Michael C. Keith

People of Color

We hunt them for the beauty of their skins.

—Tennyson

 

"I hate this look!" bemoaned Lionel Chesley, staring at his image in his car's rearview mirror on his way to work. Purple just doesn't suit me, he thought, although it had seemed fine when he chose it. Now he couldn't wait to transit to another shade. The Purples were not his kind of people, although they did try to befriend him. They were just too snooty for his tastes. Live and learn, mumbled Lionel, thinking how he had screwed up before. Two years ago, his sisters convinced him to get in touch with his female side, so he went pink. What a disaster. The constant ribbing from his buddies nearly put him over the edge.

Since the 2030s, dermal manipulation had gone from being a novel way to stand out from the crowd at parties and special events (like Halloween and Valentine's Day) to a means of declaring one's social predilections and even political affinities—blue for liberals, red for conservatives, and so on. The late Reverend Jesse Jackson believed skin colorization fulfilled the dream of his Rainbow Coalition movement.

"No longer is the world just black and white," he proclaimed on Meet the Press. "It's chartreuse, magenta, teal, ochre, and an endless array of other beautiful pigments. While there are many shades, we're all primary colors in God's eyes."

However, most users of colorizers—and they were legion—simply chose them to gain greater connection with like-minded people. This was born out by a recent survey that revealed the principle reason people transited was to achieve a greater feeling of belonging —a sense of membership in something special.

Lionel estimated it would be a week before he could make the shift to what was called Gamboge—described by Wikipedia as "a spicy mustard color derived from a Cambodian tree." It was manufactured by Transhide, a brand unknown to him. For his current flesh tone, he had chosen Skintint. He had tried other colorizers. Huetone left him spotty and Tingeman streaked his forehead and arms. Skintint held its color for a solid month and then faded quickly, indicating the need to take another dose in order to retain or change pigmentation. The effect of the tablet was quick and reliable. Lionel hoped Transhide's product would be equally dependable.

His closest friends had chosen gamboge because of its rarity.

"Don't know anybody with this shade. It's about as uncommon as you can get," boasted Adam.

That was true. Lionel could not recall seeing anyone else with that particular tint, and he could understand why. There was nothing appealing about it to him, but he didn't want to further alienate his pals. He had resisted the transition, and it had caused a rift between him and the two guys he'd known since childhood. So if it meant looking jaundiced to retain their friendship, then so be it. After all, it would only be for a month . . .

"It holds for three months. Then it fades over another three months," he was informed by Adam.

"And a dose costs the same as other colorizers, so it's like getting two doses for free," added Bryan.

"Jesus! You're talking six months looking like baby shit," groused Lionel.

"You should see how people react. They're like 'what the . . .?' said Adam.

Covered in gamboge, he reminded Lionel of the famous movie android, 3PO, with a severe liver ailment.

"I can see why," quipped Lionel.

When it came time to blend with Adam and Brian, Lionel reluctantly took the pill while they cheered him on. Within twenty-four hours, his flesh looked like it had been dipped in a contaminated vat of French's Mustard. The reaction of his office mates was more extreme than he expected, and for several days they mostly avoided him. In exasperation, Lionel finally confronted his cohorts during a staff meeting.

"What's the matter with you guys? It's just a different colorizer. It's not contagious, for God sakes! I've seen some of you in pretty bizarre shades over the years."

"Yeah, but nothing as . . . as weird as that," said a woman adorned in one of the many pastels so popular at the moment.

"It just doesn't really meld with anything. Not what you'd call a complimentary or flattering hue. Kind of disturbing, even scary," added someone veneered in light red.

"Well, at least it's a bold statement. Not a bland or ordinary look. Nothing humdrum about it," snapped Lionel.

"Maybe a bit too different. Not very, ah . . . pleasing to the eye," commented his boss, also dyed in light red.

Despite his considerable effort to regain the amity of his colleagues and acquaintances, they remained disapproving. Lionel began to count the weeks until he could transit to a more acceptable flesh tone. He would even become a Pastel, which he hated, if it meant fitting in again. To his mounting despondency, the negative response to gamboge reached beyond his workplace. He and his similarly tinted companions soon discovered that they were not welcome in their usual haunts.

"We don't want your kind in here," said the bartender at a pub he'd been to many times.

Then matters got worse when a Gamboge's car struck and killed a child. Although all the evidence pointed to it being an accident, his pigmentation was cited as a factor in the tragic mishap. A headline in the Akron Times read:

The driver of the car that killed the ten year-old sported a rare tint known as gamboge—a colorizer prominent among members of the South American organ trafficking cartel, Permuta Humano, and other fringe groups throughout the Americas.

"Holy shit! What have you guys done to me? This tint is a curse. It not only looks freaky, but it's worn by body snatchers and kid killers," blurted Lionel.

"That guy didn't deliberately hit that kid. Poor bastard! He's being persecuted because of his tint," protested Adam.

"Yeah, it's guilt by color association," added Bryan, defensively.

"Whatever! I feel like an outcast. Nobody wants anything to do with us. We'll have to hide away like criminals until the color fades. I'm glad I don't live near my family. I wouldn't want them to see me this way,"" complained Lionel.

"Hey, man, we are what we are. They say color is just skin deep, right? Why should we be ostracized because of the shade of our flesh? People are nasty and ignorant," declared Brian, raising his clenched fist in the air.

Lionel and his friends stopped going to work. None of them could deal with the sudden snubbing and harsh looks they received. What is more, they began to feel physically threatened during outings. At one point in a supermarket parking lot, Adam was called a dirty Gam by a large Grey. For a moment he felt the man was going to attack him.

"I got the hell out of there fast. Guy was mean looking. Spit at my car as I drove past him," reported Adam, when he returned to Lionel's apartment.

All three friends had decided to camp out at his place until the situation eased or their color faded.

"So we're dirty Gams, now? Why the hell did I listen to you guys? Purple was better than this. Shit, even pastel would be great compared to gamboge. Even the name sucks. Sounds like garbage and looks like it, too. Maybe that's why we're being treated like trash. I hated this color to begin with," complained Lionel, rubbing at his forearm as if his doing so might remove the loathsome tincture.

Disdain for Gams, as they had become widely known, continued to mount, much to the alarm of Lionel and his two best friends. Television news fanned the foment with frequent reports that cast the minority in an unfavorable light. Accounts sensationalized the alleged misdeeds of Gamboges. To believe the media, the tiny gamboge population was solely responsible for the growing urban blight and the significant rise in crime. Some officials interviewed by the press depicted Gams as lazy, immoral, and stupid.

"Why would anyone choose to colorize their skin with gamboge? That right there is an indication of the debased nature of these people," declared an Arizona congressman, who proposed that Gams be rounded up to prevent them from re-administering the colorizer and further jeopardizing society.

"The world has gone mad. This is so unreasonable. How could people single out a certain color as the root of all evils? It makes no sense at all. We're no different than anybody else. How can someone's skin tone make him subhuman?" decried Lionel.

Weeks dragged by as Lionel and his chums remained hidden from public view, only venturing out at night and in disguise to get food and other necessities. Meanwhile, the situation for Gamboges continued to deteriorate. They had become the object of every tinted and untinted person's animosity. To be a Gamboge was to be the lowest of all human life forms. For reasons beyond Lionel's comprehension, the world had decided to despise him and those like him.

Two months into his gamboge colorization, Adam and Brian began to return to their original skin tones. This was reassuring, but as they regained their original pigment over the coming weeks, they too began to treat Lionel as if he were something to be scorned. Conflicts ensued and one morning they were gone. Lionel wondered if he were the last of his kind on earth, but the news reports indicated he was not. Other Gamboges existed but were being hunted down and incarcerated. Many were being used as forced labor until their skin pigmentation transited. Even then they were stigmatized for having been Gamboges and reduced to function in the lowest rungs of society.

Lionel kept a close watch at the calendar and with a week to go before he was scheduled to begin fading, his friends knocked on his apartment door expressing their concern for him.

"We have some food. You must be starving. Let us in, Lionel. We're sorry for acting the way we did," said Adam, contritely.

"I'm fine," growled Lionel, his anger for his one-time friends still raw.

"Hey, we've been buddies forever. Don't drop us because we acted like jerks one time. We were just scared," added Brian.

"Scared of a dirty Gam like me, huh? What was I going to do to you guys? You had just transited from gamboge yourselves and you acted like I was something from an alien world," replied Lionel, his head pressed against the door.

"Look, we were being stupid. Saw all those TV reports about Gams . . . I mean Gamboges, acting like freaks. We just lost perspective. Come on, let us in, Lionel. You know us. Jeez . . .," said Adam, beseechingly.

"I'm still pissed at you guys," replied Lionel, his ire diminishing.

"We don't blame you, man. Let us in. You need to eat something, and I bet you like some company, too," pleaded Adam.

After a pause, Lionel unlocked the door, and as soon as he did, both Adam and Brian barged in. They were accompanied by several other men of varying colors.

"What's going on?" shouted Lionel, as he was seized and dragged from his apartment.

"Sorry, Lionel. They made us do it. They hate former Gamboges, too," offered Adam, with a pained expression.

"You're just a lowly, good for nothing Gam, and you shouldn't be allowed to live with normal people!" barked a member of the hostile mob.

Lionel was carried from the building to a nearby tree.

"String up the friggin' Gam!" yelled someone, and the rest of the group echoed his sentiment.

"What are you doing? I'm one of you . . . a human being. Just another person of color. Look, I'm about to transit. I'll be neutral soon," pleaded Lionel, as a noose was place around his neck.

"You ain't transiting nowhere. Once a Gam always a Gam," responded a burly Aubergine, heaving the end of the rope over a thick tree branch.

"Please don't do this! Give me time to change color," begged Lionel.

"Okay, guys, grab the end of the rope and pull," directed a Malachite.

As Lionel was hoisted from the ground, words from a fabled speech rang in his ears:

I have a dream that one day we'll live in a nation that will not judge us by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

Lionel's body remained dangling from the tree until it returned to its original ebony tone.

—Michael C. Keith

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