I am Izell Robinson, Minnesota inmate number 210006. An innocent man confined within the quadrilaterals of systemic injustice, fighting to be heard and affect positive change. Yet to accomplish success, I need you to listeners to hear me and act. So I am only asking if I could be heard and count on you to act.
I want to provide perspective and meaning to show the true empathy and care that inmates like me possess but are often marginalized and limited in efforts of opportunity to show. Therefore today, I wanted to share parts of a memoir I’m writing entitled “I Am Who I Am.” Writing, for me being confined, has become a therapy, allowing me an outlet to analyze, explore, and motivate change in my own life.
Um, this is a chapter out the memoir, and this’ll be two parts. This part one, it’s called “Outside, Looking Within, Embracing My Skin.” Here I was, staring at my reflection as an unfamiliar image in the mirror revealing distortions within me. I was looking in this mirror at myself. However, all I could see was that little white girl mouthing out, “I like your makeup. How did you make it brown like that?”
It was back in 2001 winter semester of my freshman year at the University of Minnesota: Morris. I auditioned to be a part of the cast for the annual winter children’s production. That year’s production was “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a play based on the popular C.S. Lewis children’s book series about Narnia.
I remember being the only person like me to audition. My darker skin was evident when standing in the sea of potential cast members. While auditioning, I felt the presence of a silent prejudice. I say this because during actor critique and evaluations, I was revered as having the captivating skills of a seasoned actor by the production selection committee.
Therefore, I was confident I would secure the lead role. I was instead offered the role of the centaur and not the role of Azlan, the lion, the lead character. At the time, I mumbled under my breath: “This is crazy. How didn’t I get the lead role?” I was in bewilderment of the decision, knowing it was said that I had the best audition under production.
Yet I accepted the role of the centaur out of excitement to be a part of the production, but I was still disappointed and felt cheated. As I left the theater, I hung my head low, walking through the pillows of snow that littered the ground, thinking if only my skin was white like my skin.
When I finally reached my dorm, Independence Hall, um, fittingly, there was no independence. I felt blocked from opportunity as I walked straight to my room, quickly passing all the eager peach-faced students on my floor that were anxious to know of my success or failure.
My freedom was being alone and avoiding the obvious feelings of defeat. Inside my room, I collapsed on my bed knowing that the whole casting situation had something to do with prejudice, although it wasn’t blatant and I couldn’t prove it.
As I laid there thinking, my roommate—a scrawny pale-skinned, messy-haired skateboarder from Cold Springs—entered our room. He said, “Hey buddy, did you get the role?” I replied dryly with “Nah” and exclaimed that I didn’t get the role for Azlan the lion. He then said, “Oh, you all are doing ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.’ That was one of my favorite books growing up. Have you read it?”
I said “No” and explained how I really hadn’t heard of it until this audition. He laughed at me. He said, “I grew up believing everybody had read or heard of Azlan and Narnia. Anyhow, as long as somehow supposed to symbolize Jesus.” I proclaimed, “That’s it! They didn’t want a person of color playing the role of Jesus, but I could be a centaur, of the wise man, right?”
He laughed again as he chuckled out, “Maybe you’re right. But if I was you I’d give them a reason to wish they had chosen me for the lead role.” What he said made sense, and I was determined to use my role as the centaur to show my value beyond the hue of my skin.
A week later it was performance day. I was anxious to get out on stage. I stepped into my furry costume that had four moving legs and the tailed rear end of a horse. The centaur was a half-man and half-horse, a mighty and majestic creature that I represented well in this costume.
After getting into my costume, I was required to go to the makeup area. I was a bit uncomfortable and against wearing makeup because I grew up in a household where makeup was meant for girls and not boys. And there was no exception to that belief. Yet if I was going to be on stage, it was necessary for lighting purposes that I wear the make up, so I allowed it.
After the makeup was applied to my skin, I noticed that my skin appeared much lighter to almost be a Pale brown complexion. Looking in a mirror, I thought for myself that I didn’t look like the true me and that maybe this is the closest experience I’ll have to being white.
I mean, I had left Chicago for rural Minnesota in search of true diversity and some form of racial acceptance. However, peering out the stage curtain, looking at the audience, I couldn’t find a single dark-skinned person in the audience. There was no one anywhere that looked like me, and I felt alone and out of place.
These commentaries are recorded by Prison Radio.