No. 46 / No Sweat
adrienne maree brown
If it had happened more suddenly, I might have noticed. No one would have had to point out to me, “You’ve changed.” I would have known.
When I was a child, I had had growth spurts. I remembered once when I could suddenly see what was on the counter, and all the adults would greet me by yelling at Ma, “Wow! SO big! How old is this giant again? No way!!!”
I’d leveled out three years ago, at age 15, reaching a height that was somewhere around five foot seven. Except around white people—around them, I shrank. Just a little. This was something I learned without anyone ever saying it to me. It was the direction of my eyes, maybe, looking down, not just at the ground, but at my pristine Nikes moving one step at a time, each step proof positive that I was not dead, in spite of my Black skin, which offended the world so much that my ancestors were enslaved, and friends from every year of school are enslaved.
Ma thought I would die whenever I was out of her sight, and it was a justified concern. So I, like every Black person in my lineage since we’d met white people, shrank.
The day I knew I was unshrinking started with denial. I woke up with my feet touching the end of the bed. Which wasn’t that odd—I slept like a runaway slave, always in motion through my dreams, often waking in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets. But that morning, I was lying straight, and I could feel the top of my head grazing the dark wood headboard. This situation, even as it was happening, was not actually possible. So I denied it, got up, took a shower, tilting the showerhead up higher to rinse my face.
It was my brother Traywon who pointed it out in an undeniable way. He was back home, living in the basement while he got his garage up and running. I came into the kitchen for breakfast, and he was standing there in his blue jumpsuit, stained, bearded, immediately laughing.
“And what’s this style called?”
He was pointing at my pants. He was right, too—they were short. My ankles showed, and a couple of inches above them, soft hair curling up the leg in odd patches, apparently my inheritance from a grandmother I’d never met. All my pants had been getting shorter, for like a month. I thought Ma had been washing them wrong, but I didn’t want to say nothing ’cause then she might make me wash my own clothes, and I didn’t want to do that until I absolutely had to. Dirty drawers? Ew.
“Shrank-in-the-laundry, broke Negros edition?” I wanted to beat him to the punch. I offered to make him some cereal, some toast, something to stuff his mouth with, but he wasn’t having it.
“Naw, naw—them shits ain’t wool.” He was laughing too hard to say more.
I’d found a pair of sweatpants that were usually too long for me and thrown those on, slipping out of the house on an empty belly.
I missed Ma in that moment, the kind of sharp parental need that hints of mortality and debts too great to ever repay. Ma didn’t let Tray pick on me like that. She also didn’t let me leave the house in clothes that didn’t fit.
But she was away, being honored at a gala in DC. Ma was an organizer, always on some social justice work. Last month, the campaign she’d been working on since—I guess my whole life—actually, finally, won.
Ma and some other Black women had figured out a way to get reparations. Black people with enslaved African ancestry would have a set of options, and it would be part of the taxation system. For adults over the age of 21 by December 31 of this year, there would be options for waiving existing debt or setting up a retirement supplement to social security. People 21 and younger would have the additional option of supplementing college tuition at most schools. The amount we were gonna get was calculated by subtracting the national average Black net worth from the national average white net worth. White and mixed-race folks would contribute to the Reparations Fund through their taxes, based on how far above average they were, which would then be redistributed to Black and mixed-race people based on how far below average they were.
Ma was a “shaper of history” now. She was winning a ton of awards and getting even harder to deal with at home. Ma was anti-respectability but pro-standards. She wanted us to have standards for ourselves, dignity. I wasn’t a sloth, but I always came up a bit short when she was assessing my standards. Me and Ma got along, though. I was proud of her.
And I had other things to worry about.
A few days later, in my “Past and Future Economics” class, Delia sat next to me. Delia was a petite ink-black senior with wide eyes that always looked mom-like. But she was really pretty, smart, and in spite of—or maybe because of—that maternal vibe, she had a lot of friends. Her parents worked with Ma, so we had been revolution babies together. But her cool had come on in grade school, and mine was much delayed. Like, it was weird for her to sit by me.
I normally sat up front, shameless about my nerd life. This last week I was hiding in the back because I didn’t want people to see me contort my longer legs in and out of the desk.
When Delia slipped in to the desk next to mine, I looked over. She looked frantic.
She was like one of those pictures where I had to notice the differences—her big shoes looked brand-new bright. Her pants were also on the too-short side, as were the sleeves on her shirt, frills far from her wrists. And petite Delia was looking straight into my eyes when I found hers again.
After class we unfolded our long bodies and left together, quiet for a while. When we were out of the building, she stopped me with a hand on my arm.
“When did you start growing?” She scanned my length.
“Like, a month? I just noticed it this week.”
“It’s not normal. My mom’s been measuring me. Six inches in three weeks. It’s not just us either.” Delia pulled her hair into a brief ponytail, then let it go. She wasn’t looking at me for solutions, just data. This calmed my clueless heart.
“There’s seven people at school so far that I’ve talked to. All Black. All more than four inches of growth in the last three to four weeks.” She smiled, incredulous. “It don’t feel like it’s gonna stop.”
It had to stop. How tall could we get?
Time answered that question quickly. Delia and I were among the first—Ma was convinced it was because we were children of the Reparations Team. Traywon stopped laughing when he outgrew his uniform. Ma grew too. Delia’s family too.
Every descendant of enslaved Africans currently living in the United States, over the course of about three months, grew one to three feet in height.
I topped off at seven feet, Delia at 6 foot 9. The tallest Black people hit 11 feet, 12. We needed new everything—new beds, new ceilings, new wheelchairs, new shoes, new airplane seats, everything.
There were tons of theories floating around, but none of them made sense, because there was nothing that actually impacted every single Black person in the country. Nothing except for Ma’s reparations. Which also didn’t make any sense to me, because how could a policy make people grow?
Ma privately loved this, though. The Reparations Team made no claims publicly, and no one else seemed to connect the dots in a meaningful way. But I heard them at night talking, with wine-loosened tongues and cackling laughter. “Taking the ‘press’ out of ‘oppression’!” “We gonna need our own nation, just to raise the national standard for toilet seat height.” “They gonna call this ‘AR’ in the history books—‘After Reparations,’ when we evolved right in front of they eyes!” In the midst of these jokes, they were arguing over whether to start a new campaign, or fall back, make room, live into the victory.
Me, I loved walking out into a world where every single white person I met had to look up at me. And I loved heading to Fisk knowing that the labor my ancestors had done was covering me. And the tired blood I’d been carrying around was going to get some respite. And the work it took to be small was a labor I could set down.