Shades of Blackness: No (Dark-Skinned) Blacks Allowed, Part II

In yesterday’s post I discussed the reaction I received from my African American boyfriend’s social circle when they learned he was dating a dark-skinned woman. As unpleasant as that incident was, however, I wouldn’t let it dissuade me from my attempt to meet and date an AA man who was not stuck on Colorism. In time I would meet such a man. Though Isaac and I liked each other and got along well, I allowed my own paranoia over the twin burdens of Colorism and classism to destroy our budding relationship before it could take off.

Isaac and I met on an online dating site. I appreciated the fact that he approached me with such respect and came across as the ultimate gentleman. We were both native Seattleites. There was something very familiar about Isaac, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. When we discussed our upbringing and family he was more vague than what I was used to, but I didn’t read much into that. After corresponding for about a month he asked me out to dinner. I accepted. It wouldn’t be a blind date, as he emailed me pictures of himself. Tall and fit, he certainly fit my requirements. Isaac’s skin was the color of cafe au lait,  his eyes bright green. I found him to me quite handsome. When it comes to dating some Black women stay away from light-skinned Black men. Light-skinned men  face their own struggle with color. I’ve heard sisters diss them in a manner just as cruel as anything I suffered through. Accused of being “pretty boys”, “soft” and less masculine due to their color, they are rejected as suitors by colorstruck women. With everything I’d gone through and witnessed myself regarding Colorism, I never bought into that. In the words of the late great Big Pun, I loved “from butter pecan, to black-brown molass; I don’t discriminate, I regulate every shade of that a**, long as you show class and pass my test!” Isaac had passed the test, so we’d meet in person the following Saturday night.

“You know, I’ve really got to tell you”, Isaac said as we walked through the Thai restaurant I’d selected towards our table,”your pictures don’t even begin to do you justice!”

“Thank you”, I replied, laughing gently,”you’re quite easy on the eyes as well!”

We sat down, and it was obvious that our online camaraderie transferred seamlessly in person.  I’d ordered my food with five stars(what can I say, I love spicy food). I sipped at my Thai-style iced tea between bites and tried to keep up with him. Isaac was very easygoing and funny! I repeatedly had to compose myself to keep from choking on my food. Once our conversation become more subdued, I  asked him a question.

“Isaac, would you mind showing me your drivers license?”

“You want to see my license? Sure”, he replied, pulling out his wallet with a quizzical look on his face. Due to a few odd experiences on dates I asked to see identification from men on the first date, in order to make sure that they were who they said they were. I also wanted to make sure I knew their full government name. Isaac passed his drivers license to me.

“Thank you”, I smiled at him as I took it from his hand. I looked down at it and when I noticed his surname I had to catch my breath. Damn damn damn, I thought to myself. At that point I felt sad, for I knew that the chances of developing and maintaining a relationship with Isaac were slim to none. I knew of Isaac’s family. His surname revealed that he belonged to a subgroup of African Americans, whom I shall refer to as the Notorious Ones in this piece. But before I go on, I must explain the historical and cultural circumstances that led to my certainty that a relationship with Isaac would not work.

In the United States of America, many continue to hold a one dimensional view of the descendants of enslaved West and Central Africans. What’s the use of noting and discussing our differences, BLACK is BLACK, the reasoning goes. The reality, however, is much more complicated than that. At no point have we truly been a monolith. Truth be told, even our African ancestors did not  view themselves as a mass of Africans; they came from distinct ethnic groups. But before enslaved Africans even arrived at the ports of Charleston, Kingston and other New World destinations, a phenomenon that would alter the history of the African Diaspora began: the systemic rape of African women by European men. The sexual exploitation of African women that reigned from the slave ships to the abolition of slavery(it actually lasted up to the Civil Rights Movement, but I’d need another post to go into that) led to large numbers of mixed race individuals throughout the New World. The treatment of mixed race communities could vary depending on the particular culture, time period and context. In the US mixed race individuals in places like Louisiana would keep themselves separate from whites and ‘pure'(I use that term very loosely!) Blacks alike, and to this day they have a distinct culture. Others, such as the protagonist in James  Weldon Johnson’s classic novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, would choose to cut all ties to their birth family and pass for white. Then you have those who stayed , marrying within the Black community and identifying solely as Black. The life of First Lady Michelle Obama’s great-grandfather, Dolphus T. Shields, illustrates this.

Finally, we have the Notorious Ones. They’ve always been part of the community, identifying as Negro, Colored and now African-American/Black. Upper-class, they’ve provided the backbone of Black America’s leadership. They pastor Black churches, own businesses and sit on the boards of powerful community organizations. The Notorious Ones pride themselves on their legacy, their wealth, their education…and their skin color. It is no accident that these families are generally all quite light-skinned. Though they identify as Black, they tend to feel they are superior to Blacks who are darker then them and practice their own form of apartheid when it comes to marriage. Their light skin is treated as a precious gift to be guarded; each generation is instructed not to bring home a mate that isn’t “light, bright or damn near white!” The portrait of the light-skinned scion of the Notorious Ones bringing home a dark-skinned woman-to the chagrin of his parents-has been the backdrop of African-American novels.

I didn’t want my love life to become a novel though. When I saw Isaac’s surname I realized exactly why he looked so familiar to me-he belonged to THAT family, and everyone knew how they got down. An acquaintance of mine, Roslyn, had previously dated Isaac’s cousin, Alex. Roslyn and Alex were great as a couple, and he truly loved her. Everything was fine between them-until the family matriarch learned Alex was courting her. The sight of her light-skinned grandson with a brown woman made her lose her refined, elegant composure. “She is TOO DARK for this family”, the matriarch fumed. “I will not accept this, I do not want BLACK GRANDCHILDREN!” Alex and Roslyn’s relationship ended soon after.

As I finished eating dinner that night I gazed at Isaac wistfully. He was so sweet, so gentle and so handsome. I was really looking forward to getting to know him better and exploring the possibilities-he’d made it clear that he was looking to settle down. But with the knowledge of how his family had treated Roslyn, I couldn’t go further. Roslyn, with glowing skin the color of steeped Lipton tea, wasn’t truly dark-skinned by the standards we Blacks set among ourselves. She couldn’t pass the infamous Brown Paper Bag test, but she was in the middle of the color spectrum. If Roslyn was considered unacceptably dark by Isaac’s family, I knew that my ebony skin wouldn’t stand a chance. That night Isaac would escort me home and gently kiss me on my cheek to say good night. I did not respond to his overtures in the week to come and would never see him again.

I’ve occasionally thought about that situation and how I handled it. Should I have gone out with him again, see where it went and then expressed my anxiety regarding his family accepting me if it turned serious? Probably. But at that point I was so scared, so wounded and so weary of the internalized prejudices of my people. It was easier to run from it and go where I was comfortable. I needed a place where I could ‘get in where I fit in’, and my continued difficulties among African Americans due to color made me feel that my own community was not that place.

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A native Seattleite and recent East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been. I reside in the suburbs of NYC with my husband, daughter, and our two feisty but deeply loved cats.

7 thoughts on “Shades of Blackness: No (Dark-Skinned) Blacks Allowed, Part II

    1. Most definitely Emelyne, we can’t choose what family we’re born into.These families take this issue extremely seriously though, to the point of threatening to disown their children over it. I really didn’t want to face that.

  1. I’ve heard similar stories like this, and it’s crazy to see how a persons family can dictate who a person can have a relationship with. I had a similar experience myself with a Latina girl, whose mother basically forbade her to be with me once she found out I wasn’t Spanish. It can be a sad thought, but the prospect of being the reason of a person basically being disowned by ones whole family in order to be in a relationship with you is an even worse thought. It sounds chivalrous, and something out of a romantic movie, but we all know how that would’ve gone in real life. You actually have to feel kind of sad for folks in that situation. They may never know what it is to be with a soulmate.

  2. Wow, I had no idea!

    Thank you for describing these various black cultures. I’ve heard of other cultures that don’t like people marrying darker women or men. It’s a shame, really.

    By the way, I love how you describe the varying shades of skin – walnut, steeped Lipton tea, etc. Descriptive!

  3. We have two days to make history! One of the greatest things that we possess as humans is the ability to create sustainable change in various ways! We are all capable of making difference. We are all here to do something significant. This is why we are here… to learn from one another, to share our traditions, to preserve our history and pass down all of what is learned to the generations that follow.

    “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” – Audre Lorde

    During my visit to Haiti pre-earthquake, we were faced with an incredible amount of poverty and chaos. Then the earthquake of 2010 happened completely devastating the nation and killing over 200,000 people. What I understood about that experience is the power media plays in helping inform, create awareness, and bring people together in solidarity to help work on humanitarian efforts. In a NYTIMES article, which measured 2,000 natural disasters over a 40-year time span, it is estimated that the cost could be $7.2 billion to $13.2 billion, based on a death toll of 200,000 to 250,000. With your help we can spread the message about these communities and create sustainable change.

    150 million Afrolatinos account for 30% of the population throughout Latin America, 92% live in extreme poverty and 70% are women and children most of whom have limited access to employment opportunities, health and education. It is crucial that we complete this documentary so that we can begin the work of creating solutions to change this! We have over 200 hours of interviews and over 10,000 images shot from our journey. We are at the finish line!

    Afrolatinos: The Untaught Story documentary is my life work! I am passionate about this project, the people and ensuring that this story be told.

    Trailer for Afrolatinos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQYi4iSD1p0

    This is why I write! I write so that our stories will not be forgotten. I write so that our history may be honored and preserved. I am the Writer and Producer for Afrolatinos: The Untaught Story and am writing to you today because I need your help. I am writing as a woman of color. I am writing as a Latina. I am writing as a lesbian. I am writing because I am the voice of 150 million Afro descendants in Latin America who are waiting for me to deliver on my promise to help their story be told. I am writing to you today because I need $60,000 to complete this story.

    I have traveled with my partner Renzo Devia for five years throughout Latin America filming this amazingly beautiful story. I have visited the most impoverished communities in the world a total of 18 countries. This is the time to tell this story. This is the moment we have worked so hard for. Afrolatinos is an important piece of history. It is a seven part documentary series that once completed will be seen all over the world, textbooks will be created on the subject matter, it will be taught in elementary, middle and high schools, as well as in universities.

    We invite friends, supporters, contributors, bloggers and writers to help us spread the word! Post widely on all social media, email everyone you know about this important story! Our campaign ends in two days! Together we can make history!

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    Message from Alicia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFtYJe1jba0
    Be apart of this movement!

    In solidarity!
    Alicia Anabel Santos

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