Monday, January 19, 2009

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa reflects on the social and political dimensions of skin color

In the Washington Post Magazine Obamanauguration issue.


Daddy Red's left eye was blue. His right eye was gray. They said in his youth that his hair had been blondish. It was still straight. His real name was Wesley Pittman, and he was my step-grandfather, a white-looking black man married to my black paternal grandmother, Elsie. People walked big circles around him because he was known to have killed a man when he was 20. The story went something like this: Both men were on horseback, circling each other with drawn knives, dusk falling on Red's pale skin and the other man's black skin. By the time the sun set, only Red was sitting upright in the saddle.

"Look a man in the eyes. Especially a white man. Always look him in the eyes."

"Yes, sir."

"Something else."

We held each other's gaze. He drew the words out of himself.

"Never work -- for no man -- who can't treat you with respect."

His words hung in the air. They felt like a rule or law that I had to obey. Now, words from an overheard story began to make sense. I could hear Mama Elsie saying, "My daddy don't work for no white man."

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