Skin Like Soil

You first learn that you are Black in a kindergarten classroom. Your friend Shawn opens his eyes and sees you. From head to toe. he asks “Why are you covered in dirt?” You spend all recess in the bathroom cleaning your skin—you, palms full of soap, the endlessly cold water, and a group of boys for whom you have no name other than “friends.” An army of fingernails scrubs your hands until the flesh is raw and pruned. All the life rinsed from the skin. And you still aren’t clean. And you hate the dirt. When your mother sees you that night, she shakes her head at her soapstain of a son.

Boy, it doesn’t wash off. It never washes off.”

***

Upon losing for the fifth time, his frustration evolves and he shouts “Ahhhh you nigger.” There’s a moment of silence, and then a chorus of laughter.

Imani knocked you the fuck out in the summer of 2001. She didn’t really knock you out, but damn near broke your nose in one punch. Maybe something about the sun in the summertime made you think yourself invincible, but something had you believing that these West Philly girls had nothing on you. It wasn’t you telling her she had a nose like a Teletubby that pushed her over the edge. Or that you said she was so dirty that she could fill up a whole trashcan. But once you got the nerve to snatch the scarf from off her head, her tolerance cracked. She had no choice but to become violent, her fist something like the Lord. You run crying to your big sister, who soothes the bridge of your nose with ice and a kiss.

Knowing how a man’s affection often manifests itself, she asks

Aw do you have a crush on her?”

To which you reply

Gross, no.”

***

Come ninth grade, you’ve brought home three girlfriends and none of them have been Black. Your mother always laughs when she sees this and you’re always confused.

You’ll understand someday. What do you want for dinner?”

***

On the second day of Camp Yale, you are playing videogames with some freshmen you’ve just met. You spent such a large part of your childhood alone that of course you are good at videogames. Of course you know better than all these people. Each time you win, they grow angrier and angrier. Eventually, your victory begins to look too easy to one of the players. Upon losing for the fifth time, his frustration evolves and he shouts “Ahhhh you nigger.” There’s a moment of silence, and then a chorus of laughter. He goes on “Sorry it slipped out…it’s just because of where I grew up, you understand.”

In your head you think, it’s O.K.

In your head you think, at least it’s better than the time the lady in the restaurant called security on you because she thought you were stealing from her purse, or the time the girl in high school called you nigger on the dance floor, or the time the teacher spent five minutes talking about how you disappear with the lights off, or the time you got pulled over and the cop took everything but your life, or the time…

It’s O.K. Four years later, he’s one of your friends. Every time you see him, you simultaneously remember and forget this moment. You wonder if he does the same. You wonder if he needs to.

***

You are sitting in a classroom where all of the chairs are much older than you. It is a Monday afternoon, junior year of college. When the professor enters the room, a smile breaks across your face. You are twenty years old and have never had a Black teacher before. The professor looks just like your mother. Not physically, but historically. She walks into the room as if everything is her property. You imagine she has children who are still learning how to love themselves. You imagine the fear she nurses when any of them aren’t inside when the streetlights come on. You imagine her pocketbook is full of green Now and Laters. You imagine she came all this way, all these years, just for you.

You are 20 years old and have never had a Black teacher before. The professor looks just like your mother. Not physically, but historically.

***

The truth of being Black is the knowledge that nothing you feel will ever be the last time. It’s a conversation that will always end in again. Hundreds of Black folk will die the same death, and one of them will shine enough to have a name worth knowing. Again. Black girls will go missing or ignored, and no one will notice. Again. Black women will do all of the work that Black men are too coward to do. Again. White people will go on with their day, take Directed Studies, talk about how complex the race problem in America is.

***

For a while, I didn’t believe in love. I thought love was something that white people invented during World War II. Love was the excuse that allowed them to destroy the world over and over again, and then act like they got a reason to save it. I still don’t know what love is, but I do know what joy is. Joy comes in the brief moments in which there is an absence of fear. It is a crowd of color on Cross Campus when the fight becomes celebration. It is waking up and realizing that someday has come, and you understand more than you did before. It is looking someone in the eyes and finding the God in them, even if that someone is yourself. Maybe it’s just looking someone in the eyes.

***

For a while, I didn’t believe in love. I thought love was something that white people invented during World War II. Love was the excuse that allowed them to destroy the world over and over again, and then act like they got a reason to save it.

When white people talk about freedom and universalities, they can’t mean you standing on your uncle’s feet and dancing to Prince. Or your aunt’s face the first time you take a piece of chicken out the oil and don’t get burned. Or watching My Wife and Kids together on a weeknight. Or your mother rubbing a stick of cocoa butter over your hands in kindergarten and saying “Look at that skin. Look at that brilliant skin.”

As a Black person at Yale, in America, you will be made to feel like the dirtiest thing at the table. But this smile, this love, this joy in spite of it all—it’s ours. And like everything else about being Black, it will be found and felt again and again.

This is dedicated with all the love I have to Black people everywhere, but mostly to all of the Black women whose love I will not take for granted again.

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