I stepped up onto bus route #48, heading to the CD to visit my friend Agnes. I’d met Agnes in May 1997. Though I was two years older than her we clicked from the beginning and became close. Like my friendship with Tisha my connection to Agnes grew from our common ground as outcasts.
I was sitting by myself in a folded chair the Friday night Agnes and I met. It was the first night of a weekend youth retreat sponsored by a local choir. Looking back I struggle to wonder why I went. I must have been urged to attend by my Grandma, for I generally didn’t like attending events with church kids. My intellect and reserve generally made me the odd one out. I despised the way my sisters in Christ treated each other, accusing other girls of being unrepentant whores for infractions as minor as wearing red lipstick or large hoop earrings. Though we often claimed we were “better” than those in the “world”, the teens that frequented these events were just as shallow and cliquish as those outside their faith. I was good with participating in that, so I kept to myself and read my book(chief rule of being a nerd: ALWAYS carry a book with you).
It was close to bedtime when Agnes arrived. I heard a commotion and turned to see a slim dark African man handing two bags to a beautiful dark girl. Agnes’ father instructed her to behave and represent her family well, telling her that he would see her Sunday afternoon. Agnes grabbed her bags and sat on the same row as me. She didn’t look anymore elated to be at the retreat than I was, and no one made an effort to greet her or even acknowledge her arrival. I put my book down and moved closer to her.
“Hey, how are you doing? My name’s D, what’s yours” I asked, smiling at her. She looked at me in surprise, and then smiled back.
“I’m good, my name is Agnes. Nice to meet you, D. I really like your hair!”
“Thanks”, I said, sweeping my braids to the side. At the time I was wearing invisible microbraids that my cousin put in for me. “So how did you hear about the retreat?”
As Agnes answered my question and we learned more about each other I watched her. I couldn’t help but notice how flawless her skin was. It seemed that every dark-skinned African girl I met or saw had skin so naturally smooth and even-toned that it looked airbrushed. I would soon learn that our shared skin color bonded us.
“I’m used to it by now”, Agnes said when I expressed my disappointment that none of the other teens had said hello to her when she arrived. “Black(American) kids always treat me like this.” Agnes rubbed her right arm slowly, then continued with a vacant look in her eyes.
“I came here from Kenya in the third grade. When I first arrived I still wore my bangles, my tribal jewelry, on my arms every day”, Agnes said, holding out her arms to me. “They said the copper was ugly against my black skin, that I was an ugly African monkey. They teased me and said we Africans all live in the jungle, called me an African bootyscratcher and asked when I took the bone out of my nose. I stopped wearing my bangles to school after that”.
I sighed. Being from Sub-Saharan Africa Agnes was harassed for both her skin color AND her culture. It didn’t surprise me but it angered me. I could relate to her sense of alienation though.
“Well, they’ve been harassing me for being dark, having nappy hair and acting white for years. It’s a sickness Agnes. I’m really sorry that you’ve had to go through that”.
For the rest of the weekend Agnes and I were like peas in a pod. We would exchange numbers and hang out often throughout the summer. Her father owned a store that sold African imports, and on days when Agnes had to mind the store I’d catch the bus and help her. Agnes would take to calling me her big sister and call me for advice at times. When she got frustrated with kids bothering her I’d do what I could to support and console her, telling her not to listen to their hate. Agnes and I would stay close for years, and it demonstrated that differences in culture could be overcome. Conventional wisdom said that Agnes and I-as with Tisha years before-should be enemies, but that wasn’t the case. I got along with Agnes better than I did with members of my own ethnic group at times. My friendship with Agnes gave me another taste of the African Diaspora. I enjoyed chapati at her family dinners, and they welcomed me with open arms. I started reading more about other ethnic groups in the Diaspora.
I had an affinity for African cloth and headed to Uzuri, an African store on Broadway in Seattle’s Capitol Hill area, to buy more wraps for my hair. As I browsed the prints I began to sway to the enchanting reggae tune that pulsed through the store. An extremely tall, pecan colored brotha wearing a massive red, gold and green headwrap walked towards me.
“SISTREN, yuh like dat chune?”, he boomed.
“ I don’t like it, I LOVE IT”, I responded emphatically. “Who is this?”
He walked over to the register and came back holding a CD which he presented to me.
“Sistren dat’s Sizzla!”
“I’ll take that CD too”, I said, carrying the prints I’d selected to the register. “Where are you from brotha/”, I asked him.
“Mi from Guyana”, he responded,”yuh know where dat’s at?”
“I do. Guyana is located in South America and bordered by Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil. Your nation was formerly colonized by the British and is culturally considered part of the Caribbean though it is not an island. The capital is Bridgetown and the population largely consists of the descendants of enslaved Africans and East Indian indentured servants, correct?”
He looked back at me, his face a mix of surprise and curiosity.
“Correct”, he said, slowly nodding his head. “Much respect sistren, lotta folks nuh bodda fi learn ‘bout cultures odda den dem own”! When he gave me my total I noticed that it seemed to be less than it should.
“Excuse me, did you ring up everything?” I asked.
“Yes sistren, no worries”, he replied, winking at me. When I looked at my receipt later I saw that he’d given me a hook up and not charged me for the CD.
Once I reached home, I popped in the CD, and Sizzla’s lyrics would transport me to a different world. In the world that Sizzla and other roots reggae artists crooned about, women like me were not dark and ugly, nor were black women derided as hoodrats, hoochies, bitches and hoes. The black pride and love for black women expressed in conscious reggae was such a change for me. Though I was Yankee to the bone and had no connection to the Caribbean itself, reggae music grabbed a hold of me, and to this day it hasn’t let go.
“Oh, you look so PRETTY! You’re so dark and pretty”, my mother said as she watched me apply my makeup. It was spring 1998 and I was a few months shy of my eighteenth birthday.
“Thanks Mama”, I replied, smoothing one last coat of M.A.C. lipglass across my bottom lip. I looked at my reflection in the mirror, taking in my large brown eyes lined in kohl, my lashes made full with a boost from L’Oreal’s Voluminous mascara and my even, rich mahogany tone. My Mama had been right all along: I was dark and pretty. Yet it would take me years to truly see this. When I entered my classroom as a first grader in 1985, I was a little brown girl full of confidence and dignity. By 1992 I was a bent and broken girl who cursed her God for making her so dark. When confronted with the twin evils of America’s one dimensional standard of beauty and Black America’s internalized oppression, the dignified black girl my Mama wanted me to be would disappear. It would take me eight years to find her again, and this time I would never let her go.
My experience with Colorism left me with an intense ambivalence regarding my own people and culture. The knowledge that I’d acquired of African-American history gave me a deep sense of pride. When I looked at all we’d suffered through I felt amazed and strengthened by the historical resilience of my people. We had SURVIVED, but more than that we created a new, vibrant culture in the wake of such pain and loss. The stories of slaves who sought to become literate though the penalty for it would be death, the strides that freedmen made after the Civil War, Black Wall Street, the Harlem Renaissance, the service of black men in the military and the Civil Rights Movement all proved that the bigots were wrong. We had a history and culture that we could point to and take solace in, and I loved that.
But just as I loved the positive aspects I hated the negative ones. I detested the psychological toll that centuries of slavery and abuse had burdened us with. Our collective psyche was deeply affected by our experience in the New World, and that pain reverberated to my generation. I gladly owned the triumphs of my cultural legacy but wanted to distance myself from the underbelly. Mainstream America and the Black community alike sent me the same message: white is right. The African Americans around me internalized white supremacy so thoroughly that they subconsciously passed it on and defended it. In my mind I thought of this caste system as a juggernaut that I couldn’t defeat. What could I, a lone black girl, do to dismantle an ideology that had reigned in this country since its’ inception?So I compromised with it. I no longer loathed my own skin color and put away the lie that I should feel inferior for being dark. I realized that as a dark-skinned black woman, I would always have to validate my own worth and beauty.
As far as my people and the color complex were concerned-I had to give up on them. I had to protect my own sense of self above all. For me that meant making the conscious decision to distance myself from my fellow African Americans to an extent. I maintained this distance strictly when it came to dating. I was tired of being condescended to and/or rejected by African American men for my color. I told myself that if they could reject me for my color, I should reject them for being colorstruck. For the next twelve years I’d primarily date black men from the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa.
As my social circle changed Colorism, thankfully, became less of an issue for me. The harassment and bullying I suffered through, however, did not leave me unscathed. Simply revisiting it brings back much pain and resentment. The hardest part of it all is that it left me with the feeling that I do not belong anywhere. It is one thing to be rejected and bothered by people from another ethnic group. But to have my fellow African Americans tell me that my dark skin made me inferior, ugly and undesirable cut me so deeply that to this day I have lingering bitterness about it all. The African American kids who subjected me to this managed to do something that even the racist Whites and Latinos I encountered in California couldn’t accomplish: they made me hate myself.