Shades of Blackness: Our Bitter Harvest

Quick note to my readers: “Dark Girls”, a documentary which addresses Colorism among Blacks, will air on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network this Sunday June 23rd. I was really excited when I read the story and will watch it, check your local listings if interested.

She was one of the illest female MCs to come out of the 90s. Her petite frame belied that lyrical beast hiding inside, and she came out of the gate swinging. Her bombastic declaration on “Big Momma Thang” slaps you like a brick, and I still think  her appearance on the remix of Mobb Deep’s “Quiet Storm is one of the best I’ve heard. Her style, flow and infamous romance with the Notorious B.I.G. would make her a hip-hop legend.  However nowadays Lil Kim is known more for the drastic changes that she’s made to hear appearance than her music. The milk chocolate colored round the way girl who crouched on all fours on the cover of her debut album is now the ghost faced woman who graced the stage  with Fabulous at Summer Jam recently.

He was my guilty pleasure.  Regularly announcing both  his sexual prowess and bad man status over the wickedest dancehall tunes, Vybz Kartel first caught my attention in 2001.  I indulged in listening to him brag on  songs like”Sweet To Di Belly”, “Tek Buddy” and “Bicycle”.  The verbal sparring between Vybz and Shebba on his song  “Gal  A Weh Mi Do”, when Vybz unrepentant ladies man finally gets his comeuppance from a fedup lover, is a hilarious tale of revenge. But in 2011 Vybz Kartel would make headlines around the world due to the significant change in his skin tone. His previously intense chestnut skin was now a ghostly looking cafe au lait. When asked about his skin Vybz credited the change to cake soap used to lighten his skin. Unlike other Black celebrities Vybz proudly defended his decision to lighten his skin and stated he felt it was no different that whites tanning. Going further, Vybz announced plans to launch his own line of skin whitening products.

She is not famous at all. I don’t know her name. She can be seen walking down the street in urban areas or in pictures of social events online. Her skin is as dark as mine, it’s natural beauty obscured by the ridiculous foundation she insists on wearing-though it is a good four shades lighter than her face. Her own brown eyes aren’t considered “pretty” so she opts for the bluest ones instead via contacts. Her own hair is covered by either a straw-like blonde lacefront wig or has tracks sewn in. Like Lil Kim, Vybz Kartel and countless others, she’s internalized the loathing and inferiority that she’s been taught. The bitter harvest of self-hate, of centuries of instilled inferiority among people of African descent in the New World, has ripened in front of us.

As a people, we often recognize it and whisper about it among ourselves. There are trite declarations of pity for those who bleach their skin, empty statements of how shameful it is and weak admonishments that the victims should learn to “love themselves”. Yet I can’t help but feel a deep sense scorn when I hear these discussions, and I question the nerve of us as a people. What good is it to sit around and criticize the victims of internalized oppression when they srat to act on it? To me such talk is a day late and a dollar short. I wonder where the critics were when these seeds were being planted.  How many of us are willing to both address it and actively combat the mentality that spawns it?

This hypocrisy was driven home for me when I discussed the issue with an FB acquaintance of mine a few months back. My friend, who we’ll call Sam here, told me that he really wished dark-skinned Black women would stop being so insecure and just “love” themselves. “All the weaves, the wanting to be lighter-you guys need to stop that. You’re gorgeous as you are, natural hair and all”, Sam said, his voice full of earnestness. Though I agreed with Sam, I was curious as to whether he himself spoke up about the issue when it counted the most.

“You do make a good point, Sam”, I began, “but can I ask you a question?”

“Sure”.

“When you’re with your boys”, I said, “do they ever make derogatory comments about the hair and skin color of Black women? Ever crack jokes about how dark a woman is and express reluctance to be with her because of it?” Sam was silent for a minute.

“Yeah, I’ve been a part of those conversations…”

“OH I see! And how do you react? Do you go join in? Stay silent? Or do you check  them on it?”

“No, I don’t check them”, Sam admitted sheepishly. I smiled to myself on the other end of the phone.

“Well thank you for proving my point. What sense does it make to sit here and blame those who struggle with self-hate if you yourself won’t so much as say a word in their defense? You have the opportunity, you hear people repeating the same ignorance yet don’t call them on it!”

Sam conceded and stated that I gave him something to think about. I find that when I try to address Colorism among my people they take the same approach my friend Sam does. We cluck our tongues in scorn and pity, we raise our voices to condemn those struggling with a standard of beauty they can never live up to. Yet when it comes to addressing the root causes of the problem we don’t raise our voices. I find that unacceptable.

My own struggle with accepting and loving my skin makes me very sympathetic towards those who are still going through it.  I understand where they’ve been. I know what it is like to feel that your skin tone makes you inferior and unworthy of love, dignity and admiration. I can remember walking through beauty supply shops and seeing the vast array of skin bleaching products for sale. (You can walk into any black hair care store in the US and purchase these products).  I’d look at the tubes of Ambi, the jars of Othino skin bleach cream and try to imagine myself with light skin. Hard as I tried, I could never see myself any other way, and deep down I didn’t want it. My Grandma was darker than me and I thought her skin was gorgeous, and my head turned quickly for boys who were my color. But by the time I was twelve I knew dark skin had no value or worth-not just in the eyes of non-Blacks but among my own people as well. I wanted the prestige, the awe, value and reverence associated with Whiteness. I wanted to be thought of as special and accepted, and it seemed that the only way to get that in my society was to not be Black.

I never actually attempted to bleach my skin. Even with all the negativity around me, there was a voice in me that said to alter myself that way would be a deep insult to my ancestors and represent a total acquiescence to White Supremacy. But all the pain and self-hate I felt…LAWD I can honestly see why some would be driven to it! With that in mind I do not want to see those whose minds have been warped this way to be mocked and judged for it. They were not born to look at themselves this way. In the words of an old show tune: ‘ you have to be carefully taught’. Generations of Black children have been taught that they are inferior, and they continue to receive that tutorial.  I desperately want my people to push the reset button and start pondering what we instill in our kids.  By aggressively countering these outdated ideas we can begin to turn the tide and keep the bitter harvest from bearing more fruit.

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