I desperately need a new CD player, and am forced (ok, maybe not forced 🙂 to tune into commercial radio if I want to hear R&B and rap. As of late, I cannot help but notice the barrage of tracks filled with adoration for lighter skinned Afro-American women. Did I just retreat to a time when the paper bag test, often performed by affluent Afro-Americans during the 20th century, reigned as the barometer of all things beautiful?
The famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois’ deft predication that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” in The Souls of Black Folk holds true. The impact of slavery and a colonized mindset remain with us; stubborn ghosts refusing to leave. Their roots entrenched in a system of white supremacy which upholds mendacity over truth; even impacting white folks who do not fit narrow ideals. In her critical essay, Black Beauty and Power, intellectual and cultural critic bell hooks, writes: “No social movement to end white supremacy addressed the issue of internalized racism in relation to beauty as intensely as did the black power revolution in the 1960s. For a time at least this movement challenged black folks to examine the physic impact of white supremacy.”
Yet in today’s world, where images and content travel instantaneously via the Internet, cell phones, television, radio and print, one has to wonder how this generation of brown girls will internalize the subtle (or not so subtle) message that no matter how their skin glistens against intermittent rays of sunlight, model swag intact, beauty, as defined by mainstream pop culture, eludes them. Lil’ Wayne smugly rhymes over pulsating beats on Drake’s “Right Above It”: “Beautiful black woman, I bet that bitch look better red.” The tears fall internally; not that I expect much different from Lil Wayne, but my heart does flip flops for young girls who will accept this proclamation without hesitation. As my mind wanders, I am ten or eleven years old now, sitting on the floor upstairs in front of the mirror asking Mom if I can put a clothespin on my nose to make it smaller; or admitting, rather reluctantly at fifteen that my then light skinned boyfriend is “too good” for me because of his color. As an adult and proud 80s baby, I am still wrestling with these issues.
Where is the outcry from women of color when song after song insists our beauty lies in only a few shades? Chris Brown, that veritable object of teenage lust sings on the recently released “Look at Me Now”: “Yellow bottle sipping, yellow model chick, yellow Lamborghini…” as if taste and style are synonymous with light skin. Ten or twenty years from now, or even earlier, will brown girls the color of copper and mahogany embrace skin lighteners as past generations have done, convinced the path to love, acceptance and joy rests with light skin?
While we face a seemingly insurmountable battle against corporate media, internalized racism and ever-present images which deny the diverse beauty of all women of color, we must articulate a different language redefining beautiful in our terms. What will you tell your own daughter or niece with gleaming and curious ebony eyes as she looks up at you? I will say “your beauty defies categorization” each time she cries, or suggests she is not good enough. Who says it’s easy, but I am up for the challenge. Are you?
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