The Cult of Light Skinnedness

October 9, 2021

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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Mama had been bugging me to go to Verbum Dei High School for one of their Creole Contillions. I had no interest because I didn’t call myself Creole. Nobody I knew connected to New Orleans called themselves Creole, and if they did, they were old folks or nuts. I was light skinned with curly hair in a neighborhood with many kinds of hair and skin colors. My mother called people Creole but she didn’t use the world to describe herself. My daddy didn’t either. They were negros, but don’t call them black. Nobody wanted to be called black in their world and generation. I tried to escape the whole appellation issue by saying I was black. I wasn’t comfortable with saying I was Creole, and mixed race sounded like a cocktail. I didn’t want to go to the Creole Cotillion but there wasn’t any way out without pissing Mama off. When I complained to my roommate from Chicago about the Cotillion and how I didn’t want to go but had to, his eyes widened and he insisted that he had to go to the Creole cotillion because he wanted to be with his people. Seemingly his people rocked that brown bag test out the park.

“Your people? Your people are from Chicago. It’s a New Orleans thing.”

“I’m insisting,” he said, with the intensity of a determined and slightly unbalanced man.

“Get yourself a ticket. It’s a public event.”

I thought he’d give it up and move on but, no, he showed up to the event and joined us as we walked into the auditorium and found our table. I talked Martha, my Latina girlfriend, into coming, and she was comfortable meeting my mother and everyone else. She was lovely and strikingly tall, tall as me with her heels. She wore a tastefully short lace dress and looked amazing, though for the truly skin-colored obsessed Creoles she wouldn’t pass the brown bag skin color test. I didn’t give a shit about what self-loathing negroes thought. Happy that my mama approved of Martha, I finally felt calm. As we were being seated, I wondered if my friend would sit with us. He did for a nervous hot minute but then disappeared. I glanced around and saw him talking intently to a pretty light skinned woman. I shrugged, surprised that he pulled that off. He had more game than I gave him credit for.

He reappeared at our table when the food was served. As he began to eat, I asked about the woman he was chatting up.

“You get her number?”

“I tried, but her husband came back with drinks and he asked me to leave.”

Martha looked bewildered as me. Then an older woman appeared and asked to speak to my mother. She had a pleading look on her face. She led my mother away and when Mama returned she looked uncomfortable as I ever had seen her.

“What happened?”

Mama sighed. “She wanted me to meet her husband. She said he’d been in love with me his entire life and she knew. When I came in, she wanted him to be able to spend a moment with me.”

I was stunned. “What did he say to you?”

“Thank you for sitting with me.”

“That was it?”

“Yes. And I came back to the table.”

“That must have been flattering.”

Mama shook her head. “Maybe if I was still that woman he had a crush on forty years ago. Now, I’m a fat old lady.”

“No, you’re not. You’re still beautiful.”

“I’m a fat old lady, but at least I don’t have to deal with crazy men coming at me like before.”

“But one just did.”

Mama just smiled.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.