melanin


There I was, no more than a few days ago, walking out of a classroom after being called ‘blick’ by a teacher. It is a word that is so well acquainted with my ears that I no longer have to listen properly to hear it. Blick. My childhood overflowed with endless remarks about how dark my skin was that I wasn't at all surprised to find out that same word had managed to sneak its way into my young adult life. I suppose it is safe to say that it latched itself onto me like a shadow; no pun at all intended. Put in non derogatory terms, blick is used by Londoners to describe a black person with especially dark skin; although to me, even a million and one declarations of ‘no offence’ are and will never be enough to water down the offence I feel when that word is used in reference to me. I guess this was why I was so confused when I didn't really feel as offended as I thought I should when the word was used to describe me just a few days ago.

Being a girl born, bred and nurtured on Nigerian soil, I found that the way my dark skin was treated Nigeria, is the very same way it is treated in Western society; with distaste, displeasure, and often disgust. In Nigeria, there is a certain sweetness associated with fair skin. Even the word fair is fairer than the word dark, or black.  I remember when my baby cousin was born with the brightest yellow skin, the whole house smiled and called her ‘yellow paw-paw’ and my great aunts gave steady instructions not to let the sun touch her skin because then she would become dark and she would no longer shine like the sun. Even at a young age I was confused as to why my own skin seemed not to shine like the sun and often threw fits of annoyance and begged God to correct it. I wondered why little fair skinned children were blessed with pet names as sweet as the paw-paw fruit itself, and dark girls like me had to live with less than sweet nicknames like ‘blacky charcoal’ , it just wasn't fair. 

I also remember how jealous I used to feel of my childhood best friend who had the sweetest fair skin. I used to console myself with the fact that she was a quarter white, therefore her being fair wasn't as a result of God loving her more and therefore making her beautiful, but as a result of it being in her blood. I loved her, but I hated the way when we were together people would call her “fine girl” and “Angelina” when they would only call me by my given name. I suppose now I can see how stupid and juvenile my jealousy was, but I also can’t ignore the way I was conditioned into believing that I was ugly because I was dark, and that nothing could change that fact.

Whenever I look at my birthmark, which is a patch of skin about 5 shades lighter than the rest of me, I laugh as I remember how a junior me used to run around telling people how that was my real skin colour, and the dark skin that they could see was simply a disguise that I would magically grow out of once I turned sixteen. I conjured up a fantasy Cinderella-like fairytale that guaranteed me a happy ending with lighter skin. I remember how my heart burst with joy when my parents announced that we were moving to England when I was ten. The joy wasn't because we were going to start a new life, no, that wasn't it. The joy was because I thought that finally getting out of the hot Lagos sun would mean that my skin would at last have the chance of being just a little bit lighter, even if it was only by a tiny degree.

Moving to England was no better though. Some of my worst memories of secondary school in the UK exist solely because my skin is the shade it is. These memories seem far enough away that I can laugh now when I think about them. There were days when boys at my school would ask me where I was from, and when I would say “I’m from Nigeria” they would laugh and say “why are you lying, you must be Ghanaian, Nigerians are never this dark.” I wouldn’t cry in front of them, but I would go home and ask my mother why I was so dark and she would say “My dear, you are not that dark” then she would laugh and tell me that maybe it was because the water I showered with was too hot, or maybe it was because I didn't scrub my skin hard enough.

One memory that I’m sure will stay with me for a long time is of one summer morning when my mother dragged me with her on a trip to the city on a search for shoes to buy for my grandmother. As we walked slowly hand in hand, browsing for the next store to turn into, a big black lady in a leopard print caftan approached us  and her words seemed to stop me in my tracks, she said “Aunty, please come into our shop, we have cream for your daughter, you will see it will make her very fine.” I was only fourteen at the time so I wasn't ignorant to the existence of bleaching creams, but I didn’t quite know how to react to being the victim of subconscious discrimination. My mother was so used to the shouty haggling and vocal advertisements that are now fundamental to the streets of Peckham that she just ignored it, but I couldn’t. Even after the day was over I couldn’t help but wonder why I had been cursed with skin so loud.

It probably wouldn’t surprise me to find out that so many dark skinned girls with similar backgrounds to me also had childhoods filled with internalised self hatred. I am here to tell you that no matter who tells you that you aren’t, you are as just as beautiful as the very night sky that people so often joke about you blending into.

It took me a while to begin to love myself for who I am, and my skin for what it is, but it feels amazing now to be able to say that I do. I love every square inch of my abundantly melanin filled skin. I talk to a lot of young black women like myself who say they don't understand the hype around dark skinned role models like Alek Wek, Lupita and Leomie Anderson, but I suppose it’s because they haven’t been through it. Sometimes it takes seeing women who look like you being accepted and praised for being nothing less than who they are, by a world that you didn't think was capable of understanding your kind of beauty.

I will always remember last summer, when I wore a really lovely, really backless sundress to a family barbeque. A nice aunty came up to me and said “Darling, I just had to come over and tell you, but your dark skin is so glorious!” I smiled. I felt like telling her “I know”, but I just said “thank you” with a curtsy as you do to lovely Nigerian aunties.


So I guess now thinking about it, I do know why I wasn't as offended as I thought I should be when that teacher used the word ‘blick’ in reference to me. It is purely because I know that my skin is far too glorious, bursting at the seams with melanin, that ‘blick’ is far too simple a word to describe a girl endowed with melanin in abundance.

2 comments:

  1. This is so.. I'm not sure what word I'm looking for. Wonderful? Not what you had to go through, but what has come from it for you. And for the record, the descriptive word 'dark' to me has a beautiful and mysterious aura to it that fair simply doesn't. Fair is light and bright and sunny- but 'dark' sounds like night and wonder and velvet. I think that very dark skin is exactly the word you used- glorious! Just like pale or tan or any other color, what makes it most radiant is the knowledge that it is so, and I'm glad you've been able to come to feel that. I can never understand what it would be like to have another skin tone than white, and don't know the feeling of being referred to in derogatory terms, so this was such an interesting post, and an insight into your life that I really enjoyed the honor of:) Also, have you heard the story of Amy Carmichael? She had dark eyes and longed and prayed for blue ones, but when she was older, God used in in amazing ways that she couldn't have been used in if her wish for blue eyes could come true. So never forget that either- the way you are is the way God knew would be perfect:)

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    1. Wow, hank you so much for your comment it means so much!

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