The Parallels between Michael Jackson, Arthur Wright, and Emily Juana Burke, Part 1 of 2
A few months ago, I published a post titled “Michael Jackson Was NOT The First Black Entertainer To Lose His Pigmentation Due To Vitiligo!”, which focused on the parallels between Michael Jackson and a relatively unknown black entertainer named Arthur Wright. A reader alerted me to a November 1978 article in Ebony Magazine about Wright, in which he described his experiences with Vitiligo, and his decision to undergo a complete depigmentation of his skin in order to live a normal life. Wright also described his desire to one day write a book about his experiences, and in 1980 he released his autobiography and titled it “Color Me White: The Autobiography of a Black Dancer Who Turned White”.
I purchased this book and have scanned all of the photos in it, and I have also copied certain excerpts from throughout the book in order to give readers an idea of all that he had to endure. The first part of this post will be dedicated to showcasing Wright’s fabulous book.
The second part of this series will focus on Dr. Robert Stolar, the dermatologist who performed Arthur Wright’s depigmentation! I found several articles on him and his breakthrough dermatology practice, and it will shed light on how much of a trailblazer he was! He also encouraged Wright to write his autobiography, and he even wrote the book’s foreword!
The third point that I will address (in part 2) will focus on yet ANOTHER African-American who had to undergo a depigmentation process in order to even out the effects of Vitiligo! Her name was Emily Juana Burke, and she was featured in Ebony Magazine in December 1968, ten years before Arthur Wright! Oh, and guess who performed Emily’s depigmentation? Dr. Robert Stolar! As you read the articles on him, you’re going to see that he was a pretty popular guy!
I’ll start by reprinting Dr. Stolar’s foreward, followed by Wright’s preface:
Arthur Wright is one of those rare people whose courage and persistence can serve as a beacon to others suffering a disfiguring disease in an unsympathetic society. For centuries vitiligo was just an obscure word in the medical lexicon. For the people who suffer from it, it means different things, including humiliation, finger-pointing, and sometimes severe disease. The victims wear a patchwork stigma that separates them from normal society.
During my early years of medical training and later in practice, I came across a number of patients with vitiligo. They were bizarre-looking; some were rather grotesque in their appearance. They were the object of much observation and interest. Later, in the army, there were the cases of men who were rejected or removed from military training because their appearance was so abhorrent to other soldiers. Their unusual appearance followed them into civilian life, making it difficult for them to find jobs or marry, because of fears about what might happen to their children. In some countries vitiligo meant an absolute exclusion to entrance into society in a normal manner.
The solution at one time was to use a cosmetic coverage or apply stains with walnut juice or other types of materials that would produce a coloring to approximate the surrounding skin. Later on, dihydroxyacetone became available as a stain but was not too satisfactory, as it produced an orange color of the skin. Numerous other treatments were tried, but they either produced temporary effects or unsatisfactory color matchings.
In the late 1930s there was a little-noticed incident at a leather processing plant in Ohio. Black men who had been using an antioxident to help preserve leather and rubber discovered that their forearms and hands began turning white. There was a sharp line on the arms, above which they were dark brown and below which they were almost totally depigmented.
Investigators found the offending agent to be the antioxident that was widely used to protect leather and rubber from deteriorating too rapidly. Having had a few patients with vitiligo, I thought it would be an excellent process to make them all one color, provided it was safe and effective. If it was successful, it would allow the individual to move into society, both socially and in the work force, without any undue attention.
In 1946, after returning from active duty in the army, I set up a clinic as part of the Health Department Clinics in Washington for the management of vitiligo. I obtained a batch of the antioxident powder, which was designated as Agerite Alba by the Goodrich Rubber Company, then I began experimenting with varying percentages of the basic ingredient in a vehicle that had also been recently described. I hunted for reports of any systemic injuries of this chemical in the literature and, not finding any, I used it on a number of patients. One of the most notable patients was a nurse who worked in the clinic who had a piebald pattern on her face and elsewhere on the body. She became a ready volunteer. We had her use the medication until she was almost totally depigmented. I presented the nurse at an American Medical Association meeting after she had been transformed into all one color. After the initial disbelief, despite before and after pictures, the use of the antioxidents moved forward.
Many individuals have benefited from this approach to treatment, enabling them to change their whole lifestyle. Those who looked like owls with white areas around the eyes or other varying patterns of vitiligo on the face or elsewhere on the body lost these distinctive features, and many other patients came to reduce the contrasting colors that were disturbing to them. This treatment became a successful and necessary management of the problem of the severe vitiligo patient, and it was well accepted by many Black people.
There have been attempts to repigment and I have done so on many occasions, but with what I consider relatively poor success. In children under ten years of age, where the repigmenting has maintained itself, it has been successfully done. But in adults, twenty years and older, in my hands, there has been a poor response to repigmentation; when it did occur, it was lost after a period of time.
With a promising career being threatened seriously, Arthur Wright, a brilliant young singer and dancer, found himself put out of numerous roles and opportunities for work and advancement by his inability to cope with the handicap of vitiligo. He applied himself diligently to the task of removing the brown pigment to become all one color—-by far the best approach for adults that we have today. Mr. Wright is to be commended for his persistence in seeking a resolution of his problem, and it is gratifying that he is now going forward with his career. He is an excellent example to many disturbed and tormented people suffering from a disfiguring disease, having a difficult time in an unsympathetic society, of what persistence and determination can do.
Mr. Wright confronted his problems with the sensitivity of an artist whose career on the American stage could seriously be affected by the outcome. His tenacity to his art, his willingness to endure the long passage of treatments, and his continuing success as an artist are a fascinating odyssey that can offer inspiration and motivation to others. It is now hoped that his abilities will allow him to progress and go forward in his chosen field unhampered by the anatomic and physiologic restrictions that have limited him in prior years.
ROBERT STOLAR, M.D.
When I first read that foreword, I was utterly stunned that vitiligo patients were discharged from the military solely because their appearance was “abhorrent” to the other soldiers! Service members today are far too disciplined and professional to mistreat their fellow service members like outcasts to the point where they should be discharged!
Here’s Arthur Wright’s preface:
In a darkened theater, viewing a film alone, I sat silently and let the tears-flow while everyone around me laughed. The film was Watermelon Man, a comedy. I could not stop my tears, for I was living this human tragedy!
—ARTHUR WRIGHT, 1973
Webster defines vitiligo: A skin abnormality, characterized by loss of pigment in areas of various shapes and sizes and by producing white patches surrounded by heavily pigmented borders.
Webster defines color: Any coloring matter: dye, pigment, paint. Any color other than black, white, and gray. Color of the face, especially healthy rosiness. The color of a person’s skin. The color of the skin of a Negro or other person not classified as Caucasian. Outward appearance.
Webster defines humanity: Human nature. The peculiar nature of man, by which he is distinguished from other beings. Mankind collectively. The human race. The quality of being humane; the kind feelings, dispositions, and sympathies of man, kindness, benevolence, mental cultivation, liberal education, instruction in classical and polite literature. Human qualities; characteristics of human beings, especially those considered desirable.
I find it fitting to begin with definitions of words. This is a book about the disease vitiligo; God knows it’s about color, and it is about humanity. In spite of a theatrical background and a life as an entertainer, I have always been a very private person. I had entertained hopes of writing songs and plays, but never a book, and certainly not about my own life. And yet fate had in store for me something that was unusual and interesting. This book is about coping. I have several reasons for revealing my life in this book. I hope I can cause people to think, to become aware. To go back and recapture the true meanings of words. To actually think seriously about the fact that only those of us who have the gift of sight are concerned with, and intimidated by, color. One of the hardest parts of my coping was my disbelief in humanity.
Vitiligo strikes quietly, painlessly. If it were accompanied by itchy, runny sores, one could feel he had a dreadful disease. But I was in top health, at the height of my career, when it struck. The musical Kwamina had brought a free spirit home to rest, and all hopes and aspirations were geared to becoming a Superstar. It was perfect timing.
This book is about color, but more than that, it is the autobiography of a dancer, because I lived and breathed dancing a great part of my life. Perhaps by the time you complete this journey with me, we can all share in a breakthrough to enlightenment, understanding the problems of color. It is our greatest challenge. When you find out how many years I wore makeup daily, perhaps you can judge for yourselves if it was a case of being, for me, the only way I could survive or a case of sheer vanity. But before we can set this dramatic scene, you must first imagine what you would do if you awakened one morning and discovered you were beginning to change color!
Now, I will start showing excerpts here and there from the book, and show you some of the parallels between Wright and MJ. On page 28, Wright talks about his love for the art of dancing, and how his dance moves (such as pelvic thrusts) were confused as being sexual. DOES THAT SOUND FAMILIAR???
My most embarrassing moments in class were when we started to learn and work on the pelvic movements. I was not alone, as I could tell from the red flush on some of the faces of the white students. Fortunately, the classes were stopped and we were thoroughly explained the importance of certain movements and why they were used. Soon, I lost my inhibitions. In most ethnic dance, especially African and Haitian, besides the foot patterns, much accent is on the pelvis. Pelvic movements are important in the Dunham technique, and we were given marvelous exercises to strengthen our pelvis. But of course, you must have a strong pelvis to do any kind of dance. It is the center of the body and carries the bulk of the weight. It is amusing that, later, when I became a professional dancer, I would be very annoyed when, after a dance concert, people would come backstage and comment on how sexy our dances were. In the school, we were taught to use our bodies as instruments of movement, so I never thought of dance in terms of sex. The student of ethnic dance learns of movements and their meanings in terms of the cultural aspects in relation to ritualistic ceremonies in the life of a village or community. Fertility rites, puberty rites, every phase of society was performed through dance.
Sadly, there were many people who misinterpreted some of MJ’s dancing as being overly sexual, and here’s a perfect example! Earlier this year, a 9 year old who performed MJ’s iconic “Billie Jean” was SUSPENDED from school because his principal felt his pelvic thrusts “constituted gross misconduct”!
‘Billie Jean’ dance move a show stopper
A 9-year-old boy at St. Stanislaus was immediately and indefinitely suspended Thursday night at a school lip-sync fundraiser after mimicking Michael Jackson’s famous groin grab during a rendition of “Billie Jean.”
Mindy Boberg said St. Stan’s principal Pat Bowlin approached her and her son, Lenny, during the event and told her the performance —specifically the handful of times Lenny reached for his groin area to imitate Jackson’s notorious dance move — constituted gross misconduct and that Lenny was suspended.
Bowlin declined to comment Friday, saying the situation was an internal issue.
He said he plans to meet with the Boberg family Monday morning to discuss the suspension. Read more: http://www.winonadailynews.com/news/local/article_5c29e9b4-4ee6-11e1-ad1f-0019bb2963f4.html#ixzz1rKq5gsRy
On page 31, Wright described his meeting with actor Marlon Brando!
Occasionally, I would come to class early to take advantage of an empty studio and start warming up. Several times, I came upon a young man sitting in the window of the large studio, looking out over the rooftops of 42nd Street. I would always speak, close the door, and leave him to his solitude. Finally, my curiosity was aroused, and I asked who he was: Marlon Brando, starring on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. He was an exceptionally good drummer, and would often join the drummers playing for our classes. Sometimes, there were five or six drummers, and Marlon would glide easily from the big “mama” drum to fantastic rhythmic variations on the bongos. The most exciting and inspiring classes were those in which Marlon “sat in” with the drummers. Years later, as I was walking across town on Central Park South, I saw Marlon coming toward me. He was already a big movie star, and I could feel my excitement growing as he neared. But in a split second, I began to calm down because I thought he surely would not remember me. But there he was, as big as day, with such a smile, grabbing my hands, asking about my career, wishing me luck, and stopping all traffic on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Central Park South! For me, for life, Marlon Brando can do no wrong!
MJ was also a huge fan of Marlon Brando, and he asked Marlon to star in what would be his final music video “You Rock My World”! MJ was also very close friends with Marlon’s son Miko!
On page 37, Wright describes the unusual steps he took to achieve the perfect tan, with the belief that as an ethnic dancer, the darker you were, the better you looked on stage. It’s very ironic that later on in his life Wright would have to intentionally depigment himself!
Before I leave the Dunham School, there are several important things I must mention. We all had beautiful bodies, and the exercise of the Dunham technique only enhanced this beauty. In summers, we concentrated on getting a beautifully colored body. We went to all the beaches around the city to lie in the sun. I don’t know who introduced it to the school, but soon, we had our own suntan lotion. We bought a small bottle of baby oil, an eyedropper, and a tiny bottle of Mercurochrome. We would drop the Mercurochrome into the baby oil and shake it up until we got the desired color. Then we would apply it, and let the sun do the rest. By summer’s end, we were indeed beautiful, and on stage, breathtaking. For me, it was not so much vanity, it was part of my profession. In ethnic dance, the darker you were, the better you looked on stage. When I first started using our lotion, in winters, I would get back my natural color which was a yellowish tan. I used the lotion long after I left the school, and each year, I found myself remaining darker. Let it suffice to say that I wanted to become darker, and I did.
On page 41, Wright describes a meeting with actor Harry Belafonte, who collaborated with MJ on “We Are The World”!
…those days, it was almost impossible for me to say no to anyone, and I was constantly getting into deep water doing favors for friends and acquaintances. But it turned out that by doing Ben a favor, I made my debut as a solo dancer in the Old Club Barron on Lenox Avenue, with Sabu drumming, sharing the bill with the star of the show, Mr. Harry Belafonte! I was frightened to death, and I’ll never forget the kindness of Belafonte and Sabu that night.
I remember I arrived early and started improvising in the dressing room. When Sabu arrived, we talked over the steps and changes of rhythm. I was so worried about my dance, when Belafonte arrived, I gasped in disbelief. I had no idea he was the star of the show. He immediately put me at ease, talking to me, and giving me his autograph when I asked for it. To this day, that autograph is a prized possession.
At that time, Belafonte played the guitar, accompanied by Sabu on the drums. That night when Belafonte walked out on stage, he could have had no doubt that he was a star. The audience went wild. Screaming, yelling, applauding, banging on the tables, and stomping on the floors.
On page 49, Wright talks about performing on some show that I’m sure most of you have heard of before: The Ed Sullivan Show, which just happens to be the SAME SHOW that helped send the Jackson 5 into superstardom!
During this long rehearsal-study period, I was working with Destine. One highlight was an appearance on the television cultural series Omnibus. There was also a week at the Roxy Theatre, climaxing with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Here is a lengthy description of the Jackson 5’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show! And here’s a clip of their performance of “I Want You Back!”
On page 126, Wright discovers that a small white spot is starting to grow in size!
That day, wearing a bikini I had bought in Italy, I was amused to find that as dark as I was, you could see where my bathing suit had left its lines. I hadn’t noticed before, but I also saw that my white spot had increased to about the size of a quarter.
On pages 143-144, Wright describes an experience that is, unfortunately, all too familiar to African-American men in the USA: the experience of being racially profiled by police!
One day, after we had worked very hard and I was exhausted, I missed my subway stop and rode on to Grand Army Plaza. Just as I started to cross the street on Flatbush Avenue, a patrol car pulled up and blocked my way. One of the policemen asked me where I’d bought the tape recorder I was carrying. I was dumbfounded. I asked why he wanted to know. He repeated his question. Then the impact of what was happening hit me. I was furious! I put the tape recorder down, and told him where I’d bought it and that it was more than a year old, all the time taking out my billfold to show him my identification. I told the officer my name, that I was a dancer, that I’d been rehearsing all afternoon in Manhattan, that I was very tired, and how dare he stop me out in the streets like a common criminal! By the time I finished my statement, I was screaming at the officer. Without apologizing, the officers quickly drove away, leaving me still fuming. I knew it was my color that made them stop me.
Did you guys know that MJ was ALSO racially profiled? And not only that, he spent a few hours in jail, and had to be bailed out! I bet you didn’t know that! Here is an excerpt from Katherine Jackson’s 1990 book “My Family, The Jacksons”:
Michael usually drove himself to Kingdom Hall and his field-service routes. He’d finally gotten his driver’s license in 1981, at the age of twenty-three. Initially he didn’t want to learn to drive.
“I’ll just get a chauffeur when I want to go out,” he said when I began nagging him about getting his license.
“But suppose you’re someplace and your chauffeur gets sick?” I reasoned.
Finally, he relented and took some lessons.
After he began driving, Michael decided that he enjoyed being behind the wheel, after all. The first time he took me for a ride, he ventured up to Mulholland Drive, a winding road in the Hollywood Hills. It was a hair-raising experience.
“I’ve got a crook in my neck and my feet hurt,” LaToya, who was also in the car, complained afterward. “I was putting on the brakes’ with my feet and ‘steering’ the car with my neck trying to keep it on the road. I was so scared!”
It was white-knuckle time for me, too. Michael drove fast. He also had the same habit that I have: driving right up to the car in front and stopping on a dime.
After that, Michael started going out by himself.
“You shouldn’t go out alone,” I told him. “Get Bill Bray to go with you.”
But Michael wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m tired of having security with me every time I go someplace.”
When he began driving, Michael told me that he would never go on freeways; he thought they were too dangerous. So I was shocked one day when Michael suddenly drove us onto a freeway ramp.
“Wait a minute, Michael, what are you doing?”
“I can drive the freeways now!” he said, laughing. He had changed his mind about freeways when he saw just how long it took him to get around Los Angeles without using them.
Michael’s first car was a Mercedes. Then he bought a black Rolls-Royce, which he later painted blue.
It was in the Rolls that he was stopped one day — not for fans outside the gate, but by a Van Nuys policeman.
“This looks like a stolen car,” the officer said. He didn’t recognize Michael, who wasn’t wearing a disguise that day.
Michael explained politely that he did, indeed, own the car. But the officer went ahead and ran a check on the car, and found that Michael had a ticket outstanding.
The next thing Michael knew, he was sitting in the Van Nuys jail.
Bill Bray bailed him out. I didn’t even know what had happened until he came home.
“You should have asked the officer what a stolen car looks like,” I said after he related his adventure. Perhaps the cop had felt that a young black man didn’t belong behind the wheel of a Rolls.
But Michael was not only put out by the experience, he professed to be happy.
“I got to see how it felt to be in jail!” he exclaimed.
It’s a shame that MJ didn’t heed Katherine’s advice about not driving alone! As we all know by now, he decided to drive alone one day in May 1992, and his vehicle broke down on a freeway, and he had to go to a business called “Wrent-A-Wreck” to get help, and he met a family that he soon befriended, and the rest is history!
Also, if the King of Pop could get racially profiled for driving a luxury car, what hope do the rest of us “normal” young black men like myself have?
On page 149, Wright describes how his vitiligo spots are starting to get bigger! He said his friend looked at his spots as if he had seen an insect crawling on his arm! That’s an unfortunate preview of what Wright would experience in his later years.
I awakened one morning to discover something that should have been a warning to me. There were a series of tiny light brown or tan freckles. They started in a cluster and ran in a line, a short distance down my chest. Had the spots been white, I probably would have been alarmed. On this day, I left early for rehearsal. As I neared the YWCA, I saw Brock Peters approaching. We stopped for a short chat. I was telling Brock how sorry we all were that he didn’t get the lead in the show. Brock shrugged and said what will be, will be. Just then Brock reached over and touched my shirt. I thought he’d seen an insect crawling on me. He had seen the cluster of freckles. Brock looked at me and very solemnly told me I had better watch that. I told him I would, and as we parted, I quickly buttoned up my shirt.
On pages 151-52, Wright continues to notice how the spots on his pelvis are getting bigger, but were still undetectable under his underwear. One of his friends recommended that he see a dermatologist, and the dermatologist suggested that perhaps Wright’s prolonged use of Mercurochrome mixed with baby oil was the cause of his spots!
At this point in time, the spot on my pelvis area was about the size of a half-dollar, and I had two small spots on my private parts. I did not panic because even brief underwear covered everything. I found my Toronto friend in very good health. He was surprised when I’d written him of leaving the Destine Company, and he thought he’d never see me again. He was into food, and knew all the best restaurants in Toronto. Every day, he would take me to a different restaurant for lunch. I told him about my skin problem, and he arranged for me to see a doctor friend of his. It was a most interesting encounter. His friend was a dermatologist, and he asked me to give him some of my background. He was not impressed with anything I said until I told him of the baby oil and Mercurochrome mixture I’d been using for years. He was very alarmed. He told me Mercurochrome eats up pigment, and he cited as an example the fact that when you cut yourself and apply Mercurochrome and a Band-Aid, that after you take the Band-Aid off, the skin around the cut is white. The color doesn’t come back until the wound has healed. I remembered this to be true. He said, perhaps, over a period of years, the Mercurochrome had exhausted the supply of pigments the body could produce. Having no experience with Negro patients, he could give me no advice. Although I made a note of his theory, I couldn’t explain why it wasn’t happening to others I knew who used the mixture. Then it occurred to me that I had probably used it longer and more intently than the others. If it had only been a fad, I had taken it to its extreme. There had been no charge and I thanked the doctor for seeing me.
Here’s where things go downhill for Wright! On pages 163-164, he discovers that his face is now being attacked by vitiligo!
On Thursday, I awakened to find I had slept until ten. The exhaustion was still with me, and I felt groggy, dazed. I lay in bed for a while, trying to collect my thoughts and plan my day. I’d surely feel better if I showered and shaved. I went into the bathroom, switched on the light, and stood before the medicine cabinet. As my eyes focused in the mirror, I froze, a look of horror and utter disbelief on my face. My knees buckled, and I heard myself hoarsely scream, “Oh, no!” as I sank to the floor. I don’t know how long I lay there, moaning on the floor. I finally managed to pull myself to a standing position, supporting myself against the basin. Staring in the mirror was a face, my face-—eyes wide open with fright. With shaking hands, I touched my face. The whole area where I shaved, from under the nose in a sort of oblong circle including my chin, was white! The area was bordered by a line of dark pigment which caused it to stand out in stark relief. There was no pain, itching, or burning—just a loss of pigment. I somehow managed to turn out the light, and I stood there staring at the face in the semidarkness. Because I was in a state of shock, I have difficulty in recalling all my feelings. I’ve thought a lot about it, and the only description I can liken my feelings to is that numbness one experiences when one has reached the depths of despair.
The shock was so complete that I don’t know to this day why I didn’t become hysterical and call Les at his office. Instead, I went about in a daze, not remembering anything of the rest of that day.
When Les came home, he found me sitting, fully clothed, in the darkness of the living room. As he entered, I begged, “Oh, please, don’t turn on the lights!”
Startled, Les asked, “Artie, what’s the matter?”
I could only repeat over and over, “Please don’t turn on the lights!”
Les closed the door and stood in the darkness, quietly waiting for me to control myself. Finally, he suggested turning on the TV lamp. I agreed, but as he did so, I turned my face away. Les said, “This is silly, you know I’m going to have to know what’s happened sooner or later.” With no response from me, he turned on the lights. Les looked at me and gasped, “Oh, my God, Artie!”
I started to cry. Great heaving sobs that wracked my body. When I was finally able to stop, I looked around and didn’t see Les. He was sitting on the fire escape, and I knew that he, too, had been crying for me. Knowing there was someone who cared, someone I could depend on, was surely the most important source of strength for me at that crucial moment. With this knowledge, and the release obtained from my own tears, I gathered up the shattered pieces and tried to put myself together again. As it turned out, I would need every ounce of strength I could muster. Before, I had easily coped with the few spots on my hands and the frecklelike spots on my chest, but this had left both Les and me shaken. I can only say that the days and nights that followed were nightmares.
My first reaction was simple. I refused to leave the apartment. By Saturday, Les had run out of tactics. Nothing worked. He suggested we have friends over. I told him if anyone came, I would not come out to greet them. I refused to answer the phone. Les decided to accept an invitation to dinner. He returned early because he worried about my gloomy mood. In the long discussion that followed, Les suggested I start thinking of wearing makeup. We argued until he convinced me, and I told him I would think about it on Monday. Sunday brought another bombshell. I awakened to find spots on my throat and neck! Quietly and painlessly vitiligo strikes. After the initial shock, I accepted it, but it began to work on my already rattled nerves. I was afraid to go to sleep nights and even more afraid of waking up in the mornings and finding more spots. Still, I never once asked, “Why me?” On Monday, I was in no mood to try making up.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that many dermatologists in the 1960’s weren’t knowledgeable about vitiligo (except for the fact that it wasn’t deadly or contagious), there was a lot of insensitivity between doctors and their patients, especially between white doctors and black patients! Here is an excerpt where Wright describes an encounter with a white dermatologist:
I was accustomed to people staring at me, and had been told (never mind my hair) I looked East Indian, Mexican Indian, like many races of South America, even Puerto Rican! Now, having people stare at me, and I knowing I had on makeup, made me nervous and irritable. After Kwamina closed, and vitiligo came down on me in full force, I began to consult many dermatologists, all white. Their attitude was startling and very upsetting. There seemed to be a standard opening statement, “We don’t know what causes vitiligo, but it doesn’t affect your health, and no one can catch it from you, so why are you worried?” Never mind my career, there was a kind of arrogance, an utter disregard for my personal feelings. I was shocked and horrified. They made me feel that it’s all right to have white spots, but if they’re black, then you’ve got problems! No wonder they knew nothing about the disease! Most of the dermatologists were on New York’s East Side, and I began to think that because it was a Black problem, and there was no possibility of making a lot of money, they had done nothing to find a cure. Of course, I discovered white people also get vitiligo, but you can only see it when they go out in the sun and get a tan. In the years that followed, many experiments were performed on me, only a few of which I will sketch lightly in this book at a later time. It is definitely not my intention to condemn the field of dermatology. That is not the purpose of this book.
Here’s another parallel between Wright and MJ! Wright and his production company were given an opportunity to meet President John F. Kennedy and tour the white house!
When we were notified that the President was about to make his entrance, we were supposed to make a line, but everyone started pushing. It was obvious we would have to make two lines, and equally obvious that everyone wanted to be in the front line. I moved out of the way. I had never seen such tacky behavior from professional people. When they had gotten themselves together, I moved in and stood at the end of the second row. The President shook hands with some of the singers in the front row and gave us a very gracious speech, telling us how beautiful our voices were. Then he and Prime Minister MacMillan posed for photos with us. I was shocked that President Kennedy was so handsome. I have never seen a photo that did him justice.
Early the next morning, we were given a privately conducted tour of the White House, arranged especially for us by the President. Since it was at eight-thirty in the morning, only about half of the singers showed up. When we were in the Oval Room, as soon as the guard disappeared, two of the singers quickly sat in the President’s chair. So did I. It was only for a moment, and the three of us quickly joined the others. We saw the President’s private indoor pool, with its lovely murals painted on the walls, among other things not generally shown to the public. When we returned to the hotel, there were two photos of the evening before, one copy clear, the other blurred. In the clear copy, one of the girl singers and I were excluded. In the blurred copy, you could barely make us out. That was the climax of one of the most important events in my career, and as I looked at the photos, I vowed that if anything like that ever happened again, I’d be right in there, pushing with the best!
Here are a few photos of MJ with Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, as well as with a photo of JFK at the White House in 1984!
On pages 172-173, Wright discusses a new makeup called “Cover Mark” that he began to use to cover his spots.
Weeks before, when I first talked to Cecelia about going to Europe, she introduced me to Dr. Thomas L. Day. I am very grateful to Dr. Day because he concurred with my treatment for vitiligo, and, just as important, put me on to Cover Mark. Cover Mark boasts of being able to match any color of any race in the world. It is used by all the top fashion models to cover any blemish or skin defect. It was expensive, but since you didn’t have to use much, it lasted longer than the other makeup. After I started using Cover Mark, my whole appearance improved. First off, Cover Mark was waterproof and by blending another tint, I could match my own color. The basic brown color was a little lighter than my color because I was using the sunlamp every day. Application of a finishing powder allowed the Cover Mark to set. After a few minutes, cold wet compresses were applied to take off the excess powder. After a while, the oils from the skin would come through the Cover Mark, giving it a natural look. I had to cope with the problem of makeup coming off on my shirt collars and off my hands. The problem of the shirt collars was solved when I decided to use a folded Kleenex tissue around my neck before I put on my shirt. After applying the Cover Mark and finishing powder, I would wrap the folded tissue around the front of my neck, put on my shirt, and fasten the top collar button. I would repeat this twice, taking off all the excess makeup and powder. The third tissue I would leave on until I was completely dressed, including my tie. Then, just as I was ready to leave, I would pull out the tissue. There were many embarrassing incidents. For instance, once I helped an old lady who had trouble getting off the subway. As we reached the door, she stumbled onto the platform, and I steadied her. She turned to thank me, and as she walked away, I saw that the makeup on my hand had rubbed off on her dress! Again, on the subway, a man got up before the train stopped and was thrown on top of me. In the confusion that followed, he took off half my makeup. After a few more such incidents, I began to stand when I was using public transportation, even though I felt it drew attention to myself.
Here is a video demo of how it is applied:
When Wright found out that President Kennedy had been assassinated, he compared the awful feeling that he felt to when he first found out he had vitiligo!
It was the morning of November 22, 1963, and I awakened for some unknown reason. I lay in bed, unable to go back to sleep. Around ten, I got up and shaved. I had plenty of time, as all my appointments were in the late afternoon. I lazed around most of the morning, catching up on odds and ends. Shortly after noon, I began to get dressed. I reached up, turned on the radio, and slowly started to make up. I had the radio tuned to WQXR, and there was some lovely music on. Suddenly, the music stopped, and a voice announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, and that he was being rushed to a hospital. Stunned, I quickly turned to check another station, then another. They all had the news, but were saying that he had been taken to a hospital. Then a voice said that the President had been assassinated. President Kennedy was dead! I sat on the side of the bathtub, as my legs suddenly gave way. “My God!” I knew this feeling. This feeling of total despair. It had happened to me before when I discovered vitiligo had taken over. Ironically, that day, also, I had been in the bathroom!
Wright was notified about a new treatment of vitiligo that used UV rays to try to restore pigmentation, so he consented to it, but unfortunately he had to suffer some terrible side effects!
Not long after I returned, I read an article in the Times about the opening of a new skin clinic on 1st Avenue. It was a branch of New York University. I had continued my treatments for vitiligo, but nothing had happened. I decided to check the new clinic to see if anything had developed during my absence. Research was being done on the disease, and I was told I would have to register, and take a series of tests. Once I paid my fee, I received a card that entitled me to a discount on all drugs. I continued my treatments under the supervision of the clinic. I had been with the clinic about two months when I was asked if I would try an experiment. This experiment had been used on older people, and the doctors wanted to try it on me to see if they could get results. The pills I had been taking orally had now been developed into a lotion, and they wanted to experiment on my chest area. I was told I would get a few blisters, but when those healed, the doctors were hopeful new pigmentation would result. I was given an agreement of permission to sign, which I did. It resulted in an experience I will never forget as long as I live!
The day of the experiment arrived, and I was ushered into a large room and shown to a tiny cubicle, the inside of which was covered with aluminum or tinfoil. It had ultraviolet lights everywhere, running up and down the walls to the ceiling. The technicians told me the lights were so strong that they had to set them by seconds. Then I was asked to strip to the waist, and they applied the lotion to my chest and upper abdomen. Then I was given dark shades. I think the treatment was called “black light.” I stepped into the cubicle and they closed the door behind me. I stood there, I don’t know how many seconds or minutes, and then it was over. As I was leaving, my card was returned with my appointment scheduled two weeks later. About nine o’clock that evening, my chest began to burn. It was as if someone had placed a hot plate on me. My chest was fiery red and the pain, intense. I didn’t sleep a wink. For three nights I didn’t sleep. At the end of the third night, my chest was a mass of blisters. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and when the blisters came, I couldn’t bear to have anything touch them. My chest felt as if someone had placed a piece of tight, heavy armor around it. I could only moan, but I finally fell asleep from complete exhaustion. The next day there was no thought of makeup, auditions, appointments, only to bear the pain. At noon, I fixed a cocktail.
When Les came in from work, I was still in my room, still moaning, I couldn’t stop. He came in and asked if he could burst the blisters, perhaps it would relieve the pain. I muttered that I didn’t care. He returned with a bath towel and a needle. When Les was ready, he paused, looked at me very seriously and said, “This is going to hurt.”
I raised up in all my pain, and as seriously as I could, said, “But only when I laugh!” We both cracked up. “How dare you feed me a line like that!”
When we had both quieted down, I said to Les, “Steady with your hands, doctor, you may proceed,” and I closed my eyes because I didn’t want to look. Apparently, my whole chest was numb, or there was already too much pain, because it didn’t hurt. Les began to burst the larger blisters, and as the air hit the liquid it felt cool to me. Because in some areas there were clusters of blisters, Les got an idea which he warned would surely hurt. He took the towel and spread it across my chest and began to press down on it. As some of the clusters burst, they made a popping noise. It was a weird sensation, and it hurt! When Les finished, I was gasping with pain. He sat for the longest time, wiping the excess liquid as it began to roll down my chest. Finally, Les said we deserved a drink, and I asked for a double. As Les went to fix the drinks, I got up from the bed to a standing position. The viselike feeling, the feeling of wearing a heavy breastplate, was gone. I took several deep breaths, and even the pain had lessened! I ran in to thank Les and tell him the good news. I couldn’t resist mimicking one of the TV commercials, “Now, I can breathe again!”
The next few days were days of healing. Les took over again—this time, the process of peeling away layers of dead skin. It took exactly two weeks for the experiment, and I was as good as new. Not a single spot of pigment had reappeared! Then, fool that I was, I acquired a loss of memory and consented to a second experiment! This time, the pain was even greater, and as Les burst blisters, I screamed out in pain and anger. They could give me cancer! I vowed never to allow another experiment. Les agreed, telling me he, himself, could not possibly go through it again. The two weeks ended another period of suffering and pain, and I hurried to the clinic to keep my appointment. When I was called, I told the nurse I wouldn’t be returning, but before I left, I wished to speak with the director of the clinic. When I got in to see him, or his underling, I told him I didn’t see how they could possibly expect to get positive results from such a painful experiment.
On page 248, Wright describes the good news he received from a fellow dancer who also had vitiligo, but was cured through the use of tranquilizers!
One day, on my way to a session with Len, I ran into a dancer I knew. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. The event stands out vividly in my mind. When I had seen him last, I was wearing makeup, and, being familiar with the disease, I knew that he, too, had vitiligo. He was not wearing makeup, but at that time, like me, he had told me that he had had an accident while cooking! Now, I looked and saw no traces of the disease. Then he told me he had lied to me at our earlier meeting; that he had had spots on his body and was unable to explain them. I told him I had the same problem, which was why I was wearing makeup. “I knew it!” he exclaimed. I then told him I knew at the time he also had vitiligo, and asked what had happened, how had he recovered? He told me he’d been in Chicago for a year. While there, he’d been treated by a dermatologist who thought the whole thing was a case of nerves! I was holding on to every word. The dermatologist had placed him on tranquilizers as part of his treatment, and it had worked. The spots had disappeared!
I did not wait for further explanation, but cut him short. The fact that the dermatologist believed that nerves were involved interested me. I had believed this for years. I told him I must contact the dermatologist, and asked if he would please give me his address. He said he didn’t have it on him, but he would call me later that evening. Giving him my phone number, I rushed away, only to stop, and dash back to catch him. I didn’t believe he’d call me, so I asked for his phone number, just in case. That night I sat by the phone, and, sure enough, it rang promptly at seven-thirty. He gave me the dermatologist’s address, and then gave me details of his treatment. I thanked him and told him how grateful I was for the information.
Wright then travelled to Chicago to meet the dermatologist who had helped his friend successfully battle vitiligo:
My first thought was to wait a few days before contacting the dermatologist, but the next morning, I found myself calling his office. It was around ten, and the dermatologist, surprised, told me he could see me the next day, in the afternoon. That evening I prepared dinner and Wally protested, saying he didn’t want me to cook each night. I told him he could take over on the weekend. We stayed up late, drinking, still in a festive mood. The next day I left early to keep my appointment with the dermatologist. Because I didn’t have an idea how long it would take to walk there, I arrived thirty minutes ahead of time, so I spent the time walking around the neighborhood. When I finally went in I found the dermatologist’s receptionist charming, and we became immediate friends. After a short wait, I was called in. The dermatologist examined me, assuring me I had vitiligo. I told him I had come to Chicago for his treatments and could stay for an indefinite period. He said he would accept me as a patient, and we would begin the treatments immediately. First he told me that he didn’t believe in the sunlight or ultraviolet light treatment, that he would give me a shot once a week instead. Then he gave me two prescriptions, both to the filled downstairs in the pharmacy in the building. I was to take two kinds of pills daily. The capsules were tranquilizers, each to be taken one a day. I was told the tranquilizers were very strong, but when I finished the first bottle, I would be put on milder ones. He told me to follow his directions, and come in on the following Friday for my first shot. I stopped downstairs, filled both prescriptions, and left. I had begun!
On Friday I had my first shot and was told to come at the same time each Friday unless I was informed of a change. On Saturday, Wally had open house, and I met most of his friends. It was very pleasant, but Wally’s big buildup had let me down. Everyone knew all about me—my travels, tours, and professional background. So most of the evening was spent answering questions about different cities or countries. I would have preferred to sit quietly and get to know everyone else. Within a week, I began to feel a change in myself. The tranquilizers had begun to work. I could feel myself relaxing.
Later on, Wright discovers an article that made him think that going all-white was a possibility due to advances in medical research! This is where Wright learns about the benefits of using Benoquin!
One day I decided to rearrange and eliminate things from one of our overcrowded closets. I discovered a large brown envelope on which I had written “bits and pieces.” I dumped everything out and started to sort it. There were personal letters, a few hotel stickers for luggage, some programs from my own performances. Then I saw a bulky envelope. There was nothing written on it. I opened it, and folded neatly inside was an old magazine article. The article, “Pills Can Change the Color of Skin,” was about four pages. I laid it out on the table, gingerly opening the first page. The article was illustrated with photographs. As I started to read, I didn’t understand why I had saved it. Then I remembered it had come from the now-defunct Black magazine, Our World; I had been very interested at the time, but I was positive I didn’t have vitiligo. A large photo showed a doctor and a vitiligo victim. The victim had on the dark goggles used to protect his eyes from the sunlamp. My God! I had gone through all of this! The other page contained a series of photos. The center pages were “before-after” pictures of a young man heavily freckled, and then cleared of freckles. The two words stood out in caption, “Benoquin Whitens.” I turned the page. More photographs, more victims, with the title, “Vitiligo Has No Physical Pain, but Victims Suffer!”
As I read the quotes from these people, my own life seemed to pass before me. Tears swelled in my eyes, and I turned the page. More victims. I tried to find the year the magazine was published, but there was nothing. As I folded the article, carefully replacing it and putting it aside, I was never before more aware of how long I had tried to find a cure for my disease. The words flashed before me again, “Benoquin Whitens.” No! Then I asked myself if I thought my vitiligo would suddenly do its thing, and I would be one color again, and there was an honest no. Then I asked myself if I would be willing to go through the rest of my life in my present state. I couldn’t answer, but those words, “Benoquin Whitens,” flashed again, and again I rejected them. By now, I had no inspiration to work on the closet. I put everything back as it was, deciding to try again another day. I went out for one of my long walks around the city. There were many disturbing thoughts to ponder. I lost track of time and had to rush back to get ready for work. As I was leaving the apartment, my eyes caught sight of the article, still lying on the table where I had left it. “Benoquin Whitens!” I quickly closed and locked tbe door.
To the best of my knowledge, although I rejected it, I think that was the first time I considered the possibility of the “white” alternative. Tucked away in the back of my mind, it had registered, the seed had been planted.
Here’s another example of how ignorant some doctors were towards vitiligo! In this excerpt, Wright describes a doctor who he consulted to deal with a broken bone, but when the doctor found out about his vitiligo, he suggested that Wright undergo hypnosis to try to get to the root cause of his vitiligo! Wright was stunned by this recommendation, and ultimately rejected it!
I had health insurance through the post office, and had to periodically visit my doctor, whom I had selected from a list of doctors in the area, supplied by the Insurance Plan. I had never met him before, because there had been no need of a doctor. On my first visit, he showed more interest in the fact that I was a victim of vitiligo, than in checking the cast on my arm! His fascination provided the only interesting diversion during those weeks.
On one of my visits, he told me he had a doctor friend who was very interested in my case. If I didn’t mind, he’d arranged for me to see him the next afternoon. Why not? Heavens knows I’d seen enough movies and done enough walking! The next day in the doctor’s office, which was on 81st Street opposite the Planetarium, I noted there were no other patients waiting. That fact was confirmed when I went in to see him. He was a man of medium height, stocky, with a mustache and beard. He told me he was fascinated with my “case.” He had a theory and an experiment he wanted to try on me. The very word “experiment” turned me off, but what really reinforced it was when he told me he was involved with hypnosis. He said he had the power to hypnotize, and he thought that under hypnosis, I might reveal something that would be helpful in solving my problem. At first I was frightened. I never liked hypnotic acts; they made me uneasy. But perhaps I was being silly, and the very least I could do was discuss it. After all, the doctor was only trying to help. I let him complete his statements, then I told him no. First, I told him I didn’t want to be hypnotized. He was a stranger to me and what proof did I have that he could bring me out of it? Then, if I consented, what proof could I have that I said what he said I said under hypnosis? He was very annoyed, which angered me.
“What makes you think I would blindly place myself into just anyone’s hands? You know nothing about me or my past history of experiments. What proof do I have that you are indeed a hypnotist? Didn’t it occur to you that I would question this whole idea? Even your annoyance is an affront to me! Thanks, doctor, but no thanks!”
I was yelling. The doctor said he was sorry his suggestion had rubbed me the wrong way. Still, as I left, he was undaunted.
“Perhaps sometime when you’re in a better mood . . .”
On page 282, Wright describes being given an article from a friend that would forever change the trajectory of his life! His friend gave him an article from the December 1968 issue of Ebony Magazine that contained a vitiligo victim who was completely depigmented by Dr. Robert Stolar! I have scanned this article and will discuss it in part 2!
One day a friend called to tell me she had an interesting article for me. I went by to pick it up. It was an article about a young lady in Washington, a schoolteacher, who had vitiligo and was undergoing a depigmentation treatment with Dr. Robert Stolar. The article contained several photographs showing the young lady with Dr. Stolar, and there was one taken with her brother. I thanked her and filed it away at home. It was interesting, but I gave it no other thought.
When Wright finally met Dr. Stolar, he was amazed at how knowledgeable he was about vitiligo, and more importantly, how understanding and compassionate he was!
The next day I was at the office a few minutes before noon. She had not lied. Practically every seat was taken, but there were lots of interesting magazines to read. Every now and then, I would look around at new faces and was made painfully aware of the many skin problems people suffer from. Finally, around four-thirty, I was called in to wait in one of the tiny rooms. Dr. Stolar arrived, a very kind, soft-spoken, gentle man. He took a tiny skin scraping. He told me to come back at eight that evening. No one would be there but him and his assistant. He asked me to bring along my makeup because I would have to reapply it. At eight, I was greeted by Dr. Stolar’s assistant. He took me into one of the rooms and asked me to take off all my makeup. By the time I had finished, Dr. Stolar had arrived. He took one look at me and told me he knew how much I had suffered; he knew how difficult my life had been. The compassion I heard in his voice left no doubt in my mind of his sincerity, and I began to trust him from that moment—so much so that when he told me he would have to take color slides of me for his files, I gave my consent without hesitating. Prior to that time, only Les and Ernst had seen me without makeup, and I had refused to let even Les photograph me.
After photographing me, Dr. Stolar sat down and had a long talk with me. He explained that he’d been working in this phase of dermatology for over twenty-five years, and in that time a little over fifty people had been depigmented. He would only accept cases when they had advanced such as mine. He would never change the color of a person just because he or she asked. The success of my getting back into society without my former problems depended upon my believing in myself and in him. It would take a lot of patience. Patience was the most important thing because the treatments could not be rushed. Therefore, I had to be calm and patient. He told me I could put on my makeup, and left. When I had almost finished, he returned. He asked if I could remain in Washington for three days; it would take that amount of time to see if I would have a reaction to the cream he was prescribing. Then he gave me a jar and told me to apply it lightly on the darker areas around the spots on my face and neck. We would begin on my face and neck first. I asked how long he thought it would take for the whole process, and he said possibly four years. My heart sank, but I didn’t show any emotion. I was to apply the cream that night and call him the next day; he gave me an appointment to come in to see him on the third day.
After a few weeks, Wright began to see some positive results! He also received an offer from a friend to go on a trip to Brazil, which is known for its hot and humid climate, so Dr. Stolar warned him to stay out of the sun as much as possible!
The doctor’s remarks must have inspired me, because shortly afterward, I began to see for myself the change. My neck was very stubborn. I saw little progress, if any, there. A few weeks later came the most exciting news I’d had in years. It was an express letter from Ernst. He had finally managed to arrange the dates, and he was coming to New York. Now, came my surprise. How would I like to accompany him on his trip to Brazil? If my answer was yes, I was to go quickly to Dr. Stolar, get his permission, and await his next letter, which would have all the information about the trip. I read and reread the letter. It was hard for me to believe that after years of being down, something really wonderful was happening to me!
I called Dr. Stolar and asked if I could see him. I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice. He wanted to know what had happened. I told him nothing was wrong; that something fantastic had happened, and I had to see him right away. He told me to come to Washington and that I wouldn’t need an appointment. When I arrived, I decided not to say anything until he’d given me my checkup. I took off my makeup without even bothering to look in the mirror. When Dr. Stolar saw me, his eyes lit up.
“It’s absolutely fantastic!” he exclaimed.
I looked in the mirror with Dr. Stolar and saw that my face was clear of spots! I hadn’t even noticed it. I could see that my neck had progressed also. Dr. Stolar said the treatment had never worked so fast before. I admitted I had been using the cream as a base for my makeup. I quickly apologized, saying I took the chance and, since there was no reaction, continued it. He assured me he was not annoyed; that my progress depended on myself, my state of calm, my patience. Then I told him of my opportunity to go to Brazil. It was a bombshell for Dr. Stolar. He told me Brazil had a tropical climate and that I had to be careful of the sun. It was the last place he’d recommend. From the look on my face, he knew I was determined. He cautioned me to stay out of the sun as much as possible. When I went out, I must always wear a sun-screen lotion and a large straw hat. He warned me of the possibility of repigmenting in the areas that were now clear. He had already given me my cream, and as I got ready to leave, he asked me to wait a minute. He returned with a bag half-filled with small bottles of sun-screen lotions. As he said good-bye, I saw a worried look on his face, and, again, I assured him I’d be very careful.
Dr. Stolar also gave Wright the idea that he should write a book! Wright was flattered, and jokingly said he’d write a book only if Dr. Stolar wrote the introduction, and Dr. Stolar agreed!
The first thing on the agenda upon my return was the checkup with Dr. Stolar. Not only had I faithfully administered my treatments, but I had carefully avoided the sun, using one of the three straw hats I’d collected, and always applying the sun-screen lotion. Dr. Stolar was very pleased with my progress, although we disagreed on one point. I could see no improvement in the chest area and I attributed the lack of response to the painful treatments I’d received at the New York University Skin Clinic. Dr. Stolar assured me there had been remarkable progress. Because my face had cleared quickly, I now had to have patience with the slowness of the rest of my body. Dr. Stolar had mentioned to me several times about my writing a book. Now he began to expound the idea, almost giving me a lecture. I had always been very comfortable with Dr. Stolar and had explained, over a period of visits, my feelings about what had happened to me. My appointments had always been too short because he was always so busy, but he had been impressed, and he encouraged the idea of a book. He said that I was articulate and sensitive, and that I could enlighten a lot of people. The fact that we always talked about it made me a bit nervous. When I laughingly suggested I’d only do it if he would write the introduction, he surprised me by saying he’d be delighted to.
Wright goes on to describe the disdain he felt from the black community, and how embarrassed he felt about his vitiligo! He also decides to start to write his book:
The depigmentation process was indeed a slow one, and although I had a few problems with my face, neck, and hands, the rest of my body seemed to remain the same. When I checked in with Dr. Stolar, he was very pleased and again questioned me about writing a book. Upon my return to New York, I decided to think seriously about it. I got a notebook. Where to begin? Every time I tried to start with my crisis and how I coped with it, I was stymied, mainly because I was stilt coping. Having not to wear makeup was not the end of my problems. In fact, it was frustrating. I couldn’t go swimming. I couldn’t disrobe in a public place.
Perhaps the biggest impact was the fact that I had dedicated my life and career to ethnic dance. How could I continue after I’d made the change of color? I thought about teaching, but there was never an interest in teaching for me. Even if I wanted to take an occasional dance or exercise class, I would have to put on tights and overdress. Then there was the constant awareness of the puzzled looks on people’s faces as they wondered what race I was. There was the constant annoyance with my own race. Now that “Black Is Beautiful” was in vogue, I was looked upon with disdain by many Black people I encountered. As a matter of fact, it really taxed my nerves to have so many Black people frowning at me. The fact that so many white people began to wear their hair natural, didn’t help me at all. So you see, there was no rest for the weary.
I had an idea to start the book with my friends by asking them what questions they’d like answered about what had happened to me. But they had all accepted me, and, besides, I’d only be putting them on the spot. I finally decided not to really start, but just jot down notes on how I felt from day to day, recording incidents and my reactions, a sort of diary, if you will. It was a start, of sorts.
In this excerpt, Wright describes how Dr. Stolar inadvertently made him feel like a freak by asking other doctors and interns to guess what Wright’s race was!
One thing had a disturbing effect on mc. It started out innocently at first, on one of my visits to Dr. Stolar for my check-up. When he came in to see me, a young intern was with him whom he asked to guess my race. The intern guessed Oriental mixture. Dr. Stolar proudly proclaimed I boasted of African heritage. I was slightly shocked. But the next time there were two other doctors, and then it branched out to other patients. I felt like a freak, but I couldn’t say a word to Dr. Stolar. I was hurt because of a lack of sensitivity on my doctor’s part. Then, too, I was disappointed because he had no time for counseling, for the talks I had expected. I needed some sort of guidance. So I began to dread my check-ups. I was disappointed because I couldn’t seem to make friends. I’ve never been in a place where I couldn’t make friends.
After Wright had been completely depigmented, he became even more self-conscious of his appearance, due to the negative reaction he received from other people, primarily blacks, and the rude comments from his own doctor! He also remembered the article from the December 1968 issue of Ebony magazine, where a vitiligo patient named Emily Juana Burke described her journey from black to white (under the care of Dr. Stolar), and after reading it he felt more inspired to write his book, after doing some soul-searching and asking God for help!
That last trip to Brazil was a bitch! I extended my hand to Blacks and whites and discovered mountains of insecurity and resentment. Just being from New York was a threat. And I went to my mirror and looked at my white body. I tried to get work at the Smithsonian without starting as a guard, and discovered there were waiting lists just to be a docent. As proof, I rechecked the museums around town and found four or five middle-aged women bumping into each other behind the information desks. They had nothing else to do and the Smithsonian was the last word in prestige. And I came home and looked at my white body. Some Blacks who saw me saw only my color, and what they meted out to me was worse than in the days when I wore makeup. And I came home and looked at my white body. The final test for my degree was my own dermatologist, so kind, so proud of what had been accomplished with me, playing games called “Guess Arthur’s race!” Yes, I rejected my white body!
Trying to cope, trying to adjust to a change of color, going in and out of self-analysis, reliving my life in order to write a book, what more could you ask for? DON’T WORRY, THE LAST THING TO GO WILL BE MY MIND! Remember that? And there starts the miracle. My unshakable faith in the strength of my mind! There is one thing that stands out vividly in my mind before I entered my last state of numbness in order to save myself again. This time, the numbness was accompanied by a deep depression that lasted for weeks, no, months. The incident involved an article in Ebony magazine. Someone, Clara, had given it to me and I had saved it. Now, I pulled it out. “I wish I were Black again,” says the pretty vitiligo victim who after becoming white says she would prefer to revert to the “way I was born.”
I looked at pretty Juana Burke and said aloud, “Silly! Stupid publicity! I would never let them exploit me!” I was in the middle of my own depigmentation process and had just returned from Brazil. “How can she say such a thing, after what we’re going through! Didn’t she take two years like me before she made up her mind? All I want is to be one color!”
Then I reread the article. There were photos of Dr. Kenney and my own Dr. Stolar, with explanations and theories about the disease. It went on to say that Juana still “thinks Black.” I remembered I had been very annoyed by the article before. Now, as I folded the article to put it away, I burst into tears. I kept saying the girl’s name over and over. I knew how she felt. “Juana, I don’t want to be white!” and I gladly drifted into my state of numbness.
How can I describe the weeks that followed? I had rejected myself before because of the spots, now, I had to face rejection because of racial pride. I was devastated. I could write not a single word. There were long periods of crying without reason. How did I cope? How did I survive? Only one word—time. Ernst had given me time! There is no way I could have held onto my sanity without time. I lied to everyone who asked. The book was going well. Pressing forward. I functioned mechanically. I was half honest with Ernst. I told him I was progressing, but much slower than I had anticipated. I felt guilty and ashamed. Words had poured forth from me with such ease I thought they would never stop. But they did. My book waited.
Then came the second key to my coping. I made the existing total isolation pay off. My frustration and desperation had forced me to climb the walls and end up on the ceiling. It is a good vantage point when you are in the lower depths! I remained on the ceiling, forced there by the loneliness and the pain encircling my heart. But I had time. And from that ceiling, I prayed as I have never prayed before. ERNST, SAVE ME! DR. STOLAR, SAVE ME! SOMEBODY, SAVE ME! There were no answers. And finally, I screamed, “LORD, JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON ME!” and I floated gently down from that ceiling. Wasn’t it time to turn to God? Strangely, I had so completely accepted what had happened to me, I had never asked God to remove the spots, to make me whole again. I had never thought of it as punishment, just as another cross to bear. Now, I prayed to God to give me courage and strength to endure, survive, and overcome. And my days became easier, and I could feel the free spirit that was me. And I took advantage of the best investment I ever had in my life—time spent BY MYSELF, WITH MYSELF, AND FOR MYSELF. It’s all inside. All our answers are inside. I awakened each morning feeling good, and I spoke on elevators whether the greeting was returned or not. And I thanked God for each beautiful day. I had tried to surround myself with beauty. Now I enjoyed that beauty. I returned to my books on Black artists, listened to lovely music. Loneliness disappeared as my life resumed. There was such an awakening, for I had prepared myself with all my attempts into self-analysis. With peace and quiet, with complete abandon, I went inside to do battle with myself. This time I met Arthur Wright head on. Always probing, never letting up. Returning again and again. And time paid off.
Here is the second biggest parallel between Wright and MJ –behind vitiligo, of course! The second biggest parallel between the two entertainers is their love for children! Here is a passage where Wright explains his passion for children, followed by a nursery rhyme that he wrote and dedicated to children!
If I am spiritual, and I am, it is because I know I could not have done this alone. God has been with me every step of the way. I was struck with the reality that I am a part of the great American Colored Race in which I can be any color I want. My crisis was an awakening. It takes a force the power of a crisis to awaken us to self-awareness. The Colored Race is the most beautiful in the world. We are a bouquet. The true Flower Children! Within our race, you will find blue-blacks, red-browns, tan high-yellows, on into the now color of Arthur Wright! In short, our race contains the colors of mankind!
Inside, I found my greatest compassion was for the children of America. You come to us in all your innocence, your minds completely open, like a sponge, ready to absorb everything there is. And in the flower of your youth, as a rosebud, you are defenseless. You have no power over what is taught you. You can only receive—good, bad, indifference. What you are, what you become, depends on what you receive in your rosebud years. I cannot advise you. I can only love you as much as God loves us all. It is up to your parents. If they love you and are not satisfying an ego image, you are lucky. They will spend the time jealously overseeing what you receive, and they will not feel threatened by any outside influence, for they will know you. I say to you, eat well, little rosebuds, and grow strong. You are our future. Be a child and enjoy the things children do. Enjoy your childhood to the fullest, for it will never come again. Respect grown-ups, for they are the only ones who can lead you. And most of all, learn to listen. Be bound by tradition and order. Fear the departure from your childhood, for your next step is a giant one. Once you have entered adulthood, continue to grow just as you did as a child. Always try to do your best. Remember that if winning is everything, you must never lose! Always respect yourselves and you will automatically respect others. I have left something special for you. It is a nursery rhyme, and it is for the children of the world.
“Color Me White”
Color me White
Color me Black
It makes no diff’rence to me;
Color me Brown.
Color me Red
Color me Yellow
We’re all part of humanity;
Color me White.
Color me Black
Color me Brown
It makes no diff’rence to me;
Color me Red.
Color me White
Color me Yellow
We’re all part of humanity;
Color me Black.
Color me Brown Color me Red
It makes no diff’rence to me;
Color me White.
Color me Black
Color me Yellow
We’re all part of humanity;
Color me Brown.
CMor me Red
Color me White
It makes no diff’rence to me;
Color me Black.
Color me Brown
Color me Yellow
We’re all part of humanity;
Color me Red.
Hmmmnnnn…….a poem that emphasizes the fact that color doesn’t matter, as we are all a part of the human race! Does that sound similar to a certain MJ song? It sure does to me!!
The last parallel between MJ and Wright is the fact that they both wrote poetry! Here is a poem by Wright that is dedicated to the art of dancing:
“The Dancer’s Image”
A life of disciplined training:
Of repeating steps, simple, intricate,
Of stretches and muscle toning,
Of a thousand leaps
To finally pierce the air,
Soaring with the knowledge of physical freedom;
To know the joy of movement,
To stumble, but never to fall,
To move in time and space
Unhampered by distance,
Uncluttered by nought
But the force of a spirit ready to take instant flight;
To speak with the language of body, mind, and soul.
To be a dancer is to love life, To express that love
Through movement and clarity of purpose.
Movement is truth,
And the dancer’s body,
Protected, nourished, and glowing
From the warmth of disciplined training,
Is the perfect instrument to be used
In playing the music of life;
To dance is to be free!
And here is MJ’s poem dedicated to the art of dancing!
“Dancing The Dream”
Consciousness expresses itself through creation.
This world we live in is the dance of the creator.
Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on.
On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred.
In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists.
I become the stars and the moon.
I become the lover and the beloved.
I become the victor and the vanquished.
I become the master and the slave.
I become the singer and the song.
I become the knower and the known.
I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.
I keep on dancing and dancing… and dancing, until there is only… the dance.
Here are some photos of Arthur Wright!
It looks like Arthur and his friends are doing the Thriller Dance!
Arthur looks like he could have easily starred in “Black Or White”!