Normally I don’t use this platform to speak on racial issues. I want this blog to be a place where people of all backgrounds can come together and freely express their thoughts while also offering pertinent information regarding writing. But, after watching Oprah’s Life Class on colorism, I feel compelled to share a short story I wrote a couple of years ago. For those of you that don’t know what colorism is, here is a definition according to Wikipedia:
This story speaks on the issue of racial divide among African-Americans. I hope that it opens up a dialogue that will contribute to the eventual demise of colorism.
My Black Is Beautiful…And So Is His
I am one of the few people who genuinely enjoys first dates. My friends say it’s because I always get asked on a second date. But I think it’s because I like getting to know new people. Really, that’s all a first date is. It’s like a job interview and I have gotten offered every job I have ever interviewed for. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am good at making first impressions. You could say they’re my specialty.
So, on Saturday I run my usual errands, clean my apartment and do my laundry all with the satisfying contentment that comes with knowing that I have a date later on. I particularly like Saturday night dates for several reasons. One reason is that it gives me a nice ego boost because everyone knows that Saturday nights are reserved by men for women they are really in to. Otherwise, they would much rather be hanging with their boys looking for new interests. Second, I’m able to look and feel spectacular due to sleeping in, long bubble baths, freshly washed and styled hair, etc. Third, I have the pleasure of calling one of my girls as soon as I get home and telling them all about the date no matter how late it ends. It’s common knowledge among most single women that one of the best parts of dating is telling your girlfriends all about what went down once the date is over.
My anticipation for this particular date is high because I’ve been flirting with him for weeks. I work for a small advertising firm and his office is in one of the buildings where I have several clients. I remember the first time I shared an elevator with him. I was enamored by his ebony skin and juicy lips. He shined like satin and I imagined that lying in his arms would feel as sensuous and glamorous as the fabric his skin reminded me of. But enough about that, after all, this is only the first date and I’m not that kind of girl.
Later I valet park my car at the restaurant my date and I agreed upon in North Dallas. I like the fact that he took control and suggested Blue Mesa Grill. I hate when men ask me out and then have no clue about where they want to take me. The Blue Mesa is a posh little restaurant with a trendy bar/lounge area and an upbeat casual clientele. In other words, there would be no boring wait time, fussy infants or uncontrollable toddlers. At least not on a Saturday night, now Sunday brunch is a different story.
Anyway, I catch the elevator up to the bar area and I’m pleased to find him already waiting. Score points for him for being on time and for standing up like a gentleman as soon as he spots me. After a brief hug, he gestures for me to sit on one of the overstuffed circular settees while he goes to order my margarita.
He returns with my drink and we make small talk while waiting for our table. He is playful and at ease. Our conversation flows smoothly, and our lingering eye contact indicates that he is feeling me as much as I am feeling him. So far, he’s well worth me wearing one of my freak’um dresses and the killer heels that are living up to their name by murdering my feet.
When we are seated in the crowded dining room he smiles at me across the table and compliments my appearance for the third time. I am loving the attention from him and from a few of the other diners. I can’t help but notice a table across the aisle from us with about four black women, all of whom give both of us the once over before continuing their boisterous conversation. I feel a momentary surge of pride to be stepping out with such a handsome and eligible black man. I giggle a little to myself, thinking that I have had more than enough girl’s nights out with my friends. It felt nice to be the center of some male attention.
The cute waitress with big bazookas (a seeming requirement of the wait staff at the more expensive restaurants) takes our orders and attempts to flirt with my man of the hour. He scores more points, both by not staring at her ginormous boobs and not encouraging her solicitousness.
All through our appetizers and part of the way through our entrees I am having an excellent time. I’ve already decided that he’ll definitely be getting a second date when he says something that has me questioning whether or not I’ll even stay for dessert.
“I don’t normally date dark-skinned women, but I’m still attracted to you for some reason. Maybe it’s because you’re so different from the average black woman.”
He has delivered this tsunami of insults so nonchalantly that it takes me a moment to even process them. In that moment I’m reminded of another incident, when the color of my skin was viewed as a handicap to be overcome by members of my own race.
I was fourteen years old the first time I discovered that not all black people were pleased with the color of my skin. I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for the school bus. I had my eyes closed with my face tilted up to the sun. It was, and still is, one of my favorite things to do. When the sun warmed my face and everything was orangey red behind my closed lids I felt as though I was being kissed by God. A group of black teenaged girls stood in a tight cluster under the shade of a tree. One of them called out to me, “Girl, what you doing standing in that sun?”
I opened my eyes and casually retorted, “What are y’all doing in the shade? It’s a little chilly. Don’t you want to stand in the sun to warm up?”
“Hell no!” The girl exclaimed. Apparently she had appointed herself as the spokesperson for all of the other teens because she continued, “We don’t want to get all black! You need to be the main one trying to stay out of the sun.” The girls all looked at me and shook their heads, as if in wonderment that I didn’t know what, to them, was a basic rule of black knowledge. Kind of on par with wrapping your hair up at night and putting cocoa butter on stretch marks: something my mother should have taught me. The bus pulled up and I boarded in a cloud of confusion.
The first thing I did when I got home from school was corner my older sister. At the time I truly believed that she knew everything and she would be able to explain the whole incident with the girls at the bus stop in a way I could understand. I asked her point-blank why some black people avoided the sun. She sighed in the impatient way that only a seventeen year old girl could and said, “A lot of black people think that the lighter you are the more attractive you are.”
“Why? You’re light-skinned and you’re pretty. I’m dark-skinned and I’m pretty too, so what’s the difference?”
She rolled her honey colored eyes and looked into my espresso tinged ones, “I’m going to try to break down this ignorance to you as simplistically as possible, ok?”
I nodded eagerly, knowing she was about to give me some good information.
“They think they’ll be more accepted by main stream society, namely white people, if they look more like them. Some black people think that the lighter you are, the more attractive you are. They also think that they are better all the way around. In looks, intelligence, talent, everything! A lot of it goes back to slavery. The lighter skinned slaves usually had fewer physical demands placed on them and more comfort than the darker skinned slaves, mostly because they were the master’s relatives.”
Boy had she dropped a major load on me! I took a moment to ponder all of this, and then stated the obvious, “But black people are not slaves anymore.”
“Yeah, well we’re still the children of slaves and sometimes all of that junk gets passed down. It works the other way around too. Because I’m light skinned some black people will assume that I’m stuck up. They’ll think that I feel as though I’m better than people who are not as light as me. I’ve been called a high yellow bitch and worse. So those girls telling you to stay out of the sun were just repeating what they were told by their mothers. And their mother’s were just repeating what they were told by their mothers. And it goes on and on.”
“So how come our mother never told us that?”
“Say that again.”
I swallowed my frustration and corrected my grammar because I still needed information. Otherwise I would have never let her get away with trying to act like my mother. “Why didn’t our mother ever tell us that?”
“Much better. She never told us that because our family never adopted that mentality. Remember our ancestors founded one of the first all black towns after emancipation. We have been taught a legacy of being proud of our blackness, whatever the shade. Since our ancestors were so isolated they didn’t concern themselves with trying to look whiter. They just concentrated on being the best person they could be. And that is what Mama tries to teach us. So don’t pay any attention to what those girls told you. Just be glad you don’t have to go around thinking that your blackness is a liability.”
That conversation with my sister is what helped me retain a high sense of self-confidence all throughout high school, and beyond. My blackness is not, nor has it ever been a liability. My family helped me see that accepting, embracing and celebrating my blackness was a gifted inheritance that had been passed down to me from generations gone by. And just like any other person blessed with riches, it was my duty and responsibility to look not with disdain on those that were less fortunate, but to charitably assist them in any way I could. To whom much was given, much was expected and all of that.
I looked over again at the table of black women sharing dessert with each other. They could easily be the same group of girls from the bus stop. I’d like to believe that if I pulled a chair up to their table and said, “Girl you won’t believe what this fool just said to me…” and then relayed the story they would all cluck in sympathy while graciously welcoming me into their group. Anecdotes might follow of their own dates from hell. Maybe we would even exchange numbers and become friends on Facebook before the close of the evening. It’s what black women do. Sticking together is also something slaves learned that has been passed down from generation to generation again and again.
But I stayed in my seat and looked across the table at the man with the satin ebony skin. Maybe he had no wise older sibling to go home to the first time the shade of his skin was viewed as a disability by his own kind. Maybe he didn’t have a parent that affectionately called him a sweet little chocolate drop, my mother’s pet name for me. This was the first time that I knew there would be no second date. After all, what would be the point? I could never have a serious relationship with a man that thought that the average black woman was beneath him, and that my dark skin was a flaw he would have to overlook. I stayed and had dessert with him, though. One, because I love me some dark chocolate and that is something my date may never understand. But also because I know one thing for sure: my black is beautiful…and so is his.
Have you experienced colorism? Is this your first time learning of it? I want to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment below.
This short story will be published in the anthology “Voices From the Block: A Legacy of African-American Literature” set for release February 2014.