When I was seven, I cried about having brown skin. I barely exist among the moon’s bloodless glow that speaks its own white language.

A lake in Michigan. (Photo by Karina Pantoja)

Paw Paw Nocturne

By Karina Pantoja

I admit that when slithering pink-honeyed sky
is replaced by breaking charcoal-stained night
I swallow the busiest road in town and throw it

up, its spine tangled among pink hydrangea
petals, garage sale signs, wine bottles and
crucifixes. I don’t do much but barely exist

here among the moon’s bloodless glow that
speaks its own kind of white language. I listen
to delicate lake water kissing damp land

as you whisper, ​You’re beautiful. ​When I was
seven I cried about having dirty skin; brown as
mud, not brown as fruitful soil. Desire burned

in my throat for ocean eyes and thighs that I
could grip with one hand. I tell you that I’m
still learning to hold myself in my own hands,

but maybe that’s a lie. Maybe my hands are
ashy bone held by sadness at the joints and
if I stop clenching my fists for one moment of

serenity they will blow away and I will be left
with fragments of a body that I can only chew
and never bring myself to swallow.

* * *
Author’s note: For the longest time I avoided writing about my hometown, Paw Paw, Michigan, because it brought pain, frustration and discomfort. But I needed to face these feelings. This piece navigates brownness in a white space. I did my best to center myself within a town I have always known yet am still learning about, just as I am still learning about myself.


  1. What emotions does the author feel?
  2. What aspects of her appearance was she self-conscious about?
  3. Why do you think the author may have felt self-conscious in her environment?

Karina PantojaKarina Pantoja, a delegate of the International Congress of Youth Voices, is from Paw Paw, Michigan. Latina born and raised, she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English at Kalamazoo College, with a focus on poetry. Pantoja is a co-director of the Kalamazoo Poetry Collective, a student-run organization that hosts open mics for queer students and students of color, and workshops to produce and share poetry.


Growing up brown in a white U.S. town

    1. I can’t understand why this comment would be featured on a moderated forum, especially on a page that appears to be attempting to uplift marginalized voices.

      Marcos, your reply implies you have lived without having to think very often about your race, color, or gender. That you have not had to fear for your safety or the safety of your loved ones because of who they are. That your life has not been inhibited by systemic racism and patriarchy. I don’t wish these things on you, but I do wish for you to understand that not everyone has been so fortunate.

      This poem could be a gateway for you to ponder your privilege and make the decision to move forward as someone open to learning about the experiences of others, about your role in upholding these ugly systems, and how to create a more just world. Maybe read it again?

      1. First of all, I’m brown and Mexican from Paw Paw, and I’ve never felt discriminated or marginalized because of my race or skin color. Saying that I have never experienced this is true, but it’s because if it were to happen I wouldn’t blame it on physical characteristics, but on how I treated the person, and how I present myself.

    2. Marcos, ignoring race, color, and gender does not erase their real world impact. Please find better things to do with your time than troll awesome poets.

      Rock on, Karina!! Thanks for putting your words and voice out into the world. We need it.

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