A Burn That Keeps on Burning
A Burn That Keeps Burning
My mother has Lyme disease. It’s a bitch of a disease, and the worst part is that for twenty years she never even knew she had it. Until one day, out of nowhere, she gets a horrible headache and part of her face goes completely numb, paralyzed. Not a single doctor knows what’s happening, it isn’t a stroke, it isn’t neurological, it’s unknown. Looking for answers, she saw specialist after specialist, took test after test, hooked up to machine after machine, blood sample after blood sample, until eventually we discovered that my mother has (“has” because it never goes way) Lyme disease. Having been bitten by an infected tick in the woods of Catskills, New York, over twenty years earlier and not even knowing it.
Imagine waking up every day not knowing that you are carrying some disease that can and will strike at any moment. The results might be a headache, fatigue, numbness, complete paralysis, depression, or maybe even death. But you don’t know when or how it will take effect, and you aren’t sure why, but it’s coming.
My mother’s disorder is not much different than that of my own skin. This is what it’s like being in a brown body in this world. A body of color born with a disease that you don’t even know you have. You can go quite a while without incident, that is to say, you can go quite a while not understanding that the symptoms which are already taking place are a result of this disease. Then all of a sudden, in an instant, a big flare-up, and you realize the thing you’ve been carrying all along was handed down to you at birth, and your parents couldn’t explain it or prepare you for it because they had it too, because their parents had it, and their parents had it, and so we’re all dealing with this illness but none of us are talking about it.
Maybe, if you’re lucky, as in my case, you begin to notice that others have seen this same disease I carry; that they could see what I couldn’t or wasn’t able to see. Suddenly, in an instant, I am able to grasp my sense of difference. Suddenly it begins to become clear to me that, no, I am not like my heroes on TV, or the people on billboards and magazines, and all the pretending won’t make it so. No, we don’t all the play the same game. No, it’s not fair.
The fact is this: I grew up thinking it’s OK to not want to be brown. It’s true, I did. I thought it was OK because according to the story lines and plots, there was no space for me to prosper. Brown people who weren’t criminals or hyper-sexualized don’t prosper, and I lacked many of the skills for both. We all want to prosper, right? Who doesn’t want to prosper? So, in my mind, conscious or unconscious, I figured it was OK to not want to be brown. Capitalism does not say, “Love thyself or thy neighbor, but prosper hard as fuck, flex all over thy neighbor! FLEX! PROSPER!” I wanted to prosper.
Now it begins to make sense why he or she looked at me that way, why that person followed me and why that person touched me, touched my hair, my body, my face in that way, why they crossed the street, why I so desperately tried to be like them, why I had a hunger, a hunger to be something other than what I am, a hunger that seemed to never be filled—a brown body in a white world just trying to be seen. Now I begin to understand why they became (and sometimes still are) my measuring stick for beauty. This disease is one of difference, it starts slowly, through the images, stories, and media that tell me my body doesn’t prosper like those of others. It’s a disease that slowly tries to erase me, attacking my ability to live in my own skin, engendering self-hate over time, breaking even the strongest of hearts and the strongest of minds.
My big flare-up, the awakening and paralysis of difference, arrived the moment I landed in Bogota, Columbia, for the first time as an adult, a solo trip. I wanted to return to my mother’s birthland. I wanted to be alone with the roots that are in my blood. As soon I landed there this peace washed over me. All of a sudden I was resting, not sleeping or napping, truly resting. Resting in my blood, resting in my skin, resting. I wasn’t brown, I wasn’t special or exotic, no one saw me as different, I was simply what I was, me; and that me could rest.
I walked into the first museum I could find and I thought, “I have survived. My face has survived.” I thought, and still think, “Back home, we are erasing people. Slowly. Systematically. Effectively. We are erasing people.”
I thought, when I go home I’m going to grab the first white person I see and say, “I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in this world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin here, in this place. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”
When something needs to be willfully erased in order to get somewhere there is usually a problem. Like when someone begins a sentence with, “Not to be rude but . . .” Or, “I don’t mean to offend you but . . .” In these cases, someone is more than likely about to be hella rude and someone else is about to be offended!
I wonder if all this happened too late for me—like a burn that keeps on burning from the inside. The irony of burning yourself is that when you feel the burn, it’s already too late, the damage is already done. It took too long for your brain to warn you, to tell you to stop. And now that you’re burnt, the skin is actually still burning itself, that’s why they say run it under cool water for twenty minutes (but who has twenty minutes?) because the skin holds the heat, the skin holds the damage, the skin holds the trauma.
If skin can hold heat for twenty minutes, imagine how long it can hold in differentness and self-hate. Which would make sense of why as a child I cried in front of the mirror while looking at my skin, my thick hair, big ears, and my large wide nose. I can’t exactly tell you why, couldn’t explain it then, other than that my body was holding in a heat, my skin felt a sadness that my mind couldn’t register.
I like to imagine that I chose the mirror not to induce self-pity, but in order to feel witnessed. Because we all want and need to feel witnessed, even if only in our despair, in our lives, in our knowings and unknowings, we all want and need to feel witnessed.
Hegel says, “A people is not a people unless its culture is recognized.” Am I not a people?
When my mother and father were born in the fifties and sixties they didn’t even have the option of being labeled Hispanic or Latino on their birth certificates. Because it wasn’t until the 1980s that the United States created the term Hispanic to classify all peoples who come from Spanish-speaking countries. Just because I can check a box now doesn’t meant this isn’t a burn I still carry.
A lovely and wise (white) woman recently said to me, “Chris, the success you seek is really just Connection. Nothing more. Connection with self. With that deep love of, ‘I am worthy.’ Nothing more.”
“Yeah, sure, you aren’t wrong, but also, it’s nice to hear it and see it from someone else as well.”
The fact is I want other people to love me as well. Yeah, I want to be loved. I do, I want to be loved. You want to be loved. I definitely want to be loved. It’s the only reason for all the running around we do, we’re trying to get other people to love us.
Hence all the reaching, grasping, and changing ourselves, purchasing and practicing new things, new experiments, so that I can be better, so that I can be loved. “Lady, I would love to stand here and say ‘I’m worthy,’ but it would also be nice if you and society showed me that same sentiment. My skin has a long history of burning to be loved.”
In the meantime, yes, I will do my best to stop seeking your loving eye, stop grasping for what is out of reach, for what you tell me is worthy, and I will remind myself, like I do, every day, “I am worthy.” Every day. I do it every day. I remind myself that all around and within me is beauty. I am beautiful. My bones are beautiful. My face is beautiful. My brown skin, brown nose, thick hair, and flesh are beautiful. My blood is beautiful. My history is beautiful. My community is beautiful.
But also, be not just an ally, lady, but a risk taker: every once in a while, take some of the work off of our shoulders and tell me, show me, that my skin is worth it as well.