“Whitening” me? – by Terry Howard

In one of his legendary “folks, let’s not air our dirty laundry” features, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts began a recent column, “Blacks, too, judge each other by the color of their skin. How sick is that?” with this loaded old folk saying: 

“If you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.”

Now the funny – well, no, maybe not always so funny – thing is that every now and then someone will put something out that makes you reflect on your own experience relative to that issue. And that old saying from my past is one.

Now what got Pitts writing was his recollection of a white teacher who sought his help in helping a black student who thought she was ugly because of her dark skin. He struggled for the right words to say and retains no memory of what he told the teacher or the student.

Now on this issue, years ago I wrote what I found out afterwards was a head-turning piece on how the “light vs. dark skin thing” has historically played out in my community. Many of my white friends – and a few from Africa and the Caribbean – told me that they were unaware of this issue and flabbergasted by the article. A few native-born black readers chastised me for “going there” on such a taboo topic. 

Back now to Mr. Pitts.

“Most white people will have no clue about this,” he wrote. “They’ve never heard of skin lightening cream or the “paper bag test,” where your fiancé can be no darker than a paper sack. They can’t define “high yellow,” “caramel,” “redbone” or other terms from African America’s vast vocabulary of color. They won’t know how John Sanford became Redd Foxx because of his ruddy skin tone or that fair-skinned William Robinson was tagged “Smokey” — a derisive term for dark-skinned black people — in that ironic way you’d call a fat guy “Tiny.”

Okay, full disclosure now: I admit that while white people in my hometown soaked up the sun in backyards and by the pool during the day, some of us immersed ourselves in the moonlight during the night under some twisted – how sick was that? – notion that the moon would somehow whiten our skin. Obviously, the latter didn’t work for me. 

And then there’s this: the undeniable fact that the subliminal impact that the media, particularly movies, had on self-loathing based on skin color. Hey, who can forget Tarzan swinging from tree to tree in the jungle with those dark skinned “savages” in hot pursuit? Who can forget the dearth of dark-skinned images on the covers of high-profile magazines with exception of Ebony, Jet or black centric newspapers?

Then came the sixties when “black” suddenly evolved from the derogatory to the complimentary, emboldened in the lyrics of soul singer James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” Suddenly the dark skin self-loathing began to disintegrate. Although leftovers of color-based bias remain to this day, folks with dark skin are adorning the covers of major publications and in commercials and TV programs like never before.

“That bubble of doubt within? It’s time to stick a pin in it. And wear your dark and lively face with a grin on it,” advised Princess Latifah

Concluded Pitts, “But maybe Langston Hughes had the same hope in 1926 when he wrote a famous essay calling his generation to order.

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Terry Howard

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