Black is Beautiful…as Long as You’re not too Black

My junior year of high school we read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. To make a point about one of themes in the novel, my teacher pointed to me and my friend Ebony. He told the class that I would be a house slave because I was light-skinned and Ebony would work in the fields because she was dark. I’m serious.

Carrying our blackness with pride  is sometimes paradoxical. In our culture, there is meaning to the woman with kinky brown hair who has waved scalp burning relaxers from her hair routine, the black man who has no interest in rap music, the southern woman who speaks without Ebonics– they are liberators, but they are also sell outs. It’s okay to be Black– to look Black, to feel Black– as long as you don’t do it too freely– as long as you still question your right to be in this country. Even now, there is a clear distinction.

We are a culture that has become simultaneously both the oppressed and the oppressors.

The “Black is Beautiful” cultural campaign began in the late 1960’s. It was enlightened by the civil rights movement and it may be for Blacks, what the sexual revolution was for feminists– to regain our roots and to take back the stereotype. Blacks were encouraged to embrace their “Black” features–kinky hair, wide noses, big lips and dark skin. It was fun for a while. But then, something changed.

The Angela Davises, Maya Angelous, Huey Newtons and bell hooks were replaced with Oprahs, Beyonces and Denzels. The latter became cultural examples for how much blackness was acceptable. It was an example of how much of ourselves we would have to sacrifice before we were considered successful.

Starting in the 1980s, skin lightening products were marketed and placed specifically in minority neighborhoods for people who wanted “pretty” skin. Hair extensions became a multi-billion dollar industry for women who wanted “good” hair.

The outcome of slavery and institutional racism has created a culture that is in between itself and unsure where to go. The people who will pay for these grievances will be mostly young, uneducated and poor.

Black is beautiful, as long as you are not too black. Black is beautiful as long as your skin isn’t too dark, your hair isn’t too curly or your mind too outspoken. Black is beautiful as long as you continue to assimilate, continue to lose pieces of the culture you longingly want to be embrace. Black is beautiful as long as your “blackness” doesn’t intrude on the lives of others by saying that racism still exists, that micro-aggression is rampant or that our culture still has a long way to go. Black is beautiful if you grew up poor and still made it to college. Black is beautiful is you are an outlier that people can use as a poster child for success against the people who “choose” the unfortunate life they’ve been given.

Black is beautiful when election season comes around, when BET plays good music, when scholarship money is needed or when a Trayvon Martin case is on CNN. Black is beautiful when you are nothing of your original self. Black is beautiful when hair is straight, when eyes are not brown, when skin is not reminiscent of coal, when people can pronounce you’re name with ease and when smart mouths don’t reference slavery. Black is beautiful when we are not too black. It’s even more beautiful when we not black at all.

How much of ourselves will we have to sacrifice before we are finally “good enough?”

I’m still serious.

4 Responses to “Black is Beautiful…as Long as You’re not too Black”
  1. Andee D. says:

    I find this to be interesting, especially your opening story about your teacher making the distinction between you and your friend. Did you find this example to be uncomfortable or out of place in the classroom or was it information that you hadn’t heard before? I remember my grandmother telling me the same info a few years back, so I’m curious. But nice post, I think it’s definitely something to think about.

    This topic also reminds me of a debate I saw before on light-skinned vs. dark-skinned women portrayed in music videos. The paradox there being that the rappers might want all of the curves that come with many black women, but with a lighter face.

    • Hi Andee,

      Thanks for commenting!
      No, I didn’t find his statement offensive, I was just really shocked someone would point that out to simply make a point. It reminded me that I was black, honestly. That there was still something very different about me, and even more of a difference because of my skin tone. I’m well aware of the light-skinned v. dark-skinned debate, I dealt with it growing up, all the way through middle school, high school and sometimes even in college.
      && The the comment about the music videos, it’s interesting isn’t it? It’s okay to be black, but not too black. You can have a “black woman’s” body, as long as you have light skin. Also, I’ve noticed that in music videos where the woman tends to be the victim, or the singer/rapper is “saving” her from a bad relationship (Trey Songz, I Can’t Help But Wait/ Lil Wayne, How to Love/ Wale, Diary), all of these women are dark-skinned. It’s very interesting indeed.

      • Andee D. says:

        Hm, I hadn’t really thought about that detail of music videos before, but is amazing how deep this all goes. And yeah, I was one of the “black examples” in high school as well, so I understand your surprise. I just got used to it after a while, actually!

  2. Reblogged this on thefaithoverfearwoman and commented:
    As a sociology major, I loved this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: