michael, may you now be at peace: a reflection (no. 60)
every day i write something, another thought transpires... your beauty just makes me so sad. the possibility that we could all fall victim to never being able to see our own beauty just makes me sad.
for some reason i was thinking about the interview you did with oprah winfrey in 1993. "you know, let's put it this way. if all the people in hollywood who have had plastic surgery; if they went on vacation there wouldn't be a person left in town." i don't follow popular culture too much, so i cannot tell you who does and does not get scrutinized for any sort of physical alterations. i do know that you, being a prominent figure who 'happened to be black', you received a lot of accusations of self-hatred. because the alterations appeared so drastic- from the hair to the features. being that popular culture seems to thrive on the facade and not much beyond this, i understand the accusations. it doesn't make it right but i understand.
the thing i thought about more from the interview though, was your statement on vitiligo, without specificity.
because of the nature of the hippocratic oath (as if some doctors actually FOLLOW this) i doubt if anyone at the time was going to divulge any information about your condition. also, due to the fact that vitiligo was not a word uttered by most people (except those who had to deal with it, and those close to them), it was also inevitable that people were gonna accuse you of self-hatred in that form as well.
it was uncomfortable to see that part of the interview, as i saw you squirming in your seat, getting ready to cry in anticipation of having to explain your situation- a situation i might add, which had been developing for years. because there was no notification of it on your end, people just saw the 'end result'.
because we are societally conditioned to reject empathy, the way you answered winfrey's question gave you an appearance of not being credible, unfortunately. i don't think it was your place to tell anyone anything, but you also had to expect that you WOULD be asked about your skin tone.
looking at comparative photographs it's pretty easy to see that for much of your adult life you had a relatively heavy makeup job. sometimes you'd look really dark and other times (in the same period) you'd look much lighter. i'd see those photos and ask myself, with all that makeup you're wearing how does it not end up all over your clothes? and then i'd see a photo where the makeup actually DID end up all over your clothes... and you'd see these patches of discoloration.
i used to see people in the street with vitiligo when i was a child, and i always thought they were burn victims. it was always black people i saw; i was not aware that people could lose pigmentation at the time. it gave me a quick relief to know that these 'burn victims' went outside with no shame, and that i saw no one openly making fun of them. i did see people staring once in a while, but i never saw open comments. i thought that maybe the world knew more about this growing number of burn victims than i did.
but of course i did not know what they had to go through with emotionally, every day of their lives. i was not there to see their initial reactions when one day they just suddenly lost pigment.
this is what i saw in that interview- the frustration in having to explain it. i can't say WHY you chose not to discuss any of this prior to the interview, but you made the ultimate decision in going public with it in your own way.
what i was thinking about before i decided to write this to you was, how much it wouldn't matter to people WHAT you said... you can't win either way. and because you've been a man of little word by the time of that interview, it must have been really difficult for you to articulate what you really wanted to say. things have been so formulaic for so much of your life; that as simple as it would have been to say "i have vitiligo, look it up", you scrambled as to what to say. the world was watching you, it was your moment.
with that, there was eventually an official release from a doctor, explaining your condition.
you could have said, "if you read my book you can see a photograph of the makeup i am using... you can see all the makeup caked on my face over the years to deal with this issue." you could have even aligned yourself with others going through the same thing, and discussed the varying ways people deal with vitiligo. it seems like, with subsequent comments on your skin condition you were a bit more impatient, understandably. as for the 1993 interview you appeared to be off guard.
sometimes you just can't win...
right now i wonder, if you were asked about your skin condition today, what the response would be. would it be one of the same frustration, or would you be upset?
again, how we view self-hatred is so limiting to me. yes i know that we are conditioned to see things myopically but still... there is something extremely destructive in how black people in particular view self-esteem. because it's not always we take into account the family structure. 'society' is regularly a point of contention, but how often is how we are treated at home up for discussion?
winfrey, like martin bashir treated your childhood at the hands of your father as a ratings ploy, as opposed to exploring real issues relating to the tradition of abuse in our families. it's real easy to call it and to describe it ("so... what ELSE did he do to you?") but rarely do we look to solutions and modes of healing. the speech you did at oxford concerning the cycles of abuse and how to end them (and even looking into your OWN modes of healing) was a wonderful counterpoint to the media spectacle that is 'the interview'.
i actually DID grow up with bleaching cream put on me because certain parts of me were 'too dark'. i did indeed grow up hearing that my hair was atrocious, my nose was ugly... i did grow up hearing that i was stupid and worthless. there may have been a subconscious feeling that i was worthless because i was black (as a black woman who raised me told me these things) but growing up i didn't take it as that- i just hated myself.
but we've been through this already. i don't need to repeat it to you again. my point is (and i will say it over and over if i have to) is that the changes you made to yourself, just from hearing what you had to say, i don't attribute that all to racial self-hatred. this is why i say you can't win. in fact, i don't think ANY of us as black people who have had to deal with abuse of that caliber are able to win. because we are always told that we either hate our ethnicity, or we don't. there can never be any gradations. there can never be any context of the experience.
and the abuse is excused as being 'just words'. and we are told to just get over it.
i have to say (again) that you were quite helpful in my process of healing with that. i didn't really know how to articulate my feelings in a way which would be conducive to healing. it's that sort of thing where they say, you have to want to heal yourself; no one can make you do it. but it was not until i saw you discussing your experiences... it was not until i saw the open struggle you were dealing with in trying to find ways to heal, that i even considered looking within myself a possibility. no, you were not the cause, but you were the catalyst.
as many 'abused' people as i have known throughout my life, somehow you resonated with me the most. i suppose it's because of seeing so much of you in myself i got scared. writing the book i became so depressed. there were points it got so low... i will not finish the sentence. but really, i don't know what it was, what words or actions you took specifically, but there was a signal which was the impetus for me to examine the relationships with myself, and others. i was determined to find modes of healing.
i still struggle every day of my life. but i do know that somewhere there is a space where true peace and forgiveness will show itself.
so yes... it does make me sad that you were never able to see your own beauty in full... that you could never articulate your pain fully... that someone could exploit your pain and catch you off guard... and it does make me sad that others were not able to see the potential (and evidence) for that space of peace within you. but because i have seen that light within you, it does bring a smile to my face, knowing that if I have seen it others have seen it as well.