(For the people who leave their mark on our lives; dear loved ones, and random strangers.)
My parents weren’t churchgoers. We never really talked about religion much in our house. I wasn’t even baptized as an infant. But, for whatever reason, they decided to baptize me after my brother was born. Maybe it was because he was so colicky they thought he might be the antichrist! They were so desperate they were willing to try anything to save him, and themselves!
I was just shy of 5 years old at the time. My paternal grandmother had been bringing me to church occasionally. The pastor was a long haired hippie whose name was also Kim. He played the guitar, and we sang songs like ‘Yes! Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’. In Sunday School we made macaroni crafts and bead bracelets and learned about Jesus from one of the other grandmas.
On the day of my On-second-thought Christening I was standing up in the front of the church, on stage. I can remember my corduroy dress and tights, and my awesome Buster Brown shoes. I remember my infant brother, next to me in someone’s arms, crying. I felt the water on my forehead. I heard the words the minister was saying.
I looked out into the pews to see the faces of the children I had been going to Sunday school with, and the faces of their families. All of the brown faces. Standing there, with my wet head, I was a part of the community. I felt like I belonged.
Back at home, my maternal grandfather teased me about going to a church full of black people. He was saying some mean things that didn’t make sense to me. I hadn’t realized that there were only two white families in the church. I didn’t understand why he was doing it, but I started to think that maybe I didn’t really belong there?
Later on, my maternal grandmother and I were playing checkers. Without my grandfather around, she told me how she felt. She told me that skin didn’t matter at all because one day, everyone would be the same color. She said ‘Someday everyone will be light brown. We will all have light brown eyes, and brown hair. Someday we will all look the same.’ And then she said ‘King me!’
I didn’t realize how ahead of her time she was. Born in the 1920’s in Newark, NJ, raised by Italian immigrants, married to an Archie Bunker style bigot, and having just recently witnessed the race riots in her home town, she was completely convinced that interacial marriage would some day make us all light brown. And she stated it as a matter of fact, with no judgment at all. Of course, I didn’t understand the significance of this conversation. I was five.
I also didn’t understand that she was talking about the distant future. SO, for the next few days, I woke up expecting to BE light brown.
I looked in the mirror to see if my blue eyes were changing. I checked the freckles on my skin to see if they were multiplying. I brushed my dark blonde hair with disdain.
I wasn’t changing. I started to give up hope that it would ever happen.
Then one day my father and I took one of our regular trips down to ‘the joint’ to bring some dinner to my uncles. “The joint” was a bar and liquor store that my mom’s family owned in the 1st ward. It had been Newark’s Little Italy until the urban renewal project of the 1950’s redesigned the neighborhood. Twelve lower income high rise towers were built, so they could cram as many people as possible into the smallest amount of real estate. We just called them The Projects.
It was now a very diverse neighborhood and most of the men that hung outside ‘the joint’ on the corner were black. They all knew my dad and me, so they greeted us as we walked by ‘Hey, Billy Boy!’ and, ‘Hello little lady.’
And then I saw him. There was a man standing on the corner who had a little ball of flesh where his hand was supposed to be. He was missing a hand, but that was not what had my full attention. It was the coloring that caught my eye. His one hand was dark brown, but his stump was pink. His forearm above the stump was white and his upper arm was speckled, black and white! I looked at his face. It was speckled too! There were patches around his eyes, the corners of his mouth, on his ears. So many different shades of brown and peach and pink.
Grandma was right! It was happening! This man was proof! He was already changing! I smiled and waved to him. He smiled back at me. I walked into the smoky bar with my father, hopeful for the future, satisfied with the world.
I was completely convinced that it would happen to me as well. I kept waiting for the day when I would start to change. I kept waiting for the day when everyone would be the same.
In some ways, I’m still waiting.