Madonna’s book was large and black, with SEX embossed on the front. The coffee-table book of all coffee-table books was an enigma to me, sort of like Madonna herself. One day she was telling you to “Open Your Heart” and the next she was telling you to open your legs, but whatever her message, people were listening. To Brad, my new gay friend, Madonna’s book was the Holy Grail. To me, a tough biracial girl from a small town in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Hadn’t we seen her naked already? But I stood next to him in his freshman dorm room itching for a glimpse; there were rumors of bestiality and naked pictures of Vanilla Ice. Cradling the book on his forearm, Brad opened it to a random page and the words “I like my p**sy. Sometimes I stare at it in the mirror” burned up my retinas. My face got hot and I smoothed a hand over my brittle straightened hair.
Reaching across Brad, I turned the pages for more. “Dude, this is porn,” I said, transfixed.
“It’s not porn, it’s art,” Brad shot back. “I waited in line for hours at the record store downtown to buy it.”
I thought this was extreme for naked pictures and a CD, but Brad loved her, wanted to be her. A magical spell glued us to each lust- filled scene as we flipped through depictions of S&M, prostitution, and orgies. I was about to walk away when he literally squealed.
“Look at this!” He held up the book.
I blinked; then blinked again. There was Big Daddy Kane, one of my favorite rappers, in a threesome with a black woman and a fully naked Madonna. It was a Madonna sandwich, giving new meaning to the word “Oreo.”
“What is he doing in there?” I barked.
“Girrrrl, you know she likes the chocolate.”
Grabbing the book, I brought it to my chest for a closer look. Kane was cupping Madonna’s vagina and giving her a “I’m gonna f**k the shit out of you” look, while her upper body twisted to give the black goddess behind her some tongue. I went from mortified, to intrigued, to kind of turned-on.
It wasn’t the sex that gripped me, it was the interracial sex. I was raised by my white grandmother in a dominantly white town and had endured years of racial taunts for being half-black. The worst of them was being called an “abomination” by my high school humanities teacher, who had preached to my class that mixing races was wrong. My defense was to straighten my curly hair in an attempt to look like everyone else, but my tan skin was like a permanent smudge on the Caucasian canvas of my high school class. The only other kid who was tortured more than me was Reggie Johnson, a black kid adopted by our town’s white reverend. If I had wanted a date, he was my only option, but he was two grades below me, and I didn’t want him. I wanted Jeremy, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed basketball player in my class, but that crush stayed a secret. By the time I was a freshman in college, my hair was fried from straightening it every day, my self-esteem was bruised, and I was ready to go from blending in to being invisible.
Closing the book, I handed it back to Brad.
“I didn’t know Madonna was down with the swirl,” I said.
“Yeah, black and white love; like a chocolate and vanilla ice cream cone.”
“Well, then she’s the Dairy Queen,” Brad laughed.
“You remember ‘Like a Prayer?’”
“Yes, I do,” I said with a sigh.
I remembered it well—controversy about Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video had roared through the halls of my high school. She was kissing a black Jesus. To me this was major—and totally unexpected from a pop star. Although I had appreciated Madonna as an artist and could sing along to several of her songs, I had none of her albums. N.W.A, Janet Jackson, and L.L. Cool J had dominated my boom box. Madonna was blonde, boy crazy, and did everything she could to stand out from the crowd. I was brown, shy, and did my best to blend in.
To catch the video one night, my grandmother and I had assumed our living-room positions: me curled up on the Lazy Boy while she sat knitting in her rocking chair.
“Tsk,” my grandmother sucked her teeth. “Why is she kissing him like that?”
“Like what? It was a peck. You watch simulated sex on ‘Days of Our Lives’,” I said, thinking it was the kiss she objected to.
“She shouldn’t be kissing a black man.”
My eyebrows shot up.
“Gram, you do realize I’m half black … ? Your daughter did more than kiss a black man.”
Her knitting needles raced.
“Well, you’re half white too,” she’d said.
Hours after I left Brad and the SEX book, I couldn’t get Madonna’s scenes with Big Daddy Kane out of my head. I found myself questioning what she was trying to say with those pictures. Sure, they were shocking, but I didn’t think it was just about sex. The pictures of her crawling from the ocean with wavy, golden extensions trailing over her breasts made me think of Aphrodite, offering mortals a taste of enchanted love. Could she be healing the gap between black and white through her vagina? She was a pop sensation and an advocate for homosexuals and women’s sexual freedom. He was a lyrical genius and a hip-hop icon. Maybe she was melding not only race, but also cultures. Whatever it was, she was giving herself freely, gender and race be damned.
Later that night at a popular off-campus bar, I spotted Billy, the six-foot-two, 220-pound senior wide receiver I had been hooking up with for a few weeks. We were both mixed, which made me think he was the perfect guy for me, so I stuck around even though he treated me like a booty call. He winked at me as I squeezed through the crowd, but he didn’t talk to me. His arrogance was exasperating. Moving past him, I glimpsed a cute white guy wearing a driver’s cap in the corner. His eyes caught mine and he smiled, but I quickly looked away and found my friends.
With Billy across the room ignoring me, it was hard to enjoy myself, and my beer went down too quickly. I walked to the bar for another.
“Hi,” I heard behind me.
From over my shoulder, I saw the white guy in the driver’s cap leaning toward me. My gaze set on his wide chest before locking onto his green eyes.
“Oh, hi, sorry . . . am I in your way?”
“No, but it would be okay if you were.”
He had a deep voice and a nice smile. My skin tingled, but I clamped it down. White guys didn’t flirt with me. He probably has a blonde girlfriend somewhere, I thought. I grinned and turned toward the bar.
“I’m Hank,” he said over my shoulder. “I’ve seen you here before.”
“Yeah, I come here sometimes with my friends,” I said, sliding a glance at Billy, who was frowning at Hank and me. I gave Hank a full smile.
“Actually . . . I’m Tamara,” I said nervously.
When my beer appeared on the bar, I grabbed it, waved a goodbye, and ran back to my friends. But as I sipped my beer and snuck glances at Hank, I had a nagging feeling that I had missed out on something. Could he have been flirting with me? Should I have stayed and talked to him? My high school hang-ups drowned me. I remembered my constant senior-year daydream of having sex with the blonde basketball captain, Jeremy. I’d wanted him to take me to prom, but he had asked a redheaded cheerleader with milky white skin and freckles instead. As the prom had grown closer with no invitation, I’d started a list of guys to ask.
“Are you going to ask Reggie Johnson?” my best friend Nici had asked me during chemistry lab. Nici had dyed her hair blonde and hair-sprayed her bangs into stiff ringlets. I had straightened my hair that morning and donned a black T-shirt over my black acid wash jeans.
“Ewww. Are you serious?”
Reggie was fifty pounds overweight, wore Coke-bottle glasses, and had a lisp. Contrary to stereotypes about black people’s natural abilities in sports and music, Reggie rode the bench in football and his rendition of Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” during our talent show was God-awful.
“Well, he’s black,” she’d said. My head snapped up.
“So I can’t ask a white guy, Nici?”
I’d tried to study her face, but she wouldn’t look at me. She just shrugged and dipped her litmus paper in a beaker. I didn’t pursue an answer. As I finished my beer at the bar, Kane and Madonna came to mind, and I imagined Hank and I in the same positions—sans the extra woman. The dream me was a caramel-colored goddess enveloping a white knight with green eyes. Madonna would have made that guy her bitch, not run away like a scared rabbit.
I had let fear keep me dateless in high school; I couldn’t let it happen again. I knew what I needed to do. It was time to “express myself.”
Penning my number on a napkin, I gathered my bag, hugged my friends, and walked up behind Hank. Shoving my napkin in his back pocket, I held my breath as he turned and grabbed at his butt.
“My number,” I smiled as I started to move past him.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“I gotta be up early,” I lied. I just wanted to seize the moment andget the hell out of there. “Give me a call,” I said, with more confidence than I felt, and then I jetted without a backward glance.
Instead of going back to the dorm, I wandered the campus, hoping I hadn’t made a jerk of myself, hoping I’d read his signals right, and hoping he was as interested in me as I was him. Arriving at my dorm an hour later, I read a message from my roommate scrawled on our dry erase board.
“Hank called. Call him when you get home. Any time.” His number was written just beneath it.
It worked! As I read and reread the message, a confidence I had never felt before shot through me. That’s when Madonna’s photographs all made sense; I didn’t have to live by anyone’s rules but my own. It was time to be whoever I wanted, with whoever I wanted. I didn’t need to be white or black. I just needed to be me.
Hank and I ended up dating for the rest of the semester, then I moved on to a Latin guy, then a Filipino guy, another black guy … my swirls were endless. Finally feeling free, I let my naturally curly hair go wild; no more straightening. No longer was I invisible or trying to blend in. Whoever wasn’t down with my swirl really wasn’t down at all.
This essay was reprinted with permission from the new book Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, edited by Laura Barcella” © Soft Skull Press, 2012