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.


gail said...

I think the topic would make a cool book, but I don't know if little kids would get it. Really. I think that's why they bring up the color thing, in such a different way then adults do. It's adults that turn things into big issues. Kids simply talk about the colors they know without having attached any label to them. For them it is so simple.

I remember my oldest daughter would refering to one our the story time librarians as the lady with the black "face". She really only meant it as the best way to describe what she looked like. (The other one was the lady with the yellow hair.) My other daughter would always look at people like they were crazy when they'd tell her that she had beautiful red hair. She'd just shake her head and say "My hair isn't red, it's orange!"

Cute story about your son. Although I don't suppose it seemed so at the time.


Disco Mermaids said...

That would be a very hard book to write...as far as the text and the emotions. But, wow! It sure would be powerful.

I'd love to see you at least try it.

- Jay

cloudscome said...

Keep working on it. You are off to a good start already and the world needs what you have to offer.

rindawriter said...

Yes, I think you could do it, but the trick is to do it in a way that is interesting and gentle and attractive to children and positive, emphasizing that how each one looks BOTH outside and inside is unique and truly beautiful. Don, I am noticing the increasing number of younger adults with mixed ethnic heritage in both Hollywood and the popular music scene, and I think our culture is beginning to change a bit in some way for our younger ones. Perhaps what your boy is seeing and studying in school and hearing and learning from his peers is affecting what he is thinking in some way. Perhaps children with darker skin and especially children of mixed racial heritage don't want the historically negative association with the word "black" but prefer more what THEY see on TV and movies--which, to them--to their eyes and to the eyes of their peers is the color brown in varying shades.

I myself don't think black as a color of skin--just brown shades, including the tanned shades of Caucasians.

Andy J Smith illustration said...

This topic could be a goldmine for you. And like Gail mentioned, it could be about misconceptions about diversity, not just race. Not sure if younger kids would get it or not. Certainly, it would make a good 'older' picture book. They seem to be getting a bit more prominent. I think the key is to be careful not to make it preachy.

Good luck!