At 5, he learned his primary colours. Red, blue, yellow. Except that the red wasn’t truly red, but a pinkish red that he later learned was called magenta, and the blue wasn’t really blue, but an electrical turquoise hue called cyan.

At 13, he learned the colour of longing when his family abandoned the arid, burnt sienna desert sands of his youth for the strange, green wildernesses of Southern and Northeastern America. His mother had lied. The streets were not paved with gold. On cool, crisp mornings when strange ivory tears called snow had fallen from the sky, he would awaken from dreams of golden browns, oranges, and red like fire scorching the chalky earth of his youth, to find the streets paved with melting ice.

At 14, he had believed that he knew all there was to know about colour, its gradations and complements. This belief lasted until the time that he described a friend’s hair in exquisite detail, the dozens of tiny plaited strands that fell in ebony rivulets down her back. A citizen of the Land of Ivory Tears had interrupted him with a colour. Black. It had not been uttered as a compliment, and the unfamiliar usage of the word as an all-encompassing descriptor for another person stole a sort of colour from his world. His own skin was dark bronze in the desert summers, then deathly pale against the backdrop of the thread-bare alabaster trees in the new green land. He learned that his skin was dangerous because it did not represent his race in any season.

Many people associate green with life and with rebirth, but for him it represented the colour of uniformity, a military drab emblazoned with two types of insignias that cancelled his heritage out of the equation. White, black. Men in this new green land had slaughtered one another over the meanings of these terms; wars had been hard fought and won to ensure an uneasy peace that sometimes managed to pass for equality.

Men and women who shared his winter pallor would approach him periodically, assuming a conspiratorial tone as they recited a litany of complaints about people whom they reduced to mere colour. Black. At these moments, the colours of his childhood would vanish suddenly before his eyes. Cape Verdean, Ghanaian, Dominican, Haitian, Moroccan. Igbo, Yoruba, Fon.

He supposed that the allure of elemental colours was their simplicity. Perhaps it was easier for people to control what they believed they understood. Then there was the opposing colour, a word that had equal power to eradicate entire histories and narratives with an utterance. White. Celtic, Norse, Fleming, Sicilian, Finn. Pict, Lapp, Rom.

His border flesh refused either descriptor. Desert sun rendered him a wholesome brown that those unfamiliar with the colour wheel called black. Cold northern sky lent his skin the shade of freshly churned cream, a hue so pale he barely protested when it was termed white.

Even in religion, his winter skin was a passport to instant acceptance in this place, while the skin of his mother drew questions about blood and belonging, despite her ancestral Jewish lineage. Black. His lips hungered for another colour to describe the melted caramel sweetness of her face.

And so it was that he found himself remembering his experienced history of colour as he drew a cyan candle to the mouth of its magenta twin in a slow kiss of fire. Black and white vanished as the Menorah flames writhed in flickering dances that illuminated a variance of colour. Moss green, lavender, azure, midnight blue. He stayed silently mesmerised as the candles reminded him of the many colours of his soul. He watched until his eyes blurred and he could not distinguish anything but the colour of light.

Copyright, Gavriel Ansara, 2006