Complex Melanin

Cierra Broadway, Carlow University 

As a child growing up in a predominantly white environment, I often battled with my own self-identity. When my mother moved me away from my father in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we relocated to upstate New York, near Albany. I began third grade there in a quaint little town where diversity was almost nonexistent. I was the only black child in my entire school and maybe one of four when I entered middle school.

I did not see myself represented in any of the books I read in school, not in my group of peers, or my circle of friends. I struggled to find the beauty in my brown skin and curly hair. I longed to fit in and look like my friends. My family will tell you up to this very day that I used to wish my skin were lighter. I constantly straightened my hair, secretly dreaming that my nose would be pointier, and that my eyes would turn blue. I wanted to be white. Sounds so crazy to me when I think about that now.

Being that my mother was so far removed from black culture and lifestyle, even as a black woman herself, our relationship was strained. She was constantly correcting the way that I talked, judging me for the way that I would sometimes use slang when communicating, and not allowing me to express my individual style when it came to my clothes. I felt this relentless struggle to simply be myself around her and my peers. This is why I was always closer with my father. I identified more with my dad and the relatives on that side of the family, simply because they loved and accepted me the way I was. I did not have to change the way I talked around them and I felt comfortable, beautiful even, in their presence.

This self-conflict continued until I finally moved back to Pittsburgh with my father, where my community and school were much more diverse. I started 8th grade there and the way that I viewed myself changed drastically. My classmates and friends looked like me and I appreciated that. I began to love and accept myself for who and what I was, simply because the people around me did too. However, my self-identity and blackness within the black community itself continued to be an issue for me. This time, it took the form of colorism.

Chart  of global melanization 

Chart  of global melanization 

Back in New York it was as if I was too black to be accepted as the norm, or included in the status quo, but in Pittsburgh I was not black enough. I can distinctly remember people saying I “talked like a white girl” (whatever that is supposed to mean). I also remember hearing folks place a lot of value on others who were light skinned, as opposed to dark skinned. This led me to feel uneasy in my own skin. I did not want to feel like others viewed me as superior, just because my pigment is a lighter shade of brown, or because I have “good hair”. It is foolish that there is so much divisiveness in our own communities, based on the pigment of our skin. All I wanted was to be accepted for who and what I was.

Eventually, I grew to be careless of whether or not others embraced me, and became more interested in accepting myself and focusing on my own personal growth. I am thankful for these experiences because through them I have learned to fall in love not only with my own blackness, but also find the beauty in every one of my brothers and sisters. I appreciate our uniqueness, complexities, and the fact that we cannot be defined by society’s stereotypical views. As a mother and educator, I hope to encourage my daughter and our future leaders to love themselves. I want them to see that they are valued and truly a gift.