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 I 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 learned to control my lisp… even when hungry. However, I remain dark skinned.
The BLACK that I am joined the drama society at university 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. Outwardly, I appeared to take it all in stride and even tried my hand at a rebuttal by claiming my ancestors were 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- to 14-year-olds. 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 realized 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 feeble 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 perplexed 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; a 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 themselves. However, the world is changing and more dark skinned brothers and sisters are stepping forward and affirming their beauty. 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.