The BLACK that I am … came to the realization that dark skin was an issue circa 1994 through the informal education system called recess. I was a chubby pre-teen, with horrible acne and a lisp that seemed more pronounced when I was hungry, so understand my delight when I got in with a group of girls that were considered “hot” due to my limited knowledge of the world. It was a weird period in Jamaica with people forming groups and claiming titles as crews, or rather kru’s. I was a member of the K.L.A.P.P.A.S. Kru, an acronym that held all our names and there was my “A” dangling close to the end, or maybe I was third, either way I was happy to be a member. It was during one of our recess periods that I learned a lesson that still stays with me. I don’t remember the conversation that lead up to the black Sharpie being used to make a mark on my forehead, but I remember the laughter that erupted. My dark skin prevented them from seeing the blood rushing to my face as shame, rejection and embarrassment enveloped me within seconds. It had never registered to me before that day that I was exceptionally dark skinned; my sisters, cousins and childhood friends had never told me and I never asked. I eventually lost weight. The acne left me without scars and I learn to control my lisp… even when I’m hungry. However, I remain dark skin.
The BLACK that I am … joined the drama society at UWI in 2002 and was granted/earned the lead role in the major production. I was cast as God. I think it may have been due more to my skin colour than my acting skills. The director wanted to do something… different and what could be more different than a dark skinned man playing god? How ironic that this role as God provided me another lesson on the limitations of my dark skin. The stage lighting technician, who was an ogre of a man with caramel complexion, lamented the difficulty he was having in finding the right light for me. It became a joke that I was “too black” for the lights in the theatre. A joke I laughed along with, but felt pained inside. As if this wasn’t enough I soon learned I would go without make-up because there was no match for my dark skin. I took it all in strides and even tried my hand at a rebuttal by claiming my ancestors to be proud field slaves who were known for their strength. I even wore it on a T-shirt to the delight of many, but I knew it was a band aid on an open wound. I hated the position I was relegated to due to my skin. I blamed teachers for making me stand in the sun as punishment for my skin tone. I hated the sun for burning the brown out of me. I hated my skin.
The BLACK that I am … became enlightened around the first year I volunteered at summer camp, working with 12-14 year old. The week-long camp brought together a wide cross-section of Jamaican children from all over the island and I loved how they mingled and learned from each other. My attention was drawn to a small gathering on the play field one evening. When I got closer I realize a young man was being derided because he was “black as tar.” I saw him shrink before his peers as they marked his skin with their words and laughed. I heard his feebly attempts at a comeback, which were shot down by ridiculous claims of skin complexion and the laughter of a captivated audience. In that moment I saw myself. I broke it up and took him aside. I listened as he broke down, gushing heated words of hatred targeting his skin tone. His beautiful face wrapped in innocence challenged my own self-hatred. I found words. I shared my own experiences and told him how I was challenged that someone as beautiful as he was would be downtrodden because of his dark skin. I made him promise me that he would never use chemicals to change his complexion. We made a pact. I left that conversation with more than I could give him. It was after this point that I started to examine my face and see the beauty that was hidden by people’s perception of me. I came to the realization that there was nothing wrong with me. There has never been anything wrong with me; simple and direct realization that changed my life.
The BLACK that I am … wears my skin like a badge of honour; skin noted for years of hardship, but also bearing an ancestry of chiefs and warriors. I am still affected whenever I hear ignorant comments on skin colour. It still affects me seeing my beautiful brothers and sisters using chemicals to become translucent forms of them selves. However, the world is changing and more dark skin brothers and sisters are stepping forward and affirming their beauty. As I type this Lupita Nyong’o sits on my phone screen flashing a megawatt smile; Hollywood is catching up. Though Nyong’o’s impact is yet to be measured, I cannot help but smile especially because this issue affects dark-skinned women more than it does men. I sense a change occurring, the ripples are everywhere. I am here for the realization that all shades have a place at the table even if we have to fight our way in and demand our space.
The BLACK that I am… is Beautiful.
I recently came across an article titled “Marriage is made in Hell” by Laura Kipnis, a Media Studies professor at the NorthWestern University. She presents marriage as an outdated and in some respect constrictive institution. I hate to think that I am as cynical as Kipnis, but I found myself agreeing with her observations. I came to the conclusion that marriage must experience a major overhaul to remain relevant in our ever changing society. A report by the Globe and Mail showed that in 2008, more than 40% of marriages ended in divorce, a 2% increase from the previous year. Marriage has its advantages, some of which are highlighted by Kipnis, but it has also proven to be a prison of broken dreams and desires for many people.
Kipnis suggest that a successful marriage requires the denial of personal desires and goals for the union. She identifies some of the sacrifices that marriage demands, and I know many women and men who have endured discomfort to honour their wedding vows. My parents are an example, as they struggled for many years to keep their union together. Being leaders in the church, they felt they had a duty to set an example and fight for their marriage. Their stubborn attempt to stay together made home a living hell, and my sisters and I had to endure many fights between our parents. When they finally separated, we experienced a side of our parents we never saw before; they morphed into real people who loved every day of their new lives. Dad bought a red car, a colour my mother hated and mom travelled to Haiti, a destination my father forbade. It was clear that being single allowed them to fulfill desires they were denied when married. I would go even further and say that the separation had released them from a match made in a personal hell.
The comedian Chris Rock jokes that the wedding reception is a set up, as couples will never again experience “the high” felt at this ceremony; it is all downhill after this point. However the ceremony is not alone in creating a false sense of reality. Women who grew up with images of Disney princesses riding happily ever after into the sunset with Prince Charming, are given a rude awakening when the glass slipper does not fit. Men who are caught up in the world of sitcoms, where every problem is solved within 20 minutes, will also find reality to be bitter. The very idea of being husband and wife harbours unrealistic expectations. There are many instances of couples who have lived together for many years separating soon after they get married. This is an indictment on marriage, as the couple proved that they had the ability to stay together outside of wedlock, but having made it “official”, heightened expectations and ruined the union. These couples can be accused of bringing damnation upon themselves by getting married.
With marriage rates on a steady decline and divorce rising, it is safe to say that many people have opted out of this institution. Its benefits are easily duplicated, making marriage redundant. The society is changing along with our values, and marriage still holds true to its core which fits perfectly in the Victorian era. The celebration of individualism, education, capitalism and “singledom” has allowed people to aspire for more than the title afforded to them in wedlock. Is it hell? I wouldn’t go as far as saying that, but I know that unless you are masochistic, discomfort and sacrifice are not appealing…and it R the truth.