Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reflection: The Color Problem

Note :  This essay was written years ago before Lupita Nyong'o Oscar win and Karyn Washington's untimely death.  It amazes me that something like skin color is still a problem in our society.  Please read my essay below and also please go to another article written by a friend of mine about the other side of  Colorism (or Intra-racism) issue.
 

She has very dark skin.
Some say like a blackberry.
When she enters a room,
All eyes are locked on this intriguing figure.
She walks in her own little grace,
Her head carefully lowered at the floor,
Her steps as delicate and graceful as a swan.
When she speaks,
Her voice is a whisper like a quiet storm.
All eyes fall on this blackberry beauty.
Not because she is beautiful.
Some say, “She is ugly because she is way too dark.”
Others say, “She is pretty but too dark.”
Blackberry Beauty is scorned.
She is two-tones too dark.
But if she was three-tones too light,
Some would say, “She is ugly because she is a wanna be.”
Others would say, “She is pretty but too light.”
Blackberry Beauty is torn.
She doesn’t know if she is ugly or pretty.
She doesn’t know if her very dark skin is the cause of her ugliness
or if she is just plain ugly.
Blackberry Beauty has all eyes on her.
She slowly raises her head and smiles at the onlookers.
Her walk is still graceful and delicate.
Her voice is still a whisper.
She says, “I am the beautiful Blackberry. I was made to be way too dark because I am ripe. My beauty comes from my blackberry skin and your ugliness comes from your unripe ones.”

I wrote this poem thirty years ago when I was an insecure, introverted, overweight pubescent twelve year old. I was the darkest skinned one in my immediate family and all of my friends at the time were either brown-skinned or Latina. I didn’t have a role model to look up to besides actress Cicely Tyson. I admired her not because of her skin tone but because of her acting. I wanted to be an actress and create memorable heroines like Miss Jane Pittman and Harriet Tubman. So in my way to emulate Mrs. Tyson, I searched deep down inside of myself, closed the door to my bedroom, laid down on my bed with pen and composition book in hand, and created Blackberry Beauty. I chose the name from the old saying—blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I don’t even remember where I heard this from but the phrase stuck to me.

Over the next five years, I composed more poems and standard diary entries. Most of the diary entries were about me not feeling good about myself because I was overweight (while most girls my age experienced their first love, I took comfort in crunchy cheese doodles and General Hospital). Blackberry Beauty represented “self-love” for me and she became my role model.

Today, the growing positive role models for African-American young women are not based on skin tone but on body weight. Even though there is a movement to stop the obesity among our youth—young women who are considered overweight can look up to full-figured celebrities like Oprah, Queen Latifa, Mo’Nique, and Gabourey Sidibe for inspiration. I am happy for this—especially Gabourey Sidibe because she is both a full-figured young woman and a blackberry beauty. But there is still a need for more role models with darker skin tones.

A couple of years ago I worked as a Teaching Artist at an after-school program in a urban middle school, where all the students were African-American and Hispanic. There, I overheard a group of African-American girls talking about how black a fellow classmate was as they walked home. I even heard a chestnut colored young man yell to another young man, who was very dark skinned, “That’s why you’re black and ugly.” Recently, on my Facebook News Feed, a friend posted a comment about how one of her students did not want to be black anymore because being black made her feel ugly. It saddens me that intra-racism and self-hatred is still prevalent among our youth.

As parents, teachers, caregivers, friends, and neighbors, we must do more to help our youth to love thyself. The first step is to stop calling them derogatory names when we reprimand them. I have heard parents and caregivers call a child stupid, idiot, and used profanity as a means to show who is in control. The child, then internalize this and their self-confidence is diminished. Second, we need to show them that we have self-love for ourselves by not accepting being called out of our names and making sure our image is of the positive nature. Because, yes it is true, we are our children’s first teachers. Instead of being the sharp pin that deflates whatever self-love our children has—we should be the enriched air that fills them up with hope and dignity.

In my personal life, my daughters are half Italian. They did not inherit my dark complexion but you know they are half African-American because they have my family’s distinctive broad nose. Being bi-racial, they are going to have to face all kinds of obstacles in their life. They will be labelled and judged by society because of their diverse family background. That’s why I know I have to teach them to be proud of who they are, never think that they are better than someone else, to always respect others, and never to internalize negativity.

Maybe with our extra efforts, our children can accept and project self-love.



Please Read:  On My Mind: Colorisms Do Hurt by DuEwa Frazier for the flip side