This post is dedicated to Noelle a good friend of my good friend and daughter, and to her efforts with the Black Lives Matter Movement, and to her struggles, and to her lovely skin.
The Colors of Our Mothers
It was only maybe ten years ago, doing the Human Genome Project that scientists were able to discover where race came from in the human race. People had already noticed that our skin tones were darkest in the equatorial countries, becoming gradually lighter in bands moving north and only in the high cold northern regions where the sun sets for months at a time did you find the lightest skinned peoples evolved with hair washed out to pale reds and blonds and eyes gone all blue. It seems that the dark skin of humans protected a person from the loss of folate where the sun was bright and harsh and the pale skin allowed the skin to absorb vitamin D where the sun was pale and weak. Without enough folate in her body a mother could not build the brain and nervous system of her fetus, so no baby would come to term. Without vitamin D she could not form the bones of her fetus, so no baby would be born. Given time, the only women giving birth to living babies would be the dark women at the equator and the very pale women in the high Northern latitudes. Given more time all the children and then all the people of the equatorial regions would inherit the dark skin and hair of their mothers while all the children and then all the people of the far north would inherit the pale skin and light hair of their mothers. And between these climes would form all the beautiful bands of the human rainbow.
Now today mothers can take both vitamins in tablet form and even wear sunscreen or sit under sun lamps, so the rainbow is blending in new ways. But at one time this was not so. In that early time there were other species of people, not just true humans, Homo sapiens, that we have today. Along the coast of what is now France there were people who evolved there over many thousands of years called the Neanderthals. Their bodies had adapted to life in the colder climate in many ways. Their hair was thick and covered more of their bodies their bones and their limbs were thicker and sturdier, their bodies shorter and more chunky and their skin was light. Their hair was still dark, because they were not evolved in the near-dark of the highest latitudes.
At that time some of our ancestors, the true Homo Sapiens, made their way out of the Fertile Crescent and up the coastline to that place that is now France. There they met and settled down with the Neanderthal people and lived together for more than one thousand years. I say more than a thousand because the truth is, they never again separated. They became one people. Even though that may seem strange to us today that people of different skins and different hair, and different bodies, and different ways, people who were even different species could live peacefully together, that is what they did. But in the end the people who descended from the Fertile Crescent just out of Africa were so beautiful that only their species remained. And they became us.
Our mothers brought with them art on their bodies, art in their hair, art that they painted on their walls and carved on stone and wood and bone. Perhaps they even sang art and told art stories. And art, after all, is beauty. Soon the records show that the human’s art found its way to the homes of the Neanderthal. The DNA shows that the beauty found its way into the hearts and the bodies of both people and they made children of two species. But children of two species cannot make children of their own. So the children of two species left their bones in the soil and left only small etchings on the genetic code of our ancestors, the brown people just up from Africa with their art and their beauty. And soon, or rather, after quite a long time really, the Neanderthal left their bones and their thoughts with those children’s bones. They lived on only in the art on the walls, and in the blood and the skin of our people for many thousands more years. Until the Human Genome scientists found their stories in the cells of our modern mothers.
A Lighter Shade of Brown
I served in Peace Corps Kenya in the late 80’s. South of Mombasa thirteen kilometers inland from the Indian Ocean was a small village whose population doubled when the school was in session. For two long years of equatorial learning this village was my home. There, far from the tourist dollar, people’s skin was described by a pallet of colors ranging from black to brown. A very dark person might be called black and a darker one, very black. A medium toned person was called “somehow brown”, a lighter person brown, or even very brown. But a child told me once that of the whole village, I was, without a doubt the brownest one of all.
My youngest child was in third grade when she came home asking me about American slavery. You may wonder how a child in America makes it through to third grade without hearing about slavery but we are white people and the school was in the deep south. When I explained to her what had happened in our country’s early years, her little shoulders slumped and she said it made her ashamed to be white. I understood her feelings but I told her the important thing was not to feel ashamed but to stand up for brown people when you see discrimination and to make sure such things never happen in the future.
At Thanksgiving I attended a pageant at her school that included a play. As the play unfolded I realized with slowly dawning horror that all the little white children had been cast as pilgrims and all the little brown children were cast as the native Americans. As if the children themselves were mere props to be moved about on the stage according to their colors. I looked around at the other parents expecting to see the same offended looks on their faces. But there at the mouth of the Mississippi dis-empowerment is a thing that runs deep in the mud and the blood .
That night I called some friends who were also parents at the school and by Monday I headed down to talk with the principal. We all saw it and we were all offended but I was the only one who felt I could confront the principal so I was the one who must. I felt ridiculous slowly explaining to the grown man who ran a school that this was racist behavior, not to be institutionalized, and certainly not taught to children. At first he laughed it off telling me that “they” choose to segregate themselves in the cafeteria and this was probably just another example. Eventually he was pretending mild outrage and promising to reprimand the teacher in charge. I pointed out that reprimand was not appropriate, but education was. If the teacher had any idea how very ugly her behavior was she would not have put it on display.
I thought I could never make him understand what he did not want to understand. Then something shifted. I mentioned the feelings of the other parents I had called and he turned on me, “Why do you want to stir things up?!?” he shouted, this time in real outrage. I stood my ground. The play had done the stiring, not me. I was just keeping him informed. I smoothed things over. I left.
The next time I came to sign my children out I was told they had already been picked up by “their mother” earlier that day. I was no longer listed on my own children’s emergency card, instead their stepmother’s name was listed. Though I had volunteered in the school for years, my legal custody was questioned. I was asked to produce legal papers. I was made to pay to get their records transferred. Their stepmother was a mixed race woman with blond curls and light skin. She had learned to use spite to dis-empower others. She had used her cruelty to become an “Us” while I had used my humanity to become a “them.” Though, I’m pretty sure there were no more segregated Thanksgiving plays held at that school.
In my home in Kenya I taught science and English at the Secondary school, which is like our High Schools. One day we had a Field Day and I spent all day cheering on student athletes and tracking score cards with the other teachers. As the day of fun in the equatorial sun was winding down, one jovial Kenyan teacher aptly observed that white people should actually be called Pink people instead. All eyes turned to me with friendly smiles and bright curious eyes.
I would like to say I was a big enough person to appreciate that my coworkers had never seen another person’s skin toasted to a rosy glow in a long day of sunshine. But I was not that big. I was drained. I was hot. I was embarrassed. My mind drifted back to my early elementary years when I was the shy child who never spoke, when my classmates would tease me just to see the color rise up my neck to take my face. Someone would point out that even my little ears were pink, then everyone would giggle as they turned pinker still. I didn’t think pink was cute or rosy. I thought pink was ugly and awful.
I scowled at the ground and muttered something about my being “very pink even for white people”. I remained sullen the rest of the day. And when I could, I skulked home to splash water on my face and to cry big fat tears of self pity alone. They meant no harm. They didn’t understand, but I simply did not care to help them.
Blue is a Color Too
When I was a child I was taught that the police were our friends. If I was ever lost or in trouble, I should just find a policeman and he would help. And I continued to believe that through most of my childhood and youth. But I began to see that things were not quite right.
Then once in medical school, I found myself having a nervous breakdown. I was frightened, unsure of myself, I walked to the home of the only friend I knew could understand and help me. I begged him to talk to me. But instead he called the police. Five men arrived and beat me, a small 5′ white woman. They broke my nose. They broke a rib. They pepper sprayed me point blank in the face. They all wrote identical and false reports in which I was fighting them violently.
For a few years I shook violently whenever I saw policemen nearby. When I was pulled for a mild traffic violation, I became hysterical. I wept.
But then a young African American policeman came to my practice as a patient. He had been through a serious life or death event and he was shaken. He needed his confidence back. He made good progress. Then one day he came for an appointment with little to say. In the course of treatment I found that he was hot with rage. There had been an incident in a very dangerous neighborhood. He and a partner were walking the beat and his partner spotted a group of “thugs” gathering on a corner. My client happened to spot only a group of black men in casual clothing. He said, “Let me handle this.” He walked over to the men and calmly asked what they were doing. It turned out they were fathers of the neighborhood gathering for a vigil for a 14 year old boy who had been shot there. My patient was able to de-escalate the situation and everyone went home safe.
Back at the precinct, though the story was told differently. My client was labeled a “coward” and was bullied and ridiculed by the other cops. He knew he was right though. I knew it too. He didn’t knuckle under to the institutionalized culture of cruelty and racism.
He missed a few weeks appointments. When he came back he had been pressured into more and more dangerous duties until he resigned. He was working temporarily as a glorified security guard and he was receiving late night phone calls from his old boss, making threats and innuendos, fishing for private information. His relationship was taking the toll. But he was happier than I had ever seen him.
Fade to Black
The most beautiful young woman in my Biology class in New Orleans had the deep smooth rich skin that my Kenyan village would have called Very Black. Her hair was also very dark and smooth and her eyes were deep and warm and brown. But she missed so many days and dozed through so many classes that finally she had to come for remedial work after school just to pass. As we worked one on one we got to know each other.
I learned that she was working to support her older sister in college. And that she was walking miles in the sun to get home after our remedial classes. And to my surprise I learned that she hated the way her long walks in the New Orleans sun made her skin so very dark. In my awkward way I expressed my shock and blurted out that I thought her skin was the most beautiful I had ever seen, that I often wished I had skin like hers instead of the pink freckly mess I had to wear. But here, I offered, I have lots and lots of sunscreen. I used it to keep my skin from going all red and splotchy. She was welcomed to some.
Then I caught myself and blushed. I was being embarrassingly familiar from a teacher to a student. I thought her skin was lovely, that’s all, but the sunscreen was hers to take because I certainly knew by now that its not how others see our skin that matters so much as how we feel in it. She didn’t smile back, she gaped. She told me how she had always admired my colors, my blue eyes, my hair with its glints of silver by the ears, and yes, even my skin. She thanked me for the sunscreen and kept some. From there we finished the semester both trying to politely drift out of that odd circle of familiarity we had stumbled into. The next semester and through her senior year I would spot her in the halls, always stunningly beautiful and always oddly looking my way at just the same moment with that curious gaping stare.