Under lock down during the COVID-19 crisis, I have been doing a LOT of reading. In the midst of all the reading I’ve been doing, I started giving serious thought to the book covers, the illustrations and text that give us the very, first visual look into the books we read. Yes, yes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover — unless that cover is American Dirt, of course. I’m starting up a new series here on Medium on the book covers that I love — my favorites of all time. First up, I wrote about The Marauders’ Island (Hen & Chick #1) by Tristan J. Tarwater, this week I’m waxing poetically on The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake.
In my middle school years taking up library service, I learned about the names of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Ntozake Shange, Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry and so many extraordinary Black women who were writers, critics, poets and playwrights. I devoured the books about Black girls. I cherished the ones written by Black women.When I talk about the books about Black girls and women written by Black women that shaped my formulate years — Sharon G Flake’s The Skin I’m In is a book I think back on fondly.
First published in 1998, this is the beloved story of Maleeka Madison, a middle grade school student who is viciously teased and bullied for everything from her dark skin, her hair and her clothes which are mostly homemade and not very fashionable. Flake wrote a moving piece of fiction of a Black girl’s journey of finding her support system, learning to stand up for herself and ultimately coming to a place to allow self love to flourish.
Synopsis: “Thirteen-year-old Maleeka Madison is tall, skinny, and dark-skinned. That’s a problem for some people. To make her life easier, Maleeka befriends the toughest girl in school.
Only bullies force you to pay more than you’d like, so life for Maleeka just gets harder, until she learns to stand up for herself and love the skin she’s in.”
There is something really powerful about a photograph that instantly grabs your attention. Years later, holding any copy, any edition of The Skin I’m In does just that thanks in part to the photograph captured by New York-based photographer, Mark Havriliak.
The close up shot of this Black, female face always stopped me in my tracks. My first thoughts? What a beautiful woman — what a face this lady has! This black and white photo captured a face in a moment of time that I couldn’t easily look away from. Her full lips, that nose — these Black feature set in a face of a darker skinned Black girl that let me know that this book was about a Black girl so I jumped right in to reading.
A more frustrating memory from my childhood involving this book featured one of my male classmates. He entered the classroom and had grabbed my school library’s copy off my desk. “UGH. LOOK AT HER, SHE UGLY! LOOK AT HOW DARK SHE IS!” were the words he exclaimed as I furiously snatched the book back from his hands. He was wrong. So wrong. I was incensed. His words were cruel, unnecessary and just wrong. His insult damning the darker skin of the young woman of the cover was like a dagger handled by someone who should have been an ally, his skin as dark as hers. I thought to myself , without even opening up the book, Maleeka’ story is wasted on him.
“Mark Havriliak’s portraits achieved a level of intimacy that make it seem effortless” is a line Icaught in an interview with him on lomography.com Scrolling through his photos on Instagram reveal rows and rows of different shots of humans faces all capturing such intense, stunned, brilliant expressions. Some are caught gazing at the camera, some busy their hands with cigarettes or guitars, some sit in cap and gown, other cry. Taking portraits since the 1980s, his tumblr page states that “He Has Maintained An Alternative Aesthetic Which Has Enabled His Portraits To Remain Current And Remain Relevant And Stand The Test Of Time”.
I think on how I’ve never forgot this book cover for the photo of this Black girl staring back at me. The stare that seems to seep into your soul…I could never exactly pin point her exact expression: distrust? Disillusion? An apathetic gaze? My first glimpse into Maleeka Madison’s life was this photo of a dark skinned Black woman, someone I didn't see often on the covers of books. In my first read through, ever so often I would take a break from reading and look back at this photograph on the cover.
I thought the book was wasted on my classmate whose first judgement of declaring the model in the photograph ugly thanks to her darker skin. He reminded me instantly of the cruel kids in the books that openly mocked and teased Maleeka: like John-John her enemy since second grade who would make up terrible catchy jingles about her that caught on throughout the school. I decided that Maleeka deserved to be humanized, loved, befriended and protected early on and that attitude stayed with me through the rest of the book.
Black girls aren’t always gifted the chance to be soft, be vulnerable, and not be targets of ire and abuse. I remember wanting Maleeka to have her humanity looked at and I wanted her to be seen. I wanted her to be happy and have the agency to step in the direction to making decisions to better her life. While I didn’t quite have the words back then to articulate these thoughts, I do now.
On that topic, The author in a more recent interview elaborates on that — on writing Black teens: “I want to, as best I can, honor the people I write about. I want to honor Black people but I’m not taking the easy way out,” she says. “I want to have people walk away seeing the humanity of these people. I think that’s it, the humanity is there.”
That face that has left me in awe, the face that has startled and stunned me over the years remains on the cover throughout the different editions with few changes. On the cover of the first edition: the font of the title and the author’s name is set in blue and pink colors, maybe pointing out colors that would stand out on the black and white toned photograph. Later in another edition, the photo is framed in a brighter yellow and the letters of the title look like they are individually cut out of magazines, emulating a homework assignment or something from a child’s desk or homework folder: a vision board? Something creative from a English class?
Lastly, the latest printing of the book — the 20th Anniversary edition keeps that same photograph that I’ve loved all these years and cast a bluer tone. It makes the photograph pop even more, there’s a greater emphasis on it. The first emotion that comes to mind with that color is sadness, is the song “Am I Blue?” (music arranged by Harry Akst and lyrics written by Grant Clarke), first recorded by vocalist and actress Ethel Waters) covered by many greats in the music industry from everyone like Billie Holiday to even Batman by way of Kevin Conroy has tried his hand at covering the tune. Yet, blue the color of the sky on a perfect day is also a color of calm, of loyalty and of trustworthiness — which are certainly words that become threaded in the themes of this book as well.
The joy in rereading this book is following along with Maleeka as she slowly gains the courage to not only stand up for herself, but for others and ultimately for what’s right. With each chapter, she keeps hitting that ceiling of what little love and self-esteem she has for herself, yet before the book is over she has a showdown with the one who treats her the worse and the one who seeks to keep her down.
Getting to the end of the book where she chooses not to be apathetic and stand up and do something is refreshing and makes for a great emotional arc where she’s had enough and wants more for herself. What is equally enjoyable is reading about Maleeka finding her voice in another way: in her writing. It is her writing that also saves her–at first, it is a creative and therapeutic outlet and it evolves into a connection to a beloved family member who passed on and later to what helps her win a writing contest that she never dreamed of winning.
In my review of the 20th Anniversary edition of the book I wrote: that I was in my middle school years when I first read The Skin I’m In. I remember being dissatisfied with the required books for my English class and found a copy of Sharon G. Flake’s book in my library.
Before rereading I noted that I did mostly remember this was a tale about a black girl who was too Black, too poor, and seemingly too unlovable for the world she existed in. I do always remember this book helped put a word to an issue that I was learning about but fully didn’t connect all the dots about: colorism and how great a disservice it is especially to Black girls and women.
I remember being especially protective over this book, because it was a Black woman writing about a Black girl and those were the stories I wanted to read about. The journey of self worth written on the pages of The Skin I’m In builds with Maleeka wrapping her head around it and working to make it all someone she can start to stand on. From her website, the author notes that she “takes on tough topics and shines light onto people and places that society doesn’t always care to see.”
That much is true and I’ll be grateful for Flake’s decision to bring this work to life, for Black girls everywhere. It’s legacy includes being well received in the literature world: It has been recognized with the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent and the YWCA Racial Justice Award.
Its cover has always been a moving visual force in demonstrating just how necessary it is for stories about Black girls to continue to be written and published. The book cover for The Skin I’m In has also demonstrated how Black girls need to be the main characters in their own stories and be on the front covers as well — taking up space, being the center of attention and being the face on a book they remember years and decades even, afterwards.
See more of author Sharon G. Flake who in her own words: “I write about hope in hard places, about young people who encounter challenges but through perseverance, the help of good friends and the love of family and caring adults, learn just how wonderfully gifted, determined and capable they are” online at her website and on Instagram and Twitter.
Carrie is a writer, editor & media Scholar with an affinity for red lipstick living in California. She writes about literature, art, cinema & amazing women here on Medium. See more of her online on Twitter and Instagram!