It was now February 1997 and I was still in love with my hair. Going natural led to more harassment and put me outside of the pale of normalcy among my people. However it also emboldened me to stand firm. I no longer remained silent when people insulted me. When I heard a derogatory comment about my hair I’d stop and confront the person.
“Oh, YOU don’t like MY HAIR?”, I’d ask flippantly. “Well the wonderful thing about this is that it’s MY HAIR. The only one that has to be pleased with it is ME. You’re thoughts are just as irrelevant to my life as your pitiful existence is!”
And with that I’d walk away, leaving them to their shock. When I put folks on blast like this they backed down. My family began to jokingly refer to me as ‘the militant one’, and given the time I lived in I guess I was. I was tired of conforming. I was tired of seeing my people give props to Black Pride on one hand yet maintain and bow to White Supremacy on the other. I wasn’t having any parts of it. To quote Lil Kim, I had no time for fake ones and was beginning to view many around me as just that.
I was sashaying down the hall that February day when I saw him walking in my direction. Marvin was a senior and had recently transferred to my school. When he first showed up girls went wild over him. Marvin had a distinct New York accent, and his olive skin provoked much speculation about his background.
“OOOH, he’s so fine and light! He must be Puerto Rican!” a girl said to her friends as he walked by.
“Hey PAPI!”, another girl yelled at him.
Marvin just shook his head and ignored them. As he got closer to me our eyes locked. Now Marvin WAS fine, but I remembered something the First Lady of my church had told me years earlier:” honey don’t EVER chase a man; if he wants you he will come and get you!” So when Marvin checked me out I simply nodded at him and kept walking. These other girls could sweat him, tell him how fine he was and do everything short of throwing their panties at him. I refused to. I felt his eyes on me, and sure enough, when I turned around he was gawking. I smiled back at him, but kept on my way.
The next day Marvin came up to me and introduced himself. We exchanged numbers, and quickly became tight. People didn’t see why Marvin went for the dark girl with nappy hair when he had chicks lined up to get at him. They made the mistake of judging Marvin by his looks and assuming that he was just as shallow as they were. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“JENNY?” Nah I ain’t checking for her or anyone else”, he said one night while we were on the phone. I like YOU. You’re sharp and you’re different than the rest. I can actually TALK to you for real. You’re pretty, and that body just completes the package”, he laughed. I chuckled with him. Marvin had a way of complimenting me that was never crass and never went too far. Because Marvin was so respectful and laid back I began to open up to him emotionally. I told him of the years I struggled with feeling inferior and less desirable due to my dark skin. He was shocked and horrified.
“People made you feel that way for being dark? That’s ridiculous! Your skin is beautiful. My mom is the same color as you, so I’ve always appreciated dark-skinned girls. You gotta come over soon and meet her too, she’d love you!”
An invitation to meet his MAMA? Oh I KNEW he was really feeling me when he said that! I was thinking about what I’d wear when I met Marvin’s Mom when he started speaking again and snapped me back to the moment.
“Look D”, he said hesitantly,”there’s something you should know. I’m not telling you this to hurt your feelings though, okay? I just want you to understand how these guys are when it comes to black girls and color. You promise not to get mad at me?”
I was intrigued but wary. What could he have to tell me that’s so bad it needs such a disclaimer, I thought to myself. My curiosity got the best of me though, so I had to know.
“Okay Marvin, I promise not to get mad. What is it?”
“Aight”, he began. “Listen D, being a guy I see and hear things that you don’t. So I’m gonna be real with you. Truthfully you are one the finest girls in this school. You know it and I know it. Plenty of these same guys clowning on you know it too, and they talk about you among themselves. I’m there when they talk about what they wanna do with you, so I know. Your skin color doesn’t make you unattractive to these dudes, they’d gladly fuck you if they could. But they wouldn’t go out with you, ‘cause brothas don’t get props from their boys when they have a dark skinned girl on their arm. They’ll only get props if the chick is non-black or a light-skinned black girl. I’m sorry. It’s fucked up and you know I don’t agree with it, but that’s the mentality of these cats out here.”
I let the magnitude of Marvin’s words sink in. I actually wasn’t mad at all and was glad that Marvin had hipped me to the thinking of certain black males. His confession relieved me and let me know that it wasn’t all in my head. When dark-skinned women speak up about Colorism and the way black men treat them, we are often told that we are insanely paranoid or just jealous. It’s all in our head, it’s not real. My discussion with Marvin that night would validate something that I’d been thinking about for years. Colorstruck black men didn’t necessarily find dark women universally unattractive, nor did they truly admire and respect the light-skinned women they pursued. I thought about the way boys accosted my friend Tisha, asking her ‘what are you’ and being truly shocked and disappointed when she told them she was just black Guys like that didn’t just want a girlfriend; they wanted a trophy they could show off. In the United States a dark-skinned woman was too far from the white standard of beauty to be viewed that way, so to some black men we would not be worthy of pursuit.
Marvin and I would never become an official item, but he made an impact on me. He was the first boy to appreciate my mind, and the genuine admiration he showed to me was a welcome respite from the disrespectful way most boys his age acted.
On a balmy spring day I walked down Fifth Avenue in Downtown Seattle with my girls. We’d just finished leadership training and decided to celebrate by going to an ice cream parlor. I was so engrossed in enjoying my ice cream cone and joking with my friends that I didn’t notice the tall, slender cinnamon colored boy who crept up to my left.
“Excuse me , can I talk to you for a minute?”
I stopped. Well this is different, I thought to myself. I was with Tisha and Joy that day, and black boys always went to them first. Boys would be on Joy, a blue-eyed blonde with the body of a West African goddess, like white on rice. But not this day. I looked at my mystery man. He had a good foot on me, which meant he had to be 5’11 or 6’0. He was very cute. And he clearly was not American. His voice was sweet and made me think of the smooth rhythms of reggae music. I wouldn’t ask if he was Jamaican though; that would be too obvious. Yes, with that height and those eyes he certainly could talk to me for a minute.
“Sure, let’s talk”, I replied, smiling at him as my girls laughed. We chatted for a good ten minutes, exchanging numbers before we parted ways. My first guess was actually correct; Ed was Jamaican. When we talked and went out on dates Ed treated me with a sweetness and deference that I was not used to receiving from black boys. Though Ed was “black” like me, he was from a different culture, and I loved that. My time with Ed would be brief, as he started dabbling in illegal activities and karma quickly caught up with him. I would never forget how he treated me and couldn’t help but compare it to my impressions of Black American boys.
During the summer of 1997 I worked at a nursing home(I actually planned to work two jobs that summer but the arrival of my baby sister changed that). I was on my home on a Saturday when a sleek black Acura Legend rolled by. The driver whipped around, parked, jumped out of his car. He strode towards me with confidence, slightly bouncing on his feet and smiling as he neared. He had a blindingly white smile which rivaled mine and skin that looked like lacquered ebony.
“Good afternoon! Tell me, what’s a pretty girl like you doing waiting on the bus all by herself?”, he asked. I heard a strong accent but couldn’t even begin to place it. Later I’d learn that he was Haitian.
I laughed at him. “It’s no big deal”, I said,”I’m on my way home from work.”
“Ah. My name is Gabriel sweety, what’s yours?”, he said extending his hand.
I told him my name and offered my hand, which he grabbed and kissed. Wow, isn’t he a chivalrous one, I thought to myself.
“Well, can I give you a ride? Pretty girls shouldn’t be out like this alone. I promise I’ll take you straight home.”
Gabriel was sweet, but not sweet enough to make me my cast aside my family’s warnings about getting into cars with strangers. I declined Gabriel’s offer of a ride; he settled for my number instead. Before he left, Gabriel asked me to call him when I arrived so he’d know that I made it home safely. I told him that I would and we went our separate ways. Gabriel took me to dinner and a movie two weeks later, and he treated me the same way that Ed had. Whenever I saw Gabriel he went out of his way to make sure I was happy and taken care of.
Gabriel treated me the way that my family always told me a man should treat a lady. However it was my family that would bring an end to our relationship. Toward the beginning of my senior year in high school Gabriel picked me up from church to give me a ride to a talent show a girlfriend of mine was performing in. One of my aunts noticed his car and she was waiting on me when I returned home that evening.
“Who is that boy?”
I paused before answering. My aunt was prone to flip out. But Gabe was good to me, and my Mom had his approval, so I answered truthfully.
“He’s my boyfriend.”
“BOYFRIEND? Girl the only boyfriend you need is your BOOKS!”
Oh here she goes, I thought to myself. Like SHE didn’t date when she was my age! My aunt started in on me again.
“How old is he?”
“He’s twenty years old”.
“MMMPH”, she said, sucking her teeth. “And what does a 20 year old do that allows him to drive a car like that?”
“Aunty, it’s not like that! He works at his family busi-“
“Doesn’t matter”, my aunt thundered, cutting me off. “Even if he got that car through legit means-and I don’t think he did-he’s too old for you. A twenty year old is a grown man, and you are still a child! You are going to call that young man right now and tell him you cannot see him anymore, do you understand me young lady?”
I struggled to remain respectful. I didn’t think three years was enough difference to warrant my aunts’ reaction, but I knew better than to argue with her.
“Did you hear me girl?” she asked when I didn’t answer quickly enough.
“Yes ma’am”, I said, walking to pick up my cordless and make the phone call.
Gabe listened to me and said he understood. Initially I missed him terribly and deeply resented my aunt for making me break it off. Within a few months though I’d be over it, too caught up in the hectic pace of school and work to think about it more. My experiences with Ed and Gabriel wouldn’t fade completely though. With African American boys I felt unwanted, but with Caribbean boys I felt adored. They didn’t tell me I was too dark. They didn’t give me the backhanded compliment that I first heard when I was sixteen years old:”you know, to be so black you’re actually pretty!”
Now I don’t want my readers to think I’m romanticizing things. I’m now well aware of the existence of Colorism throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. We need look no further than dancehall artist Vybz Kartel or listen to Buju Banton’s declaration of his love for his ‘brownin’ gal to see colorism on display in these communities. But for whatever reason the Caribbean-and later Sub-Saharan African-males that I encountered back then weren’t nearly as colorstruck as their African American counterparts, and I deeply appreciated that. The acceptance I felt from others in the African Diaspora would grow, and I’d realize that being ‘black’ wasn’t limited to being African American.