Three Times as Many Doors
In New York City there are at least three times as many doors as people. Front doors to homes and apartments. Back doors to alleys and driveways. Doors to restaurants. Doors to clubs and bars. Doors to brownstones and tenements, to sitting rooms and dayrooms and night rooms (also known as bedrooms). And there are doors inside doors -- doors to other doors and other realities, doors to the rooms where you expose yourself, where you embrace the things you love so dearly you share them with only a well-chosen few. I work behind those closed doors, places where what happens is just between the people there and no one else has to know. I work in darkness even when the light is on. You see, my name is Night and I do night work.
Like Curtis Mayfield sang, "Dark as the night with the moon shining bright." I'm as dark as Michael Jordan or Tyson Beckford. Smooth and black and glowing. Sometimes I look at myself naked in the mirror above my bed and watch how the light bounces off my skin, how it reflects the curves and muscles God gave me, and I smile at my ebony beauty.
I didn't always appreciate the chocolate. For much of my life my color was a curse, a burden, a target. It was all people saw. Nobody paid attention to my eyes, my mouth, or my troubled soul. I was a dot. I was midnight. I was doo-doo. I was black magic. I was blackmail. I was the black that existed to define white, yellow, and red. I was the punch line that made a sentence a joke. I was the exclamation point that made a sentence an insult. I was the nightmare that ruined dreams.
Black mothers laughed at me and kept their children at bay. White teachers joked about me over coffee and cigarettes. Schoolmates held up black crayons next to my face and told me I was darker. And my father -- that evil fool -- used to tell me I looked my best with the lights out.
Now my sister, she's yellow. "Yellow as a Chinaman's piss." That's what our father often said. But skin color never mattered between Nikki and me. When I'd be called "African looking" by a black person who hated himself or Sambo by someone who didn't care about history, it was Nikki who held my head and said, "One day they'll all love you like I do." I wanted to believe her but didn't. My sick little sis thought she could hear the sound of stars and the heavy breathing of fish in the aquarium, which didn't really make her the most reliable source for life-affirming information.
When I was a boy in Brooklyn I'd look into our bathroom mirror, not in admiration but pain. I used to stand over the sink and rub my skin, expecting that it would all appear like dirt in streaks on the pinkish yellow palms of my hands. But it wouldn't peel off. I'd think of Michael Jackson, the boy-man who was so large during my childhood. He'd made himself into science fiction by shedding layers of skin as I so wanted to. This should have been the perfect solution -- to shred it all and escape my burden, to quiet all the talk and the nasty laughter and, maybe, make my father love me.
The problem was what lay beneath. For Michael there was a ghost face unlike anything I, or anyone else, had ever seen. His black skin had withered and no amount of soul singing could bring it back. And the light from cracks under Michael's closed doors caught my attention. Stripped of his skin and his secrets, Michael was too naked, too damaged and damaging, for me to follow his path any longer. This I could not envy. It was too much. Too ugly. In fact, Michael's face finally put me in check. No way could I allow everyone else's poison in me. I began to understand that my skin had to be loved if I was to love myself.
So the day I turned sixteen I became Night and I reclaimed my face.
And just in time, help arrived. Big Daddy Kane, who was "big just like your Daddy," dropped "Raw." And Michael Jordan, who folk in North Cacalacki used to call "the man in the dark suit," before he sliced the Celtics for sixty-something one Sunday afternoon. And Wesley Snipes, who said, "Always bet on black," and so I did. These brothers, and others, helped reinvent the world around me. They made everyone look at dark skin. I'm talking about hi-top fade. I'm talking about Jordan in Nike ads. I'm talking about Wes boning in Mo' Better and Wes killing in New Jack City. I'm talking bald brown domes sweating under the sun. Dark skin in white tank tops. Even Grace motherfucking Jones and her freaky ass self. Black was back, all in, we're gonna win. Night had been intended to be my shield. Then things changed and it became a sword.
Copyright © 2003 by Nelson George