Making sense of her world

Today at lunch, one of our good friends was over and he was joking with Doug about whether Doug was “Black” in his taste in suites (we will all be at a wedding tomorrow, and the two of them were discussing wardrobe choices). He also had a few amusing things to say about the ways that he and his wife consider me to be “Black.” Mercy sat next to our friend and listened intently to the conversation going on around her.

Later that afternoon, I was over at another friend’s house around the corner with the kids when our lunchtime friend rang their doorbell. We were sitting up at the table for dinner, but Mercy could see the front door and who was standing in it. All of a sudden Mercy looked at me and said: “Black. Walter’s black.” “Yes,” I responded to her, totally caught off guard, “Walter is black.”

Then she looked down at her arms and her hands, then back up to me: “I not black, Mommy.”

“No, Mercy,” I answered, stumbling over words that now sounded strange to say: “People with your color of skin are called white.”

She studied her hands a minute longer, then reached down and picked up her taco.


  1. My mother took me to buy a new dress, probably for Easter, when I was a little child. She had my baby brother in her arms, and he immediately burst into tears upon seeing the sales associate, who was black. My poor, sweet mother figured out instantly and rushed to try to explain to the lady that he thought she was a hospital nurse — he had a series of eye surgeries when he was a tiny baby and the only black skin he had ever seen belonged to nurses who came to take him away from his mother, or to poke him with needles.

    The lady was extremely gracious and understanding and I think we bought a great dress; but I remember recording the information at the age of five, based on the level of my mother’s chagrin, that there is something serious and maybe shameful associated with the color of skin in America. In retrospect, I guess the saddest part is realizing that even an infant can see the difference and accepts it as an important cue before (maybe) learning otherwise.

    In latter years I have long since stopped trying to make sense of my world, but I finally decided I must be some mottled shade of gray. Neither black nor white. A difficult in-between that is in fact personally painful.

    “The material about us in the strange, heart-rending race tangle is rich beyond dream,” Dr. DuBois wrote in The Crisis in April 1920 — still true in April 2007.

  2. Wayne Gordon tells a phenomenal story about his daughter Angela, who received every olive skin tone gene from her two pale white parents. When she was a small girl growing up in Lawndale, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, some of the girls on the bus were picking on her. She went home and told her dad, who asked her a series of questions, including asking for a description. Angela replied, “They were black like me, Dad.” This answer delighted him secretly because it was proof that it was actually better for his daughter to be raised in the inner-city than in the suburbs. However, he still didn’t want these girls on the bus picking on her so the next morning, he got on the bud with her and asked her to point out the girls. He scanned the bus and speculated about which group of African-American girls could possibly be so cruel as to pick on the apple of his eye, when suddenly Angela pointed, “There, Daddy. Those are the girls that made me cry.” She was pointing at three Hispanic girls.

    Black like me.

    I may have gotten a few of the details wrong and I hope Angela will forgive me for telling her story on the internet like this, but since her dad put it in his book, I think she’ll be fine. But I think it’s a story worth telling since Erika and Jennifer shared theirs.

  3. I’m not dark skinned but my father is. And I grew up hearing from my mom, who is as white as they come, that my dad’s dark skin is beautiful – and I beleive her. Actually my sisters and I have always compared skin tones (since we are each a different shade and tone) and those of us who are darker are envied the most. 🙂

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