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Me in April 1975, Sears Picture Studio, Mount Vernon, NY. (Cropped/Donald Earl Collins).

Another title for this could be “Ugly Donald,” an homage toward Ugly Betty. But one word should cover it!

All this talk over the past few weeks about who is and who isn’t “ugly,” or “fat,” or just “too dark” take me back to how I felt about myself for most of the 1980s, and sometimes even as I gotten older over the 30 years since the Reagan decade. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been in a camp of vipers like this since my preteen and early puberty years, where I definitely had my own excited utterances toward Black boys and girls in particular (also, the occasionally flat-butt White girl and bed-headed White boy, but I digress). So I never understood the need for deliberate meanness toward people over something that they would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fix for a group of misogynoirist assholes who aren’t worth a nanosecond of thought.

Whether Lizzo, Blue Ivy Carter, Bria Myles, Ari Lennox, or Teyana Taylor, these mofos who made fun of their looks, or called them a “rottweiler/German shepherd mix” (sic), or told them to workout to lose weight are such boring-ass losers. These women are beautiful. Black women are beautiful. Full stop. You got time to waste running down an active entertainer over your bullshit? Your ugliness is the kind that takes years of therapy, prayer, active listening, and educational reprogramming (i.e., reading lots of books on Blackness, Black feminisms, and intersectionality) to overcome, if you overcome it at all.

I have a bit of experience with ugly over the years. Usually from family and classmates throwing it in my direction. “Whatcha makin’ that ugly face for?,” my mom would say to me many, many times growing up. “You ugly, faggot!,” I remember hearing from folx in around the 616 and 630 apartment buildings on East Lincoln in Mount Vernon from the time I was nine. “Ain’t no one gonna eva wanna be with your ugly ass!,” an older girl who once attempted to molest me said to me when I was 12. I was ugly, alright. I felt ugly, living with poverty and abuse and anti-Black ugliness in the many places I went in Mount Vernon. It was probably why I felt more comfortable around my father, especially when in the Bronx or down in Manhattan doing work. The anonymity of the city meant that for hours or even days at a time, the centrality of my ugliness could disappear.

I felt so ugly inside and out that I wanted to take my own life at 14. I was so ugly that it scared me to look at myself in the mirror for more than a few seconds, mostly to make sure toothpaste or dried drool or eye crust was off my face. I kept my face as blank as I could, like Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown) in Finding Forrester, just so I wouldn’t have to endure more put-downs about my tall, lanky ass and my ugly features on top of that.

Me at Prom Dinner, White Plains, NY, May 21, 1987. (Suzanne Johnson neè De Feo).

But the worst of all this was my senior year at Mount Vernon High School. My final days took an ugly turn the moment my classmates learned I was ranked 14th out of 545 students (509 of us eventually graduated in June 1987). I’ve written ad nauseam about how my White Humanities classmates responded to my ranking, as if I threatened their worldview of them being more intelligent than the Black folx they went to school with every day. Months before my soon-to-be former Black classmates began to stare through me like I was a ghost, they began to clown me. I’d blow by them in the hallways, and they’d bust out laughing. They’d comment on my ugly, brittle hair, talking about how my “hair could break picks.” They’d talk about my “cheap clothes from Taiwan” — which they were from, by the way (how did they know that?). Or, they’d simply shake their heads, as if my existence was a “shaking my head” moment on par with Raven-Symoné declaring herself “not Black.”

Clyde was among that group of Black guys and gals who made a point of telling me I was ugly throughout my senior year. He did it so many times that somewhere around February of that school year, I lost track of the number. “You ugly. There ain’t nothin’ in the world that’s gonna fix that,” Clyde said to me once. Most days, I ignored it, because what would have been the point? We were graduating, and my plans for college were bigger than any insult any asshole could muster. But, one day before winter break, Clyde just said, “You ugly, Donald. You ugly.” It took every bit of the low energy I had to not cry, and not pick up a desk and tear his fucking head off with it, like the chair revenge scene in Moonlight.

It took getting away and going to college for me to stop seeing myself and my own unique blend of Blackness as not ugly, even handsome. A bout of homelessness here and months of struggling to pay rent and eat there will begin to harden you against the bullshit of muthafuckas who would prefer to tear you down rather than build something for themselves or others. As Flavor Flav from PE would say, “Motherfuck them any damn way!”

After those days of sleeping on concrete slabs or eating tuna fish out of a can until I could eat it anymore, it didn’t matter how the Clydes, Gordons, and Tomikas saw me. I saw myself clearly, for the very first time. And I clearly saw my naysayers, too, as the short-in-body and in mind, coloristic, Blackness-but-only-so-much, racist, sexist, and homophobic pieces of shit for whom they were. Why should it have ever mattered what they thought of me?

One Saturday in early February 1989 in the shared bathroom in the Fu rowhouse on Welsford Avenue in South Oakland, I looked at myself in the mirror. I had just finished washing up. I was six-two, maybe 175 pounds, and six weeks past my 19th birthday, with barely enough facial hair to clog up my right nostril. I must’ve stood there staring at every angle of my face for two or three minutes. Then I chuckled. “You’re an okay-looking guy. You’re not Billy Dee or Denzel, but you’re not bad-looking at all.” Nor am I Idris Elba. But being me since has almost always been okay enough. The truth is, it always should been, for any of us.