When I tell people I had a moment when I realized I was Black, I usually get two responses: either it makes no sense whatsoever, or they can remember the moment they realized their skin was different too. My moment occurred in 6th grade theater.
I’d just moved from a sheltered and intensely boring existence at a private school in Laveen, Arizona. My parents were worried that the forced comradery of only seeing the same ten kids from ages 6 to 18 would be bad for my already shaky social skills. Public school seemed like a decent answer to their worries. Since moving, I’d been teased for not dressing cool or having friends or other necessary things by then, but anyone can be teased for that. I agreed to be a mime for a day in order to receive extra credit– I was deathly shy and failed a monologue project the month before. I didn’t think twice about painting my black face white for the mime project, because it was just that: a black face. I walked around with it and considered it like one would fingernails: they need to be clean and cut and anything beyond that is extra primping. While there weren’t many Black kids at the school I’d moved from, none of them were really into considering race as a point of attack as much as sex. Dick Cheney was Vice President at the time, and the it-joke was to get someone to say “Dick” and that was it, end of joke.
I sat in class and, again, was teased for whatever some bored someone would find worthwhile. Making fun of me was like going after the baby wildebeest in the herd, and with the mime face I’d add a broken leg, at least.
I was an easy target.
At the time, I had a habit of scrunching my face when I made eye contact with people, as a way of saying “I’d like this to stop,” which grabbed a group of kids’ attention. Most of the comments had to do with the expression, but the last one I remember hearing was a little more cutting. One kid said, “You’d be prettier if you were White.”
Overwhelmed and the most hurt I’d ever been, I went to wash my face in the girls’ bathroom, then I went back to class. I’d gone from never thinking about my race to not only being Black, but having a face that was inferior to a face I could never have. From the moment I reentered that classroom to the day of my middle school promotion, I worked tirelessly to not be “that Black.” It dictated what I watched, what I listened to, how I spoke, you name it. I only listened to Modest Mouse. I’d also taken up watching Mad Men, which was very “not-Black” to young me. Reading the book American Psycho was a big moment for me at the time, because it was just the least Black thing I could do, in my head anyway. I always made sure to read it in public as bait for any praise I might be missing out on. Looking back on it, “I’m not that Black, look how intellectual I am,” is what I think I was trying to say. I wouldn’t say I was trying to be White, however, so much as nothing. I didn’t want to be any race. After all, race is a construct, it doesn’t tell you who I am, and mean boys like to use it to bring you down. Why not do away with it?
In Skin Again, by bell hooks, that question is more or less answered. It’s a picture book meant for children younger than I would have been at the time, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant. The book follows a nameless narrator of ambiguous color pondering their skin color’s role in their identity and personal story. Comprised of simple, direct statements regarding skin color, Skin Again leaves no room for doubt or arguments. “The skin I’m in/ is just a covering. If you want to know who I am/ you have got to come inside/ and open your heart way wide.” This commanding tone adds a persuasive quality to hooks’ words, while the playfulness of her music keeps it from feeling too authoritative.
At the heart of the book is the seemingly paradoxical nature of her message: my skin is my identity, but it is also not at all that. As we move toward a more racially-integrated society, a term often thrown around as progressive is the notion that we should be “colorblind.” “Colorblind” when used as a description of one’s open-mindedness, is useless. It means less “I accept everyone,” and more, “I accept those I can break down enough to resemble me in my head.” Skin Again argues that calls for equality are not calls for peoples’ faces to be made in the image of the majority, but rather for their chance to be known as people.
Julius Lester’s book Let’s Talk About Race also touches on race as a piece of a story, as big as your birth, but never the story itself. We’re more than a color, but doesn’t mean our color should be thrown out. Lester shows himself to be many things throughout the book. “I live in a big house in the woods in a small town. I like pancakes and macaroni and cheese and… and… and…,” he writes, letting his voice trail and emphasizing the infinite nature of a story, especially your own. Lester’s tone is comparatively softer than bell hooks’, but persuasive nonetheless. The book actively questions you as you read, whether it is simple facts (“What race are you?”) to heavier stuff (“Why would some people say their race is better than another?”). In regards to the heavier questions, he suggests answers, but then lets his voice trail off. His writing style reminds me of when I was a kid and my Dad would let my brother and I explore (seemingly) on our own. He was always a handful of steps behind us, but far enough away for us to feel like we were actually in charge of ourselves. This sort of light herding will keep younger readers on track while deepening their understanding of race with self-reflection.
I didn’t tell my parents about my short-lived career as a mime until well into high school, not because I don’t trust them with my feelings (I trust them with just about everything), but because I wasn’t sure what to say if I did. I now know that the other student was wrong, but I often think of how long I spent feeling the opposite. I now know that he probably wasn’t all that interested in any openings of the heart either. While I can’t promise that these books will keep kids from having a moment like mine in their lifetime, it will at least give them a place to begin when considering their skin.
Sasha Hawkins is a University of Arizona undergraduate studying Poetry, Film and Television. She interns for the Poetry Center's Education Program.