I vividly remember the first black man I kissed. We met on a melting hot summer afternoon in Capetown just before New Years. He grew up in a white neighborhood in Botswana and went by the name Sydney. He had an African name but didn’t respond to that other than at somewhere like the DMV. Sydney had soft full pinkish brown lips. They were the same color as mine. I liked his booty and he liked my hips.
He tasted different than other men. Maybe it was just the lager beer. There was nothing else to drink there. Not on a graduate student budget at least. The kiss was short but intense. We were in a bar on the third floor that felt like a bungalow. Capetown was alive at night, the air was thick and hot. Our hands and arms stuck to the red plastic table cloth with floral tropical print. My friend and travel companion had gone to the bathroom so it seemed like there was only one other obvious thing for us to do while we waited.
He sat across from me with a charming and cheeky smile. We both got up and kissed from across from each other. I had to press myself up on the table to reach him. Our teeth met a little because we were smiling. His hand softly pet my kinkless hair.
Sydney and I didn’t kiss again. We never needed to. But the three of us hung out the next few weeks while in town. We talked a lot about skin color and race and hair. We talked the most about hair. The conversation was not overly academic or about politics, culture, or the Apartheid. We just talked about the way things were.
In Capetown, I’m a white girl.
“How can that be Sydney? My skin is exactly the same color as yours,” I said pressing my forearm against his. My skin got so dark after a few days in the sun.
“Darling, Nina. You have straight, shiny hair and oval eyes. Being white is not about the color of your skin.” And even more confusing and later enlightening is to learn in Botswana I was mixed race. Of course I explained time and time again my mom and dad were both born in India and all of our ancestors were from there too. My soft cafe face and lightened cheeks with a bit of pink meant, I looked more like Rhianna and less like Mary J. Blige. Rhianna was on every other Billboard in Bostwana. She was their Beyonce.
I felt like a queen traveling in Africa. My curvy body, soft thighs, carmel skin, loving eyes, and naturally shiny black hair with soft waves was the ideal. I was always moved to the front of the queue, served drinks first, and treated with a little extra grace. It didn’t happen once or twice, it happened everywhere. I was labeled by my place in society, and the names were defined by color. I was white because I wasn’t black.
I was only seriously proposed to for marriage only once while traveling around Africa. I’m still connected to the guy. I met this suitor through Sydney’s childhood best friend who then lived in Jo’burg and now a DJ in Seattle and father of two.
The African admiration I felt wasn’t so much validating as dumbfounding. I had never walked into any bar, restaurant, club, airport, or travel agency, and got treated as a first class citizen other than fine establishments where it’s in the training manual. I wondered if this is what it was like to be skinny, white, and blonde somewhere like New York.