December 2010

What’s In a Name

Ebony hated her name, and she had good reason. I never liked it much, either. But anyway, Ebony really despised the being called “Ebony.” It was too obvious, too seventies, too Black-Is-Beautiful. What was she supposed to do, marry some dude named Obsidian or some shit and have two kids, Topaz and Mahogany? At least her mother didn’t name her “Mahogany,” but then, I don’t think that movie was out yet when Ebony was born. And Helen did really like that magazine. Whatever the case, the droning falsetto and off-key choruses of the Stevie Wonder-Paul McCartney duet never ceased. It was as though people just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make a bad joke that had been made hundreds of times before. If someone had at least been original in making fun of her name, perhaps Ebony wouldn’t have been as irritated.

But beyond the benign teasing was the more sinister ridicule—“You so black you Ebony!”—that had driven her crazy. Her name proposed too convenient a putdown for the children at her elementary school to ignore, black children who were so angry and frustrated with being inside their own skins that their only relief was the humiliation of someone darker than they. The truth was that Ebony wasn’t really that dark-skinned. And as far as she was concerned, it was better to be dark-skinned than light anyway. This was a lesson she had learned early.

When she was eight or nine, Ebony overheard her grandmother Dorothy gossiping with a neighbor about a young woman in the downstairs apartments who had recently had a baby boy. She wouldn’t tell anyone who the father was, but the kid had straight, ginger hair and was so light-skinned, he looked like a white child.

“You know that baby’s daddy is white,” Ebony’s grandmother said, “and if the daddy ain’t white, then one of the daddy’s parents has to be because that baby’s mama is dark as tar. And if that little boy don’t get no darker, you know he’s gonna have a hard row to hoe, especially with all that hair.

“One thing I can say for my grandbaby is that she’s a pretty color, a pretty brown color. Not too dark, and not too light, neither, like some of these kids running around here who don’t know whether they black or white, looking all washed out and dingy. Ebony’s a pretty brown baby. At least her mama got that right.”

Yeah, her mama did get that right. Ebony was a pretty brown baby, and she grew up to be a beautiful black woman with smooth skin and bright eyes the color of espresso. As for whether or not giving birth to a pretty brown baby was the only thing her mother Helen ever got right, that would depend on who you’ve been talking to.

Ebony often wondered if any of the “you-so-black” kids from her elementary school had ever really looked at the keys on the old music room piano, really examined them. To Ebony, the black keys had always seemed so much warmer to the touch, so much smoother and more substantial than the worn and chipped ivory ones that you could easily cut your hand on if you weren’t careful.

Many years later, after Ebony had fled Chicago for New York City, she heard from her grandmother about the fate of that the little boy with the light skin and the red hair—he was called Patrick Delano Williams, the latter his mother’s last name, his paternity still undetermined, though whispers about his mother carrying on with an Irish boy from the west side hadn’t died down any. He’d been sent to live with an aunt who was a live-in housekeeper for a white family in the suburbs. After so much harassment over his mystery father, his hair, which was now curly and still very red, and his pale complexion, this seemed liked the best option for him. But he would never make peace with living in his own skin—especially surrounded by white kinds who took every opportunity to remind him that regardless of his appearance, he wasn’t one of them. At sixteen, he ran away from the home his aunt had kindly provided for him; it was rumored that he, like Ebony, had gone to New York.

“If you meet some light-skinned man with freckles, that might be Patrick,” her grandmother had said.

As Ebony walked through the city, it sometimes occurred to her that they might run into each other on the street, on a bus, on the subway. And that if they did see one another, she might well mistake him for just another white man on his way to work; that if they did see one another, he might recognize her as the girl who was so black she was Ebony and pretend he didn’t know her.