Marking the Color Trail
by Patrice Gopo
Spin, I hear my thoughts say. Spin. And so I do. My right foot steps away from my left, and I am a bride in motion. First one circle. Then another. On my wedding day a gentle breeze from an open window rustles my dress while smooth satin brushes my ankles. Peeking from under the swaying hemline is crimson nail polish framed by my velvet-brown skin. In a mirror I see something beyond bright lips curved in a smile or the A-line silhouette spreading from my waist. Spin again. As the skirt inflates and the current of cool air rushes against my bare legs, I know I look just as I had envisioned. Within a moment, the dress descends to reality, the current disappears, and folds of soft fabric kiss my skin once again. A final look, then I reach for the bouquet of white calla lilies secured by a single scarlet ribbon. With my flowers in hand, I approach an aisle dusted with red rose petals.
Just days after my fiancé slipped a bold blue sapphire on my ring finger, I hugged him beneath the bright, red digits of an airport clock. Until our wedding six months later, he would remain in Cape Town, and I needed to return to the States. Twenty minutes after exiting security and ten minutes after clearing passport control, I rummaged through the magazine section of a bookstore. A bride-to-be with a sixteen-hour flight ahead of her deserves a bridal magazine, I reasoned.
As the plane accelerated down the runway and the wings cut through the clouds, I inhaled the sharp scent of fresh cut paper. With each turn of the page, I encountered dresses: formal, modern, princess, ankle-length casual in whites, off-whites, creams and the occasional ivory. After one last glance through the plane window at the rippled turquoise of the ocean, the magazine went in the seat pocket in front of me. My eyes closed, aware that the glossy pages couldn’t offer what I already envisioned.
One day at the train station in the suburbs of Cape Town, my coworker mentioned “beige children.” Just after graduate school, I had received a grant to leave the States and work in a township on the outskirts of the city. As my time across the ocean dwindled, my South African coworker and I waited on a hard bench. A half hour stood between our seat on the platform and the inbound train to Muizenburg. She sipped a bottle of soda while I tore open a bag of chips. After a day spent helping women develop their business ideas, it would have been acceptable for the conversation to meander to lighter topics. Perhaps a comment about my coworker’s love of cola or how chilly the afternoon felt. We could have even diverted the focus to the sweet, Zimbabwean man I had met a few weeks earlier. In my daydreams, I let myself think he was on the path to permanence in my life.
But after some time in Cape Town, I had realized my classification as a black American unlocked certain conversations with black South Africans. Today was no different. So with the wind blowing off the water beyond the station, we instead chatted about the fresh engagement of two acquaintances, a white woman marrying a black man.
“People celebrate such marriages as the new South Africa. How we cross cultures and create beige children. But I married outside my culture too,” my coworker said. I thought about her Xhosa heritage and marriage to a Sotho man. Her annoyance made sense. In our small social group, intercultural marriages received a special nod as if they scaled a mountain of enlightenment. But I had noticed that “intercultural marriage” was a title bestowed on only those who fit the more obvious sub category of “interracial marriage.” And the interracial marriages that merited conversation involved a white person paired with someone of another race. Somehow skin color became what determined how far couples ventured outside their individual identities.
Ten months later on a two-week return visit to the Southern Hemisphere, the sweet Zimbabwean man proposed. As we stood mere feet from the edge of a cliff overlooking a suburb of Cape Town, my squeal of affirmation joined the strong wind around us. The glint of sunlight bouncing off the blue waves of the Atlantic soaking the beach below reminded me of the sapphire now heavy on my finger. As his hand reached for mine, I couldn’t help but notice his skin, just a shade darker than the brown of my own.
Shortly after arriving in Cape Town the first time, on the car ride back from her birthday lunch, a new friend told me about “white weddings.” The alliterative phrase piqued my interest. “Well, versus Lobola,” Vuyi said in reference to traditional wedding ceremonies people in several southern African countries practiced. “First at the Lobola ceremony, the family negotiates the bride price.” She talked about how after this the couple is traditionally considered married. Then days, weeks or even months later, there could be a typical western wedding. “It’s complicated,” she explained after I asked why people do both. “Some want an opportunity for a party. Others believe church weddings are more official. Perhaps some dream of spinning in a beautiful, white dress.”
Even as she spoke, I imagined the reach of western culture extending like long fingers across continents. Black South African girls must have witnessed movies and television programs with fluffy white dresses and handsome grooms—just as I had as a young American girl. “White wedding” seemed like a nice way to package the western trappings of marital bliss as if bridesmaids, a minister, a wedding march, and a white dress made a marriage. Only later did I consider that the word “white” may not have meant the wedding dress as I assumed. Perhaps it could have referenced the people who originated the custom.
The summer before graduate school, I shouted across the apartment to Jessica about the book I was reading on race and Christianity. For the few months before school began, I lived with her in the second floor apartment on Garson Avenue. That lazy Saturday afternoon while Jessica made herself tea, I sat in the living room with my legs curled up on the faded couch, flipping through the slim book.
“It’s not just me.” I raised my voice to reach her over the whistle of the kettle. “It’s not just me,” I said again before she could answer. “Metaphors about being ‘washed white as snow’ bother other people too.” I pulled myself from the deep couch that threatened to suck me in. Our paths met at the edge of the kitchen where her pink hands wrapped around a large mug. “It’s just that sometimes all this talk about being made white as snow, all the images of being black with sin before cleansing makes us white. Sometimes it’s just a lot.”
My voice trailed off. I held the book before her, offering it as if the words could rise up and articulate what I was stumbling through. I wanted to explain to her the weariness of knowing the name for the color of one’s skin equates with evil, sin and death. I wanted to talk about faultless colors shoved in hierarchical structures. Instead I just said, “The color white gets tiring.” She nodded her head as if she understood. And I think she did.
A few months into my junior year abroad, the day after my friends and I ate dinner at the Indian restaurant down the road from the Bayswater tube station, I found an empty seat in the student computer lab. The spicy masala had faded into my memory, but the previous evening’s conversation left me curious. On keys faded and worn from hundreds of papers typed and computer programs written, my fingers tapped out a query, “History white wedding dresses.” My brain absorbed a pile of new information about what I had considered an ancient tradition. And why not? White wedding dresses felt as traditional as diamond engagement rings—which I soon learned were both about as ancient as the end of the 19th century. After an hour at the computer, I felt as if I was unearthing some conspiracy plan to either equate white with goodness and purity or, at least, to dress all the world’s brides in the same color.
A single year: 1840. A single marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, her in lacy white. At first, I assumed Queen Victoria had picked white to flaunt her chastity, as if to cloak herself in her own virginity. A few websites later, I realized she may have been a queen, but on her wedding day, she was first a bride. Modern brides turn a favorite necklace, flower, or season into the theme of an entire wedding, and Queen Victoria was no different. The inspiration for her white dress came from a treasured piece of lace. And a century and a half later, the western world and so many parts of the rest adhered to the tradition like an eleventh commandment. Even I felt pressure to adhere to a rule not originating in my own culture.
Thank you, Queen Victoria, and thank you, imperialism.
The evening my friends and I ate dinner at the Indian restaurant down the road from the Bayswater tube station, Shamik mentioned how brides in India get married in red. Over a table full of chicken tikka masala, saag paneer and dahl flanked on either end by steaming baskets of naan, he explained an ancient tradition I had never heard of. How the conversation emerged, I am uncertain. There were enough barely twenty-year-old women at the table, myself included, who could have hijacked any discussion and lured it to the topic of weddings.
As Shamik continued his explanation, my thoughts wandered to Hester’s scarlet letter back in high school English, femme fatales with bright red lipstick, or Eve reaching for a perfect crimson apple. I heard Shamik’s voice, but only snippets of his explanation reached my ears: passion, joy, commitment. As the discussion continued, my fingers sopped up bits of the savory, spicy curry with a piece of naan. Occasionally I saw vibrant red-orange streaks of masala painting the cloth napkin I used to wipe my hands. Could red really be a bridal color?
During freshman orientation at college, Zalenda asked me if I was “mixed.” Zalenda, the girl who lived in the only single on the dorm floor. Zalenda, the girl who would later be my bridesmaid and whose mother would design my wedding dress.
“Mixed?” My eyes rested on her, searching for a clearer question. I had just told her about my Jamaican parents, and I wasn’t sure what more she wanted.
“Mixed,” she said. “Something besides black.” Didn’t she know with skin the color of mine, the color of hers, we were black?
“Is there something else?” she said again.
I nodded, pondering a question no one had ever asked. “I’m part Indian. Like the country.”
“Who’s Indian?” she asked with a wide grin because she had guessed something of my background.
“Both of my grandfathers.”
“Both,” she repeated. She paused the length of a deep breath before she verbalized the basic sum of two fractions. “So then both your parents are half Indian, and you are too.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
My grandfathers had passed away years before, and throughout my American childhood, discussions about ancestry had not really strayed beyond black and perhaps Jamaican. I stared at Zalenda with my mouth open, wishing I could stare at myself instead. How had this stranger identified in a few seconds what I had failed to realize over the expanse of nearly 18 years?
It is after church one Sunday, and I am perhaps three or four. I stand behind my mother’s leg as she speaks with a friend in the foyer of what will later be my high school. My church lacks a building of its own so we meet in a school, in classrooms that will one day be my chemistry class or my calculus class or my world history class—which really just serves as a euphemism for European history from the ancient Greeks until just before World War II. We walk through hallways where I will one day exist as the rare brown face in the snow colored landscape of students sprawling around me.
At three or maybe four, I press against my mother’s leg, wearing a red-checkered dress with matching red tights and bright red shoes. As I wait for my mother, I think of the immense twirling power hidden in the soft folds of my clothes. My mother’s friend turns to me and comments on my beauty. Being reminded of a truth I somehow know, her words compel my mouth to smile, my body to shift away from my mother, and my right foot to accelerate me into motion. A blur of bright red fabric rises around me, and without knowing, I spin myself into a reflection of my wedding day.
Patrice Gopo, the child of Jamaican immigrants, was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Her essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Relief, Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, and on Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR Station WFAE 90.7. She is currently writing a collection of essays exploring race, immigration and identity. Patrice, her husband, and their two daughters attempt to carve out a life of beauty in North Carolina.
Image is from here.