I Wished That I Were Black

I wished that I were black.
So did my dad – it’s
a family thing, like the surname
he gave me too: Whiteman.
But when I got my name
– Madinat an-Nur –
the city of Divine light
they didn’t get it from a book
for folks whose babies were white.
It came down to me from a Tuareg
woman dark as cocoa beans whose
husband’s face was dyed blue
from his turban veil.
                Without
the searing desert sun I am a
differerent city, of electric lights,
fluorescent bulbs that turn
cheeks blue, of cloudy
English summers that shade
eyelids grey, of library lamps.
At times in winter I could swear
I were slow-worm, or a tendrilled
shoot of grass beneath a tent,
a bleached bird bone on a
windy shore – an axolotl.
In a wig.
It really isn’t practical being this pale,
crisping red beneath the sun,
having to run for cover and
smother ourselves in zinc-white
cream, peeling off the damaged shreds
at night and crying, stiffly lain on beds
that cannot offer comfort.
The message given is:
“Don’t go outside!”
But I grow wrong when I’m obliged to hide,
a ghosting of rainbow mind
to match these ghostly clothes.
I wished that I could shed
this skin, leave it behind in a
crumpled tube like a nylon
stocking – oh that orange tinge
that passes for ‘flesh-toned’.
I wished, when I saw my limbs
on the sheets, that they were
in bold figures, real silhouettes,
loud letters on a page instead of
these simpering cut-outs.
I even went to Kenya, Tanzania,
Zanzibar, learned Kiswahili well enough
to fool a local when he didn’t see my face
but still one night aboard a boat
an old man greeted me with “Shikamoo” –
‘I touch your feet’. How can my
sand-toned toes have earned his
intended bow? And when I stayed
with a family from Gujerat and their
5-year-old daughter dusted talcum
powder on her arms –
“So I can look like you!”
– I was too mute with shame to say,
“Don’t want to look like me!”
But then, I’d wished that I was black,
or brown, or anything but this
peculiar stunted hue
that didn’t seem to do a thing
to earn its kudos. What benefit
is it to break out in a rash whenever
temperatures go over 12 degrees? What
war-like logic tried to make up
for the gleam, the warmth, the
definition that we lacked by
making white the gold standard of
all colours? I still remember
one transcendent moment
when my arm lay next to hers and
my eye, falling unthinkingly on them,
registered no difference.
I cannot wish that I was black.
These are the clothes that
I’ve been given to wear meantime
a set of overalls to work in
’til they are worn out
and all the colours split apart
through life’s prismatic edge
return to light.

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4 thoughts on “I Wished That I Were Black

  1. The ‘privilege of whiteness’
    is unaccountability
    for the sins
    of other whiteys.

    Black and brown
    all pay
    their brothers’ bills
    double.

    Meanwhile
    sun taxes
    our skins.

  2. Bitter-sweet, funny yet sad – but beautifully expressed. Collective guilt makes me as uncomfortable as collective punishment. No soul bears the sins of another after all. But it would be blinkered to ignore that we are all coloured threads in a close-woven fabric of context.

    • Quite…a friend commented to me that being English is a bit like having an embarrassing family you don’t really want to have to recognise! But I am coming to terms with it, haha…thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave such a rich and feeling comment.

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