Colors on my Mirror
by B. Fanos
Written April 8, 1993 after a trip home
It would be a terrible thing to go through your entire life being a color. In fact, I've always maintained that it is a terrible thing to go through life being a label of any kind -- chick, geTaTa, injera-gagari -- but somehow race as it is articulated in the US is more harrowing than most others, at least for me. And although in the five years since I've been home, I have had many periods where my color did not matter (a few weeks overseas here and there), going back again to Ethiopia was remarkable because it helped me examine this dilemma in more depth.
A small but telling example: During the first year that I was in the US, someone asked me how many black students were in my math class. I said five, because I had looked around the room and counted those I saw. But I forgot to count myself. And although this can be taken as a measure of my false consciousness, in reality it was because I had never associated myself with a color before, and it was purely instinctual. Had I been asked if I considered myself black, my answer would have been an unequivocal yes. But this was different. And frightening. I promised myself then that the day I look in the mirror and see a color first rather than ME would be the day I leave this country. I'm not being naïve -- believe me, I am very aware of what others see, but how I see myself has never been an issue for me.
So what brought this on? Well, I had never realized how much of a burden being a color was until I wasn't one anymore -- I went home. And although the burden of ethnicity promptly reared its own li'l ugly head, the net result was a lighter burden by far. I know, of course, that if I stayed at home my zer(och) would also weigh me down. But it was absolutely astounding how much the way people reacted to me affected the way I felt about myself--Me! -- the independent one -- the person who could remain above all of this (I looked down and saw my own clay feet, then my own clay legs, and decided to look no further -- how much more could an ego take?!)
Issues of race are incredible to describe, especially here, especially to those who may not even see it as an issue for our community. Saying it's a burden being black is different from saying it's a burden being a color. The former for me has connotations of pride and struggle which I grew up appreciating but recognized as something that Americans go through. I idolized Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, etc. growing up among yeneQu older siblings and cousins, and I still have strong sentiments about their struggle, so the statement means more to me as a result. Say it loud
I'm black and I'm proud. Remember?
Being a color, though, is an accurate description of the sense of disempowerment I feel when I see or hear or feel someone is unwilling or unable to get beyond the color of my skin, or when someone looks through me or around me, or when someone follows me around a store, regardless of how well I am dressed. Or when someone conveniently forgets to introduce me to their parents.
Being home meant none of these things occurred. Let me not glorify this in any way -- it just meant that people went for the next superficial item, which is how you look and dress. Not great, but a hell of a lot better, somehow. So does this mean I hate being in the US now? No, not at all. It just means that the slow dilution of my identity was reversed in some fundamental way when I went to Ethiopia, and there are no faint traces of color on my mirror anymore. And I hope to go home more often so that they stay off.
Why am I telling you all this, why now? Because it is time. Because the time to say these things is when things are going well, when I am happy. And being in Ethiopia played a great part in this.
Written 30 October 1999
My! How wise she was, the me of six years ago; a lifetime ago in some ways. Although I feel I've seen more, and felt more, and both sifted through and discarded more, I'm not sure the me of today can compete with her eloquence. Perhaps she won't mind, though, if I were to add a few words here, a feeble attempt to enrich the discussion. First, the colors are still off my mirror, and I fear less their return now that I did then. Second, I envy her happiness
even more ephemeral than those colors was that delicate balance between Here and There that she had attained as she penned her words. Third, I echo her distinction between being black and being a color -- and I would add a few sentiments if she would indulge me a little longer.
I am mortified, still, to hear the terms "baria" or "TiQur" still being bandied around, whether to describe a fellow African or African-American. Grandmothers, godfathers, sisters and friends use these words unapologetically -- and each time I hear them, I think of that younger me, so deeply affected by the unthinking words and actions of others. Then, I think of my many cousins, nephews and nieces, and friends
who's other halves are white or black American, Swedish, Canadian, Jamaican, Ivorian, Asian, Arab
the pot-melting legacy of our diaspora. Not enough for them to face their own besieged mirrors as I had done -- no, for them we concoct yet other tainted images: not Qei-dama enough, hair much too luCHa, lips too big, eyes not wide enough, nose not selkaka enough.
The creeping colors on the edges of my mirror were those I had let others put there, naïvely thinking that I had no say. But going home revived me, and those colors are no more. How self-defeating it would be, then, if I were to turn right around and seek to tarnish your mirror now. Not a chance -- I say let's do these mirrors right. I would have them be a lavish kaleidoscope of bits and pieces that make us who we are ... that spin and swivel and tinkle around until you hold them still for that one moment, one single moment, when the beauty of all we are and all we can be creates an exquisite symmetry. And the passing of that symmetry is no loss, for with each additional piece a new, equally glorious image would be formed. And re-formed. For as long as we are.
I thank her for her indulgence. And I thank you.