From the passenger seat, I watched you turn your head in the inky black of the night and smiled to myself about how your face still shined through the darkness. You looked like a gem and you are one, with your many aspects and your beauty. I wished that everyone saw you the way I did that night, with all your aspirations, interests, and layers of personality. With your deep brown skin and curious eyes. I wanted everyone to understand how much more there is to you—you’re the beautiful black body that’s seen and you’re also more than that. For the ones who made it clear that they saw me, black but lighter skinned, as “safer” and you as dangerous, I wanted them to know there’s nothing to fear in you and plenty to uncover, learn from, and love.
You’re too often thought of the way I too often read of you in books—cast off as a one-dimensional, dehumanized character. Some people don’t see you unless you’re in the back of a police car, dribbling a basketball in a multimillion-dollar arena, at the top of the album charts, or dead on the ground under a hateful, unforgiving gaze. Even then, you’re not truly seen. The world tends to reduce you to what you can do for them, what you look like, what your struggles are or what those struggles are presumed to be. But you’re not deserving of love and respect “in spite of” your skin tone because it’s not a facet of your being to overcome. You’re no monolith and it’s only one part of you—an exquisite one at that.
I’ve seen and loved the shades of you and admired the varied sides of what more you are as a black man. You’re who your Heavenly Father created and it was no accident. You’re lovely and loved, and no one’s bias can erase the imago dei from your brown skin. You’re an image bearer, wonderfully made.
He was the first to text Bible verses to me, accidentally beginning to let me in on his background and dreams, inching towards more commitment than he was ready for. He was quiet strength, like his faith. We were young and he was figuring out who he is in Christ and in the world between playing notes at his home church and stretching his long legs on a football field. Not everyone heard him but when they saw him, coffee with a splash of cream, they saw him taking on the world, leading in integrity and loving in fits of laughter. He’s still beating the odds that he wishes didn’t exist from a skyrise building with a guitar in the corner and a Bible on the nightstand.
“Forget it, I don’t need to know how to spell your name,” the coach said. “And why do black folks choose such weird names anyway?”
As he graciously explains the history of his name and I hope from the corner of the room that minds are understanding there’s nothing wrong with it, someone shouts out from the back a crude comment about his shade.
The world has it right that he’s strong, but the world is in the habit of fearing him for all the wrong reasons. He’s strong to admit that the jokes hurt him; he’s strong to defend the beautiful skin he’s in. With a generous amount of melanin blessing, he is created dark as the midnight sky and as deep, too. He’s created tall, not only to help his team win three-on-three basketball tournaments but to reach up those long arms to help anyone who needs it. His jewelry shines as he walks down the hall, the way he wants to shine past stereotypes of how he should act and who he’ll become. He speaks to distribute words where they’re most hopeful, helpful, and wise. And he speaks to share his hip-hop collection, which is just the tip of the iceberg in his vast world of interests.
In a cinnamon brown body, he prances through life, working hard and loving broadly. He works to accept the love of God and collect the love of people. I’ve watched him gladly grasp the happy-happy-joy-joy parts of life and turn away from the heavy reality of his humanity. I learned a lot from trying to fit into the muddy level of love I could squeeze out of him, mainly confirming that they’re not all the same.
He’s watching the game but he has tickets to the theatre. As the only black man in his office, he gets asked about racism again today and wonders how trying to explain his culture and his struggles on a daily basis is affecting him mentally. He tries to steer the talk toward another part of himself. The music plays and he knows all of it—the pop, the R&B, the whole lot of it—and his dance moves reflect the refined charm that the world should learn to expect from him. The world has, after all, seen plenty of him as the sun of many continents shined on his rich skin during his travels around it. I look at him and want to know the thoughts that circle inside that brown curly head, wishing the expectations of what a black man should be would take off high and away like the planes he dreams of flying.
He said, “I couldn’t stand to see her like that, so I stopped to help her with the car. I hope if you ever need it and I can’t be there, someone is going to stop and help you.”
He’s the color of a chocolate bar and just as sweet. He’s come to know his past poverty as the branch that grows outside of himself to reach the needs of other people. He talks up the entire room and lights it up with his smile. Through the years, he’s learned to absorb and speak out more of the words that God speaks of those who love Him. He’s the father who stayed, the multi-skilled man who became who society said he couldn’t, and the diligent child who built a solid foundation for his own children from scratch, as strong as the trees he used to chop down for firewood and more gentle than his calloused hands might suggest.
My heart beats and breaks for masterfullly crafted, multifaceted men who reflect the vast variations of God’s good design but consistently fight to burst out of the flat molds built over them by the world. The truth of who we are doesn’t come from an image society creates but from the Creator who brought us all into being. As we learn, listen, and love, we behold the beauty of our Creator in the beauty of His creation, in all shades and from all sides. This is the artistry of true diversity. This is the real depth of love.