From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

The Skin We’re In

“His skin looks like charcoal,” said my friend Nellie, when the new boy entered our fourth-grade classroom made up entirely of African American students. Charcoal, I thought, as I studied this newcomer with interest. He was taller than a lot of the other boys in the room. Tall and handsome. And he wasn’t skinny. See, ’cuz most of the fourth-grade boys were skinny. Their knees looked like their bones were trying to escape from bein’ suffocated by their skin, and their arms were frail and wobbly-like. But he wasn’t skinny. Uh-uh. His bones were growin’ strong, like he was a dedicated milk-drinker. And his skin, dark as the space behind my closed eyelids, was greeting our noisy classroom with a voice of its own. It spoke to us, and we all halted to attention, giving it our complete focus.

“Ha ha! Choco Bliss!” spunky little Wynton shouted to the room, and we erupted with laughter. I laughed too, not because it was very funny, but because I wanted Mr. “Choco Bliss” to catch me smiling.

“Michael, you may have a seat over there,” pointed Mrs. McMorley, focusing Michael, aka Choco Bliss, toward the boys’ side of the room. Michael looked at her and nodded confidently. He shoul’ was confident. Um hmm. And did I mention he was tall? And handsome?

My eyes were on Michael as he took an empty desk across the room. I wondered how comfortable he was, sitting over there next to all of the silly boys. I wanted to make sure they weren’t gonna be makin’ him feel uncomfortable or nuthin’. ’Cuz sometimes they made me feel real uncomfortable. Always makin’ jokes and laughing with each other. But you know, that’s just how silly boys are.

The whole class musta been thinkin’ what I was thinkin’, ’cuz they wouldn’t stop staring in Michael’s direction. In fact, we were so engaged in the richness of him that Mrs. McMorley had to raise her voice a couple of octaves higher just to get our attention back.

“You all are supposed to be focusing on your logic problems, not our newcomer,” she fussed.

Immediately the whole class shifted our eyeballs back to the class work laid out in front of us. I continued with my logic questions: If Jesse is Johnny’s cousin, and Johnny is the boy in the yellow sweater, and the boy in the yellow sweater is friends with Josie, then who is Josie’s friend?

There was no sense in me trying to make sense out of Josie, Johnny and Jesse. Michael made a lot more sense to me. I strayed from my work again and drove my eyes back over to his side of the room. I wondered how well he understood his logic questions. He had entered our class kind of late and Mrs. McMorley had already finished explaining the lesson. You would think she would’ve considered that before makin’ him do it. Maybe I could volunteer to help him. Then I would be able to sit by him. Then we could talk and become friends and maybe even trade friendship rings or something. Then maybe . . .

RING! The school bell interrupted my concerns for Michael, and we were given free time. The class got up and began to move around the room, searching for books, games, etc. The giggling goofy girls circled the reading section (surely to gossip rather than to read). I got up and moved closer to Michael. He was headed for the game section with all of the other boys, of course. I preferred to be slow and calculating so that no one would notice my preoccupation with befriending this dark stranger.

I moved leisurely toward the reading section, keeping my eyes on Michael the entire time. That’s when it happened.

Not paying attention to the shelf in front of me, I reached for the book at the same time as Natalie. She eyed me carefully and followed my gaze to Michael’s whereabouts. A flame of dawning comprehension immediately ignited in her eyes. She giggled and squealed audibly, “Oooooo. . . . Dominique likes Michael. Dominique likes the charcoal boy!”

“I do not,” I mumbled in annoyance, trying to maintain enough composure not to slap her face and push her into the bookshelf.

My calmed embarrassment must’ve been a sort of spinach to her, because suddenly her voice got stronger. Louder. “Dominique likes Charcoal!!!”

The other girls started laughing, singing along with her, “Ewwww . . . Dominique likes Michael!” or worse, “Dominique likes the black boy!!!” (Weren’t we all black?!)

Now, I was always one for attention . . . but certainly not when the joke was on me! The boys looked toward me and snickered. Suddenly they joined in, sneering and chortling, pointing at me like I was on display. Michael looked on too, snorting and jeering with the rest of them. I was so confused my head began to pierce with pain. Didn’t he know that they were laughing at him, too? My buttery skin was turning orange from flush, and I felt my eyebrows scowl in disgust. Suddenly, without thought, my defenses activated and went to work on my honor.

As loud as I could, I spattered, “I don’t like ugly charcoal boy!”

The pointing stopped. The class turned to Michael and immediately erupted with laughter.

Michael smiled shyly in spite of himself. He shifted uncomfortably back and forth on his heels and dropped his head in shame. There. I had done it. I had now taken the attention off of myself and put it on him. He was embarrassed. Almost as embarrassed as me.

Mrs. McMorley found our laughter and ridicule annoying, and banished us to our desks. Free time was over. And so was my hope of ever coming to know Michael as a friend. I looked over to him as he followed his feet back to his desk. For the remainder of the day, his head never lifted from its bow.

I felt disgusted with myself. It was the easiest thing to do—just pass my embarrassment on to Michael, and they would leave me alone. But I felt worse than ever. I was never going to be his friend now. He would never like me after something so horrible as that. Never. I was sure that Michael hated me. But it didn’t matter. At that point, I hated myself.

The next day at school, I was pulling my logic homework out of my bag at my locker. Both Michael and I had last names beginning with the letter M, so naturally, our lockers were close. He came up next to me and put his bag beside my feet. I watched him silently as he pulled his logic homework from his bag. It was incomplete.

“Did you know how to do your homework?” I inquired softly. I woulda spoke up a bit but, you know, I didn’t want him to yell at me or nuthin’.

He shook his head apprehensively, “Uh . . . no . . . not really.”

“Well . . . um . . . maybe I could . . . um . . . help you . . . if Mrs. McMorley’ll let me,” I stuttered. “She shouldna given you homework on your first day no way,” I added. I hoped that he knew this was my way of apologizing.

“It’s okay. She said she just wanted me to try. I’m not gonna get in trouble,” he explained.

“Oh,” I said disappointedly. I was really hoping to help.

“But, uh . . . thanks,” he finished, and smiled.

I blushed and smiled, too. He blushed back, and I swear I saw the most profound shade of red I had ever seen through his glowing skin.

It didn’t take long after that before we were friends. And soon Michael became the most popular boy in the fourth grade. The other boys looked up to him because of his height and strength. Most of us little goofy giggling girls that were madly in love with him never quite learned how to express that, so instead we continued with bouts of “Choco Bliss” and “Charcoal” throughout our fourth-grade year. Michael would fight back, throwing out a “Mellow Yellow” or a “Banana Boat” in his defense. We would argue. We would laugh. We would continue to be insecure in the skin we were in.

Some fifteen years later, I fell in love and found my own “Choco Bliss.” Dark skin glistening like the heavens, a familiar rouge glow in his skin when he blushes with passion, he is all I could ask for. When I look at him, I see a beauty I’ve always seen when I look at dark complexioned blackness. I tell him about Michael. He tells me about little girls just like me from his childhood that made loving his complexion a challenge. We laugh. We argue. We find comfort in the skin we’re in.

Dominique Morisseau

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