For the Love of Brown...
Updated: Jan 20, 2019
There are so many reasons why I chose to start writing. Too many to elaborate on in one blog post. Today, I'd like to share one particular reason that is very close to my heart.
Growing up, I used to love to apply lotion to my skin. I have no idea why, but I would squeeze dollops in my palms, poke fingers in it and apply small white dots to my face and arms. Then, I'd go to the mirror and pretend I was in a zit or a beauty commercial and explain to my imaginary audience how the cream worked miracles. I'd pose, smiling, showing off glowing skin and teeth. I know, I was a weird kid and this was way before the Internet. The point is, I didn't really feel self-conscious about my looks or my skin. Certainly, not in a negative way. When I looked in the mirror, a brown, happy girl was smiling back.
As the eldest and only female out of six children, we were all different shades and it was accepted, if not embraced. Yeah, my brothers were a pain and so was I. They made fun of me, and I, in turn, made fun of them also. But, the jests were all surface-level. None were intended to cut deep. It wasn't until I started grade school that "color" became an issue.
I grew up in an a predominantly white neighborhood in the burbs. My cousins used to say we lived in the 'boonies'. I hated that. Especially, since I didn't know what a 'boonie" was and it just sounded stupid besides. Anyway, I liked my neighborhood. It was quiet, with gentle rolling hills, nice sidewalks and it was full of tall, green trees. I realize now that the homes weren't very big, but to me my home was substantial. We had a backyard with grass to run in and trees to climb, along with a long slope full of ice-plants and red dirt. We took advantage of all of that. My mom was a teacher and my dad an officer as well as a preacher. All in all, we were pretty middle-class, I'd say.
There were hardly any kids on my block. I'm quite sure we were the biggest and for some time the only African American family around. There were a few other chocolate chips, but they were few and far between. As such, we had to get along with everyone else. Quite frankly, that didn't see an extraordinary feat of any kind. Just reality. Lucky for me, I lived next-door to a girl who was exactly my age. A blonde girl with a wide smile who was half-Spanish, half-German and for all intents and purposes seemed to identify as such. She was cool as heck and together we had a lot of fun. Unfortunately, she didn't go to my elementary school. Her parents enrolled her in a private school and I went to a public one. Deep down, I think I always hoped that one day her parents would change their minds and allow her go to my school down the street. That never happened, though and that was too bad--the kids at my school weren't so nice. Fast forward to grade-school.
My school was not unlike others in the area. Small one-story red brick buildings on a two-story campus. Much like the neighborhood, the teachers and kids were largely white with Latinos and Asians mixed in. It was there that I became something of an anomaly. Suddenly, I was thrust into a world full of really dumb questions. Like, if the kids could touch my hair (some didn't even ask and did so); if I put grease in it; why it looked so weird; or even, why my skin was dark. I really had no answers for these questions and the kids were quite aggressive about asking--even the "nice" ones. Further, there was another element that flipped those questions into taunts. "You ugly black...", "Nigger", etc.
I remember once going out to recess in my favorite coat. It was pink and soft with tiny tufts of cotton clouds woven throughout. My mother gifted it to me and had admonished me to take special care of it and I did. So when I heard the familiar cackle of laughter trailing me as I traversed the grassy field accompanied by a reference to my coat, I became concerned. I turned to find a pale little girl with greasy, ash-blond hair and freckles along with a few of her friends. I remember weird things that day like the size of her teeth. They were uncharacteristically large for her age. She was the first to call me a nigger. By this time, I knew the n-word was bad and was supposed to be a stand-in for my own name. I knew it was wrong too, but unfortunately it was nothing unusual. What was unusual was the turn of events that followed. Rather quickly, a sea of white children surrounded me, all chanting something about a fight between a nigger and white. I remember being scared, then angry. I was being called upon to fight in the coat my mother gave me. Sounds funny, but I was really worried about that coat. I didn't want to disappoint my mom.
We didn't fight. I'm not even sure if I knew how. We were in the first grade for goodness sake. Our "fight" consisted of walking in circles with our hands lifted in the air like jungle cats ready to strike. When the bell rang, it was over and all the kids left. But I was left wondering what was wrong with me such that these kids would see me and want to fight me. I was put in a situation where I would have to defend the very nature of who I was, simply because of who I was. And why?
At some point, I decided to ask my dad what the problem was. Why the kids hated my skin and hair. I also asked him if we had a "heritage". One of the kids very plainly told me that everyone else had a "heritage". They celebrated St. Patrick's Day for the Irish, Cinco De Mayo for Mexican-Americans, holidays for the Jewish and so on. But Black people--we had no heritage, she said. Again, I was left to defend myself and what was worse, with those words she had disarmed me. I had no reply, no witty quip to strike back with. I walked home upset and decided to add that to my list of questions for my father. What was our heritage? Did we have one?
"Who told you that you had no heritage?" my father demanded in his smooth, baritone voice.
"This girl. She told everyone I had none. That we were just slaves." My eyes brimmed with tears.
"No, heritage," my father mocked as he pulled out a thick, heavy-looking brown leather book. He plopped it on the table and motioned for me to sit down. "You, my love, have the oldest living heritage in the world. You are a descendant of Kings and Queens, including Christ himself. And guess what, he looked a lot like you and I."
From there, he opened his King James Version of the Bible and showed me where we were from. That we were the oldest modern humans and God had made us in His image--so, what did God look like, then? He showed me the description of Christ's wooly hair--the same hair I was being teased about. And His skin, His skin was like burnished bronze according to the passage we read. By the time he was done, my chest was puffed and poked out--filled with pride. "Let them ask me again," I thought, a smile on my face. "Let them ask me...."
I was fortunate enough to have knowledgeable parents. A strong mother and a strong father to help show me the way. To show all of us the way. Growing up African-American is not easy. There are constant statements and innuendos being made at every turn, telling you that you are nothing: you come from nothing and will never be anything. Even school textbooks are riddled with that message. They make a point to tell us that our history begins with slavery. Sure, there are a few honorable mentions, namely--Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (and be careful, because he was shot...), and that's about it. We aren't even written in history, we're written out. Our lives are cheapened, by others and even by ourselves. Many of us don't even see ourselves as worthy (clearly indicated in some of pop-culture and otherwise). Now, I'm painting with a broad brush, I know--and yes, other cultures suffer from some of the same issues. But deep down, you know it's true. We don't uplift ourselves enough. We hurt one another. And we don't need that. God knows we don't because we already have a whole world out their waiting and ready to snuff us out.
I believe the problem rests with the fact that we have forgotten who we truly are. I say forgotten because I believe at some point we knew and so did others. There's so much our ancestors have done and created to be so proud of. After all, Africa is the cradle of the earth. All DNA traces back to the people of that region. I think that knowledge fueled a deep-seated hatred. A sort of jealousy, unfortunately. Why else would people appropriate Black culture and features so much while simultaneously denigrating it to no end? Rewrite our history? Diminish accomplishments? Seek to destroy bodies, families and spirits?
Am I saying that people of African descent are better than everyone else? No. I'm saying we are special, just like everyone else and there's nothing wrong with being special. Besides that, WE ARE ALL LINKED! All part of the same thread of humanity. I still can't fathom why people don't get that. Why we don't celebrate and appreciate one another's cultures and contributions.
I thank my father because he was the impetus for my love of brown, of black, of everything in-between. He changed my life that day and that is what I, in turn, hope to do. One way to do that, is through writing. If I can somehow help someone to learn how valuable they are, how special; that they should embrace themselves and be proud; that they don't have to live in someone's pre-defined box--I will have done something and this journey will have been well worth it. Thanks for reading. I can be long-winded--I know!