Sharon G. Flake had no idea that she would be writing a book that would stand the test of time.
The proud native of North Philadelphia, who, she says, “didn’t dream big when she was little,” was working at the University of Pittsburgh when she penned, “The Skin I’m In,” a book about a Black teenage girl who had problems with students at school because she was dark-skinned and wore homemade clothes.
The year was 1998 when the book was released.
And today, 20 years later, it’s still relevant.
“It is still as powerful to me as it was then. It still speaks to many of the same issues I see young Black women having, young Black males having,” said Joyce Broadus, the former Children’s Librarian at Carnegie Library’s Homewood Branch.
During a Nov. 28 event at the library entitled, “Reflections of Our Complexions: An Evening with Sharon G. Flake,” Broadus told the engaged crowd of 50 supporters how much the Carnegie Library’s Homewood Branch attempted to get “The Skin I’m In” into the hands of Black youths in Pittsburgh. “We made sure that the book we gave out that year (to the summer reading club) was your book,” Broadus told Flake. “We made sure that we had this be a part of our community experience, and it worked. There were lots of conversations, there were lots of parents who made sure they went out and bought this book. We really tried to make it our own and I think we did a really good job at that.”
When Flake wrote the book, she had a daughter of her own (Brittney) who was dark-skinned. In the book, Flake named the 13-year-old seventh-grader Maleeka Madison, a tall, skinny girl who is constantly teased about her looks, primarily by another student, Charlese Jones. Those who have read the book are also familiar with Maleeka’s love interest in the book, Caleb, Maleeka’s strong-willed mother, and an English teacher, Miss Saunders.
Then there’s John-John, Maleeka’s classmate. “John-John says to me, ‘I don’t see no pretty, just a whole lotta Black.’ Before I can punch him good, he’s singing a rap song. ‘Maleeka, Maleeka—baboom, boom, boom, we sure wanna keep her, baboom, boom, boom, but she so Black, baboom, boom, boom, we just can’t see her.’ Before I know it, three more boys is pointing at me and singing that song, too. Me, I’m wishing the building will collapse on top of me.”
In another excerpt from “The Skin I’m in,” Maleeka reveals: “It’s bad enough that I’m the darkest, worse-dressed thing in school. I’m also the tallest, skinniest thing you ever seen. And people like John-John remind me of it every chance they get. They don’t say nothing about the fact that I’m a math whiz, and can outdo ninth graders when it comes to figuring numbers. Or that I got a good memory and never forget one single, solitary thing I read. They only see what they see, and they don’t seem to like what they see much.”
Flake told the audience she didn’t realize how big of a problem colorism was for young African Americans…until she traveled to different parts of the country promoting the book. “You start listening to girls talk about how they would not put their pictures on Facebook because of what people might say about them. Girls who felt like they couldn’t get dates because they were dark-skinned.”
Reflecting on “The Skin I’m In” a generation later, Flake said that Maleeka’s “voice” in the book is powerful and blunt, which attracts young people to her character. “You can trust what she says,” Flake told the audience about Maleeka’s “direct” and “frank” way of speaking. “I think a lot of times we want kids to sugarcoat their experiences, what they think about teachers, kids, etc.,” Flake said. “This is her truth, this is her reality, and I think young people gravitate to that.”
It’s a book that caught the interest of Pittsburgh Colfax student Kashauna Smith, herself a writer. “I didn’t know I had a gift until I met Sharon,” Smith told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I just wrote for fun, and then I brought her (Flake) my writing, and she said I had a gift and I have a voice.”
Smith, 14, is now taking writing even more seriously. Her friend, Aniyah Averytt, also 14, had a chance to meet Flake at the event. Averytt told the audience that in elementary school, she used to ask her mother why she looked different, as she was dark-skinned. “Now that I’m older, and since I go to church, I heard God say that I’m beautiful the way I am,” Averytt told the crowd, “so now it doesn’t matter what people think of me.”
As Flake fielded more questions and commentary from audience members, Lenora “Peachies” Freshley publicly thanked Flake for coming to her home in Penn Hills…nearly 20 years ago.
Freshley had read “The Skin I’m In” in the late ‘90s and thought the message was so powerful that she bought the book for her then-6-year-old daughter and other youth family members for Christmas.
Of course, Freshley recalls, the kids didn’t want a book for Christmas. They wanted toys, money, etc.
So Freshley contacted Flake and asked her to talk to the kids about the book.
A day later, Flake did just that, inside Freshley’s Penn Hills home. According to Freshley, the kids had a newfound excitement about the message in the book, along with seeing a successful African American woman. Freshley proudly told the audience that Flake’s presence had a lasting, positive effect on the kids, as many of them have since graduated from college.
“That’s why I had to thank her,” Freshley told the Courier, “because she didn’t have to do that.”
“I think that every young person this holiday season should have it (‘The Skin I’m In’) in their stocking,” added Broadus, who is now retired after also serving as Library Service Manager at the Carnegie Library’s Hill District Branch. “Encourage it, encourage young people to read it and talk about it and be a part of it, and see where it fits in their lives, because the issues (of colorism) are still the same. It hasn’t gone away, it’s still there.”
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