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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’…

 somebody/anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/struggle/hard times

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.

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  1. Abena J #
    December 18, 2012

    Well said!

    • Yaba #
      December 18, 2012

      Thank YOU, Abena!

  2. Sandra D Garza #
    December 18, 2012

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Yaba #
      December 18, 2012

      Thank YOU, Sandra!

  3. Jacquelyn #
    December 18, 2012

    Thank you! This touched my heart. I know that this video will mean alot to LaShawnte and her mother. Thanks again!

    Peace and Blessings!

    • Yaba #
      December 18, 2012

      Thank you Jaquelyn for all that you do. And thank you especially for sharing this with LaShawnte and her mother!

      • Jacquelyn #
        December 19, 2012

        I played the message for Lashawnte on yesterday evening. I wish you could have seen the smile on her face as she listened to you call her by name. She covered her mouth in surprise as you spoke to her about her beauty and giving her the affirmations that she was special and with purpose. When her father came to pick her up, the two watch the video together. He was really touched by your message. He also pointed out the resemblance that you and Lashawnte have on your childhood picture. He was very grateful and told me to thank you! I sent the link and your contact information to her mom. Im sure you will hear from Lashawnte and her parents soon. Thanks again for this heartfelt message.

        Peace and Blessings

        • Yaba #
          December 19, 2012

          Awwwww THANK YOU SO MUCH, Jacquelyn – again and again! This makes me SO HAPPY! I look forward to speaking with LaShawnte soon!

          BLESS!!!

  4. Ashley #
    December 18, 2012

    I am so inspired! What a beautiful article! I wish I had an aunt like yours. I always told myself that when I have a daughter I will tell her she is beautiful EVERYday! I will have an opportunity by the end of the month (hopefully). I’m going to dig out my Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

    • Yaba #
      December 18, 2012

      YES! And surround her with others who will also remind her of her beauty! Thank you for reading, Ashley.

  5. Nyoka #
    December 18, 2012

    Thank you for this personal and touching piece. May your words serve as balm over a young (or old) woman’s wounds.

    • Yaba #
      December 18, 2012

      Asé and Amen! Thank you, Nyoka!

  6. Ashley #
    December 18, 2012

    Wow! Your words touched me. I too am a dark-skinned girl…and like many others I share you and Lashawnte’s painful story. Although I am now an adult, I don’t think I’ve fully come to embrace the beauty of who I am. Instead I’ve learned to look into the mirror, and ignore the skin I’m in. While I do this to myself, as an educator I find myself constantly telling the little brown girls and boys that I teach how beautiful and wonderful they are. Listening to your message to Lashawnte brought tears to my eyes because I realize that I needed to hear the same words I give to others. But most importantly I need to look into the mirror and say them to myself. Your words have freed me. Thank you for being brave, bold and honest enough to share them with the word.

    • Yaba #
      December 18, 2012

      “I realize that I needed to hear the same words I give to others.” – YES, Sister, YOU DO! It’s never too late to care for and nurture the little girl that lives within. With love and encouragement, I hold your hand and walk with you. Know that!

  7. Auntie Janet #
    December 18, 2012

    Wow… I just read what you wrote an watched what you said. I’m going to reply by copying here, what I texted back to you on your recent birthday. I sent you a birthday wish. You had, then, written to remind me that I used to make a big fuss over your skin, when you were a little girl.You said that my doing so had helped you to see the beauty in your skin color and that you were eternally grateful. To this I replied:

    Oh my…Really? I am just SO moved and happy, that I am truly about to cry…My beautiful Yaba. I hope you know that I meant it, and still do. You are, and have always been, an absolute work of visual art. Then, if that weren’t enough, you turned out to be brilliant and thoughful, as well.

    If only you could succeed in helping other women, who were blessed with flawless midnight velvet skin, to see their own beauty, you would be doing us, as African people, a great service.

    We have so much to do, and undo, to regain ourselves. We may have hope, with you leading the 1neDrop charge. If I ever had anything to do with that, I’m glad.

    Many hugs, Auntie J.

    Your message to LaShawnte was loving and wise, and it is one that I hope she takes to heart. As they say in Ghana, Ayikoo!

    • Yaba #
      December 18, 2012

      “Yooooo!”

      I am grateful to have had you (and to still have you) in my life. Yours is a shining example of LOVE and I will forever call your name. I love you, Auntie Janet.

  8. Mama Koko #
    December 18, 2012

    Great message. Yaba. Genuine and heartfelt. I felt the healing from your words even though I was called, “White Patty” for being so- light-skinned. It’s all pathology. Race is not our fiction, but it is our affliction.

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      Thank you Mama Koko! And thank YOU for teaching me the healing power of mirror work. This is for us ALL.

  9. December 19, 2012

    This is beautiful Dr. Blay. I thought I could get through it without welling up – I couldn’t even get past the FCG excerpt. It’s my favorite. It nurtured me from a young, young girl and still effects me emotionally – it’s why I named my blog after it. THIS is beautiful. With your permission, I’d like to repost on my blog and share with my precious brown girls.

    THANK YOU FOR THIS!! It’s a gift to the world and hopefully the spark for a movement!

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      Thank YOU Tarana! ‘Dark Phases’ is a forever favorite of mine as well. Every time I read it, I feel encouraged to sing our song! So yes, OF COURSE – PLEASE do share!

  10. udamae #
    December 19, 2012

    Yaba. Thank you for sharing yourself again & again. Your message had me in tears. I am/was Lashawnte, also. As a mama of a dark brown girl it has been my pleasure and duty to affirm multiple times a day her beauty.From the time that she was born i have been singing in her ear going to sleep and waking up “you’re beautiful i just want you to know you’re my favorite girl…” Even with the positive messages all around her she still struggled a little,being pressured by the disneyesque concept of beauty, popularity and goodness plus some of the little girls at school. We talked we did more affirmations and strengthening with words to empower and gird her with MORE. It is a constant. Mamas gotta stay on it! I am sharing far and wide, so it stays active. Many thanks for your insistence and persistence. Love you more…more fyah blazin Yaba!

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      UdaMae! Your Pretty Brown Girl is blessed to have you. Keep singing her song…and know that I’m on background vocals! LOVE

  11. Akiba #
    December 19, 2012

    This is just fantastic. Girls and boys need to see and hear this message again and again and again.

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      YES, Akiba! AND boys! We (myself included) often overlook how colorism impacts the self-reflection/self-esteem of our little boys. They, too, need affirmation of their beauty!

  12. nzinga #
    December 19, 2012

    yaba! you da BADDEST bamma! this is beautiful! and so are you and lil lashawnte :-)

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      I love how you use ‘bamma’ with LOVE! Thank you, Nzinga! ;-)

  13. December 19, 2012

    That was awesome!!!!!

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      Thank you, Michelle!

  14. Biany #
    December 19, 2012

    Sister Yaba,
    Thank you for sharing your story and your words to LaShawnte and to all the beautiful black girls being told otherwise. It took me two days to read and watch the videos. I couldn’t stop crying. I love that passage in For Colored Girls….

    I am so PROUD OF YOU. Your courage will continue to inspire not only myself but black girls everywhere. I just read Jacquelyn’s comment and I was filled with tears of joy. That is how every black little girl should feel, like the world LOVES her. I can’t wait to hear about your first encounter with LaShawnte!! :-)

    Your video reminded me of how I need to continue to love myself in the face of society’s loathing. I am giving myself a hug right now. And the mirror work is something I have been doing but will return to it with more intention. Thank you..

    I am also grateful for your Aunt Janet. To have someone you love just affirm your beauty inside and out..is the truest blessing. And here you are paying it forward.

    Sending you love-n-light!!

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      Thank you for your kind words, Biany! I created this for LaShawnte, with the intention of sending love and affirmation to her and little girls just like her but surprisingly, amazingly, and beautifully so many grown women have been touched by my reflection as well. And that means a lot to me. Truly. Your tears are my tears.

      Make sure you find a picture of Lil’ Biany and give her a hug too! Love you!

  15. Kristina #
    December 19, 2012

    I love this article and the video. Being white, I can’t possibly know how it feels to grow up as a minority in a culture with an obvious race discrepancy, but I can feel very deeply for the children and adults who are impacted by this everyday. For what it’s worth, I find dark skin absolutely gorgeous! When I see very dark skinned people, I think it looks so beautiful! For a long time, I always wanted to be darker, because I thought it was more pretty. Now, I am quite comfortable in how I look. I love my skin, my hair, and everything! I can only hope that the girls like LaShawnte and others can come to this conclusion early– it is hard to grow up as a woman in our culture with so many beauty stereotypes thrust upon us, regardless of skin color, but I’d imagine even more so for women of color. Stay strong, ladies!! :)

    • Yaba #
      December 19, 2012

      Thank you, Kristina!

  16. Ava #
    December 30, 2012

    When bold folks dare to be the voice of those whose stories need to be told, when bold folks dare to share their own struggles, pains, strife, to allow others to heal thru them, for those bold folk, I applaud! LaShawnte you are heard!

    • Yaba #
      January 2, 2013

      Give thanks, Ava!

  17. Tokunbo Koiki #
    January 2, 2013

    What an amazing and genuine expression of love! I am so glad LaShawnte got to see the message and hope that she will realise she’s beyond beautiful.
    Truly enjoying your blog and your research work, fantastic stuff! Would love to get involved in the research topic.

    • Yaba #
      January 2, 2013

      Thank you, Tokunbo!

  18. Shiku #
    January 3, 2013

    Yaba,

    I so relate to you and LaShawnte. My family emigrated to the US from Kenya. My niece was 9 when she came to the US. We had never been aware of our skin color until we came to th US. Really, in most parts of Africa race is never an issue. So settling here was a real struggle for my niece, she always wanted to wear wigs and straighten her hair at 9 years old. It broke my heart because that’s the one battle we could not fight for her, we would send her to school and hope at the end of the day she wouldn’t come home asking how to fix this and that on her so she could look like the other kids.
    Many a times we questioned whether bringing her to the US was the right decision for her because back in Kenya there was no emphasis on skin color, features and hair. There are so many other issues eating our African countries such that your skin color, weight and other categories of
    beauty are almost non existent.
    Her positive body image came from watching her mum and aunties be comfortable with who they are. All the women in my family stopped straightening our hair, opted for more natural hair styles no extensions or braiding, became comfortable with accessirizing with our own authentic handmade or bought accessories and put down pressure to look or act a certain way to fit in. My niece is now a sophomore and her confidence reflects on her grades she is the honors program and the top athlete in her school. Women were are the best example of all the little girls around us, they see us exude confidence in who were are regardless if what society tells us who we are, they will emulate that. Because little girls see us as an extension of who they are. Peace!!

    • Yaba #
      January 3, 2013

      My first and most natural reaction is to say ‘I’m proud of your niece!’ Isn’t it something that being comfortable in our skin is something that warrants congratulations? Thank you so much for reading, Shiku, and for sharing your thoughts.

  19. April 27, 2013

    To be honest I read this post with a prejudice towards it, as I really find this topic uninteresting. But this post was beautiful and I don’t think the message should be directed at women. All Negroes owe this young lady or those like her a response.

  20. Akua Maanu #
    August 22, 2013

    Mepa wo kyew, wo ho te sen? Woadye! Mo! Mo!

    Meda wo ase paa for writing this piece. I am happy to follow your works!

    *A Black American woman who LOVES Ghana!*

  21. October 8, 2013

    Hi Yaba! First of all, its so great to see that you are doing well and continuing to shine your light! You were my mentor in the Ronald McNair Fellowship at Temple; I was going by the name Alison Williams then. Anyway, thank you for sharing this story, although it is heart-breaking to see that so many of our children, especially our girls, do not see their own beauty. I have written and illustrated a children’s book to address this very issue. It is called Big Brown Eyes and it is written in the voice of a mother telling her baby how beautiful all of their features are, Please check it out at my website, http://www.mommaphoenix.com when you get a chance and share with others. Thank you for the amazing work that you are doing in our community. God bless you!
    -Evelyn Phoenix

    • Yaba #
      October 11, 2013

      Hi Alison! So good to hear from you. And to see that you’re doing well. Thank you for sharing your website – checking it out now!

  22. Blossom #
    February 10, 2014

    I love this article I would definately dedicate this to my neices who are 2 and 4. I want them to grow up knowing that they are beautiful and nothing less. I hope to be a”Auntie Janet” for them :)

  23. February 20, 2014

    Dr. Yaba Blay,

    God bless you today and everyday. You are doing God’s work through your message of love and healing. As the FCG quote intimates, there is a great deal of beauty, brilliance and power residing in every dark skinned girl (and dark skinned boy for that matter). Sadly, our feelings of being less beautiful and less worthy sometimes cripples us. Those feelings prevent us from being productive, creating, inventing and daring greatly in our personal, social, professional, economic and political lives. (Indeed, that is the precise purpose of white supremacists constructs such as colorism, to keep people of African and Asian descent oppressed.)

    I discuss the crippling effect of self-esteem issues in his essay (http://thegrio.com/2012/10/18/healing-old-wounds-why-its-our-most-important-work/) that was published by the Grio.

    But with your blog posts like this one, your beautiful book for Tiana and Pretty Period, the healing will continue and the greatness and power of all of Gods children will be unleashed for the benefit of humanity. All of humanity will reign supreme.

    Peace and Blessings,

    Ama

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. For LaShawnte: Pretty Brown Girl | Dr. Yaba Blay
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  4. Sheryl Underwood: Black Girl Pain | Afro State of Mind
  5. LaShawnte’s Chorus | Dr. Yaba Blay

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