August 25, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

On Skin

I’ve been thinking about skin again.

Last week, I gave blood for the first time. I discovered that what we do to our skin–say, tattooing our favorite lines of poetry on our forearms–affects what we can do with the blood coursing beneath that skin.

Then I began reading Richard Rodriguez’s Brown: The Last Discovery of America. Rodriguez’s meditations on his brown skin and his family’s brown skin have intrigued me since I read Hunger of Memory for the first time as a teenager. No scene is quite as arresting as the moment in that text when a young Richard attempts to shave away the brown of his skin. As a child, I wished for white skin or, at the very least, light brown skin. I could not read brown skin–especially my own–as Rodriguez does in the preface of Brown: “reunion of peoples, an end to ancient wanderings.” Back then, I thought that light skin would make me pretty and invincible.

And then I happened upon Colleen Kinder’s essay, “One Bright Case of Idiopathic Cranofacial Erythema” and made yet another discovery: even white skin can be complicated.

Skin is supposed to offer a layer of protection. I didn’t believe a friend who told me that our skin is waterproof. “My skin gets wet,” I said. But it doesn’t absorb water the way hair does; it transforms water into beads that slide away. Further, my brown skin protects me from the sun. The make-up artist at a salon marveled at what my skin will look like years from now. “You’re blessed,” she said.

Yet skin puts our vulnerabilities on display. I tend to think of skin in terms of politics and history. This is the skin that kept my grandmother out of that school; maybe this is the skin that got me into this school. This is the skin that sets me apart in a room full of colleagues. This is the skin that clerks watch carefully.

Kinder writes of the tiny, reflexive betrayal of blushing–the way her pale skin reveals even the smallest moments of crisis. I used to pretend I could not blush; in fact, many people assume it’s impossible. However, the moment I step in front of a group of students on the first day, the flush begins. It’s not the Foosh! Kinder describes; it’s a slow warming.

A blush begs for a reading and interpretation from others. Kinder’s essay reminds me of how difficult it is to manage and negotiate a cool, calm exterior when our largest organ reveals the truth of the matter.

And so I have to revise my childhood wish, to reconsider white skin–the kind of skin that turns “BRI-ght red”–as I’m reconsidering brown skin. It’s enough to make one wonder why our skin can do so much to keep our guts from spilling out, but it does nothing to prevent people from reading the terror, the anxiety, the desire coloring our faces.