Loving The Skin I’m In
Black people come in all hues, from milky white to a black so dark it has a bluish tint. My complexion falls on the darker side of the register, approximating the shade of dark chocolate.
I’m totally comfortable with the way I look today, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, well before the slogan ‘Black is beautiful,’ dark skin tones weren’t exactly coveted by most African Americans.
Instead, fine wavy hair that escaped the attentions of a hot comb and buttery brown skin were what drove black males and females to distraction. Not to put too fine a point on it, but many members of the African-American community considered dark skin ugly. Unattractive. Undesirable.
That message came across loud and clear in terms of which students were favored by teachers, and by other students, when I started going to public school. I challenge you to find a black person who grew up in the 1950s who can recall a dark-skinned prom queen!
This nonsense first came to my attention when I was about six or seven years old, but it really got pronounced by the time I got to sixth grade.
The amazing thing about this was the teachers picking all these red-bone and high-yellow kids had dark skin like mine. It was all part of a warped value system that some black people still embrace today-the closer you are to being white, the better off and more beautiful you are.
It had gotten to the point that one day, when I was moping around the house that Mother took notice. Clara Mae was usually chirping around the house like a perky little bird, so any deviation from that behavior was quite noticeable
My mother pulled me aside and gave her fourth-born a loving once-over. “Clara Mae, what is the matter with you?” she asked. Her voice was filled with concern, which automatically made me feel a little better.
I told Mother that regardless of what I did in class, when I raised my hand, the teacher would never call on me.
Instead, a kid with straight hair and fair skin always got picked. Some of them were really smart, but so was I. Since I had already skipped two grades, there was no question of my intelligence or of my ability to perform. While I related this to Mother, I started crying because the arbitrariness of the situation was getting me down.
“Let me tell you something,” Mother said, wiping my tears, “The thing you have to understand is that beauty is only skin deep. You are my child and you are beautiful to me. And if no one ever says that about you, it’s what you think about yourself that counts.”
Everything Mother said made perfect sense and her words were a soothing balm for my bruised feelings. Still, being rejected over something as senseless as the amount of melanin in my skin stung. This really got my competitive juices going at school.
Throughout my life I have tried to turn anger and other negative emotions into something constructive. So that was the path I chose following my eye-opening encounter with black-on-black bigotry. I spent a lot of time getting even smarter, because I knew knowledge could never be snatched from me, regardless of whether I was high yellow or black as midnight.
I’m not the most self-analytical person in the world, but it’s clear those early snubs and slights I experienced due to skin color further motivated me to excel. They lit a fire under me that drove me to succeed not just at academics, but at whatever endeavor I tackled.
That whole deal taught me that you couldn’t afford to let yourself get bogged down by trivial garbage. A person’s outer covering is clearly trivial and not terribly important in the grand scheme of things.
Dealing with those color-struck teachers also taught me something about myself namely, that I could face what I thought were serious obstacles, like rejection, and get over it.
Instead of fixating on my outward appearance, I just spent more time figuring out how to get noticed for being the best student.
Years later, when dark skin and huge Afros became a badge of honor and James Brown was shouting “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” on AM stations around the country, I couldn’t help but notice some of my café au lait brothers and sisters looking uncomfortable and forlorn.
My heart went out to them, because I knew exactly how they felt. Something as uncontrollable as the color of one’s skin, and how people can sometimes react to that, can be a baffling, demeaning thing.
Goodbye Paratrooper Wings!
When I observe today’s kids and how they get their parents to buy them the latest pair of jeans or tennis shoes, I have to laugh.
For one thing, Mother was never big on young ladies wearing pants, so most of the time I had to wear a dress. And far from being hip or fashionable, jeans were something to be worn when we were about to go into the tobacco fields. As for shoes, my favorites were a pair of brown numbers that looked remarkably like my bare feet.
I hated wearing shoes and still do today. When I enter my house, the first thing I do is take off my shoes and let my feet breathe.
Because I was really tough on shoes and wore them out every six months, my parents invariably bought sturdy brogans that were tough on my poor dogs.
If I had ever flounced into the Leach household demanding that my parents purchase me the trendiest fashions, the result would have been predictable and quite painful.
Besides, if I had nice clothes, I would have destroyed them in no time. Because I loved hanging out with the boys, doing stuff like playing baseball. My gender wasn’t important as long as I could hit as far and run as fast and as hard as they could. And since that was the case, they accepted me unconditionally, which meant a lot to me.
When baseball games ended, usually with me on the winning side, we’d all go to a hayloft and become Army paratroopers heroically swooping down on unsuspecting German and Japanese soldiers.
Meanwhile, in school I was consistently the top or the second-best student in my class. So all was right with the world, that is, until I got to be 12 years old and went into the eighth grade.
That was when Mother pulled me aside for a little talk. She’d made up her mind it was time for the Leach family tomboy to disappear.
“Clara Mae, you are becoming a young woman,” she intoned solemnly. “So we’ve got to make a couple of little changes. First of all, the roughhousing that you do with boys — flying out of haylofts, sliding all over the fields when you play baseball — has got to stop! It just ain’t ladylike.”
“Another thing-you’ve got to start wearing shoes all the time! You don’t see me going around barefoot, do you? Or your sister Bettie? Ladies wear shoes, Clara Mae.”
The shoe thing hurt, but the directive to stop playing with the boys was a killer. When I walked outside, stunned, the trees, grass and even the sky somehow seemed different. I knew I could no longer fly through the fields, kicking up puffs of tawny dust in the brilliant North Carolina sunshine with my bare feet.
The outdoors had always been my personal playpen, but now it had been turned into an extension of school, church and the inside of our house.
It never occurred to me to keep cavorting secretly with the guys. When my parents told me to do something, they usually needed to say it just once.
I followed Mother’s moratorium to the letter, but I certainly didn’t like it. Aside from reading everything I could get my hands on, carousing with my brothers and their friends was the other thing I enjoyed most in life.
It didn’t take long for the wisdom underlying Mother’s caveat to assert itself though. A few weeks after our little conversation, my menstrual period came, prompting another mother/daughter summit, this time about the mysterious things that were happening to my body. Mother segued from that into a discussion about babies and where they came from.
In about a month, I had gone from rough and tumble, slugging outfielder to a potential mama! Bettie helped me with this transition, having experienced her first period some years earlier.
I was ready to concede that starting in center field for the New York Yankees probably wasn’t in the cards. Still, nothing had happened that would prevent me from becoming a crackerjack lawyer, so I was still in good shape.
Another major development that occurred when I was 12 was my housework load finally started to lighten. Hallelujah!
That’s because there were now four girls to help Mother out with the female duties around the house, instead of just Bettie and me.
All of the Leach women remained handy in the kitchen, though. I was the cake maker, Mother made pies, Bettie cooked the meat, Rosa cooked vegetables and my youngest sister, Doretha, was the official vegetable picker. Combined, the five of us could whip up a mean dinner.
On the caregiver front, I was no longer the Leach babysitter because the youngest Leaches were getting older and more self-sufficient. Bawling siblings and stinking diapers were finally a thing of the past. My parents had stopped having children and that was all right with me!
When it came time for me to graduate from eighth grade, I was the No. 2 pupil in our class. That feat was accomplished despite missing 30 days out of a 180-day school year because of critically important farm work.
Mother used to fret about that, while Daddy merely said, “This is what we have to do. This is reality.”
I had an infinitely more exciting reality to look forward to-I was about to enter high school. And once those four years were over, I was going to leave Willow Springs and its farming lifestyle in the dust.