by Len Lear
I wrote an article for Philadelphia Magazine in 1977 about black families in Philadelphia who could trace their roots back to the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
I interviewed many elderly blacks in the professions, and one thing I learned that very few white Americans were aware of was that there were social organizations like Jack and Jill that would deny an applicant membership if she had skin color darker than a brown bag.
This phenomenon — light-skinned African Americans discriminating against dark-skinned African Americans — is called “colorism.” Does that kind of thing still go on?
“Absolutely,” insists Lori L. Tharps, a Mt. Airy resident for the last 11 years and an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University. “Colorism has been a part of the African American experience since Africans arrived in the U.S. But colorism is also a serious issue in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Colorism truly affects all people, even here in the U.S.”
Also an award-winning author, freelance journalist, popular speaker and five-year member of the Unitarian Society of Germantown, Tharps will discuss the little-known (among whites) but highly charged subject of colorism on Saturday, Nov. 19, 3 p.m., at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy.
What makes Tharps an authority on the subject of colorism? She is the author of “Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism In America’s Diverse Families.” The book was recently published by Beacon Press, a Unitarian Universalist publisher (203 pages, $25.95).
A recent review of the book in the New York Times by Stanford University history professor Allyson Hobbs wrote in part, “With great sensitivity and unapologetic boldness, Tharps skillfully weaves the rich historical context of the U.S., the Americas and Asia with wrenching contemporary first-person accounts to investigate how color operates in the most intimate spaces of American families.
“Relying on numerous interviews of parents and children with a wide range of skin colors, Tharps proves the quotation by the social scientist Frank Sulloway to be painfully true: ‘No social injustice is felt more deeply than that suffered within one’s own family.’”
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tharps, 44, left the Midwest , according to a bio of her, “in search of an authentic life experience beginning with four years at Smith College. (Technically, one of those years was spent studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain.).”
After graduating from Smith with a B.A. in comparative education and Spanish, Tharps spent two years working on Madison Avenue at one of New York City’s top public relations agencies. While there, she wrote press releases and organized press events for a candy company, powdered soup distributor and well-known maker of dry toast. After realizing she’d never succeed as a public relations executive, Tharps entered Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and after graduation in 1997 has been writing prolifically ever since.
Tharps has written for Ms., Glamour, Vogue Black, Caribbean Life, Grid Philadelphia and Essence magazines. Also for The Columbia Journalism Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, Ebony.com, et al. She is the author of two other works of nonfiction, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” (St. Martin’s Press) and “Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain” (Atria), and the novel, “Substitute Me” (Atria).
Tharps started teaching at Temple as an adjunct professor in 2007, but today she is an associate professor there.
What is the best advice Tharps ever received? “Nothing is a mistake if you learn something from it.”
Which talent that she does not have would she most like to have? “I really wish I could sing. Like really sing. I think if I could sing, I would use my voice to really heal people and inspire them. Now I can only use my words on the page for that.”
If Tharps, who lives with her husband and three children in Mt. Airy, could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? “Lisbon, Portugal.”
If she could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, who would it be? “President Barack Obama. Maybe now that he’ll have more time on his hands, this could really happen.”
For more information, visit LoriTharps.com or call the bookstore at 215-844-1870.