—a preference for the gaze of Black girl friends.
The children led us then and lead us still. My daughter wants to fill all of her free moments with the girl across the street who knows her name. She wants to cross the street after a long day of work, before I can park the car in front of our finally-home house. She wants to cross the street before breakfast, nap, dinner or bedtime. She knows what I’ve forgotten—that a laughing friend is the only mirror you should seek.
I am job searching and wondering if my language is “academic” enough. I wonder if I will be seen for my scholarship or my subject. I am editing for diction, hoping that those at my job will see me as prepared. Outside, the girls’ laughter ricochets off buildings and trees. They remind me of some of the first girl friends I loved, the ones whose parents watched us play as we jumped rope and made up dance routines. I am trying to remember their eyes and grins, their mouths full of goofy laughter. I have not thought about my old friends in a while, as consumed as I’ve been constructing a persona for the unstable job market. What I need is not more preparation, but the kind mirror of a friend’s eyes. When one of the first friends I ever loved answers her phone, “Girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrl…” we crack up like the kids we once were. Our laughter is deep and spreading, like the roots of our girlhood trees.
Asha French is a mother and writer living in Atlanta. Tweet her: @afrenchwriter