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The Colors in My Dreams: On the eve of the first African American president being sworn into office, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reflects on the personal politics of skin color

On the eve of the first African American president being sworn into office, photos recall a different time.

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By Yusef Komunyakaa
Sunday, January 18, 2009

I sealed the envelope and dropped my absentee ballot into the mail slot at the post office, then wondered if a majority of other citizens would also cast their votes on Nov. 4 to elect Sen. Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. This was personal, almost sacred. But it was also the past driving the future. I said to myself, This is America's birthright, her inherited capacity to reinvent herself continuously, right? I strolled slowly and deliberately toward my apartment, while my mind called up people I had known in a different time and place, conjured souls that continue to live in my heart and head, reminding me of the politics of skin color.

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I could feel the presence of the long-gone ones walking alongside me again, a proxy of flesh and blood and a logbook of the recent past unfurled.

Unceremoniously, the call of names began.

***

Daddy Red's left eye was blue. His right eye was gray. They said in his youth that his hair had been blondish. It was still straight. His real name was Wesley Pittman, and he was my step-grandfather, a white-looking black man married to my black paternal grandmother, Elsie. People walked big circles around him because he was known to have killed a man when he was 20. The story went something like this: Both men were on horseback, circling each other with drawn knives, dusk falling on Red's pale skin and the other man's black skin. By the time the sun set, only Red was sitting upright in the saddle. What were they fighting about -- some breach of trust, the old saving of face, something about the vagaries of manhood, a woman? I don't know. But at 7 years old, I became aware of Daddy Red's physical uniqueness and began telling my brothers that he had a white man's job. Maybe I had overheard this distinction mouthed by a half-forgotten voice at some unknown hour. I recall seeing him from a distance as he worked at the Magazine Lumber Co., tilting up long planks and measuring them, and then recording data in a black notebook. Sometimes he'd puff on a Camel and blow little white clouds into the air. What really grabbed my attention was the ease with which he worked. Most black men I observed during the 1950s labored at an accelerated pace, oftentimes twofold that of their white co-workers. It was just one of those social realities we understood.

"You have to be three times as good as anyone else" was what I was told again and again. This was how race or skin color was discussed. Insinuation. Metaphor.

My father, J.W., also labored at the same sawmill; but with none of Daddy Red's ease. He'd shoulder a long, heavy, steel cable and fast-walk it to a towering mound of logs. Or he'd pull the cable to the edge of the millpond, and then he'd clamp the thick, iron tongs around a log that was "seasoning" in the dark, chemically tinged water, wave his hand in the air to signal the "winchman" perched in his metal cage, and then the cable would spool in, lifting the log into the sweaty air, on to a robust conveyor belt that forced it through a huge, circular saw spinning so fast it left a bluish blur in the brain. Since the sawmill was approximately 75 meters from our house, I would watch my father hard at work. I'd daydream for hours.

Maybe it was natural for my father to have been uncomfortable with his stepfather. My grandmother seemed to always position herself between them. Did my father's affection also diminish for his father, Gable, because he had let this almost white man steal his wife's love? Was my grandmother color-struck? Did she dislike my mother's dark skin? Well, that was what my mother believed -- a disheartening feeling she took to the grave with her five decades later. My mother also believed that Daddy Red was in her corner, that he never disparaged her black skin. I'm sure that such complexity of skin color discolored my dreams -- day and night, awake or asleep.

In grade school, sometimes I knew the answer to questions but was too shy to raise my hand. All my teachers were light-complexioned, and it seemed to me that they always called on the students who were more like them -- even when they hadn't raised their hands, when they didn't know the answers. Perhaps they were being trained to feel that more was expected of them out in the world. I'd lie awake some nights, questioning myself about what I'd do if I were called up to the front of the class to diagram a sentence on the blackboard. Would I simply sit there like a knot on a log, dumbstruck? I needed to know the answer to the fear inside me.

Growing up in the Deep South during the 1940s and '50s in Bogalusa, La., also called the "Green Empire" and "Magic City," it was impossible not to have known and lived within the social and political dimensions of skin color. I overheard stories. I listened when I wasn't supposed to have been listening. I tried to make sense out of everything. I even wondered why Daddy Red hadn't spent a single day in jail for killing his opponent. Although it appeared it was indeed self-defense, if the other man had been white, I'm sure Daddy Red's fate would have been entirely different.

Daddy Red's brother, Lucien, was darker-complexioned; their younger sister, Ollie Mae, was a shade lighter than Lucien; their older sister, Alma, the one I remember more vividly, was maybe a halfshade darker than Red and three shades lighter than Lucien, and she married a brown-skinned man, Joe Johnson, with whom she produced four sons and three daughters. Two of the daughters grew up and left Bogalusa, and I heard this about them: "Oh, those Johnson girls? Well, to tell you the truth, I heard they became Mexicans somewhere in Texas."

***


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