“You’re the prettiest, smartest girl in the world and nothing can change that,” my grandmother said as she hugged me. There was no other song I longed to hear or no melody that sounded so sweet.
In 1961, I turned six years old and my family moved from North Carolina to Okinawa, Japan. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing as we moved to a foreign country. I was oblivious to all the noises of race that surrounded me. What I did not know was that ethnicity touches you wherever you go and you cannot hide from it.
I loved Okinawa but things changed. Granny passed away. I missed her, so as I went to the second grade, I decided I needed something more than playing with my three younger sisters. I needed a boyfriend. It just seemed like the thing to do, especially since I had the perfect candidate.
He was beautiful. His blond hair captured each ray of light and commanded them to dance to his music. His blue eyes made you want to swim even if you had never had swimming lessons. His name was Mike McDowell and he was the most handsome boy I’d ever seen and he had to be mine.
Mike sat in front of me in class. Every day, he turned around, cradled his chin on the back of his hands, and stared into my face. The teacher had to constantly remind him to turn around and do his work.
“You’re pretty and I like you,’ he said. I smiled because he said this everyday. But one day, Michael did something that would change the way I saw myself forever.
“Mike, I want you to be my boyfriend,” I said as I got lost in deep blue ocean that lapped the shores of his eyes. He smiled and shook his head, telling me his answer was no. I was startled. How could this boy who could not stop looking at me tell me no?
“Didn’t you tell me that I was pretty and you liked me?”
“Yes, but I can’t be your boyfriend,” he said without releasing me from his stare.
“But why not?” I wanted an answer and he gave it. He took his index finger and rubbed the back of my hand.
I looked at my hand but could see nothing but my skin’s golden color. There was no dirt, nor had I marked it with a pencil or crayon. There was nothing different except for the invisible print left by his touch.
“Oh, no! There must be something wrong with this boy,” I thought.
“What’s wrong with my hand?” Ribbons of silence waved like warning flags in the air space between us. They did not prepare me for what I was about to hear.
“I can’t be your boyfriend because…you are Black,” he said.
“This boy is not just dumb but he’s blind too,” Feelings for which I had no name bubbled up into my heart and crystallized into thoughts. I liked someone who was not only blind but also as dumb as a door knob. I had to educate this boy.
“I am not Black. I am Sienna,” I said in my first born teaching voice. I had younger sisters who were smarter because they knew their colors. I thought that once he heard the truth, he would realize that he made a mistake.
What he did not know was that when I was in the first grade, my mother promised to buy me a box of 64 crayons when I went to the second grade. When I got those crayons, the first thing I did was to find my skin color.
I breathed in the colors and searched for my identity within this radiant, vibrant palette. There it was; a beautiful, rich, creamy Sienna. It was nothing like the Black crayon this silly boy was talking about.
“No, you are Black,” he said with irritation in his voice. Well, I had already found his color, so I was ready for him.
“So, what color are you if you think I’m Black?”
“I am White!” he said with a harshness I had never heard before in his voice.
“Okay, so he really is blind and dumb too. I am glad that he didn’t want to be my boyfriend. He doesn’t even know his colors!” My mind screamed with seven year old rage. How did he get to second grade without knowing his colors? I decided to give him a color education lesson that day. As I reached into my crayon box and pulled out his color.
“You are not White! You’re Salmon Pink! Look,” I said as I placed the crayon next to back of his hand. It was a perfect match.
“I am not Pink, but you are Black!” he said with teary eyes. As he turned around, I saw his face as it turned red with anger.
The back of his head was foreign to me. For the first time, I could see his thick, greasy hair. I could see the pink, puffiness of his ears. He wasn’t so handsome any more. He was dumb and I wanted nothing else to do with him. That afternoon, I decided that I needed to talk with my mother regarding this pink boy.
I usually enjoyed my ride home on the bus but that day, thoughts of my conversation with Mike kept me from seeing the beauty of the shining China Sea and the luscious, green leaves of banana trees that dotted the island’s wondrous landscape.
Humming fans greeted me as I came in the front door. The smell of dinner cooking in the kitchen embraced me and the safety of my bedroom called me as I ran down the hallway. I threw my book bag on the bed and kicked off my shoes. I wanted to throw them against the wall and scream because I did not understand the feelings that burned inside me.
“How was school today?” my mother said as I hugged her.
“Mama, a boy in my class told me that I was Black. Look at me Mama. Can’t you tell that I’m not Black? I am Sienna,” I said as I pulled away so that she could see my face. I saw her smile although she tried to hide it.
“Baby, they call us Black and colored,” she replied, not looking up as she pulled a towel from the pile of clothes on the bed.
“Well, Mama, who is “they” and why can’t “they” make up their minds about which color to call us? “They” need a box of crayons!” I wanted to buy “they” a box of 64 crayons because “they” did not know their colors either.
“Baby, there are many things you don’t understand,” Mama said. “They call us many things including the name Negro. There are also a few other names they use that I won’t mention,” she said as I saw her stare out the window
“Negro? I don’t like that word,” I shrugged my shoulders and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Well, there will be many things in life that you won’t like. This is just one of them.”
I walked away before she could say more and as a strange lump formed in my throat. Mama had never taught me about differences. For the first time, I realized that although I was pretty and smart, others in my class, including Mike, knew and believed something about me that I had only just discovered.
The one finger incident did hurt me but it didn’t have a fully negative impact. It placed me on identity’s path. I believe that if you don’t know who you are, you will never know what belongs to you. When others try to make me feel less than beautiful and smart, I remember Granny’s words. When I remember racism’s little finger, I remember my perfect remedy…a box of 64 crayons!
I now communicate internationally on racism and diversity. I have also learned that even something negative can catapult you to a place of personal power! I now understand the beauty and power of who I am and the light I bring when I show up. My crayons helped me to solve a riddle that has plagued mankind for centuries. We all have a colorful light and we should shine it no matter where we are. Others need to see our light because it frees them to shine their own lights. It also helps others who may still be caught in darkness to see their way out!
Through the simplicity of youth, I discovered the Universe’s magnificent color palette and loved it from the moment I saw it. I am Sienna; a woman of African descent and others may not always appreciate that, but that doesn’t matter. The Creator made me to serve a glorious purpose. Nothing could change that and my experience with my crayon box. Not even Mike McDowell.