Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Colors of People

By Joshua Powell

I remember my father’s aunt, who we called Aunt Jean, because she was always around when we were growing up. She lived near the little house on the little street and she loved my father like he was her own son. My father’s mother, Bert (who was Jean’s sister) died years before and I think my father looked at Aunt Jean as a maternal figure. Aunt Jean was a hard as nails Yankee woman who was both blunt and practical.

She was the one who told me how to pee standing up. And because of this lesson learned from her, I thought her to be a wise woman. Naturally, when she made a passing comment about India, the woman who came to the house every morning to watch Leah and I, being a Negro, I was curious. And when I was a boy if I had a question in my mind it was on my tongue. So, naturally I asked her about it.

“She’s a Negro Joshua,” Aunt Jean said. I guess the perplexed look in my eyes communicated my confusion.

“She’s a colored woman,” Aunt Jean went on as if I were as stupid as a drop of pine pitch. I had no idea what she meant but I was on it – the next day I would take a good hard look at India.

I met India at the door. She had her grip in hand. I have not heard the word “grip” used a lot these days, but it is basically a bag that is larger than a pocketbook and smaller than a suitcase. What she had in it was a mystery to me except for the butterscotch candies she would fish out of the side pocket for me.

On that day from the minute she entered the house I watched her – studied her. For the life of me I did not see the COLOR. But this lack of observation did not keep me from watching her like a hawk.

After lunch India would turn on the TV and watch her shows – which to this day I still remember the words, “Like sands through an hourglass so are the days of our lives." On this particular day I was becoming undone. I did not see any color to her. Sure she was a bit darker than me, and she had liver spots on her hands, but she was no color in particular. I mean if someone's color was so important that a person would talk about it and label it, surely that person should have some very unusual shading to them.

I must have thought that her color was fleeting because I just stared at her ready to catch her turn blue, red or yellow. I just kept staring. Finally, when a commercial for Biz came on, she turned to me and asked me what I was looking at.

“Your color,” I said. She looked at me like I had a screw loose.

“You're looking at what?” she asked.

"Aunt Jean said you were colored,” I explained. “She said you’re a Negro AND a colored woman. So what color are you?” I asked.

She took a butterscotch candy out of her grip and slipped it to me.

“I'm people colored."

That night in bed,monster-repellant block in hand, my mother left my room after putting me to bed only to have me call her back.

“Mom, you know that India is a Negro, right?” I declared more than asked.

She walked into my room and sat on the bed and she calmly explained to me that people are all the same on the inside and that’s all that matters. She asked me not to use the word Negro. She said that India was black! Now, I didn't know much back then, but I did know my colors and India was not black. She was more the color of hot chocolate.

This was the late 1960s. At church women still wore white gloves, men still wore hats even though it was not cold outside, but the times were changing. And so was I. As hard as it was to see the differences between me and my "Negro" babysitter, it was only too easy for me to see how different I was from other people.

Writer Joshua Powell lives in the Capital Region of New York State. He is writing a memoir on his blog,

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