“She had light skin and long hair...”
“She was light skinned, with straight hair...”
“She had really light skin and good hair...”
I often heard these sort of phrases countless times while growing up. Such utterances were always the code words proceeding judgment if a Black girl was worthy of being granted the lofty title of beautiful. My older brothers, cousins, their friends, and many other guys around the neighborhood began or ended their stories this way when bragging.
On uniquely rare occasions they sometimes mentioned seeing or speaking to a dark skinned girl they found attractive but this came with an indication of surprise. “She is really dark skinned but still really pretty” or “she's a chocolate/dark thing but still fine as hell” was their way of explaining what was treated like a rare phenomenon.
It would be exceedingly easy to vilify these individuals or rush to heap scorn upon them concerning their perceptions about light skin vs dark skin. However, such ire would be equally misguided. Why? First, because all of these young men were only teenagers who were just easily misguided, presumptuous, and ridiculous as so many kids are.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, their own perspectives of what constituted beauty in Black women/girls were drastically distorted by older men-- who themselves were the products of a colonial education in self-degradation-- and an endless stream of potent media.
As recently as the 80s and 90s there were few, if any, dark skinned women depicted as beautiful, attractive, or desirable in films, on television, and ironically even in rap videos. It is a tragic irony that media created by us would be so frequently guilty of carrying the most venom and disdain towards Black women.
Of course, there has always been a number of positive and intellectual artists in rap and hip-hop. However, their much-needed presence does not negate or detract from the more blatantly poisonous elements of the art that eagerly encouraged young Black men to stew within a toxic form of masculinity. A mindset where musical idols are celebrated, wealthy, and famous for demeaning, insulting, and callously dismissing Black women as little more than masturbatory aids to be used, abused, and ultimately cast aside.
Black women are routinely denounced for being stubborn, 'hardened', suspicious or uncompromising. But before making such broad, superficial generalizations do their accusers ever stop to examine what it is Black women have experienced for generations? And continue to experience daily? Women, in general, must struggle against the many burdens and obstacles placed before them by both overt and covert sexism. However, no other population of women in this country is so harried by persistent scorn, double-standards, vicious judgment, harsh accusation, and seemingly endless ridicule as Black women.
Caught between what can easily be described as an immovable anvil of centuries old, systemic racism, and the relentless hammer of struggles in our own community, Black women are forced to be made of sterner stuff, as fragility would only lead to drowning in utter despair.
This understanding is not presented as a carte blanche for the actions of every individual Black woman. Nor, is this the automatic blanket condemnation of all Black men. Instead, this is a sorrowful admittance that our community suffers from centuries worth of grievous wounds that have left lasting scars. Perhaps the deepest and slowest healing of these wounds is the way we view ourselves. The way we have negatively judged our hair, skin, and features.
Not only do we exist in a society where women are constantly judged predominately based on their perceived physical desirability but it is also a nation where White women are advertised as the ultimate expression of feminine beauty. Our community has been saturated by the constant deluge of this message for generations. This is why it is a unique pain Black women have predominately carried. Acknowledging this does not somehow mock, belittle, or lessen the overall struggle of Black men. Added knowledge brings only strength.
But where does it come from? What breeds this prevalent disdain of Black women and girls that infects parts of our own community? Maybe it starts early for young Black boys. Indoctrination is not always intentional but that never makes it less dangerous when it occurs.
As kids, we frequently played a game called “Capping” or “Playing the Dozens”. In layman's terms it was a game of exchanging comedic insults like, “You so stupid, when you read a sign saying 'Airport Left' you turned around and went home” or “You so broke you have to put a color TV on layaway because you can only pay off one color at a time”. To the more nonsensically abstract ones like, “Yo momma has only 1 eye and 1 leg, and they call her Ilean”, or “Yo momma have a wooden afro with leather sideburns”. We would eagerly gather to watch two verbal combatants battle for the biggest laughs until someone gave up. For the most part, these games remained friendly-- but sometimes wounded pride could dictate otherwise.
The topics varied wildly. But mothers, sisters, and Blackness seemed to fuel a major portion of these disses. More precisely, there were a vast number of insults about how hideous, comical, or pathetic dark skin was, especially concerning women. Some believe mothers and sisters were frequently targeted because they are held in high regards thus making it easier to possible offend one's opponent. But people want to believe many things despite the contrary. There are times you cannot see what is directly in front of you for any number of reasons. Sometimes it takes someone else to show you what has always been painfully obvious.
In my 5th grade class, the moment the daily 20 minutes of free time arrived, many of us boys would gather into a circle at the back of the class to play the dozens. Like a vicious verbal equivalent of the old gladiatorial games, mercy was only granted when someone tapped out allowing a new challenger to take on the winner.
A substitute teacher, Mr. Edwin, an older Black man from NY, was monitoring the class. During his extended stay, he enjoyed frequently talking about subjects like the Harlem Renaissance and all those figures who contributed to making those times so memorable through art, music, and literature. I found a great deal of enjoyment listening to these stories because I had never heard of the Harlem Renaissance up until this point in my life. Before his small lectures, my understanding of Black history was always centered around slavery, MLK, Rosa Parks, and little else.
On this day we were having a particularly brutal exchange when Mr. Edwin moved in closer to watch with what appeared to be mild amusement and interests. For the first few minutes, he remained silent and only observed.
“Yo momma is so black,” Began Eshu to Kappa. “when she jumps into a hot bath it turns into coffee”
Everyone in the large circle laughed.
“Yeah?” Kappa smirked at Eshu. “Yo momma so Black when she spits oil comes out.”
Everyone laughed again.
“I've got one!” Mr. Edwin finally jumped in with a jovial tone to all the kid's amazement.
“Really?” Eshu asked in surprise.
“Yeah. It's a good one.” Mr. Edwin nodded. “Ready?”
Everyone nodded excitedly while encouraging him to say his joke as well.
“Yo, Momma is so Black,” Then Mr. Edwin stopped without finishing the joke.
“She is so Black, what?” Asked Kappa in confusion.
“That's it.” Mr. Edwin shrugged as he looked between us. “All of your mothers are so Black. That is why each of you are so Black.”
“That's it?” Eshu asked in disappointment.
“I don't mean any disrespect Mr. Edwin but that was wack.” Kitsune chimed in causing many of the boys to laugh under their breath.
“Oh. That's not the running joke? I thought the funny part of all this was being Black.” Mr. Edwin explained.
“What? No one said that.” Eshu replied defensively.
“Of course you did,” Mr. Edwin continued. “All of you were. You simply do not understand that is exactly what each of you are saying.”
“But there were a lot of other jokes.” Kappa reminded him.
“But not nearly as many as the ones about Black skin. Or why our mothers and sisters are comical, gross, or ugly because they are Black women and girls.” Mr. Edwin countered.
“But it's just a joke.” Eshu rolled his eyes with clear impatience.
“Let me ask each of you something.” Mr. Edwin pulled up a chair to sit with us. “Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why is it that Blackness is funny? Or why we demean our women for having dark skin? What is so funny about our natural state?”
“It is all just a joke. You are taking it way too serious.” Kitsune groaned with irritation.
“Only because I am old enough to remember when White folk were saying all those things about us in person, on the radio, the stage, and television while there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it.” Mr. Edwin continued patiently. “I'm not trying to stop any of you. I already know you would all just go running out at recess and continue there even if I told you to stop. I just want you all to think about what it is you are saying. I want you all, if even just for a few minutes, to seriously think about why is it that every punchline is little more than Black folk are funny looking or comical for being nothing more than Black folk. Or why is it that so many jokes are about how ugly our sisters and mothers are for being Black.”
Everyone was quiet as he looked between each of us sitting there in that circle. After glancing down at his watch he stood from his chair. “Free time is about up,” Mr. Edwin continued. “Now, can each of you promise me that?”
“Yes.” Most of the boys groaned out collectively as it was clear the mood had shifted.
“I know you all think its just a joke.” Mr. Edwin briefly tapped the side of his head. “But why does it have to be a joke at all our expense? Why does it have to be a joke about our women?” After that, he clapped his hands a couple of times to begin getting the rest of the class attention while walking towards the front of the room and announcing free time was over.
“I never thought about that,” Kappa admitted out loud causing some of the other boys mumbled their agreement.
“He is taking this way too serious,” Kitsune said with dismissive anger. “All that Black Power shit is so stupid. Who needs that?”
With that, we all returned to our normal seating arrangements to being the next lesson.
I learned something incredibly important that day. There is no oppression greater than when the oppressed begin to see themselves through the eyes of the oppressors. Shamefully, even within our community, it would seem it is a cruelty Black women continue to fight and resist even to this day.