DON'T PLAY IN THE SUN

One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex

By Marita Golden

Doubleday. 195 pp. $23.95

Marita Golden has written a fascinating and frustrating book. Her target is the intraracial warfare that supposedly rages between light- and dark-skinned blacks. My frustration starts with the title, "Don't Play in the Sun." This was the perennial warning that Golden's mother shouted at her. The meaning was clear: The sun would further darken her skin and make her an even greater object of contempt and scorn by whites and light-complexioned blacks.

My mother shouted the same words at me and commanded that I wear a cap when I went out to play. Though my mother warned me not to play in the sun, she did not deny her blackness. She was light enough to pass for white but angrily rejected any suggestion that she do so. She did not thumb her nose at darker-skinned blacks, and that certainly included my very brown-skinned father.

In Golden's view, those with dark skin are not just Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" but also Richard Wright's "Outsider." They are perpetually banished to the outer fringe of society. Dark skin damns you to a life sentence of dirty jobs, poor education and failed relationships. As Golden bluntly puts it, "Light skin equals privilege, power, and influence."

That's much too big, broad and sweeping a generalization to be taken as anything more than opinion based on raw anecdotes, gossip, suspicion and belief. There's no solid proof that all, or even most, whites make fine distinctions between blacks of different shades. In America the one-drop rule renders that impossible. Anyone with any trace of black ancestry, no matter how light they are, is considered black and can be whipped by the lash of racial persecution. In fact, for every light-complexioned black, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, who attains fame and success, there are many more dark-complexioned blacks, such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. They have reached a pinnacle of fame and success and live a privileged life.

Golden blames white society for saddling a curse-of-Ham complex of self-hatred on blacks: "Whites constructed the color complex and imposed a system of rewards and punishments to uphold it, and its insidious results shape nearly every aspect of life in this country, working hand in glove with racism." She passionately argues that the color complex, and the vicious stereotypes it conjures, have proven most devastating for dark-skinned black women.

The stereotypes were permanently burned into the minds of many Americans in ads, films and early television sitcoms. In "Amos 'n' Andy," Sapphire was shrill, domineering and bossy; Mama was boozy, ignorant and crude; Widow Parker was a scheming gold digger on the prowl for men and money; and Madam Queen was a sexually loose con artist. In "Gone With the Wind" and popular product advertisements, Mammy and Aunt Jemima were depicted as fat, dark-skinned, bandanna-wearing, eternally suffering and patient earth mothers (to whites).

Yet a strong case could be made that light-complexioned women have also been the victims of vicious racist and sexist stereotypes. The very light-complexioned Nina Mae McKinney in "Hallelujah," Lena Horne in "Cabin in the Sky," Dorothy Dandridge in "Carmen Jones" and Fredi Washington in "Imitation of Life" were all depicted as tramps, whores or exotic temptresses. The image of the sexually immoral black woman has been firmly enshrined in the popular mind by light-, not dark-complexioned, black women.

Golden insists that the color complex has had a pernicious global creep. She describes with anger and disgust how Nigerian women dump bleaching potions, with all their dangerous health effects, on their skin, and how in Cuba and Brazil, the police routinely profile dark-skinned blacks, while longstanding workplace prejudices relegate them to the dirtiest, most menial jobs and often exclude them from top governmental posts. Many African women may pine to be slim, light-skinned and have straight hair, but that's hardly the universal beauty standard in most African countries, including Nigeria. Golden admits the light-is-beautiful look is mostly an urban phenomenon and limited to younger African women.

Golden contends that even women who revel in their blackness aren't immune from racial confusion. A case in point is tennis superstar Serena Williams, whom Golden gushes over for redefining beauty standards. She celebrates Williams as a big, brash, black and athletic wunderkind who wears form-revealing outfits that flaunt her "backside, her Black, her African, derriere," and who has transformed her dark skin from a badge of shame into a badge of pride: "Serena Williams is by her public presentation asserting that brown to black women are sexual, and feminine." But what about Serena's Goldilocks hair extensions? Golden does an about-face from her earlier rant against black women burning, bleaching, dyeing, curling, weaving and extending their hair in an eternal hunt to ape the blond-and-beautiful white beauty standard. Now Golden seems to accept Serena's blond hair simply as part of her redefinition of beauty standards. In other words, dark-skinned women can be big, pretty, dark and blond, too.

Golden, like many black women, is convinced that European beauty standards have so mesmerized black men that they regard white women and light-skinned black women as trophies that fulfill their desire for power, status and acceptance in the white-dominated world. But that ignores the fact that many prominent black men -- athletes, entertainers and successful professionals -- have married or are married to brown- or even dark-skinned black women. They evidently did not pick their mates solely on the arbitrary standard of skin color.

In the book's ending, "Letter to a Black Girl I Know," Golden admonishes blacks "to stop believing in the color complex and passing it from generation to generation." It's a touching close, but there were countless black men and women of earlier generations who didn't believe that light or white skin automatically meant truth and beauty. They wore their blackness not as an emblem of shame but as a badge of pride. Golden ignores, minimizes and, ultimately, dishonors the proud legacy those black men and women left.