Minutes later, the curtains would open, and at some point, I will be queued to enter the stage.
“Hee-hee-hee! Azlon, you have risen! Together we shall defeat the evil witch for Narnia! Hee-hee-hee!” I enthusiastically proclaimed these words as I galloped off stage with my front legs moving faster than my hind legs.
The play was a success, but after, I felt a slowly dissolving frustration. Staring at my reflection in that mirror, I was encompassed with anger, obscuring the successes of the play overall. I could only see how I was reprimanded for being too strong of an actor and told to tone down my acting ability because I was stealing the spotlight away from the lead character.
Thinking to myself, “Why do I have to tone down my character? Why can’t he just tone up his character?” At the time I had become somewhat frustrated. Yet, I had to wear a smile and pretend to be happy as it was customary for the actors to greet and take pictures in full costume with the audience outside the theater entrance after each performance.
Ironically, during this greeting period, I recall encountering a girl about ten years of age. She had a freckled face, red hair in pigtails, and chubby cheeks as she moved her hand to pet the fur of my costume as if she was petting a real horse. The girl grabbed my hand and said, “I like your makeup. How did you make it brown like that?”
Now I had heard her comment and question quite clearly, but it had frozen me and complete silence as I thought to myself, “Has she been that sheltered from the world that she has never seen a person of color before? How could she not know at her age that this was my real skin and that there were people in the world that looked different from her?”
I didn’t know how to explain that this was my skin color and not makeup. I found myself rushing away to the dressing room to avoid an explanation of our differences. In the dressing room, I looked intensely at myself as I wiped the makeup from my temporary lightened face to reveal my dark that was lost for a few moments.
I thought back to what it was like growing up on the southeast side of Chicago and having grandma Maddie send me to predominantly white private schools on the far east side of Chicago. One in particular was a Lutheran school, and I recalled addressing the teachers with the title of “father” or “sister” before their last names. I was reminded of the ritual mornings of prayer, hymn thinking, and reading out of Luther’s small catechism.
Yet, more than anything, I remember how the white students constantly mooned my family, the only black family attending the school. The white kids pulled their pants and underwear down to reveal their bare buttocks while shouting out, “Nigger Browns go back to ghetto town!” This became the daily hazing for being different. I hated the feeling and the ridicule that came with being different, because as a child, I wanted to be accepted in the world around me, especially by my peers.
As a result, my siblings and I began to resent school, the kids, and our color. We would go home internally scarred and tell grandma Maddie what the other students were doing to us in hopes that somehow she would be our savior. However, she would continue her affirming ritual, always saying to us in a bold contrite voice: “You all are black and beautiful. Your color doesn’t make you all any different from the next kid. People will be stupid or misguided, but that doesn’t mean you all have to be the same way. Be proud of who you are for yourself and me. Never let anyone discourage you from achieving your dreams or being successful.”
Now thinking about my past and looking in that mirror, I continue to see that little girl saying, “I like your makeup. How did you make it brown like that?” I shouted at myself and said things to myself like, “Why, why were you afraid to just say ‘I am black and this is my real skin’? Why were you offended, and are you still not proud of your own skin?”
It clicked like a spiritual awakening. I have been so brainwashed and sensitized to wanting to be white and just fit in society since my childhood that I gradually forgot what my grandma Maddie told us as children. I had come to detest the dark skin that the little white girl mistook for makeup, because it had been what I perceived as the root cause for all my pain and disadvantage in life.
However, here I was, recognizing in that mirror that I was a black man that talked white. I realized that I was lost but for the first time ready to face me for me. I continued to appear into that mirror as I confidently said, “I am black, handsome, and intelligent. My skin is brown because my parents’ skin is brown. Yes, I am just as much human as anyone else.”
These commentaries are recorded by Prison Radio.