Dear Sammy Sosa:
Are you happy with yourself now? Are you more confident and self-assured? When you look in the mirror, do you like yourself better, now that you are white?
As you know, photos taken of you at an awards show earlier this month have the whole country talking. Last time we saw you, you were a brown man from the Dominican Republic, star slugger for the Chicago Cubs. Now you are white, facing the camera with a complexion strikingly reminiscent of Dracula’s.
You claim you’ve been using a skin-softening cream and that it, combined with the bright lights under which the photos were taken, made your face look whiter than it is. Which is an extraordinarily lame excuse.
While it is admirably metro-sexual of you to be so concerned with the softness of your skin, I must say: If I slathered something on my face that was supposed to render it tender and it left me looking like the Joker instead, I’d sue. You, on the other hand, are reported to be considering an endorsement deal.
“Skin softening” my fanny. “Skin bleaching” is more like it.
So I want to know if it’s made you happy, being white, if it’s given you what you felt you lacked. Me, I’d have thought you already had the brass ring by both hands: You were a handsome sports hero, had made beaucoup dollars, had the requisite gorgeous wife. What could be missing?
You know how transsexuals will sometimes say they never felt at home in their original gender? Was that what it was like for you? Was there always a white man inside you trying to get out?
Sorry if I can’t relate, Sammy, but I’m a child of the era when James Brown sang, “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” It was a seminal moment in the history of a nation which had always taken for granted that negritude and pride were mutually exclusive. Those years found black people shrugging off the idea that they should be judged by what other people deemed beautiful. It was like a butterfly leaving a cocoon ... if butterflies wore Afros and dashikis.
We walked with a brand new swagger in that era, Sammy, having buried the Negro — and all the attendant connotations of obsequious servitude and knowing your place — for good. From now on, we would be black. “Black is beautiful, baby,” we said.
And it was possible to believe something fundamental had changed, that the Rubicon had been well and truly crossed.
So you can imagine what a bitter pill the last 20 years or so have been for some of us, what a harsh lesson in the changeability of change. We spent those years watching Michael Jackson use creams and surgery to scrape Africa from his face; listening as “entertainers” made fortunes selling coonish caricatures of black life; cringing as black children decreed academic achievement synonymous with “acting white;” aching as teenage filmmaker Kiri Davis re-enacted the old “doll test” and found black children still choose white dolls as prettier or more desirable than black ones; and fuming as black people clung, stubbornly and stupidly, to the custom of referring to themselves by a certain six-letter epithet that begins with N.
But I’ll bet you don’t see any of that when you look in the mirror. I’ll bet you don’t see 400 years of internalized inferiority, little girls crying for lack of “good hair,” black folks obsessively categorizing themselves by a color scheme which holds, in the words of the old saying, the lighter, the brighter, the better.
No, I’ll bet you see a face you’ve always dreamt of seeing — white and smiling you. And I’ll bet you’re not embarrassed in the least. But that’s all right, Sammy.
I’m embarrassed for you.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.