Yahdon Israel’s writing reflects passion, skill, a perfectly nuanced understanding of his own reality, and an unmatched ability to connect it with the lived experiences of others. We are proud to release this new essay “THE TRANSATLANTIC” written exclusively for
— Carlton Mackey (Creator of 50 Shades of Black)

The Transatlantic

While my father was still around, he and my mother revered all things “African.” Kente cloth covered and protected our bodies like saran wrap. My parents didn’t like Dove, Irish Spring and Lever 2000’s suggestion that soap should be white or light-pastel. Cleanliness was next to godliness and since God was Black, only Black soap was sanctified enough to touch black skin. Glade plugins, Lysol air-fresheners, perfumes, colognes and lotions were for white people and those who wanted to be like them; we freshened our air with incense, scented our bodies with oils, and moisturized our skin with Shea butter. We would have been Amish had we been white instead of black, and lived in Lancaster County instead of Bed-Stuy. But seeing that I was black and living in Bed-Stuy, Rumspringa came earlier than expected.

Although all-things “African” had been exalted in my house, this was not the case to the project kids at P.S. 40 or to the “best of the brightest” at P.S/I.S. 308. It was at those places where I learned that there was a world’s difference between how we’re raised, and how we grow up.

 “Ugh, why are you dressed like that?”

“Because I’m black.”

I’m black and I don’t dress like that… is you an African booty-scratcher or something?”

“An African booty-scratcher?”

“Yeah, an African booty-scratcher. You know, Africans’ always

scratching their asses because they’re dirty?”

“Where’d you get this from?”

“You know how on TV they always show all them

ashy-ass Africans, starving and shit?”      

“What channel is this?”

“Wait, you don’t have cable?”

“No, my mother—”

“Dammmmn!!! You don’t wear regular clothes

and you don’t have cable? You must be African.”

“My mother says we’re all African.”

“Who?! Not me, I’m Black! I wash my ass and I don’t fight lions

so fuck outta here with that shit! You probably wash up with

that African soap that looks like shit—with your African booty-scratchin’ ass.”

I wasn’t necessarily romantic about Africa like my mother and father, but these kids treated Africa like an inside-joke. All anyone would have to say is “Africa,” and everyone would click their tongues against the roof of their mouths and laugh. What had been so damn funny about Africa?

This would have been shrugged off had this only happened once, twice, or maybe even three times… But after months of having insults stacked upon my shoulders like poker chips, all bets were off. It became obvious that the odds were against me and it was because—to them—I was African. From then on, all things having to do with Africa had to be forgotten.

I no longer wanted to use the black soap because, like it had been suggested at school, I could no longer tell if the soap had removed dirt or put it there. I began to hate incense because the ashes discolored the carpet and Shea butter became suffocating. I had already resolved to taking my brother’s clothes while he was asleep the night before, placing them in my book bag the morning after, and changing into them before I got to school. The fact that my brother was twelve years older than me didn’t matter, better to reign in ill-fitted Iceberg than serve in tailor-made crowns. I had almost forgotten everything; I was almost regular, I was almost Black. And with the precision of a Grandfather clock, life had decided it was the perfect time to marry my sister to a man from Ivory Coast, West Africa.

I am generally grateful with life’s generosities, but this was one of the rare occasions where I felt life had been a little too generous. I hadn’t even become Black long enough to take my shoes off and here came this African man in his Air Max ‘95s. Strangely enough, he didn’t strike me as African. Dashiki, nor sandal, nor kufi had been as prominent in his wardrobe as it was in mine. He was draped in DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, and Polo. In fact, I didn’t even know what Prada was until I met him. Wasn’t this something? He didn’t even click his tongue! He spoke a tongue more sophisticated than the Queen’s English: he spoke French. I wasn’t sure which “Africa” my parents or classmates had in mind but they both must’ve gotten it wrong. C’est la vie.

He respected his elders—something we “American” kids knew nothing about. He worked hard—another virtue which “eluded” us. And most importantly, he was really African—something we hadn’t been for a long time. Although my family loved him—my mother especially—I had missed that boat. I was already marking periods deep into hating Africa and I could not look back now. I was still in the process of forgetting, and although I didn’t want any reminders, I kept getting them.

“Who’s that? Is that my son-in-law?!”

“Yes, it’s me. I brought you more

Shea butter and black soap from Ivory Coast.”

“Thank you! I can’t tell you where it all goes.”

            Everything lost and forgotten had placed itself under the sink behind shopping bags. That’s where the many tubs of Shea butter and Black soap found themselves—along with homework packages held captive by my laziness, letters from teachers inquiring the whereabouts of these homework packages, and failed forgery note attempts assuring those teachers the homework packages were in a safe place. No matter how many times I worked to forget the presence of Black soap and Shea butter under the sink, he’d always remind me by bringing more through the front door—and my mother didn’t help either. I’d hide a spoon; she’d ask for a bowl, he’d bring a pot. I’d break the pot, she’d tell him the pot was broken; he’d fix the broken pot and give her a new one. It was exhausting.

            Besides the few obligated gestures, he didn’t really talk much. When I’d go to the Bronx to visit my sister on weekends, he was rarely there. And when he was there, he’d slip between French and English like a pillow in its case, flipping the pillow at whim to let us know that he wasn’t to be slept on. He’d speak French to sugarcoat the shit he thought, flip to English to agree with our plain-vanilla thoughts then flip back to French to remind himself that he didn’t like vanilla. My sister caught on and taught herself to speak French—picking up teeth-sucking as part of her education—to show him that shit had not been as sweet as his accent suggested. When he found out that she learned French, he flipped the whole mattress on her with another language that he and probably eight other people in his family understood.

            While I was there one weekend, there had been a disagreement between him and my sister. Their disagreement was coupled with secrecy. They shouted in their highest volumes to each other, in French, without subtitles. Although I can tell you everything I heard, I can’t tell you what was said. I just know that my sister said something to him in French that hurt him—that I could tell. After seeing how the French language betrayed him—by joining forces with my sister—a bittersweet subtlety slipped from his chocolate lips like licorice. In plain-vanilla English he said, “This is exactly why I shouldn’t have married a Black girl.” The subtlety was bitter because it had implicated me and a lot of other people. What made the bitter subtlety sweet was that it also implicated him. He was darker than any berry I knew; he was actually African. What corrupted me was now subverting my sister.

Black kids didn’t like me because they thought I was African, and now a man from the Ivory Coast was telling my sister he shouldn’t have married her because she was Black. I hadn't realized how horrifying romantic notions were before any of this. Romantic in the way a friend speaks of a distant lover; horrifying in the way you discover that your friend’s lover isn’t real. From my mother and father I heard one truth; from kids at school I heard another. I had always wondered if any of these “truths” were true and here was the truth unfolding like an intricately pleated love letter with an answer I am too afraid to recollect. I realize now that I have to coerce myself into remembering all of the things I slaved to forget.

Once placed men, women and children, are encouraged to remember where they were. But in that passage between places, we hate to be reminded where we are.   

-Yahdon Israel                  

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