More than 1,300 readers recommended Marita Golden’s Washington Post colorism essay on Facebook a couple weeks ago. Some, who heard her discuss colorism — interracial discrimination based on complexion — on the Kojo Nambdi Show last week, pressed to attend her colorism workshop Saturday at the Thurgood Marshall Center, despite the threat of Frankenstorm Sandy.
In a live chat earlier today, readers further questioned Golden, author of “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Guide Through the Color Complex” (Doubleday 2004) and shared stories of their own experiences with this complex matter. This all gave me the tools — and an opportune moment — to finally approach this subject with one of my dear aunts who had suffered this phenomenon in silence as a child.
I grew up with Nation-of-Islam race pride, but just beneath the surface I was haunted by a family secret. I had heard from several relatives that my beloved paternal grandmother had separated one of her darker-skinned daughters from the others, telling the others not to eat from the same spoon she used or drink from any cup she used. She singled this daughter out to eat in the kitchen while the others ate in the dining room — when their father was not home.
“I couldn’t go in the refrigerator. It was like I was poison,” my aunt told me when we discussed her childhood this morning. She added Breath-o-Pine or bleach to her bathwater, hoping it would cleanse her enough for her mother’s approval.
I had heard about my grandmother using bleaching creams on her other daughter, and considered that when Elijah Muhammad came along with his theory of race pride, it was the very thing my family needed to heal from generations of race hatred (from within the black community and from external influence.)
My aunt, now in her 60s, has overcome complexion scorn. Her nose is sharp, and her cheekbones high (European features valued as much as pale skin in our society), but her beauty — in my eyes — emanates from her soul. She brightens my days with her hearty laughter and family history. She wears her hair in a short natural now, coloring it anyway she damn well pleases, which is usually brown or blond.
This morning, I told her I was writing about color complex, and we discussed its relevance in our family.
“My mother worshipped your mother,” she said.
“Because she was so light?” I asked.
My mother was “red-bone.” She married into a mostly “dark-skinned” family and was treated like gold. I thanked my aunt for not tainting my absolute love for my grandmother, and commended her for being one of the most liberated and self-confident women I know, despite the complexion scorn she’d experienced at home and away from home.
“I’ve always known you to be very comfortable in your own skin,” I told my aunt. “You’re one of the boldest, most liberated women I know! You say what you want, do what you want ... ”
“That’s because I’m happy with my life!” she said, laughter in her voice. She retired after 41 years in the federal government, and she lavished her mother with birthday and holiday gifts and took food and care packages as needed. “Although there’s a lot of stuff in the back of my mind, I love my life,” she said.
I am a few shades darker than a brown paper bag, and I knew growing up that my lighter girlfriends attracted more dudes. Once, in my 20s, I described a close girlfriend of mine as “tall, light-skinned, with deep dimples and long hair,” to a male friend of mine looking for a date. He said, “You must feel like a little monster standing next to her.” We laughed, and I noted that he, a Jamaican with a heavy accent, was much darker than me.
Meanwhile, my girlfriend has been trying to downplay her attractive features our entire lives. “I have dimples only because my jawbones are weak,” she would say to assuage my ego. “My skin is light because my great-great-great grandmother was the one who got raped,” she would say. All of her sisters are darker than she, and downplaying her “favorable features” has been a matter of keeping the peace.
At Golden’s “Sisters Under the Skin: Healing the Wounds of the Color Complex” workshop Saturday, I listened as women of all hues read letters they wrote to relatives who had in some way taught them to despise their dark skin or kinky hair, or who taught them to love it.
“This was not only difficult for me, it was almost impossible,” one woman said.
Following a Friday evening overview on the history and implications of the color complex by Golden, and an interview with Pamela Brewer, two dozen women gathered in a roomdecorated with black-and-white photos of America’s first African American Supreme Court justice — who happened to have very light skin and silky, wavy hair — to complete “healing” exercises. The women were paired and told to describe each other’s beauty using their complexion, hair and aura. They later were assigned to write a love letter to themselves about their skin. They would leave with a copy of an interactive journal Golden published full of exercises designed to “allow you to examine with honesty and courage the impact colorism and the color complex has in your life.”
The women in the workshop learned the history of colorism, and I learned that the light-skinned-dark-skinned-good-hair-bad-hair thing did not begin as a deliberation about standards of beauty. Initially, individuals with lighter skin were easily identified as sired by slave masters, and therefore given jobs working in the master’s house rather than the fields.
“It wasn’t about beauty. It was about survival,” Lori L. Tharps, author of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” told the women in the workshop. Slaves who worked in the house received better food, stayed warm at night and stood a chance of freedom upon the master’s death, Tharps explained. So, yes, black mothers pinched their babies’ noses hoping to make them thinner. They wrapped their babies’ hair in yarn hoping to straighten it. She recalled her grandmother recoiling at the sight of her dreadlocks.
“She said, ‘Why would you put those twigs in your hair? Do you know how hard we worked to NOT look like that?’ ” Tharps said. “There’s never been a systematic undoing of all that information,” she said. “No massive group therapy. We just kept going … we were never told that our ancestors believed our natural hair was a conduit to the divine. We weren’t told our hair is power … you hear the startling figures about how much money we spend on hair … ”
Tharps shared fascinating facts about the history, politics and business of our inner conflict with the way we look. Prof. Ope Lori, a visual artist based in London, told of being ignored — as if invisible — for five whole days recently while visiting Paris, and shared a video she created to examine media portrayals of black women, casting darker women as more masculine and aggressive than their light-skinned, long-haired counterparts.
“If we don’t talk about it, it festers,” Golden said upon wrapping up the workshop. “If you keep a lie, it festers. Once you let it out, it can’t hurt you. It lessens the burden.”