On Sunday December 9th, CNN aired the latest installment of their annual Black in America series reported by Soledad O’Brien. This year’s special, entitled “Who is Black in America?,” focused on colorism and racial identity and the intricate intersections between the two. We watched young adults grapple with questions of their identity, namely the question of “What are you?” – a question not only asked of them by others, but one that they continue to ask of themselves. This is a question I myself have never had to think about, much less articulate an answer to because the color of my skin is reflective of my Ghanaian ancestry. By its dark tone, everyone I encounter knows exactly what I am.
Perhaps that’s why I felt most personally connected to the story of seven-year-old, LaShawnte.
As I listened to the little girl tell her mother, “I think my skin is ugly…I don’t want to be dark,” I literally felt my heart break, not only for LaShawnte, but for my younger self. I know her pain. I know it all too well.
When I was LaShawnte’s age, I didn’t get invited to one of my schoolmate’s birthday party. She was a “pretty little Creole girl” who came from a prominent family in New Orleans, where I grew up. Because we were friends, I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t invite me. That is, until I saw the pictures from the party. All of the children and their parents shared something glaringly obvious in common – they were all light-skinned. Point taken.
Although I never told anyone that I hated being dark, it’s not hard for me to understand why LaShawnte does. It’s not easy growing up dark-skinned with tightly coiled hair in this society. Everywhere you turn, you’re made painfully aware that your skin is not the right skin and that your natural hair isn’t “good” enough. On the playground, your “friends” spit “black” on you, taunting you with names like “blackie” or reminding you that “don’t nobody want to play with your black butt.” Sometimes your own family members remind you that you’re the darkest one or go so far as to pinpoint the moment in your infancy when your color changed. They might even give you a nickname like “Blue.” When you turn on the television to watch Black sitcoms, the shows that should reflect your experiences, you quickly notice that the “pretty” little girls look nothing like you; neither do the “beautiful” grown women. And if someone does take the time to compliment your appearance at all, they remind you that you’re “pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” because after all, dark skin isn’t ‘normally’ pretty.
In my own family, we’re all dark-skinned so there was never any conversation about it. Having immigrated to this country from Ghana, my parents’ primary concern was that I take full advantage of the opportunities available to me. How to navigate a social space wrought by colorism was not something they were necessarily prepared to teach me how to do. So I suffered. In silence. Thankfully, I had my Auntie Janet. A close friend of our family, Auntie Janet is a light-skinned African-American married to a Ghanaian. Whenever I would see her, she would make a big fuss over my skin. Like clockwork, each and every time I saw her, she would hold my face between her hands and say, “Oh my goodness! Look at your skin. It’s flawless. Tell me your secret!” And each time, I would giggle and say, “I don’t have any secrets! This is just my skin!” And though she literally told me “You are so beautiful” time and time again, it was through her eyes that I was able to affirm the beauty of my complexion despite the fact that the larger society communicated otherwise. Auntie Janet ‘sang my song’…
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
the makin of a melody
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.
(excerpt from “Dark Phases” by Ntozake Shange)
Every little girl deserves an ‘Auntie Janet’ in her life.
Touched by LaShawnte’s story, I want to be for her (and other little girls) what my Auntie Janet was for me – I want to sing her song. I have no doubt that LaShawnte’s mother loves her dearly, in the same way that my own mother loves me; but sometimes we need a little bit more than our mother’s love. We need constant affirmation of our beauty. We need to know that even though there are people in this world that would have us believe that our skin color is ugly, that it is they who have a problem – not us.
Here is my message to LaShawnte:
I’m calling on Black women to join me in ‘singing a Black girl’s song,’ not only for LaShawnte, but for all the little girls who could benefit from the affirmation of their beauty and their value. An intimate weaving of past and present, memory and contemporary, their stories are our stories. Perhaps if they know that we truly understand, they can be encouraged to see themselves through our eyes; perhaps they will soon be able to see themselves for what they are – Pretty Brown Girls.
Whether she is dark-skinned or light-skinned or any shade in between, please, in some way, tell a little Black girl that she is beautiful today. And every day.