Tuesday, May 22, 2007
But I don't wanna be black
This morning while my son got dressed for school, he told my wife and I that he doesn't want to be black. It's not that he doesn't want to be an African-American, he simply doesn't like the "black" label. "I'm not black, I'm brown," he protested.
In a conversation I'd been having with my wife, I used the term "black kid." That bothered my son. "He's not black, Daddy. He's brown." My daughter felt the same as my son when she was his age.
Hearing his words, "I don't wanna be black" caused me to pause. I searched for the perfect Father Knows Best explanation, but none came. I decided to ignore the topic. Too complicated. But my wife jumped right in with an explanation. "We are Americans of African decent," she said. "Our ancestors came from Africa. Sometimes, we call ourselves African-American. Other times, we call ourselves black, even though our skin color isn't truly—"
"But I don't wanna be black," he said. "I'm brown!" He told us about how he had seen a black (very dark-skinned) person before. Like many, he views dark skin negatively. In his mind, brown is better than black.
This is a problem with many in the black community. Light-skinned black people vs. dark. Probably born and bread through years of race-based slavery. When I was a child, our light-skinned cousins with straight black hair ("good hair") were considered the cute (good-looking) kids of the family. My mom would vehemently argue that statement, but it’s true. There were many times as a child that I wished I looked like my lighter-skinned, straight hair cousins. I blamed my mom for marrying such a dark-skinned man.
My brothers and I took on the skin color of our dad. He has very dark skin and tight curly ("nappy") hair. My mom — sometimes mistaken for White — is extremely fair skinned and her hair is naturally straight. That’s because her great-grandmother is White. As children, we sometimes bragged about our great-great German grandmother. Because of her, we surmised, our hair wasn't as nappy as regular black people's hair is, and because of her, we weren’t as dark as my dad. I know that sounds sick, but honestly, it's not uncommon. Color-struck, they used to call it. And I know grown people today who still think like this.
It was my aunt, my dad’s sister, who got me past all this. Aunt E. was dark-skinned. Until just a few years ago, she always wore her hair naturally, in a short afro — no perms, relaxers, wigs or weaves. An activist of the 60s, she carried herself proud, and she was proud to be called BLACK. She often wore African clothes with colorful head wraps. She and my uncle had an African style wedding, which was one of the most beautiful things I'd had seen in my life. In my eyes, my aunt was beautiful, like an African Queen. Her great grandmother would say negative things about her skin color: "She's black. And she's ugly. But my grandbaby's got brains." Comments like that, I'm sure, contributed to our skin color sensitivity.
I'd like to write a children's book dealing with this topic, but I wouldn't know where to begin. The issue is bigger than what I could address, and I don't have any answers to offer.