Fifty Shades of Black

The other day, my sister and I had a conversation during which the maelstrom of emotional confusion which I’d endured for decades, unexpectedly crystallized.

Before I begin, please note that my remarks are my own, told from my point of view. Others might have a different point of view. Their views are no more or less valid than mine, but this is what I saw and experienced.

First, a little background. There are no photos of me on this site (at least I don’t recall any) but I’m black. I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s. The gains made by the protests of the Civil Rights Movement were showing fruit–black people, at least in the cities, were more secure, especially with respect to property ownership. Thus empowered, black people began forging a new identity, fueled by the energy of the revolutionary fervor that was sweeping the nation’s young people, expressed by the Vietnam War protests and the like. Black people had firebrands like Angela Davis who forcefully spoke out against the white establishment’s racism and exhorted black people to fight back. Then there were the Black Panthers, a peaceful organization founded to help the black poor and disenfranchised in the cities (the Panthers only later became militant after attacks by the white city police), and many others. Black power, characterized by the black upraised fist, was a gesture of defiance against the whites who had oppressed us for so long (and which scared the bejesus out of them, too). This new identity was reflected in our music, especially by the advent of funk, introduced by George Clinton and the Mothership Connection, The Gap Band, and other groups. Rap also made an appearance around this time, though it was quite different than the rap so popular today. Black men and women sported Afros, the larger the better, which became de rigeur among the hip set. Men and women wore daishikis and other African-style clothing with pride. In short, black people flipped the white establishment the finger and welded themselves into a bloc that could–and would–withstand subversion.

Though empowerment benefited all black people, it is my opinion that it benefited darker-skinned blacks the most. When I was a child, there was a perfectly horrendous ditty that went like this:

If you’re white, you’re alright, if you’re brown, stick around, if you’re black, get back.

This little rhyme tells it all: dark-skinned black people have always borne the brunt of white oppression. Generally, the whiter you appeared, the better you were treated by whites. This goes all the way back to the antebellum era, where lighter-skinned blacks were usually household servants, and dark-skinned blacks worked in the fields–hence, the insult “field nigger.” Household servants, on the whole, had it much easier than field hands–the back-breaking work of picking cotton, harvesting tobacco and rice, and the bloody work of cutting sugar cane was not their lot. Unlike field hands, whose clothes were often stitched-together bags of flour sacks, house servants usually had real clothing, (after all, they had to be presentable) and often received the cast-off clothes from their owners. It should be obvious that light-skinned blacks were the sons and daughters of their masters and their slave mistresses. Not surprisingly, dark-skinned blacks came to resent, and even hate, their lighter-skinned brethren. Meanwhile, lighter-skinned blacks, absorbing the racism of their masters, came to view dark-skinned blacks as inferior and, of course, justified their own superiority by their white heritage. This black-on-black racism continued after slavery was abolished, and continues to this day though I don’t think it’s nearly as blatant–most of the time, anyway. In practice, light-skinned blacks tended to marry other light-skinned blacks and the lighter the better. In the wider world, light-skinned blacks were usually given more opportunities and access to the benefits society offered. For example, before slavery ended, though the condition of slavery followed the status of the mother, a white master might educate his biracial offspring and perhaps employ them in some capacity. Or, he might even free them. After slavery, light-skinned blacks usually landed jobs like office work instead of work involving manual labor. In the modern era, a good illustration of what I’m talking about involves the late Strom Thurmond, a powerful U.S. Senator from South Carolina. A wealthy man, Strom had a daughter, the product of a union between him and his black mistress, who was most likely one of his servants. Thurmond never denied he was the girl’s father and though he didn’t trumpet her existence to the world, he took care of her. He saw to it that she lived a comfortable life, which included a college education.

At any rate, from what I can see light-skinned blacks tend to be wealthier and more well-educated than their darker brethren. In short, the division between blacks that began during slavery persists today, though perhaps the differences are not as glaring. Because of this history of white favoritism, the Black Power movement championed those with dark skin, tightly curled, kinky hair, and facial features that are the antithesis of whiteness. Black was no longer ugly, it was beautiful. Blackness was hip, it was “in.” The movement marginalized light-skinned blacks, who were viewed, if not as the enemy, then at least with suspicion. Though the Black Power movement gave dark-skinned blacks the dignity they deserved, the problem of white racism remains. Light-skinned blacks tend to be treated better by whites than those who are dark-skinned. The problem of access–to jobs, education, housing, and the like–continues to plague those with darker complexions.

My background explanation was long-winded, but necessary for you, my reader, to put my experiences into context. As I mentioned, I’m black. I’m also light-skinned and have soft, fine hair (usually referred to by those with kinky hair as “good hair”). I speak grammatical English (most of the time), with a faint Midwestern accent. When I’m talking on the telephone, everyone who doesn’t know me–and I mean EVERYONE–assumes I’m white. I have several diverse interests, like theoretical and astrophysics, horses, earth sciences, archaeology–you get the idea. I like most kinds of music, though my favorites are classical, jazz, and rock. I was an accomplished pianist until I did permanent injury to one of my fingers. My reading tastes run to speculative fiction–science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the like. I’m into art, mostly modern but I appreciate other styles. I’m also smart–I learn fast and can comprehend abstract concepts fairly easily. My family is not wealthy, but above comfortable; even so, some would say that I “come from money.”

So my sister and I were talking, discussing the latest outrage a white person had visited on a black–like the white woman who called the police on a gathering of black people who were guilty of having a barbeque. Here is our exchange, as best I remember it:

Me: (jokingly, okay, maybe half-jokingly) I’m beginning to hate white people.

Sister: I’m surprised to hear you say that.

Me: Huh? Why?

Sister: You always seemed to be more comfortable around white people. In fact, I think that’s where your depression comes from–a kind of race dysphoria. It doesn’t mean you want to be white, but you’re unhappy about being black.

Me: (silence for a minute) Yeah, well, I can see where you’d think that.

Sister: What do you mean?

Me: The reason why my friends tend to be white, and have always tended to be white, is because black people have treated me like shit. In elementary school, those little hoodlums bullied me from day one. I was light-skinned, had good hair, talked like a white girl, smart–which unfortunately also meant I was the teacher’s pet–and I lived on the wrong side of 16th Street. I used to get a stomachache every day at 8 AM. Mommy, who of course was getting ready to go to her job, would tell me to get something to eat to settle my stomach. That’s when I learned not to tell anyone about how I felt, how I saw things–because I figured no one cared. The worst thing about it is that by this time, my bipolar bullshit was full-blown but I decided there was no point in telling anyone.

Sister: Yes, you would have had an easier time at Powell (another elementary school) than at West, but Mommy didn’t know she could have gotten you into another school. She didn’t know.

Me: I’m not blaming Mommy for anything. The adult Roxanne understands and forgives, but the child is still hurting and suffering. And I don’t know how to help her.

Me: Anyway, junior high was better. I had black, white, and Asian friends, and there were black kids who were even lighter than me so I wasn’t judged. In high school, it was totally different. No one cared what you looked like–the only thing that mattered was whether you had the chops to run with the big dogs. And I did. I was one of the best pianists in our school.

Me: College? Well, that was a bitch. As a freshman, I was talking to one of my black classmates during the first few days of school, you know, getting-to-know-you chitchat, and she asked me about my relationship with God. I told her I was an atheist. Her eyes widened, then she turned and walked away. From that day forward, not a damned one of those black women, those ahead of me as well as those behind me, said fuck-all to me until the last two weeks of the final semester of my senior year. So yeah, all of my college friends were white. And sometimes they said racist things, not because they wanted to hurt me but because they didn’t know any better. They didn’t even know they’d done anything wrong. I could have called them on it but if I did that every time someone said something hurtful, I wouldn’t have had any friends. So I kept my mouth shut.

Sister: I guess it didn’t help that your interests were different than those considered to be “black” interests.

Me: Damned right. Do you know how many times I’ve been called an oreo?

Me: I fixed the problem in law school, though. I didn’t talk to ANYBODY. I had a portable cassette tape player–you know, one of those Walkman type things. I’d load my backpack with books and cassettes and put on my headphones, which I only took off during class. After class, the headphones immediately went back on. And I turned the volume up high. If someone said something to me, I couldn’t hear them unless they were yelling and maybe not even then. So I had no friends while in law school, and I was perfectly fine with it. What friends I did have during that time were white and pretty trashy, but they were good people and importantly, not in law school. They were the exact opposite of my asshole classmates.

Me: It didn’t get better when I entered the workforce, either. During the first ten years or so of my career, I was the token. Dark enough so as not to be mistaken for anything but black, and light enough so as not to be visually offensive. I remember an exchange I had with two black women in the smoking lounge in the building where I used to work. They had beautiful, dark chocolate skin. They said they knew I’d had it easy because I was light. I told them “I don’t know what you’ve been through because I haven’t walked in your shoes, but I’ll tell you this–to them, we’s all niggas and they don’t want us here.” After that, we were cool. In fact, I think they told all the black people in the building what I’d said because suddenly I was cool with everybody. But you know what? What happened that day pissed me off. Why? Because once again I had to prove my “blackness.” I had to prove I was “down” with the folk. That’s really shitty, don’t you think?

Me: And don’t even get me started on black men. Except for two, every black man who has asked me for a date has stood me up. There was a black man in the apartment complex where I lived after I left Bill. By then, I was in my 40s, and he was about the same age. When I was out with my dogs, we’d have really nice conversations in the parking lot. Eventually, he asked for a date. I said yes. Well, needless to say, he never showed up. Didn’t call, either.

Sister: Well, you know, black men are sometimes intimidated by black women who have higher incomes and are better educated than they are.

Me: That don’t cut no ice. We’d talked enough times that he knew what I was about. His inferiority complex didn’t suddenly come upon him. He KNEW how he felt, yet asked me out anyway. After that, he ducked every time he saw me. So what was the deal? Was he trying to get back at me for being what I am? Stand the high-yaller girl up to make her feel bad about herself, that she’s not desirable by her kind, or whatever? Fuck that shit.

Sister: I stand corrected about you.

By this time, my sister had arrived home from her commute, and we hung up. It took a few days for what I had said to sink in. After it had, I realized just how much bullshit I’d endured from black people. They’d fucked with my head and that fucked up my life. I’ve never been very social, but I wonder now if my preference for being alone results from being rejected by my own, over and over again. I can’t say I’m “comfortable” with whites, but they certainly have been more accepting of me. Maybe that has to do with our similar interests, making it easier for them to “relate” to me. I don’t know. I also don’t know how this revelation will impact my life. Seems a little late to even care about it, now. Still, it’s a load off my shoulders and for that, I’m grateful.


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