I was 13 years old the first time I shoplifted. My sister, at 15, was my lookout.
We were at the tiny pharmacy in tiny Newton Falls, Ohio, in the “ethnic” section. There was, as there is now, an array of products. Products for making your hair wet and curly—not so “coarse.” There were products to prevent the razor bumps that plague black men. The powder form that you had to mix with water into a messy paste that dried like cement against your skin and had to be scraped off with a trowel. Hot combs that my mother placed on the stove and heated to glowing, red nuclear levels in order to “tame” my sister’s hair and made the whole house smell like lemon and Sulfur 8. My mother held my sister tightly between her knees during these weekly sessions, usually the night before church, telling my sister to stop squirming and popping her upside her head as her hair sizzled and popped like bacon frying.
But between the Ultra Sheen and the Hair Food, I found what I had come for. I had seen it on Soul Train. A miracle in a tube made to prevent “dark spots and blemishes” for black women. But I had already worked out that if it faded “dark spots,” it could fade me all over because my whole body was a dark spot. I had already worked out that, if I used it all over my body, I could be light-skinned like my sister. My sister is the lightest of all of us. My father used to jokingly call her the milkman’s baby because we were all dark-skinned and couldn’t figure out where she had come from, and if it weren’t for the fact that she looked just like my father, I’m sure he would have demanded that some sort of DNA test be performed.
My sister listened to me complain about being too dark all the time because she loved me. I whined to her about how ugly I was and how no one would ever love me. She sympathized but couldn’t empathize. She felt guilty, and I used her guilt to emotionally blackmail her high-yellow ass to take up a place at the end of the aisle where I was about to thieve fade cream.
I made her walk the end of the aisle like a sentry while I undid my belt buckle and zipper. I took three tubes of Ambi and shoved them down my pants with lightning speed. But we’d timed it wrong. My mother wasn’t finished shopping yet, and I had to walk around with her with my legs all wide like a cowboy until she was finished, a tube of Ambi shoved into my underwear slowly working its way to my butthole every time I took a step. But no one noticed, and by the time we got to the car, I couldn’t wait to get home. I couldn’t wait to be light-skinned.
I started my regimen almost immediately. I scrubbed my face to within an inch of its life with soap and water and then stole my older brother’s acne medicine, which was an astringent, in an effort to wash off any blackness that I could through ordinary means before I applied the magic.
Then I applied a healthy dollop of Ambi Fade Cream and buttered every millimeter of my face with it. It burned, but I figured the tingle was a sign that it was working. You know, like mouthwash. Then I waited. I sat on the toilet until my father pounded on the door shouting, needing to take a father shit.
“The HELL you doin’ in there?!”
After my first application, I was in the mirror constantly waiting for a change. Nothing. Still a pickaninny. But I didn’t lose hope. I applied Ambi Fade Cream to my face every day, making sure that I even got the inside of my ears. But weeks went by, and nothing—until it finally happened.
You had to look real close, but it had finally happened. I could see the beginnings of my new life take shape. If I placed my face an inch in front of the mirror, I could see the fade working. I was on my way to Al B. Sure! My skin tone was still really uneven, but it was lighter, and by this time, I had run out of Ambi, so it was back to the pharmacy we went, with my sister standing at the end of the aisle looking around nervously and me stuffing tubes of bleach cream into my draws.
Once the fade starts, you’re on a downhill toboggan ride of fading. Once the process begins, it’s like the fade goes from zero to 60 in three seconds. It burned every time, but that was a small price to pay, and the more I went to the mirror, the more I liked what the mirror was showing me. My sister noticed but only commented on it as a matter of fact.
“Yo’ skin startin’ to look weird,” she said.
“Weird.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
My mother is a gentile woman who loves Jesus. Above all, she is ladylike in every way. There has to be some serious shit going down in order for her to use a curse word, and every day, when I came down the stairs for breakfast, I caught her looking at me strangely with her head cocked back and tilted to the side and deep creases between her eyebrows. Every day, she was noticing without saying what her face had written all over it, until one day I came downstairs and she just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Boy, what the HELL is wrong witcho damn FACE?”
This is when my sister, my compadre, my partner in crime, ratted me out to the fullest extent she could without telling my mother that I’d been stealing.
“He been using fade cream!”
And now that the truth was out, I could no longer deny it. My face told the whole story, and my mother simply told me to stop because I looked ridiculous. But there was something sad in her eyes as she cast them back down to her dinner plate. There was something that she wanted to tell me but chose not to. There was disappointment. Not necessarily in me, but in something else.
So I went upstairs and got ready for school. I got undressed to take a shower and looked in the mirror at my face, and after the exchange with my mother and sister, it was now clear how unnatural it looked. First off, because I had neglected to put it all over my body because the tubes were small and I was only paying attention to my face, and while my face was an odd, sickly, tan baby-diarrhea color, my neck and everything else was dark as molasses. The cutoff line from where I had been applying the fade cream was clearly visible. I looked corpselike. Dead.
In the mirror, I remembered how strangely the kids at school had been looking at me, sniggering behind my back. But at the time, I thought that they must just be jealous. So I grudgingly accepted my fate. Black as pitch until the day they put me in the ground.
No one in my home had ever told me that being lighter-skinned was better. No one in my home ever even came close to that, and in fact, my father talked negatively about black people he believed to be color-struck. But I know where I learned it. And so do you.