by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Rudy Nickens, director of racial equality for the Ferguson Commission for the past year, will present “Black Lives, Black Liberation” on Saturday, May 14, 7 p.m., at the Green Street Friends Meeting, 45 W. School House Lane in Germantown. Nickens, of St. Louis, will discuss issues of color, internalized oppression and racial justice. Following the program there will be conversation and refreshments.
The little boy’s aunt, a fair-skinned woman, wanted to take him to a concert in Atlanta in the 1940s. “You can come in,” the white ticket seller told her, “but the nigger has to stay outside,” pointing to the brown-skinned boy.
My friend, that little boy, was 8 years old at the time of that incident. He told me that story when he was 69, more that 60 years later. Such rejection can make an indelible mark on a child.
In the 1940s, when my friend had that experience, the issue of skin color had a history of more than 300 years in this country. Color became a convenient way to distinguish workers. White indentured servants could run away from one city and blend in with whites in another place. Once the enslavement of West Africans began, the distinction of dark skin gave owners a firmer grip on their labor.
Slave owners and overseers had easy access to enslaved women, and in time some women gave birth to fair-skinned children. A lighter skin, which meant blood ties to the owner or other whites with power, could bring privileges. You might become a house servant rather than a field hand. You might eat leftovers from your owner’s table instead of the coarse fare most enslaved blacks ate.
You might wear your owner’s castoff clothes, not the rough fabric of slaves who grew tobacco, cotton or other crops. House servants, who looked down on field hands, were often expected to tell the owner if a rebellion was brewing. Granting favors to light-skinned blacks became a way to divide and conquer. From 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived, until 1865, the end of the Civil War, many mulattoes and quadroons had higher status.
It’s no surprise then that after 236 years, the premium placed on fair skin became entrenched not just among whites but blacks too. My parents sometimes spoke of “the paper bag test” at some black social clubs. You could attend an event only if your skin was no darker than a paper bag. “Colorism” had its teeth into us even after slavery had ended.
One of the schoolyard chants of my childhood was: “If you’re white, you’re right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, get back.” I, and many other black Baby Boomers swallowed that poison along with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches our mothers served us for lunch. In fact, my mother’s saying that she wished she had straight hair sang like an anthem through my childhood. What did that wish cost her in self-esteem?
Colorism heated up when one reached courting age. Once I was dating a handsome dark-skinned man who was working at the Central Library while attending Temple University. My mother said that she had no objection to him, but a friend of hers had said, “If Connie marries him, what will their children look like?” Colorism is insidious: many of us blacks have absorbed it, but we may deny it and feel ashamed of it. However, the message from the white world seeps into our lives.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s set a vibrant new view of ourselves to music. The late James Brown’s song, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” topped the charts. The Impressions instilled pride with their hit, “We’re a Winner.” Color seemed to become less important for a time.
Fast-forward to 1984. The Miss America Pageant slammed us with Vanessa Williams as the first black winner of the crown. Granted, her reign was brief, but it carried a stinging message: the fair-skinned version of black was beautiful.
The country took a leap forward when it elected Barack Obama, a clearly black president, yet the old plantation patterns of encouraging colorism — not to mention 892 active hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — often remain.
From 1995 to 2009, Villanova University’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice did a study of more than 12,000 cases involving black women in North Carolina’s criminal justice system. The study found that black women with lighter skin received more lenient sentences and served less prison time than darker-skinned women. Though the approach is more subtle, the outcome is the same: divide, conquer, sow resentment and self-doubt.
Another Villanova study showed that in school dark-skinned girls are often punished more severely than fair-skinned black girls for misbehavior. The 2011 documentary, “Dark Girls,” available on YouTube, looks at the hurt darker-skinned women experience from childhood on. “Light Girls,” the documentary that followed it, centers on difficulties that fair-skinned black women face.
I admit that I’ve absorbed enough trash about color to be glad that I’m neither dark nor light but medium brown. My skin tone is a fine legacy from my parents, but it also means that I may be a little less battered by colorism. And, yes, I recognize places in my spirit that need to heal around issues of color, places of internalized oppression, and I’m working on them.
When racism and colorism warp black Americans’ view of ourselves, those twin messages become a vicious boomerang. When they’re thrown at us they cripple our thinking and limit our vision, so that we may become less able to contribute all that we could to this country.
The Saturday night event, a fundraiser for the Black Liberation and Community Development Workshop, has a suggested donation of $20 to $100. Call 215-844-1257 for more information, or visit www.facebook.com/events/1181062358594534/.
Constance Garcia-Barrio is a Mt. Airy resident, a retired professor of Romance Languages at West Chester University and a regular contributor to the Local.