“D, you almost ready?”, my husband called out from the living room.
“Yes, just checking the diaper bag to make sure I have everything”, I responded. My Mama had taught me that it was always better to be over prepared than under prepared when dealing with a little one. I was rummaging through the diaper bag checking the supply of clothing for our fourteen month old daughter when my husband entered the room. I looked up at him. Ali wasn’t a very talkative person, but the look on his face told me something was wrong. He always wrinkled up his nose a certain way when displeased.
“You’re wearing that shirt?”, he asked me.
“Yes”, I said, confused by his question. I didn’t see anything wrong with the long-sleeved, deep-purple blouse I had on. “Is there an issue?”
“Nothing major”, Ali started. “I just wonder why you gravitate towards dark colors all the time.”
“I don’t wear mostly dark colors”, I responded in protest.
Ali looked at me, then walked over to the closet. He slid the door open.
“See”, he said, pointing out the black, purple, navy blue and dark brown clothes that dominated my section. Standing there watching Ali’s slender fingers touching the proof, I couldn’t argue.
“You’re right”, I started. “Old habits die-hard, I guess.”
“But why? I’ve known you for four years now and that’s all you wear”, Ali said softly.
Ali was right. I realized that even after all these years my experiences were still controlling me to an extent. The message that dark folks can’t wear bright colors was conveyed by peers in my youyh. My Kenyan friend Agnes was harassed by others when she dared to wear baby blue, told she was too black to do so. Even as I aged and had less contact with colorstruck people, the pain of it lingered in my subconscious. Ali spoke again, bringing me back to the present.
“This top”, he said, standing in front of me and placing his hands gently on my shoulders,”does nothing to bring out the beauty of your skin. Next time you go shopping, I want to tag along and pick out some things for you. Is that okay?”
“Sure, we can do that”, I said, and we soon left our apartment for a dinner party at a friend’s place. When we returned home that night I’d confess to Ali and share my real reason for wearing dark clothes. He sat up in bed and fumed. Born and raised in Tanzania, Ali’s upbringing and experiences with race and color had been very different from mine. Though colorism existed back home-you could walk the streets of Dar es Salaam and occasionally see someone who exhibited the tell-tale signs of skin bleaching-historically it hadn’t been as prevalent and toxic as it was among African-Americans. In Tanzania there was also a much stronger pushback against the idea of Blackness being inferior. Tanzania is not ‘black’ in the sense that Americans define it, where those with any remote African ancestry are considered Black. Ali came of age in a country that is over 90% black, raised by highly educated parents who were college students during the heady days of African independence. It was only when he came to the United States for college that Ali learned how it felt to be a minority. Back in Tanzania he had the comfort and privilege that comes with being part of the dominant group. So the very idea that blackness would be devalued in such a way, that dark-skinned women would feel they were less and that I had gone through such things myself pissed him off.
“That’s RIDICULOUS”, he said forcefully. “Another example of mental slavery. I’m glad it’s gotten better for you but you’ve got to eliminate even the remnants of it D. Next to my Mom you’re the most intelligent woman I know. Forget about those ignorant motherfuckers!”
Days later I would step out of a dressing room, parading myself in front of a mirror while Ali smiled in appreciation. What WAS I thinking, I thought to myself as I looked at my reflection. Ali had picked out a three-quarter sleeved powder pink blouse with white and gold accents and a matching white pencil skirt. I look HOT, I thought. For years I’d worn the wrong colors, missing out on the chance to show off the richness of my skin. There would be no more of that! Once Ali helped me see how fabulous certain colors looked on me, I was determined to make up for lost time. Nowadays my closet and nail polish collection alike are full of bold pink, red, turquoise, lime green, coral and orange hues. As I write this post I can stop to look down, smiling at the way my neon pink pedicure sets off the depth of my skin.
By the time I reached my mid twenties I was aloft in my cocoon. For various reasons-of which colorism was one-I’d largely abandoned hip-hop, which had been the soundtrack of my adolescence. I didn’t watch BET; I stopped watching most black comedians. While I recognized that others certainly had the “right” to spew anti-Black messages, I damn sure wasn’t obligated to listen to them and support them in it. My daughter’s skin soon changed from the pale beige that my family cooed over to the warm toffee color of her fathers’. With a skin tone that’s firmly in the medium category and the Cushitic features of her paternal Grandfather’s Iraqw tribe dominating her face, my daughter wouldn’t go through the madness that my friend Tisha and I encountered. No one would call her ‘high yella’ and question her ‘blackness’. No one would insult her for being too dark and reject her. Her father and I would always affirm her and instill self-love in her, and I’m glad to say that so far it has worked. My own ordeal faded into the recesses of my mind, rarely to be discussed. But while I tucked the pain away the mentality that had caused such damage rolled on uninterrupted. In years to come I would sigh as I watched the bitter harvest of self-hate come to life through the very public struggles of certain Black celebrities.