Hey Party People,
I've been working on the following essay for a few years and was finally inspired to complete or add additional content to it. My writing is never really complete as I'm always adding, changing or subtracting various bits of info. But I thought to share it in this space as I've been working on it for the past few days, in light of being with family again. Enjoy...
They don't use my new name here, the one-syllable name that begins with the letter J. In this world I am, "Eish, E, Yihh, Yish or Blackie." Blackie more often than the previous options. And as I look around, I notice, for the the first time in a long time, that I am the darkest among my family members. I quickly remember when they decided that "Blackie" would be their preferred moniker for me.
There were five of us, all adolescent. Me, around 9 or 10, my little brother 6 or 7, my cousins ranging in age from 8 - 14. We were making breakfast, supervised only by the oldest; my 14- year old cousin Tawanda. I was on toast duty. The toaster we were using didn't have the automatic, pop-up lever they have these days. I had to mentally time the slices. But I kept burning them. (Hell I was 9, what do you expect?) And we weren't privileged kids either, so we knew we had to eat the toast, burnt or not. Everyone began scraping the burnt bits off their slices while ridiculing my culinary skills. And as kids do, someone took it further, to a personal level... claiming that I burnt them on purpose- since I was the darkest family member. The others laughed and as if rummaging through a dictionary, they starting throwing various, burnt-toast-induced titles my way, "Sizzlean, Black-scraper, Pitch-black" and eventually "Blackie". Everyone hollered and hooted at this one and from then on I was known throughout my family as, 'Blackie'. I tried ignoring them in hopes of erasing the name. But with every fight, they howled louder as if they all had a light-bulb moment, confusing me the way any child forced to accept an altered name would be.
My former lover once asked me what color I thought I was. She was referring to my skin tone, not my racial makeup. She is a mixture of black and Puerto-Rican with a refreshing, apple-dipped, white chocolate exterior and a rare, yet well deserved (and elevated) opinion of herself. To her -and others that have crossed my path, my self-assessment wasn't enough. My refusal to draw a specific skin-tone or color diagram wasn't cutting it. They felt that labelling my skin would help de-mystify my fascination with those whose skin wasn't as dark as mine. If I could only start by seeing what they saw -whatever that was- they could initiate the process of teaching me that I was, in fact, Blackie. They tried everything, even cornering me and like a teacher instructing a child to read, they began the comparisons...
"What do you see when you look in the mirror?"
"What is Taye Diggs complexion?"
"How dark are you compared to me?" They would ask, holding their butterscotch, caramel and milk chocolate arms against my skin.
The truth is, I couldn't answer these questions. I looked in the mirror and didn't see what everyone else does. Don't get me wrong, I know I'm a black woman, there's no mistaking this fact. But how black, I couldn't quite manifest an answer. Maybe it's my personal demons at work, refusing to allow a concrete answer to a question that inevitably reminds me that my skin-tone wasn't always celebrated.
I recall as a child, no older than 5, adults stopping my mother and staring into my face while commenting, "that's a pretty black-baby" or "look at that dark-skinned child, I ain't never seen a child that dark and pretty." My complexion became my gift and my curse; a strange dichotomy.
Today, I return to a land where Blackie is how they relate to me. Social, economical or residential chooses aside, this is family and to family, you'll always be known as you were. They yell, "Hey Blackie" and instead of locking my shoulders in discomfort or taking voluntary deep breaths then lashing out, I respond, "Hey family".
It's taken almost 37 years, an arsenal of defense mechanisms, going broke and several emotional and mental wars with former friends and lovers for me to finally accept myself. Sitting around these people who knew me before the money, before the lovers and way before the moves through various states and countries, Blackie is who they know and finally, who I've come to know as well.