The apricot Crayola Crayon gets a lot of use in my house. In fact, it is the most worn down out of the box of 64 shades. When my children decide to draw portraits of themselves, that crayon gets passed around a lot, and rightfully so. They use the crayon that best matches their complexion. My house is littered with apricot-faced representations of my children by their own hands, especially my youngest daughter’s.
Her most recent rendering of me, however, was presented in a very ‘pomp and circumstances’ kind of way. She proudly placed the paper adjacent to my laptop where I was working.
“Here you go, Mom.” She announced.
There I was, her version of me, with rainbow hair (because c’mon…she’s six), glassesless eyes (because apparently I can see in her world)…and that crayon.
I stared at the picture, then at her; her eyes were wide with anticipation of what I thought. My hesitation to remark on it was quite palpable.
“Is there something wrong with my picture?” she asked.
My mind spun in several different directions. I knew the next answer was going to define how my daughter saw herself in the world. She had used the same color she uses to color herself…and she was proud of that color.
But that crayon is nowhere near my complexion
She drew me with her siblings’, her twin brother’s, her father’s, and her own skin color. And the brown crayon still sat prominently in its designated space, as if I opened the box yesterday.
Was there something wrong with the picture? Or more importantly, did I think there was something wrong with her picture?
When I was younger, I would relish in the compliments when people would say, “You look just like your mother!” I would smile wide, thanking them for their observation. My mother was pretty amazing. To look like her was the greatest of compliments.
My mother, however, would smirk. “You think so?” she would ask the observer. In my early years I would wander away from the conversation. But as I grew up, I realized that my mother had an incredible way of making a person aware of the mistake they made…and why they made it.
My mother and father had two children: their oldest, a fair hued girl, with yellow undertones that matched our father’s; and a their youngest….me….a ruddy, mocha brown shade that matched our mother’s.
Growing up, our parents did an amazing job not placing one skin tone above the other. My sister and I were both loved, both cherished, and ultimately became the best of friends, neither of us feeling special over the other. (Although to be completely honest, I’m clearly the favorite.)
The first clue that the rules were different outside of our house came when I was about ten -years-old and my mother and I were sitting together at an event. “You look just like your mother,” a person remarked to me.
“You think so?” Antoinette asked.
“Oh, yes!” The person replied, digging a deeper hole. “She looks nothing like her father.”
My mother’s eyes flashed, a clear indication that she was going in for the kill. “You’re just saying that because we’re the same color.” She said. She went on to remark how their inept reasoning to compare color and not actual features made them less likely to be an intelligent adult. It was a brilliant and sophisticated take down of the person’s colorism.
The person was slightly flustered, mumbled something about “not seeing it,” and walked away.
My mother chuckled. “You have your daddy’s nose,” she said looking at me. “You got your daddy’s almond shaped eye’s and his tiny ears. You’re a Wilson if I’ve ever seen one.”
She was right. I look exactly like my father; who, by all accounts, is an incredible human being, and to look like him is also the greatest of compliments.
A few years later I was hanging out with my sister and we came across a gentleman who asked how we were related. He was shocked by our answer. “You’re sisters?” he exclaimed. “Y’all got the same mama and everything?”
My sister, the spit fire that she is, quickly put the man in his place. And had she had a katana, his head would have rolled down the pavement on which we were standing.
Months later she would let me borrow a shirt she bought: “I Dig The Skin I’m In: Do Not Bleach.”
She wanted me to be comfortable with being brown and it worked! I was brown, and it was no big deal to me.
Years later when I married my African-American husband, a point at which I find myself clarifying every now and again, I didn’t think about our “hued” dynamics. I admit that when I thought about our future children, they would be the perfect mix of the two of us….but I’d have at least one that carried my hue proudly…just like my mother and me.
Because I was brown…and it was no big deal to me….
That ladle that dips into the black gene pool can be quite indiscriminate. It can skip over your mother’s brown eyes and dip for her grandmother’s hazel ones. It can skip over your own brown hue and dip to your great-grandfather’s who has roots in the Netherlands. It can dip for all of your facial features, but grab your spouse’s skin tones.
My children, all four of them, do not share my hue. If they spend some time in the sun they come close, but our tints are very different.
And after they were born I found I was on the opposite side of the “compliments” I was used to hearing as a child.
“Your kids look exactly like their father.”
“Your kids look nothing like you.”
“I guess you just carried them because your husband spit those kids right out.”
“Are these your sister’s kids?”
“Which one is yours? All of them? Really?”
“These are your kids? What is your husband?”
And I would laugh it off, not commenting on the fact that my children have more of my facial features than my husband’s.
And I’d be mistaken for their aunt…or their nanny…or the babysitter…and I would try to quip as if it wasn’t the most out of line thing for people to assume…but they would shrug it off.
One glaring moment came while I was sitting in church.
“You have beautiful children,” an older woman leaned forward and whispered. “And bonus points that they all came out the same color as your husband.”
Yep…she said it.
Nope…I didn’t respond.
I’ve stopped responding. The comments of my children looking nothing like me come from ignorance and plain old-fashioned inobservance.
At 37 I realize that what my late mother, father, and sister did when I was younger was make sure that I didn’t feel alienated because of my skin’s hue. Being Black in America is hard enough already, adding colorism can be very ‘straw and camel’s back.’
I’m brown and it’s no big deal. In fact, I can be proud of that…
Yet…. here I was, staring my daughter in the face, trying to figure out how to answer her question about how she saw her mother.
My great-grandfather was a dark-skinned black man, who married a black woman who could pass for white, and they had children that varied in shades. Then, especially in Alabama, various shades of brown carried their own individual baggage carts. But It was revealed at one of his children’s funerals (many years after he had passed) when someone commented on how beautifully my great-grandfather handled the colorism at that time. He would tell his children:
“Our people come in all shades, from midnight to moonlight; but we are all still family”
“Is there something wrong with my picture?”
I smiled at her. “It’s perfect.” I replied.
My daughter drew me with her skin color because she sees herself in me.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I know I’m right.