Excellence makes my skin color secondary – Judith Jamison
Dark Girls was a documentary that premiered on OWN a few years ago. It highlighted the insidiousness of colorism among African American women. There’s an invisible hierarchy in the black community between dark-skinned and light-skinned women. Dark Girls sought to shed light on this pervasive issue with hopes of starting a conversation and bringing about change.
Yesterday while in Barnes and Noble I came across a striking cover with Lupita Nyong’o adorned with multicolored feathers. The title of the book is Dark Girls by Bill Duke and Sheila D. Moses, based on the documentary. I bought it immediately and read through the 200+ pages that day. It’s a book of photographs and stories filled with beautiful dark-skinned women. According to the author, he chose women who were darker than the brown paper bag to produce the reverse effect of that dehumanizing tradition. The women share stories of what it was like growing up being ridiculed, outcasted, and overshadowed because of their dark skin. They also shed light on how they empowered themselves by finally seeing their beauty. The subjects ranged from famous celebrities to everyday women who deal with this issue. I thought it was a lovely book and added it to my bookshelf. I am keeping it so my daughter when I have her one day, can look through the pages and be empowered by black beauty.
One of the thoughts that rained through my head was why colorism is still an issue and why we have to create books and documentaries to empower our sisters in this day in age? Why hasn’t progress been made when it comes to us, as black people, accepting that we come in all different shades and colors and no one shade is better than the other? It hurt me to know that so many of my sisters had to endure feelings of inferiority for a trait they are born with. Why do we always have to find subtle differences in one another to use as a measure of attack? I’ve studied colorism for some time now and unfortunately, this is a deep-rooted issue that most blacks will not own up to. The conversation is the first step towards progress but we have to see that this is actually a problem before the change can begin to take place.
I know the importance of hair to black women and men. I’ve learned this even more while reading Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps.
Since our days in Africa, hair to blacks is a form of expression and a source of pride. When we came over here on slave ships, one of the many ways we were dehumanized was by being denied the right and resources to groom ourselves, specifically our hair. As slaves in America, we had to find resources to maintain our tresses. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to carry on with the eccentric styles and braids that we wore in Africa. Some of our ancestors settled with plaits or a head tie. As times changed so did our hair. After slavery we wanted to fit in so figuring out ways to keep our hair straight was important to us. Once we realized a revolution was on a rise in the 60s and 70s we took pride in our kinks and started wearing it natural, no longer wanting to assimilate. We allowed our hair to send a message to the masses and it did. Black men and women take pride in their hair and this book is one of my must-reads. It allows you to go on a hair journey that doesn’t end with the last page of this book because our hair is constantly evolving.
The Blacker The Berry is a hard read. The harsh realities of colorism exhibited throughout this book made my heart weak. Emma Lou was typecast as unattractive and some would go so far as to call her ugly because of her dark skin; her life was filled with struggles because of this. Her family were blue bloods and created a chapter of the Blue Vein Society in their hometown. Back in the days, lighter-skinned blacks deemed themselves blue blood or blue veiners (if they were light enough to see the blue veins running through their body). Emma Lou came out with dark skin like her father, who left her mother and Emma Lou when she was a toddler. Her family saw her father in Emma Lou and resented her.
Emma Lou believed she could escape from this familial scrutiny when she went to college. She was accepted into USC in California. The only problem with Emma Lou was that she internalized a lot of the negative words that her family said to her while growing up and projected her own self-hate onto other blacks, especially dark-skinned, lower-class ones. She wanted to be accepted with the well-to-do blacks, but they weren’t accepting of her because of her skin color. Desperately searching for a place where she could belong, Emma Lou left USC and moved to Harlem. Yet, she soon learned no matter where she went, she could not escape the demons of her past.
Emma Lou allowed herself to be trapped by her skin color and by the lies she was taught growing up. She encountered terrible relationships, where men, especially Alva, was ashamed of her because of her dark skin and rarely brought her around their friends on a social scale. One day, after many ups and downs, Emma Lou grew tired of allowing her skin color to trap her. She ran from her color issues her whole life and it was finally time she accepted herself.
Her struggle resonated with me in so many ways. Sometimes, we allow the people who are supposed to protect us, to hurt us the most. We fall victim to their misguided perceptions, especially when it comes to standards of beauty and it affects our lives tremendously. Emma Lou allowed the harsh words of her family in her early years to affect the way she looked at herself and it traumatized her for years. Many people are struggling with this very issue, even in today’s society. Eurocentric standards of beauty do very little to empower black women. We have to break these shackles, by empowering ourselves, building confidence in who we are and disallowing society to tell us how we should look. We have to reclaim our beauty.
Long Blonde Hair. Blue Eyes. Pale Skin. Straight Nose. All traits of perfection in society. So imagine the emotional damage this type of standard of beauty can have on someone with opposite features. Short Kinky Hair. Brown Eyes. Dark Skin. Broad Nose. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison highlights the life of Pecola Breedlove. Pecola, like many of her black counterparts, is on a journey to feel accepted in society. She believes that if she had blue eyes she would be beautiful and her parents would stop fighting. She escapes into her fantasy world to avoid the misery she is enduring in real life. She loves, borderline obsesses over Shirley Temple. At 11 years old, she’s plagued with insecurity and fed lies about her beauty.
Growing up, only a few generations removed from slavery in Jim Crow America, Pecola is deemed “ugly” even by the ones closest to her. She is traumatically raped at the hands of her own father while washing dishes and eventually goes crazy. This book is important for me to acknowledge during black history month because its theme resonates, even today. Black women and the double jeopardy we have in society, some would say as the mules of society, weighs us down. Our unique beauty is disregarded as “unattractive” if not accompanied by Eurocentric traits. For so long our people have been told we are not good enough. Our features are not beautiful enough and that we are at some kind of disposition because of the color of our skin; that’s just completely false.
I read this book twice. It was, in all honesty, traumatizing but so necessary to understand and fully grasp. There are so many Pecola’s in this world. Many of us including myself, have been judged by superficial traits that we cannot change because it’s not “white” enough. It’s unfortunate that in modern times, these issues still plague black people. How can we enforce change if we don’t deem our blackness as a statement of endearment and not a source of shame?
The Color Complex was an eye-opener. When I was a sophomore in college I began extensive research on the coined term Colorism. Colorism is discrimination and prejudice based on skin tone. It baffled me how many people are oppressors and oppressed by this crippling belief. When I opened the pages of this book, I learned dark secrets about African American history, my history, that were reprehensible, to say the least. Instead of sticking with each other we turned against one another based on our skin tone. Lighter-skinned blacks who coined themselves as the “bonafides” or “blue bloods” were allotted more opportunities than their darker counterparts during the years after slavery ended. They separated themselves from other blacks with degrading tests such as the Brown Paper Bag and Comb test which denied entry to anyone who didn’t have light enough skin or straight hair to pass. They were determined to keep their status in society and win favor among whites. The book goes on to explore the business of skin lightening and colorism in modern-day. It was very hard to read these things, but I was enlightened more so about my history and the off-putting things blacks had to do for acceptance and survival in America.