My daughter says, "Daddy, Brandon called me black,
and when I said I was milk chocolate, he said, No,
You're black." She's puzzled by the exchange, and
when I explain, "People will call you black and me
white," she finds this difficult to believe. She mastered
colors long ago, in pre-K, including ranges of hues.
A coat isn't just blue, but periwinkle or ultramarine.
To say she's black when she's actually cocoa brown
makes no sense. It's oddly crude like something
a baby would do. And, my skin looks nothing like
the paper in our printer or the kitchen appliances;
whatever color it may be, it certainly isn't white.
She doesn't understand this willful misapplication
of words. To her, it seems almost indistinguishable
from lying, and there was something else, something
in his tone, an insistence, an unexpected vehemence.
Her vision changes now that she knows she's black;
she sees how black goes second in chess, and how
the behavior stick at school gets moved from green
to red to black. She sees the way people categorize
one another and what that means. And one day,
I hear her talking to someone about one of the boys
in her class, and to make it clear who she means,
since two of them have the same name, she says,
"You know, the black one." And there, in a flash,
is the education process, the turning of the wheel
from the beautiful colors she knows each of us to be
to the blunt ones she has learned we insist on using.
A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joe Mills has published four collections of poetry with Press 53, including Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet.