In class we touched on the nappy hair issue and I added that I’d heard as a child, How can such a yellow girl have such nappy hair? (Also, when older, I heard, stuck-up Creole bitch, stuck up yellow bitch, and stuck up high yellow bitch.) It was on my mind because of the newspaper article Sunday, far too short, on Haki Madhubuti, a man and writer I admire even though, maybe because, I don’t agree with him on all points. But one part of the interview struck memory and set me thinking:
Q: Was being light-skinned a problem?
A: Being high yellow was always a problem, yes. What happened, early in the struggle in the 1960s, I would always be challenged by men in the struggle that were in some cases darker than I was but not as intellectually referenced. There was always the question, was I black enough, could I be trusted in the deepest of struggle? I decided I was going to have to outwork everybody in the black community, not tangential to it, not parallel to it, not in some academic university setting. I would really have to produce in the black community. That was my mission.
I was pleased to see “high yellow” and that end of the colorism spectrum mentioned in the newspaper but it was equally painful. When suspect, you must work harder than, be more committed than, be more hardcore and “authentic” than anyone else. Which is not authentic, in my opinion. Peers, adults, strangers, family suspected I wasn’t “down” because I was light and almost white-looking (except for the nappy hair and nose–and not for long; I still get in the sun as much as possible), a decision made before I spoke or got close enough to distinguish one eye from the other. The assumption was I thought lighter meant “better.” I grew up during the shift from near-universal Black pride in education and hard work to the school/kid culture of today in which As or Bs, knowing how to spell, liking to read (anything, not just Jane Austen) meant you were “acting/tryin’ to be white” and in my book-smart-straight-As-glasses- fat-unathletic-too-bookish-to-be (or care much about being)-hip case, I was an inherent traitor. But instead of taking the usual path, one I saw almost every other light-skinned person around me take (and had taken and I would see take over and over), the path Madhubuti speaks of, I decided to get comfortable with, if not downright like, being an outsider. I didn’t turn away from blackness or pass or become infatuated with false “superiority” based on internalized white supremacy (I’m not a nationalist nor am I an integrationist) but turned away from the daily pit fight of proving my blackness, proving where I stood every second and inch, proving every minute Who I Really Was.
And it is still a problem. For me and others. I wait for the you’re-not-black-enough shoe to hit the back of my head. Every day I fear all my not-black-enoughs will jeopardize me at the University. Yet I still contrarily resist playing the Prove-It Game, still to my detriment but I stubbornly cling. The same essentialism that says I must like X and behave like Y to “be/prove/signify” I am black is the same that says my skin color determines my intelligence, moral values and reproductive choices and that says my uterus is the center of and only justification for my existence. I eat my beans with a gravy, drink pot liquor from greens, eat black-eyed peas on New Years and red beans on Mardi Gras and tell my daughter proudly about black history and braid her curly, wavy, somewhat kinky, thick, beautiful hair. My skin gets ashy. My hair stays dry. I experience racism. And colorism. I get up early to go to Zulu and ignore Rex. Yet I do not know much about Mardi Gras Indians, Martinique, slave markets, Haiti, Senegal, underground rap, the Ninth Ward or the old Magnolia projects or what “flossin’ “ means. I sort of know what crunk is now after many months. What disturbs me is that the black-enough bar slides up, down and sideways depending on who is holding it over your head and for what reason, to put you in your place or to just plain fucking bash your head in.
I know damn well what we think of as race is a social rather than a biological construct and fact (see the American Association of Physical Anthropologists Statement on Biological Aspects of Race). I also know that I have never in my life felt like a white person or wanted to be one. I did not marry who I did because he was white. And I push my students because I know excellence is not dependent on skin color, that they are capable and will not succumb to stereotype, self or group underestimation or condescension. I do not agree all black people are loud or soft-spoken or any single or monochromatic (pun intended) feature. At the University, the skin colors are all in a certain range but the backgrounds and philosophies range more than at, say, an Ivy League school where nearly everyone, white, black, Latino, Asian, is upper-middle class or better and suburban and has pretty much the same law school/business/med school ambitions.
I did not go out “looking for a white man.” I do not think I am of a different class, order, level or magnitude “than other black people.” I do not hate blackness or my “Black self.” I do not choose my friends based on skin color and the few times I have, always favoring the black person over the white, I have gotten deeply, unforgettably burned. I do not choose all the things I eat, read, listen to, crave, dream about, hope for and buy based on “blackness” or“whiteness” but on quality, price and my personal desire and/or plan. I also do not do this without inner conflict, angst, frustration, existential anger and hurt feelings, mine and those of others. Especially mine.
How will it end, ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue
Black and Blue, performed by Louis Armstrong