Beautiful Dark and Light Our Souls

Welcome to my obsession.

TaRessa in Red Linder pix 008Having lived my life at the extreme light-skin(ded) end of the spectrum, I’m hyper-aware of colorism. For 20 years, I’ve worked to contribute to healing this insidious mental and psychological disease that weighs us down, holds us back and keeps us fighting among ourselves.

But wait–don’t we have far more urgent issues to address as a people and as a nation? In the last week, we’ve ricocheted between Paula Deen’s nostalgia for plantation life, the start of the heart-wrenching trial of Trayvon Martin’s accused murderer, and a double-whammy from the Supreme Court trying to roll back both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act.

As my FB friend Elaine Porter noted, it’s starting to feel a lot like 1968.

dark girlsAgainst this backdrop, we’re processing the documentary “Dark Girls,” which aired last weekend on Oprah’s OWN network. I’m thrilled that actor/director/producer Bill Duke and producer/director D. Channsin Berry chose to tackle this topic, and to focus on the perspectives of my sistren at the other end of the colorism spectrum.

Dark girls deserve a forum in which to speak out. Some might find it strange that someone of my pale hue would feel that way. But we can’t move forward without being honest, and it’s dark girls (and guys) who bear the brunt of this form of oppression, not just from society—the whole world, really—but from their own people, often their closest and most beloved family and friends.

Their mistreatment often grows into a resentment of light-skinned people, who are accused of “thinking you’re so cute, so smart, all that,” often before we have any idea what’s behind the accusations. Then when the topic arises, we’re bludgeoning each other with our pain, wounded, weary and wondering why we can’t seem to break this vicious cycle of distrust and hostility.

We can break it, but we must—all of us–be willing to listen to—and really hear—each others’ truths in order to validate our own. Light and dark: we are two sides of one coin. Or, as Curtis Mayfield sang in  “We People who are Darker than Blue,”

                “High yella gal, can’t you tell, you’re just the surface of our dark, deep well…”

FB friend author/activist Kola Boof asked me to discuss the tendency of some light-skinned women to suggest that dark-skinned women’s pain is caused by their own self-hatred. I’m glad Kola raised this point, because it represents some of the many fallacies we have about ourselves and each other.

Colorism is a potent form of collective self-hatred that was planted in our ancestors throughout the Diaspora. Our dark sisters’ experiences, truths, pain and testimonials are not signs of self-hatred, but rather the logical effects of the whole world devaluing you based on how un-White you are.

When dark girls testify, they’re not just telling their truths, they’re telling mine—and yours—as well. And it is through their truths that we see the equally damaging and insidious nature of light-skin privilege. Yes, light-skin privilege is real—obviously, I know. It’s well-documented that the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired and more White-looking you are, the more beautiful/handsome, desirable, intelligent, charming, pleasant, and just generally appealing you are perceived to be.

The worldwide epidemic of skin bleaching—yes still—isn’t taking place because people are crazy. It’s because life generally tends to be better for those who are closest to White.

Light-skinned people do nothing to deserve this privilege—we’re born into it, based strictly on our looks.  It’s not foisted upon us because we are somehow worthy. This preferential treatment is a ploy to use us to maintain the dynamics of a system based on the mythology that White is Right.

“Dark Girls” is not the first contemporary documentary to tackle colorism. In 1992, my homegirl Leasa Fortune invited me to be part of a documentary made in Washington DC by two young Black women. Paula Caffey (light-skinned) and Celeste Crenshaw (dark-skinned) gathered sisters of all shades to share our tales of skin/hair and how colorism had shaped and affected our lives.

Black women onThat documentary, “Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang,” took years for Celeste and Paula to finance (in the days before crowd-sourced fundraising). Years after they shot the footage, their documentary was aired on PBS stations around the country, earning an Emmy Award.

Unlike “Dark Girls,” “Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang” presented a rainbow of women from different countries. Celeste was the on-air host, providing context and introducing each segment. Our stories were candid, our emotions were raw, but there was not a speck of tension anywhere.

OPS authorsThat inspired me to join sister-author-friends Tracy Price-Thompson, Elizabeth Atkins and Desiree Cooper to write first book in our Sister4Sister Empowerment Series, “Other People’s Skin: Four Novellas” dedicated to “healing the skin/hair thang between Black women.” Read an excerpt

OPS coverAnd I was honored to be interviewed for Marita Golden’s ground-breaking book, Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex.

Last month, I traveled to New Jersey to discuss colorism and identity with young women (including my 19-year-old daughter) in the Sister to Sister Mentoring Program at Montclair High School. The students, along with a few mothers and adult female mentors, were deeply engaged, listening intently, sharing freely, and bursting into spontaneous applause at the end.

I shared with them an excerpt from the popular “Willie Lynch Letter,” explaining that whether Willie Lynch was real or mythological, the dynamic used to turn slaves against each other so they’d be less likely to try to harm their masters or escape, was not only real, but still controls us today.

 And I explained a few basic facts about colorism:

1.       It’s a by-product of racism, which is a tool of White Supremacy. The society in which we live encourages us to keep it going, but we have the power to stop it.

2.       Colorism is not unique to Black people in the USA or anywhere in the world. It’s a global disease and no matter what the cultural variations might be, the root cause is the same: domination based on the myth that some people are superior to others.

3.       Light-skinned privilege is, as we used to say, a trick bag. It pits us against each other to fight over  crumbs from the cake of power and privilege tossed our way to keep us from uniting to confront  the people who not only own the cake, but the means and ingredients to make it.

This is a tough battle, but I’m convinced we can overcome this form of madness. Fortunately, a movement is building:

yaba blayDr. Yaba Blay, co-Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, expert on Black identities and colorism, wrote the definitive, affirmative and healing, Color Me Beautiful: A Dark Girl Reflects on “Dark Girls,” which states in part:

“Yes, I am a dark-skinned woman, who was once a dark-skinned little girl who grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and therefore knows all too well how colorism can break you if you let it. But I didn’t let it. And what Dark Girls was missing was that voice. The voice of the confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, “I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish” sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection.

“We needed that voice, not to distract from or to negate the experiences of pain, but rather to balance them with the capacity for triumph, if the purpose of the dialogue is in fact our healing. If we truly want to heal, we have to stop talking at each other and start talking with each other. And to do that, we need all voices at the table – dark, light, and every shade in-between – without the “vs.” While not with equal measure, colorism does impact us all.”

dr. cheryl grillsOprah.com featured an essay by Dr. Cheryl Grills, a psychologist in “Dark Girls,” describing what she and her colleagues at The Association of Black Psychologists are doing to promote “the emotional emancipation of Black people”:

“In the midst of colorism, we are not without tools to protect ourselves. … Basic practices can be put in place in neighborhoods and communities, schools, the media, and in the home to foster positive images for the young, thus changing the negative effects of colorism.

“One effort being launched by The Association of Black Psychologists, in conjunction with the Community Healing Network, are Emotional Emancipation Circles (EECs). EECs are community-based gatherings of African Americans working together to defy the lie of Black inferiority and embrace the truth of Black Empowerment. These self-sustaining community gatherings seek to promote resilience and resistance to colorism.”

And a group of Black psychologists offered “11 Things You Can Do for Your Dark-Skinned Daughter” on Oprah.com as well.

I’d like to add a few suggestions of my own:

1.       Tell every child—all genders, every hue—that they are beautiful, brilliant, important and valued—every single chance you get. And if you don’t get a chance, create one.

2.       Don’t assume that light-skinned people think they’re better, or that dark-skinned people are angry, resentful and jealous. Examine your own assumptions—we all have them—and challenge yourself to grow.  Then help others do the same.

3.       Think about who you consider desirable, and why. Might your preferences have grown out of colorism-inspired programming? No shame, no blame–just an exercise to encourage awareness.

4.       Check your language—and that of others. Lose the qualifiers: “She’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” Let her be a pretty girl. Period.

5.       Break the habit of getting into a war of the wounds, comparing battle scars to see who has suffered more, and remember that we are all in this together.

Matter of fact, this is a perfect time for us to be addressing this issue. After all, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has famously admitted that his anti-Black policies on the bench stem from how he was treated as a dark-skinned child. His pain has influenced national policy—to our entire community’s detriment.

As we witness the next chapter in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, react/respond to and regurgitate the freak show that is Paula Deen’s Pathology on Display, and reel from the Supreme Court’s overtly racist actions, it’s obvious that unity is our only hope for progress. If recent events prove nothing else, it’s that field or house, we were all slaves in one way or another. And these days, we are the only ones with the power to set ourselves free.

 

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Breakast

How did a bland breakfast cereal ignite a racial controversy?

 cheerios box

By featuring a Black father, White mother and Biracial daughter in a 30-second commercial, Cheerios went from being a geriatric cholesterol-buster and go-to snack for moms desperate to calm fussy toddlers to a symbol of forbidden love, lust and social progress.

 

Some ad honchos decided to spice up the blah Cheerios brand with a guaranteed button-pusher, something to make the cereal look progressive, edgy, ahead of the curve. They went for shock value, but seemed shocked themselves at the strings of racially-unfriendly comments inspired by the sight of a tri-colored family in prime time. And coverage of those comments became the story that went viral, shooting Cheerios into the national consciousness.

 

Next thing you know, Cheerios are a symbol for acceptance and support of interracial love generally and Black-man-White-woman-Biracial-child families specifically. Mixed people are flooding social media with photos of themselves holding Cheerios boxes. I’m now using “Cheerios” as shorthand/slang to refer to such couples and families—a welcome replacement for the antiquated “Jungle Fever.”

 

The pundits and pontificators jumped on the bandwagon, weighing every possible pro, con and nuance–not of the commercial itself–but of the string of racist comments. Cheerios  got another gazillion dollars worth of free media by announcing that they were standing by their ad despite the now-disabled racist comments. The actress who played the mother spoke up publicly, and the Biracial child actress appeared on news shows with her real Cheerios parents, saying she thought all the fuss was because of her great smile. (As far as I know, the Black man who portrayed the husband/father has not joined the fray).

 

Blacks and Whites alike veer between professing a what’s-the-big-deal acceptance of these families and not-so-quietly wondering whether all this mixing means they’re headed for extinction, doomed to a future dominated by racial mutants.

 

But with all of the point-counterpoint, slur-slinging and hand-wringing, everyone’s dancing around the real reason that this is such a big deal. :

 

Hint: this isn’t about cereal. Or commercials. Or even the cute memes:

 

cheerios meme

 

Or parodies, whether clever, or corny. 

 

Why, in 2013, when interracial marriages, while not even close to the number of same-race unions, are at an all-time high, acceptance is steadily growing, and our nation wrestles with legalizing gay marriage, did this Cheerios ad ignite such strong reactions?

 

It’s simple. What’s really going on is nothing more than the USA’s ongoing obsession/fantasy/fear of Black men luring White women from their pedestal of racial and sexual “purity,” and making “What about the children?” babies together.

 

Let’s not pretend this is new, or that we’re over our nation’s tangled racial history. The real backstory is the iconic threat of Black maleness that took root when slavery ended and free Black men were perceived as a danger to White manhood and power.

 

The newfound economic and political access enjoyed by Black men after emancipation—including the rights to vote and hold political office—fueled this fear of emasculation, loss of control, and the very premise upon which the United States of America was built: supremacy derived from a power structure based on “majority rules.” At the core of it all was a national phobia about Black men raping White women and “staining” White America with “impure” blood and genes. That fear grew into the mythology that drove anti-miscegenation laws, Jim Crow segregation and lynching.

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, that fear was fed by waves of new immigrants and the knowledge that, due to centuries of slave-era rapes, some Blacks could pass for White and infiltrate the DNA of the ruling class. White men wanted to guard White women’s sexual purity to ensure that they’d have White babies.

 

Today, even with a Biracial POTUS, this obsession and anxiety persist.  Between the browning of America—with White babies now officially in the minority—growing Black political clout as exemplified by President Obama, the surge of Latino immigrants and an increasing Mixed-race populace, anxiety about White women giving birth to the “wrong color babies” is still very real.

 

This is one of our nation’s most enduring phobias. It didn’t lessen when Loving v. Virginia struck down laws against interracial marriage in 1967. It has led to countless Black boys and men being slaughtered and lynched without a hint of due process at the mere suggestion that they perhaps laid eyes upon or deigned to speak to a White woman.

 

Fear of Cheerios unions has been and continues to be a button-pusher for all kinds of Americans. And not all of them are necessarily racist, even if they express their disapproval in unfriendly ways.

 

Let’s not front: this anxiety isn’t one-sided. Songstress Jill Scott spoke for many Black women when she expressed her discomfort with interracial couples in the April 2010 issue of Essence magazine. Jill described “wincing” when she walked past interracial couples. She cited historical reasons for her stance, touching off a debate between the magazine’s readers. The truth is that some Black women and men worry about racial and cultural extinction, just as some Whites do. On the flip side, more Black women are encouraging each other to date outside the race, since they perceive eligible Black men who want to date and mate their own to be in short supply.

 

Meanwhile, that “ravaging savage” mythology still dominates, holding our nation in its sway. And it’s not going anywhere. Fear of the Black man is as American as apple pie, and as much a part of the national consciousness as the Pledge of Allegiance.

 

This has been and continues to be a button-pusher for all kinds of Americans. The ad agency and Cheerios knew that, and banked on the “taboo” boosting their brand, notoriety and cultural swag.

 

Still, they played it safe, flirting with controversy, but careful not to go too far. As W. Kamau Bell, a comedian with a Cheerios family noted, at no time in the commercial do you see the Black husband/dad actually interacting with his wife and/or child. The viewer is left to fill in the blanks, with imaginations steeped in the lore of forbidden love, lust and tragically confused and rejected offspring providing the subtext that sparked the reactions that turned a cereal ad into national news and a social media darling.

 

Why? Because we might think we’re reacting to a contemporary family in a cereal commercial, but in fact we are responding to the images running in the background of our national psyche.

 

What America really sees is the iconic image of big, black King Kong leering at tiny, White Fay Wray as he holds her hostage. The smooth veneer of Sidney Poitier as the super-genteel Black suitor of a rich White woman in the groundbreaking 1968 film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The face of OJ Simpson superimposed on a TV screen next to his blonde ex-wife and alleged murder victim, Nicole, as he fled in a white Bronco. And the April 2008 Vogue magazine cover featuring NBA star LeBron James and supermodel Gisele posed to echo the King Kong-Fay Wray image—which experts decried as a “flop,” surprised that the taboo optics didn’t boost sales as expected.

 

lebron-james-is-king-kong

 

Today, the mythological ravaging “savage” is hawking breakfast cereal; tomorrow, who knows? One thing is certain, though: Black male/White female relationships will still be “taboo,” still push buttons, stoke fears, fuel controversy and possibly sales. Because love it or hate it, American can never get its fill.

Emancipation Communication

Why launch on this date?

juneteenth 2

While slavery ended for African Americans in most southern states when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, Texas slaveowners  withheld this news from their slaves.

How and why did this travesty take place? As the Juneteenth website states:

The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years.

Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom.

Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations.

Still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

All of which, or neither of these version could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question   For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

I chose June 19, aka Juneteenth, as the launch date for Black and Blewish to honor the vital role that communications plays in keeping a people either bound or free; ignorant or informed; and enslaved or emancipated.

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated not only in Texas, but throughout the country. This blog is all about honoring the need to share information in the interest of surviving and thriving.

frederick-douglass-statue

On the Biracial tip, I’m loving that this year, Juneteenth was commeorated in the nation’s capitol by the unveiling of a 7-foot bronze statue of abolitionist and emancipation warrior Frederick Douglass.

According to BlackAmericaweb, “The statue joined sculpted tributes to fellow Black Americans Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Sojourner Truth on peranent display in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall.”

Wouldn’t you love to hear their conversations when nobody’s around?

Here’s a toast and salute to the power and necessity of Emancipation Communications, as essential today as it was back in the day. Information truly IS power, and now that the digital drum is in our hands, let’s honor the tradition of joyously spreading the word.