"She's Such A Bright Girl: An American Story" is the story of Petula Caesar, a girl raised in the 1970s and 1980s in Paterson, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland. It chronicles her struggles being raised by a father who went to great lengths to raise her to be as "White" as possible.
This meant straightening her hair at an early age. It meant surrounding her with white dolls, white artists and white writers in their home. It meant discouraging her from attending an HBCU. Ultimately, it meant always being aware of how white people viewed Black people, and always behaving in ways that would make white people comfortable. In exchange, Petula would achieve upward mobility and escape the trauma that her father felt was inescapable as a Black woman in America.
Petula's parents came to New Jersey after the coal mining town they both grew up in started to go into decline. While lots of Black people migrated north to find manufacturing jobs throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, Petula's father had plans that went beyond financial security for his family. Once Petula, a very fair-skinned girl, was born, her father realized her light-skin could give her a great advantage in a world that didn't value Black people in general - a world that placed a special burden of oppression on those who were darker-skinned.. He realized because his daughter was so light skinned, he could raise his daughter to not only know how to navigate the white world successfully, he could raise her to see herself as a white person. To him, this would give her a better chance at success and prosperity in life. But while doing this, he created a tremendous identity crisis in Petula, who had to fight the massive fear, lack of confidence, and raging insecurities that sprung up in her from a very early because of her upbringing – an upbringing already challenging because of her family’s race, class and status in society.