By Yasmin Boakye
Remember what they told you when you were ten and you'd been alive for over three-thousand sunsets: the sun was simply another star. Remember how odd this seemed—our sun, merely someone else’s star. How before you were told it was true, it simply couldn’t be. (See: yellow sun, and how she shines with matchless fervor on blue and gray backdrops. See: miniature white stars dipped eternally in endless black night.)
We often find ourselves conjuring up strange and volatile logics to manage the incongruities life bestows upon us. In the 1950’s, a psychologist named Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe the difficulty our brains face when they are forced to process conflicting truths. According to the theory, people want their expectations to match their reality, and so we do strange things to force the incongruent facets of our lives into alignment.
The strange thing I do is living, in my darkness, my entire being.
As a girl, I thought that people said I looked like my father because I looked like a man, until a nurse he worked with caught me pouting and told me that I was being silly, that we looked alike because we had the same features. She meant that we both have broad West African noses and are the same bizarrely dark shade of brown. We are the sort of color that is too rare to be named, whose only relevance lies in the proximity to shades already known—in our case, regular brown and pure, colorless black.
Struggling between shades isn’t anything unusual—after all, little girls trying to match themselves to dolls in catalogs sometimes end up stuck between olive and sandy peach, or so I’ve heard. So I’ve been told. I found myself early on in a different place, trying to match myself to the darkest doll, many shades lighter than me, or to no doll at all. To crayon drawings of myself in Crayola's Mahogany, a name and shade too light and too elegant to represent me, or too waxy streaks of black.
Black. Blackity-black black. Which I first learn is that color that swallows people up at night. And later it's the color of my hair, and mine alone, everyone else gets blonde and brown and Peter Robinson is fiery red. It's the blacktop, where boys play basketball and girls play four-square. It gets so hot sometimes, I learn. I can place my palm on it and it'll hurt and turn red.
And then, in the strangest of ways, I’m told that black is also me, but not exactly. Black people have brown skin. Brown/Black. Black/Brown. Neither of which is a color I have at hand when I’m drawing myself and my friends, though there’s yellow-green and green-yellow. It can't be blended either, I learn when in Ms. Heather's art class the black oil pastel gets on my fingers and ruins everything. My yellow sun, my green grass, and purple sparkles.
I learn that peach people sometimes turn burnt sienna in the summertime, that this is a cool and interesting thing. As for me, people say things like stay out of the sun today.
Back then I had thick little legs that carried me across wide swaths of blacktop and dirty dust-fields during the part of hide-and-go-seek where someone counts as you hide. I learned to crouch carefully behind sparse bushes and empty dumpsters, to hope I’d never be found.
It was in school, between the silly games and the incessant teasing, that I realized I could render myself invisible with almost no effort at all.
And this is why I stopped trying to draw myself, and drew cartoons of aliens and other girls instead. And why it came as no surprise when some art teacher trying to imbue me and my classmates with pseudo art theory casually mentioned that black was the total absence of all color. This, I already knew.
This is how darkness became both what I was and what I was running away from.
Once, during childhood, I find myself in the bathroom staring into the mirror for longer than usual, trying to discern the difference between my pupils and irises. They seem to blend into each other, seamlessly, creating what looks like a giant monster pupil that rests starkly against the yellowy-whiteness of the rest of my eye. I am looking for the slightest of lines between the two that will tell me otherwise.
I don’t look into other people’s eyes often; my shyness makes this sort of contact mystifying but ultimately undesirable. But on the occasions when I do, I see miniature seas and skies, golden flecks and milky chocolate rivers surrounding every black sphere. I decide that I was born without irises, and I am absorbing this realization when my mother pops into the bathroom and asks what is wrong.
I deliver the news to her without mincing words. My eyes are black and ugly. She becomes upset and tells me that they aren’t black or ugly over and over until she is convinced that I’ve believed her. I try to trust her when she makes me look into the mirror and see that my irises are there, that they are just dark brown. But my faith lies squarely in the hands of my reflection, and all I can see is black.
I think sometimes about how my mother is also her father’s daughter. His name was Henry, and so she was named Henrietta.
She’s always telling me I’m too unhappy. Stop crying, stop complaining, stop whining. Don’t you know what your father and I went through? By this she means they came to America when they were eighteen, and struggled, and made it. She tells endless stories about her own father and how she obeyed him, his wishes, desires and commands. So many stories about her father. Each tale laced with an embarrassingly raw posthumous love. Sometimes, she cries.
I think sometimes about how I am my father’s daughter, how I have my father’s features, my father’s skin.
My father has never called me unhappy because we are the same way. We like our evenings doused in solitude, we retreat to our rooms when we discover that guests are on the way. We both tell callous jokes that make my mother and my sister upset. We roam our house with blank looks on our faces. We try to discover things about ourselves and the world in books and documentaries. We have trouble sleeping through the night.
Bradford is fourteen and the rest of us are thirteen, because he’s a year older; no one knows why. He’s in my English 7 course, and I like that he offers to share his book with me when we are reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream halfway through the year. There weren’t enough books.
Bradford is thoughtful and pensive in a way that most boys our age are not. He scans my eyes to see if I am done reading before he turns the page. Sometimes our teacher gives us seven minutes to discuss how we liked or disliked a particular scene with a partner, and Bradford and I end up talking usually about his sister. His mother got remarried and so even though he’s fourteen, he has a baby sister. He adores her.
When I tell my friends that I think I have a crush on Bradford, they say Oooh, you guys will make a great couple, you’re like the same skin tone. We are.
I spend hours making a scavenger hunt for him, writing little notes on pieces of paper that I distribute to my friends. I place the first clue into his locker, slipped between the little slots that could only have been made for paper notes. I like you. Follow these notes to figure out who I am.
In my imagination, Bradford finds me waiting for him and smiles shyly. There isn’t anything to say. My hand slips naturally into his and we walk quietly to English class together. Happiness ensues.
When Bradford arrives, half of the seventh grade class comes along with him because everyone wants to know who the girl behind the notes is. I’m standing alone, and he looks me in the eyes and with half the seventh grade class behind him, he says No. He hands me the final note, and walks away.
My sister is mahogany. When she was about ten, my parents bought her an American Girl doll. Back then I was thirteen and jealous. Today, I am happy that she sees herself reflected in the world.
Our mother tells us stories about her father, about how she obeyed him, about how she always listened. Sometimes she cries.
Sometimes she cries because she is worried that we will be raped. She tells us a story at least once a year about how she was almost raped by a guy back in Ghana who took her home from a bar. Never mind the part about her going home with a stranger from a bar. I was smart, she always tells us. He took me into a dark room and locked the door behind me with a key. Luckily, I was watching him. I knew where he’d put the key.
The story ends with my mother grabbing the key, and running out of the room. When I picture the scene in my head, she’s younger but her hair is still the same, she’s got on bell-bottom jeans and a loose top that flows over her tiny body. The moral of the story is always Watch your drinks, don’t leave your drink on the bar, someone could put something in it. Are you listening? Don’t go home with men. Don’t be a fool.
For me, the story always ends with a series of questions I wish I could ask, but can’t, for reasons that any child of immigrants will understand. Why were you at a bar if you were sixteen? Does this mean I could drink if I were in Ghana and sixteen? Can I have a sip of your wine?
But the first time I disappear into a dark place with a man, I understand what she means. Amir and I are sixteen and we’ve locked ourselves into a bathroom at a friend’s motel party. He is in my chemistry class but we’ve never spoken before, until tonight. He is the color of a wet sandy beach and he plays on the football team but I don’t know what position. The lights are off and I’ve had so much to drink that my lips have forgotten how to form the word no. Are you a virgin? he asks me. I am. Do you want to be?
I don’t think about my mother or her stories in this moment. I think about how lovely it is that my body conforms to the dark, how wonderful it is to be felt rather than seen. Amir’s palms cup my breasts and I revel in my ability to be just another body, just a piece of flesh.
The party is broken up before I do anything that will make my mother cry. There’s someone banging on the door as we struggle to clothe ourselves in the dark. We exchange phone numbers. Before he leaves, he presses his lips to my forehead with a care too sweet for me to comprehend.
I tuck my bra into my bag and slip my phone into my pocket before I walk out several seconds after him, alone. I already know that he won’t come for me in the daylight. I know how easy it is to forget what happens in the night.
I learn somewhere that dark-skinned girls who go missing are never found. I look at lost girls in ads placed on the backs of circulars and think, I’ll come for you.
My father and I have always silently shared the night. Throughout my teenage years, I slink down into our family’s basement at midnight and spend hours on my father’s office computer, trying to Google- search the future. I sit with the lights off in the simulated glow of the desktop screen, looking at photographs of babies up for adoption in Ethiopia and Guatemala, multi-million dollar houses in Coronado, California, the weather patterns in Chile, blogs of Peace Corps workers in Samoa and Tonga, cooperative homes in Berkeley, how to become a famous filmmaker, how to open up your own coffee shop, how to French kiss a boy.
When I hear my father’s feet coming down the stairs, I erase the browsing history, so it seems like I was never there. I shut down the computer and hide in the boiler room until he passes me and closes the office door.. Sometimes he wakes up as early as two or three, other times he doesn’t make his way downstairs until five, but he is always there before the sun. I’ve learned to climb back to my room in a way that keeps the stairs from creaking. I wonder if he senses my presence, my small vibrating warmth in the chill of the basement. If he does, he never says a word.
Years later, I am driving back to Maryland from the Midwest, where I live and attend school. My roommate and I spend eighteen hours careening eastward in my car, listening to endless mixtapes and playlists and stopping at coffee shops every hundred miles. I drop her off at her parents’ silent, darkened house before driving the final fifteen miles alone to the nearby town where my childhood home is. I’m somewhat surprised to find the lights on in our living room. It’s four a.m.
My father is sitting at our kitchen table in a blue bathrobe reading the Journal of the American Medical Association. He is drinking a cup of tea. I set down my bags, wrap myself carefully around him in a loose hug before pouring myself a glass of water. We talk about an article he read about Bill Clinton’s plant-based diet; I tell him I’m doing okay in school, I’ll survive.
You know, your father stayed up last night to wait for you, my mother tells me the next day, when she is awake. I know, I tell her.
In a way, he always has.
What reason do you have to be sad, my mother always wants to know. She isn’t convinced. I am one of the luckiest people she knows. I don’t know how to explain that something like sadness vibrates within me constantly, an unbearable tinnitus of the heart, of the soul.
We are in the car one day, driving back from school when I realize that there may be nothing left in the world for me. I am fifteen. My mother is thinking aloud about ordering something from the dollar menu at Wendy’s when I say Mom? I think I am really depressed. I think I should see a counselor. Or something.
Instead of saying What reason do you have to be sad, she is silent. Sadness is universal, depression is Western. American. It isn’t part of her, or anyone she knows, or ever has known. Depression is Brooke Shields on Oprah and patient-strangers that she nurses back to health in the hospital where she works.
After a few minutes she says, Are you sure it’s not just the music that you listen to? You need to throw all those CDs away. She means this genre of hardcore rock I like called screamo that sounds like death metal to an untrained ear. I’m barely able to say It’s not the music, Mom before my body goes rigid and shame-ridden tears slide down my cheeks.
A few weeks later, both of my parents take off from work and we sit uncomfortably in an office lobby, waiting for two appointments, one with a psychiatrist and one with a child psychologist. My mother says what she always says—What reason does she have to be sad? My father doesn’t say much at all.
I am not sure what to say. I don’t know where anything begins or ends anymore. I have been swimming in sadness for so long that the water tastes like air.
I am twenty years old in Ghana, the land where my darknesses originated.
In Ghana, the question “Where is your hometown?” is a covert way of asking “What tribe are you from?” My mother’s hometown is Cape Coast, where the Fante people live, and my father’s is Bekwai, the home of the Ashantis.
Both the Fantes and the Ashantis are matrilineal, which means that my mother’s hometown should be my hometown. But when I say “Cape Coast,” people are confused. My mother and many other Fantes are lighter-skinned than many Ghanaians, the result of a complex history of interactions with Dutch slave traders who docked their ships and built massive white castles on Ghana’s southern shores.
I learn to buck tradition and say that my hometown is my father’s hometown, Bekwai. When I do, people’s eyes flicker warmly with recognition. Later I am told thatthis is because Bekwai is home to some of the darkest people in Ghana. On a trip that I take from the coast to the northern region, signs for Bekwai appear on the side of the road that connects all the major cities in Ghana. Bekwai, 50 km. Bekwai, 25 km. Bekwai, 10 km. Bekwai, 5 km. We drive past and someone on the bus makes a joke about how sad it is that I’ve come to Ghana and missed my hometown. I try to smile as I look back.
Tonight, I pour coffee and boiling water into a French press and wait four minutes.
Four minutes, and then I add cream. It collapses and rises over and over in the black, like several miniature melancholy sunsets. Maybe this means the cream is too old.
It feels like I've never been this unhappy in my life. I know I have, but knowing and feeling are separate realms tonight. It feels like they have always been. I should be working. I feel like crying. I feel like leaving. I feel like driving away.
The cream is so sweet, and maybe the coffee is so old that the edge of everything disappears. A smooth cliff falling into depthless flavors. Let me disappear too. Let me fall into nowhere.
For a while, I live in New York City, where people are constantly celebrating the fact that they can revel in a darkness punctured by light, where the sky remains a strange orange black hue all night long. Every single night.
For a while, I live in Ghana, where darkness is unexpected and accidental. The power grid is under constant strain from an ever-proliferating number of refrigerators and air conditioning units and televisions. It fails constantly, without warning. The darkness that results is total. No one escapes.
In eleventh grade, my parents and I get into a violent argument and I jump out of my bedroom window to see if I will disappear. My bones are saved by a large prickly bush under my window that leaves tiny slice marks on my arms. When I realize I’m still perfectly conscious and real, I jump out of the bush and run wildly into the suburban twilight. My mother pierces the silence with my name. Yasmin. Yasmin. Yasmin. My name reminds me of my body, reminds me that there is nowhere to go. I stop running. I come home.
The next day, I try to tell my therapist that I don’t want to kill myself, that I just don’t want to be awake anymore. She doesn’t understand this. She sends me to a psychiatrist who prescribes tiny pills that rattle around in an old pillbox my dad gives me.
I take one every day and wait to feel whole. Every day, I come home and fall asleep at five p.m., so that I wake up at two or three, when it’s solidly dark outside. It might take up to two weeks for the medication you’re taking to reach its full effect, the psychiatrist tells my parents and me. I count down the days. Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
On the fourteenth day, I want to give up, but my parents are watching me and tell me that I have to finish the bottle. I finish the bottle. Everything feels the same. I sit in the windowsill sometimes when my parents are asleep just to let my legs dangle. One sunny Saturday a few months later, my dad pulls out a chainsaw I never knew we had and cuts the bush under my window away.
My mother’s voice forever echoes in my ears—what reason do you have to be sad? I roll her words around in my mind after dark. I think of my father and of myself, nameless dark-skinned beings walking through the world in an unnamed way. Are we sad? I don’t know that we are. I begin to think that maybe there is no language for us in this part of the world.
Drive down a country road, and pitch a tent in a place where you can lie flat on your belly and stare, between blinks, at the horizon.
Remember what they told you when you were ten and you'd been alive for over three-thousand sunsets: the sun was simply another star. See yellow sun, and how she shines on blue and gray backdrops alone. See white stars dipped eternally in endless black night.
I still dream of disappearing, but in the language that I am creating, disappearing means being found. I draw images of myself in black ink on black paper, images that only I can see. I am trying to live in my darkness, to inhabit it with the intensity of a bright burning sun.
Like everyone else, I am a body draped permanently in skin. Skin that feels soft and becomes cold and wants touch like any other. Skin that cloaks this body and soul valiantly. Skin that blends deftly into dark places, that adapts smoothly to dark things.
Mostly I see myself in the asphalt, and in the night.
Yasmin Boakye is an essayist raised in the Maryland suburbs of DC. A 2014 Callaloo Fellow at Cave Hill, she is also a recipient of NYU Abu Dhabi's Global Academic Fellowship in Writing and a 2017 VONA/Voices participant at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently based in St. Louis.