I am the darker [sista].
They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes,
but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong.
Tomorrow, I'll be at the table when company comes,
nobody'll dare say to me, "eat in the kitchen", then.
Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am [they are],
and be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Pak on the bemo points his gnarled, bronzed finger at my hair and skin, saying to me, "Papua? Dari Papua?"
"Bukan, Pak," I reply, "Saya dari Amerika." His countenance, sun-baked and wrinkled from both age and long days outside, contorts, deepening his facial lines. This, I gather, is a look of pure confusion and, somehow, faint disapproval. He silently takes me in; the long, curly locks, deep brown skin, short frame and muscular arms. I watch him watching me. Snapping out of his reverie, almost angrily, he shouts, "'Dak! Papua! Papua! Kulitmu hitam!" He points vehemently at the caramel complexion of my exposed arms.
"Yes, I am Black, saya hitam, seperti orang-orang dari Papua, seperti Anda. Tapi, saya Afrikan-Amerikan." I speak slowly while adjusting the postal envelope in my hand so that I may point to my skin and then to his. By comparing my skin color to his, of his Papuan people, I hope to discourage his rising volume and voice inflection.
"Afrikan? Kamu Afrikan?!"
"Ya, 'Pak. Saya Afrikan-Amerikan . . . Afrikan dan Amerikan." My duality obviously annoys him. My speaking English is taken as an affront to his brown-ness. I try to explain that not all people in America have blond hair and blue eyes, no matter how prevalent this image is projected in the media. His mounting agitation bothers me and the older man does not seem receptive to my clarifications. Our encounter sits heavily on my mind even after I climb out of the bemo and walk toward the post office. I can feel his eyes searing like a little sun, burning my neck.
At Pos Kupang, I hand the long yellow manila envelope to Ibu behind the counter underneath the sign reading Pos Di Luar Negeri. Our hands brush briefly and I cannot help but to notice the sharp contrast between my sun-brown and her light pear-colored skin. But I push the thought aside to calculate just how much this international mail will cost in Indonesian rupiah compared to U.S. dollars. While waiting for my money, Ibu doesn't hide her curiosity concerning the destination of my package.
"Mia—Keeys—," she reads my name aloud. "Washington D.C. Dekat di New York? You relate Alicia Keys?" Smiling at this familiar inquiry (which I receive from people no matter what continent I am on), I took a breath, preparing to explain that 'Keys' isn't even her real last name and, furthermore, I spell my last name with two E's. But my retort doesn't matter; Ibu cuts me off mid-sentence:
"No, no, you not relate. You too dark. She too light." She and the young woman standing next to her behind the counter—the boring beige, colorless counter—shake their heads in agreement, oblivious to my being surprised by what I perceive as a tactless and ignorant response. Teaching moment, or feeding anger moment? Should I tell her that, in fact, my mother is damn near Alicia's complexion, that the genetic formula of light skin is a part of me, too? Or that so-called Black people in America boast of all skin colors due to historical racial amalgamation? Or that Alicia's own father is closer to my complexion than to the color of his daughter? I argue internally the pros and cons of teaching or reacting. But they've already moved on to the customer behind me. Or, rather, he's already moved me out of the way because I am somewhat frozen with shock. Walking out of the post office, every brown/black fiber in me wants to shout, "To America, Alicia Keys is a Black woman!"
I need a cool drink to calm my racing mind and heart. Of course Kupang, reflective of most of Indonesia, is a dry town, so I really mean I need a cold green tea from Cemara Indah, the closest grocery store to the post office. Walking to the store, I pass several beautiful women, old and young. They are hot, like me. I watch one of them daintily pat at her face. As she dabs, I notice that there is an apparent two tone-ness to her face: her browner skin is exposed underneath a veneer of white foundation. White foundation, I ponder while crossing the street toward the store.
"Selamat siang, ibu-ibu." I greet the sweet sisters who work the front cashiers during afternoons. Now that I am here, I might as well grab some soap, because I just ran out of the Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap I brought from the states. The long aisle, Lantai 5, offers about 79 brands of soaps. Lavender-honey soap, cool fresh soap, tutti-fruity antibacterial soap, pink soap infused with rose hips, peach colored papaya soaps, bars of soaps treated with skin softening essential oils . . . Running my fingers down the aisle, the sky blues and bright pinks, light yellows and soft tans of the soap packages are like a rainbow of cleanliness. Now, which to choose? Yang mana? I like the soft, clean smell of the wintergreen colored bar, so I pick it up to read the contents:
SomethingsomethingmineraloilsomethingelseWHITENINGblahblahblah . . . Whitening? Whoa, not what I'm looking for. I put it back. Yet, to my deepest dismay, almost all of the soaps that I pick up have a skin-whitening agent. 'Well, I guess my Black ass is just gonna have to be dirty', I conclude, before spotting Johnson & Johnson's baby bar soap at the far end of the aisle, on the bottom shelf. Surely there isn't an agent meant to alter the skin of innocent, lovely babes, so this is the soap for me. Fingering my dreadlocks, I'm thinking there's not even a point to check the shampoo aisle for natural hair care products.
At the counter, the man before me in line wearing a dark black suit and whose dark black hair is slicked back, stares unabashedly at me.
"Hello." I meet his gaze head on and hope that he realizes that I think he is terribly rude to stand so close and stare so openly. (This is me, projecting my Americanized notion of personal space, of course).
"Dari mana?" the ever-first question surfaces.
"Saya dari Amerika." Surprisingly, he laughs loudly and colorfully, almost cartoonish, yet I cannot understand what I said that is so funny. Now he is pointing at me.
"You? From Amerika? Not Afrika?"
"I am from America and my ancestors are from Africa—but I am African-American—like Michelle Obama—." This reference resonates with him, so I continue. "Like Will Smith?"
"Yes, yes, yes, saya tahu, I know them!" I am excited to have made a connection, so I keep going.
"Like—like—like Michael Jackson!" I exclaim. We both pause. He, out of confusion, and me because he looks worried. "Don't worry," I assure him, while collecting my bag of contents from the cashier belt. "Many Americans are confused, too."
Sipping my green tea, I am still heavy in thought by the time I reach my little blue house. The straining history of Dutch colonialism discolors with self-depreciation the darker complexions of many Indonesian people. So, I should not take personally their aversion to 'other.' But it pains my heart just the same. Where are the images that celebrate the browner brothers? How are the darker sisters uplifted and fed without a predominant culture of the celebration of their beauty? Why do they feel the need to be hidden, banishing the positive recognition of 'Blackness'?
The presence of Opa next door, who is sitting in his customary, brown chair shaded by his sun porch, shakes me from my thoughts. His clay brown skin and deep facial recesses reminds me of earth, strong grounded, abundant earth. He greets me in Bahasa Indonesia and proceeds to introduce me to his friend, a dark elder who looks similar to Opa,. I gather that they are family, in some manner. He does not speak, initially, and then speaks softly and thoughtfully,
"Amerikan, ya? You beautiful. Like my Alor people beautiful." *I smile at his affirmation, his acceptance of me as a part of his reality and world, a beautiful part of this world, a beautiful part of what he knows to be beautiful, browness and all. As I move to enter my house, he then offers,
"Selamat pulang baru", which means, "Welcome back home." And I feel that.
*Alor is a small island of East Nusa Tenggara Province, Indonesia
Mia R. Keeys is a 2008 Cheyney University of PA graduate. Her favorite sounds include laughter, questions, moving water, silence, and music. When not reading, writing, or people watching, Mia enjoys anything athletically inclined, time with loved ones, and traveling. She's called Philadelphia, PA; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Kupang, Indonesia, home. A former U.S Fulbright Scholar to Indonesia, Mia is a current resident of Jakarta, where she serves as an elementary and junior high school guidance counselor and also fields questions from curious children about her long dreadlocks and brown skin. She smiles often, asks questions, and endeavors to stay open to receiving the same.