Skin deep

Editorial Notebook

August 02, 2008|By Makeda Crane

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a most intriguing runway show. It didn't feature the leggy beauties of New York's Fashion Week draped in the latest lace and frills. The models on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art were showing off their bodyware: tattoos as diverse as the men and women who wore them. Skulls attached to wings, hearts encased in a pot of gold, names of deceased loved ones etched across shoulder blades and crosses engraved on necks.

They were so unlike the symbols and patterns that I admired in an upstairs exhibit, Meditations on African Art: Pattern. I could identify with the lines and curves of the slave ship depicted in artist Mary Evan's "Twelve Rosettes" because I knew that someone in my family had survived the middle passage. And yet the tattoos and African textiles, masks and other objects both suggested the visible and invisible markers we all use to declare our place in the world.

I have never seriously considered getting a tattoo because my brown skin does an adequate job of broadcasting who I am. I have found more subtle ways to define myself.

I grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn, N.Y. So it is no surprise that when asked, I promptly identify myself as a 29-year-old black woman. Now it is true that my lineage includes African, Native American, Irish and Pakistani heritage, but when I look in the mirror, I see a black woman. I remember when I first realized that being black wasn't just a description and that it meant something to me. I was in fourth grade and I asked my friend, "Don't you wish you were white sometimes, because things would be easier for us?"

As soon as I said it, I felt ashamed and I realized that although being black meant something good to my parents, to the rest of the world, it meant something bad, and I would have to choose which meaning I would accept.

Soon afterward, I began asking my father about being black. I made a promise to myself that I would read more about my history so that I could arm myself with positive reminders of being a person of African heritage. I began to shop for African-inspired jewelry that I could proudly wear. I would ask my aunt, who made frequent trips to West Africa, to bring me back "anything" African. I loved receiving compliments on those outfits, and I was proud that I could tell my classmates stories about ancient African empires that we never learned about in our history textbooks.

My brown skin, my African-inspired jewelry, my full features, the objects that remind me of my cultural heritage, they identify me. But they in no way hold the same value as the invisible markers. I feel an overwhelming sense of pride when listening to the stories of my great-grandmother's surviving slavery.

Every time I utter the syllables of my name, I am reminded of the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba whom my parents named me after. Perhaps what we think and feel about such invisible markers has a greater power to shape our identity than what can be seen or heard; maybe these are the only true guides to who we are.

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