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Friday, March 20, 2015

Melanin Mysteries

Not content with keeping us coloring within the lines, one of my 1950s Orlando grade-school teachers started a class discussion on which colors we should use on various bits of the illustrations in our workbooks. Grass? Green. Sky? Blue. Skin? I looked down at my arms and raised my tan little hand. "Light brown," said I. This was not the answer the teacher wanted from the blue-eyed blonde. 
"No, no," she said. "Our skin is not brown. The closest color we have in our crayons is orange. We will use orange to color the skin in our pictures." So Dick, Jane and Sally became orange, a color I never saw on my own skin until an ill-fated experiment with self-tanning lotion. 
Some time later, my mother entertained a visitor from New York in our living room. "Oh, yes, " I heard her say. "They (my brothers and I) get that brown just from walking to school and playing outside." So we were brown after all. Just not at school. 
My brothers and I stood one day in front of the water fountains at the Qwik-Chek. One was labeled "white," and the other "colored." I tried to figure out what the difference was. Was the water different? We pushed the levers on both. Nope. Looks the same. Is there something contagious about color? I didn't think so, but even if there were, how could you spread it with a water fountain? Your mouth doesn't even touch the spout. The mystery remained as we dared each other to take a drink from the "wrong" fountain. After a bit of nudging, feeling not quite bold enough, we left the forbidden zone. 
We weren't quite intimidated enough to avoid causing a scene on a city bus, though. On a ride downtown, the two boys and I ran to the back seat. It stretched all the way across under the back window, and you could get on your knees and look out. We clambered about on it as other passengers gave us half-smiling looks. Our mother reached out a hand to shoo us off the seat. "That's for the colored people," she said. "Aw, why?" we whined. "That's not fair. We like this seat." 
My mother worked as a secretary for a very southern white man. He told her that there would be people of intensified melanin coming into the office. If these browner clients were "from the islands," he said, she should address them as Mr., Mrs. or Miss. If they were local people, she was to use their first names only. She decided not to quiz them and fell back on the professional manners she learned in secretarial school, addressing all with honorifics. 
Sometimes racism is downright silly. 
These days, my arms are dappled pinkish-brown and ivory, spattered with dark brown and occasional bright red spots. Sun damage, says the dermatologist. I suppose the racist atmosphere in which I grew up was as dangerous as the untrammeled sun on the melanin-impaired. Somehow I had enough hate-screen to minimize the soul damage. I've had heavy doses of the antidote, too, and it comes from the Bible. In a nutshell, it's that we all descend from the original parents, Adam and Eve, who must have been a lovely medium brown. You may be brown or ivory or orange, but you are my cousin. Shall we share the crayons? 

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