The first time I can remember seeing a person whose skin was different than my own white variety I was probably about 4. My maternal grandfather and I were at a grocery store, and a black woman and her daughter were crossing the parking lot as we headed into shop.
“Grandpa, why does that lady have brown skin?” I asked. . . or at least I asked some semblance of that.
Grandpa replied, “Oh, honey. Those people are made of chocolate.” I thought this sounded amazing and wanted to lick my own skin to see if it was vanilla.
Now, I wonder why he felt the need to say that. His own prejudice has, over the years, become quite clear to me, but even though I realize it was prejudice that drove that comment, I know he was trying to be kind, gracious even maybe. Grandpa loves chocolate.
In elementary school, we only had two people of color in the entire school – K-6 – and I can still remember the boy’s name, and how his sister looked with her long, dark pig tails. They hung out with the cool kids, the ones who wore cute clothes, not hand-me-downs like me. I noticed their skin color, but mostly I noticed they were rich. In the mountains of North Carolina, money separated, not race. At least not at that age.
In high school, my family lived at the south end of a rural county in Virginia, where I live now. We rode the bus with the other kids from that place. We didn’t talk to many folks, but that was because we were shy, I think. I read Stephen King novels for the 60 minute ride home. That and dozed against the window.
It wouldn’t be until I started driving my brother and I to school, until we started making friends with people from the northern end of the county, that I would realize we had been the only two white kids, besides the bus driver’s daughter, on the bus. It had never even come to mind for me until someone pointed it out.
In graduate school, a group of women and I went to a K.D. Lang concert. On the bus on the way there, one of the girls took out her compact to put on make-up. I asked to see it because “I had never seen black girl make-up before.” The girls I was with looked horrified. I’m not sure why. Was is the lack of couth in my request? Was it shock that I hadn’t ever seen make-up colored for skin darker than mine? Was it a prejudice they could see but that, even now, I’m blind to?
After finishing my MFA, I stood in the hall of The King Papers Project and stared at a picture I had walked past a hundred times on my job there, an image I had seen in books of the Civil Rights movement, a photo that flashed on screens during documentaries about the 1960s. I stood there and stared.
Three teenagers were pressed against the outside wall of a store, the force of a wide-open water hose was blasting them against the wall.
I had never seen this image before.
Tonight, I finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book I had hesitated to read because I didn’t know if I liked the idea of a white woman writing those voices. What right did she have to do that? Oh the righteousness that held me back. The book devoured me.
I read these words in Stockett’s essay at the end, “I am so embarrassed to admit that now.” I had to put the book down.
I am working on a book about people who were enslaved in the United States, a book that I hope will show these people as people, not just as symbols or archetypes of something. I genuinely hope that this book will show Lucy and Primus and Berthier and Jesse and Betty as humans, three-dimensional, complex humans who have stories that we all need to hear. I want this book to mean something for them.
But I want this book to also mean something for me, if I’m honest enough to admit it. For all the prejudice and racism I know I have and for all that I don’t yet know is there. For all the ways I have been taught to see people as different and for all the ways I have accepted that teaching. For all the limitations I have put on others because of their skin color and for all those I put on myself for the same reasons. I want this book to redeem me. I want it to change me.
I may be hoping for too much.