The Face of Skin, Inc.: An Interview with Chinyere Evelyn Uku by Thomas Sayers Ellis
The cover image of Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems features Ellis’s own black-and-white photograph of Chinyere Evelyn Uku, an African woman from Nigeria who has albinism. On the release of the paperback edition of Skin, Inc., Ellis conducted an interview with Uku about her life, identity, race, and image. This is an excerpt.
Thomas Sayers Ellis: Where were you born and raised? Tell us about your childhood and schooling. Did you grow up in a quiet household or a lively, loud one?
Chinyere Evelyn Uku: I was born in one of the most vibrant yet monumentally confusing places in the world: Lagos, Nigeria. I was born to parents who were very middle class, and we lived in an apartment building in bustling Victoria Island. I was very unaware of my condition, having no real understanding of albinism or any awareness of it. It did not prevent me from watching Muppet Babies so there was no cause for concern. My parents did not put any signs or signals in our home to alert me to the situation, so one can say I was exonerated at that age. I would wake up in the morning, see a cream-colored character, and proceed with my day of larking about and pretending to be productive and doing whatever I had to do to secure my parents’ approval. Life was good. School was also fair, starting with an elementary school of mixed-race children—Indians, Caucasians, Blacks—so then my lack of understanding of the implication of race was further de-emphasized…
…TSE: Has anyone, unfamiliar with your condition, ever mistaken you for white? Have you ever been forced to use “A Color” to refer to yourself or your identity?
CEU: On my childhood passport, my eyes and hair are listed as brown, and I remember thinking that they should take into consideration the fact that some people do not quite fit this description of black, brown, or blonde. I have been mistaken for white before. Typically at metro entrances or crowded places depending on the demographic. Most blacks or African Americans can typically identify that I am black or mixed race and feel drawn to me, and the twisted hair and braiding hairstyles I sport from time to time also helps them out. White people in general are initially perplexed and will not stare for more than a few minutes lest they are accused of staring and called rude or politically incorrect or something else they don’t like. They prefer to keep all comments to themselves and avert their eyes to avoid confrontation. You can imagine how shocked I was when someone came out and asked what the hell I was. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but are you Asian, biracial, or some kind of albino?” I laughed and told him what the hell I was, then he laughed too, and we went for ice cream and to see a foreign movie. He paid. I prefer the direct approach, but don’t make it a habit, or I might pop someone in the face. A couple of guys, rather loudly, were trying to determine what I was and yelled out, “No, that’s just a white girl with dreads!” Well, I have no intention of fixing the situation! Blame it all on Mother Nature…
Read the entire interview here.