Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dark-skinned

My grandfather's house in Jamaica was a tropical paradise. Mango trees, tamarind, ackee, peppers, lime trees abounded. Long trailing woody tomato plants twined around the columns of the verandah and hummingbirds were always sipping nectar from flowers in the front garden. One day, when I was about eight, my half-sister took me to the back of our grandfather's garden underneath the Julie Mangoes and Number Eleven Mango trees and said, "Carole, do you know why I live at Daddy's house and not here with you and Grandpa? It's because you're too-dark and Daddy loves me because I'm light-skinned."

Well, of course I had not known that. And if I had been an astute kid I would've slipped into psycho-analyst mode and asked her why such a thought had occurred to her.

But I wasn't and I didn't. I sucked in that bit of defensive cruelty as easily as the nearby mango trees and a plant we called "The Shamed Old Lady" drank in the water from the watering buckets we carried. I tell all this now not because I dislike my half-sister. I don't. But it must be addressed I think because of its profound effect on me. I grew to hate the darkness of my skin that day. 

To this day, I have no mirrors in my house. I really don't know what I look like or how I've aged. The only photo of me on the internet is the one taken for me for the back of my first novel. In all my novels, the main characters have some big issue with mirrors.

Of course this is not only my issue. I had a dark friend from India -- who was always on the warpath. Apparently, in India she had been told she was too dark. I had a co-worker from India who --when she got pregnant-- drank a gallon of milk everyday because she wanted her daughter to be pale. It was okay, she said, for boys to be dark. But never girls.  I have friends from Asia and India who are finally coming to terms with accepting how "dark" they are compared to others in their culture.  Of course I don't think they're dark at all, but heck..it's all about spectrums and cutural beauty ideals.

It's part of female culture around the world...this fear of being too dark, this sorrow at being equated with poor, country, uneducated, or just plain ugly. I know some folks get annoyed when they see Indian commercials, African commercials, Latin American commercials about skin lighteners. We're all trained...it's so ingrained...the love of the light.   

I'm not Sammy Sosa. I'm not Michael Jackson. I don't have the money to set about lightening my skin. Nor would I do it. I'm much too sane to go messing around with chemicals. And yet, even at age 54 I still turn away from mirrors. I still avoid my reflection. All this stemming from a comment made by a sister in my grand-father's yard. To this day I don't remember what all we were planting, my half-sister and I on that day. I only remember the one dark seed she planted in my heart and how that seed took root and has flourished even to this day.
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