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.