The Other Life of a Dark Skinned person

Nina Simone
Nina Simone

In the past month there have been many think pieces on the controversy of Zoe Saldana; a light-skinned black actress playing the role of a dark-skinned artist Nina Simone, in the movie Nina.  It is regarded as controversial because Saldana possess features which betrays and contradicts what Simone was all about.  Nina Simone’s artistry and success took her way beyond the boundaries of beauty making it impossible for her to be ignored.  But she clearly felt she had a responsibility to use her platform and protest about the treatment of black people and speak the unspeakable – being black and dark-skinned.

As a black female born in the UK I consider my experiences as a dark-skinned woman a little unique.  I know one cannot generalize as I have come across light-skinned people who see themselves as undeniably black and dark-skinned people who have not experienced negativity from their light-skinned mates.  However, my experience is not just the usual standard racism but I have also experienced this from those who are a lighter than me; from those who consider themselves black!

Being defined by people and the environment takes a psychological toll, so much so that you cannot help but create a space between you and this shadowy edifice. In my case, I created an imaginary person, where I’m able to install this ‘dark skin’.  So whenever I meet this negativity, I redirect it to this ‘person’, as a way of protecting me!

I would seat it at the back of the class or make it stand firmly against the wall at discos; it would have to wait until it was spoken to at college and sit politely among others in the conference room at work. It is used to being invisible and ostracised when in the company of its so-called betters.  But in general, it has always depended on the kindness and acceptance of those into the exotic and curious.

If I am to look elsewhere for other examples of such experiences, it’s used to taking on cameo parts in movies, and if it has a major role then it is flawed in some way. And in literature, it has made appearances in novels such as A House for Mr. Biswas. Or if you check The Bluest Eye, the protagonist Pereola Breadlove is considered ugly by everyone including her own mother.  She escapes this situation by imagining herself to be beautiful – by having blue eyes, white skin and blonde hair, feeling that her life would improve.

I know for those who are not black will think what’s the big deal, after all the lead role in Nina is played by a black woman in the same way the role of Margaret Thatcher in the movie The Iron Lady was played by a white actress. This is true but it’s also true that when Othello was played by a black actor for the first time, the critics said how the play began to make sense. The nuances and details of racism suddenly became alive and clear.

Where did this all begin for me? How did this experience affect me? I think it’s best to look at my family situation to see how it evolved.

My mother told me early on in my life that my hair was my beauty.  It was her subtle way of letting me know there was no point relying on my looks. Yes, my hair was abundant, long and thick, and twice per month I went to our regular hairdresser where he was able to create a Shirley Temple look, that is, big drop curls which hung to the middle of my back.  Later on, when the salon began to use chemicals such as straighteners, he abandoned the press ‘n’ curl routine leaving me with patches of burnt scalp.

Clearly, I was no Shirley Temple and could never be, as I owned two deadly sins – a dark complexion and a wide inflated nose. My mother’s disappointment though, was enduring; I simply did not meet her criteria of what she expected, so regular visits to the salon was her way to compensate for the things she felt I lacked.

This endeavour reached fruition, when after a year of attending dance school, I had to perform on stage a solo tap routine to a popular song sung by Shirley Temple, On the Good Ship Lollipop. Followed by an enthusiastic applause from the predominantly white audience, my mother beamed. She acted as though this audience had been conquered and converted by the weighted ringlets bouncing all over the place while I did my ‘step ball’ change and ‘brush hop brush drops’.

Of course, I was clueless about what was going on at the tender age of eight, realising later given the interests of people who surrounded me, my purpose was to help dismiss a part of myself which caused offence.

But it was not just my mother’s incredible expectations as well as disappointments which loomed like a permanent grey cloud.  It was also her.  For my mother was beautiful. She was haughty, glamorous and intelligent, and believed her looks surpassed well-known black actresses of the day.  I knew at an early age I could not reach such dizzy heights and would spend the rest of my days acting as a shock-absorber when people realised I was her daughter.

My mother carried a light brown complexion; a Joan Collins-esque nose, with high cheek bones, heart-shaped lips and a thick set of hair. She was always well presented and her make-up was meticulously applied. My mother’s mother was Indo-Guyanese with European features, and her grandfather was near enough white.

As we were the only black family in a North London road where I grew up in the early 60s, the neighbours deified my mother; it was an enigma as to how her features found their way in this black setting. You’re black but you look white, but how can you look white when you’re black? Their gazes seem to be asking.  Not everyone was convinced for it did not stop the name calling and abuse from the other residents, nor did it stop the jealously from the witch-like sisters of my father.  But my mother’s popularity forced them to make sure we were always well presented, whether at school or church.  With our white ankle socks, starched hankies and our polished shoes it was almost as if a standard had been set and we had to keep to it. Each time we went out with our mother, the neighbours came and gathered around us.

For my father however, it was different. Dark-skinned with strong big features, he did not query my mother’s behaviour and possibly received vicarious satisfaction from all the attention, even though it did not fall on him. But there was no doubt of the racism he experienced – the fights he got into with the Teddy Boys and the insults he received at work. He left Guyana as a carpenter but prior to that, he worked on the sugar (plantation) estates. With determination he managed to leave the country and find his way to London, and then a year later, he was joined by a woman who would eventually become his wife and my mother.

Whilst in Guyana, my father grew accustomed stepping aside or lowering his head when a light-skinned person came his way. When he met some of these people years later in London at a function, he behaved in the same manner. They quickly but jokingly said ‘Hey, you na know me?’ My father was speechless. When he shared this story, he laughed saying the experience was ‘positive’; it proved to him that London was a great equalizer and he had no regrets leaving Guyana.

Growing up as a teenager, I realised that having long hair had its advantages even though I was ignorant to its drawbacks. Styling and wearing it in the latest fashions gave the illusion of beauty. The black guys who were attracted to me ‘believed’ I was pretty.  Just as milk in coffee makes the drink palatable, my hair helped dismiss and divert attention from my skin tone. One of these guys even said they liked my hair and how ‘it would be better if I kept it straightened’.  So I did. Just to make sure my approval ratings remained high with those that mattered.

As a married woman with young children, my focus was on my family where I had to set myself aside. So for twenty years, I kept (or hid) my hair in braids. What I love about it is the multitude of styles which can be created and the practical reasons, as it does not take up time and gives your hair a rest from the chemicals.

But it was a fight guiding my daughter in self-acceptance while witnessing her confidence being extinguished, as she battled with white images of beauty from the media.  With the increased number of skin lighteners and the more ‘creative’ ways of having long hair, unfortunately it has become easier for black girls and women to perpetuate the notion that white beauty is still more desirable.  Unlike me who had to do as I was told, the children of today clearly know their own minds about what they want. The same applies to my daughter who would argue that she doesn’t have an ‘inferiority complex’ and the ‘younger generation don’t think that way, and besides, what’s wrong with experimenting?’

But ever since my daughter began her degree course, she has a new attitude towards her looks. She proudly wears natural hair styles as opposed to relaxing her hair and uses natural organic products.  In fact, she says she never wants to relax her hair again or go near a skin ‘brightener’. As a result, she has received compliments from other black students as well as those from other races. She realises there is no need to ‘change herself’ as it is more important is to accept and love who she is, even if, the image of a celebrated top model is bearing down on her.

After my mother passed away and I look back on our relationship, it occurred to me her thinking and the conditioning she received in the West Indies had an effect on me.  But I understand she was the product of an environment which shaped and created her thinking and  she could not be held responsible for how she wanted me to be. Several years before she died, her manner changed; it was tolerant and accommodating. She complimented me of how I had turned out – something she had rarely done – and how she was proud.  Just after she died, a friend of hers told me that my mother believed she was not a good parent.  Strange to say but upon hearing this, it gave me some relief.  I always wondered if she was conscious of her parenting methods and the effects it had me. It was never confronted when she alive as I felt that if I had, she would have denied it.  But it gave me some respite from thinking all along she did not care.

I still carry the scars of my upbringing. My ‘scars’ come in the form of self-doubt and a low self-esteem. The positive thing about this I’m living in a time where due to the amount of information available, I realise that I’m not the only one with doubts; as there are lots of souls battling daily of how to embrace themselves. So whether I visit a counsellor or do a course in meditation, or simply study the Bible, at least it’s a start in defeating the pervading images and stereotypes and not to be dictated by them.

And as for the controversy surrounding the movie Nina, I am glad that this discussion has been brought out into the open. If anything good is to come out of this, at least it has allowed me to share my experiences, and for me to feel they are most certainly valid.

Thanks for listening.

 

 

 

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My favourite post in 2015?

 

I noticed recently that the above title was placed in ‘Hot off the Press’ before the year ended.  As the comments were  closed, it occurred to me that I could scroll through my posts and see which one was my favourite.

My favourite post  I wrote in 2015 was about Rachel Dolezal –  the controversial academic who pretended her way – by darkening her skin and braiding her hair –  into being somebody she was not.

I liked the story simply because it forced me to delve into an aspect of my past which I had completely shut down. It was a painful time. Lots of bullying, unsympathetic parents and more importantly, not understanding who I was or the environment I was in.  The quick response as to why this was, my parents shaped me into something they thought the world would find acceptable. If my P’s and Q’s were all in place, why shouldn’t I be able to get along?  But little did they know that it caused an offence to those in our community and others.  It seemed I was a stranger to them.  Having said that, moving around with or hiding behind a set of girls  I went to school with, made up for who I wasn’t.  It helped me to cope.  X amount of years on, there is a stronger sense of who I am and accepting who I am.   There are no judgments or forced questions upon myself.

Re-reading this piece, forces me to travel back and confront all that went on. It also gives me satisfaction and relief.  Maybe Rachel should be thanked for enabling me to do this.

Can living a lie be ‘passed’ off as living real: The Rachel Dolezal matter

The Rachel Dolezal story is an interesting one.  Her story forces me back to my past, the late 70s when I was a teenager growing up in Tottenham, North London.  For as long as I can remember, the black community would battle its way against racism as well as fighting to hold onto its self-respect and dignity.  The encounters it experienced from the host community were many, but the one which intrigued me the most were those who hustled to befriend you, that is, to be you. Dreadlock-Hairstyles

The girls I moved around with were black but there was a white girl, who also used to hang with us.  Her name was Norma.  She was pale in complexion, sported long blonde dreadlocks which she bunched up under a large tam bearing the colours of the Jamaican flag.  Ackee and salt fish (a traditional Jamaican dish) was her favourite meal; Jamaican patois poured from her mouth as if its origins began there. We’d all meet up after school and most times our activities would involve roaming from each other’s house to the next and purposely checking out the High Rd (just so we didn’t miss the opportunity of accidentally bumping into some guy we were hoping to meet).   Another one of our regular haunts was visiting the many record shops in the area.  Norma would show off her knowledge on the latest reggae ‘tunes’, and could tell you about the forthcoming ‘pre-release’.  Added to all these qualities was her relationship with black guys.  They liked her.  And if there was any resentment on our part, it was how we automatically melted into the background when she was around.  She acted as if it was all natural to her.  No one would confront her with any of this but we would discuss it behind her back.

There would be the odd occasion where she was challenged.  During her predatory moments, when she was interested in a guy, it didn’t matter on whose toes she trod. Girls, whose boyfriends she took, would face her at one of the disco’s or at the local park where the fight would take place. In fact, when she was involved in a fight, it would not meet its expected conclusion. Guys would get involved and break it up before any damage was done.  On another occasion, she was confronted by black girl named Rita from Stamford Hill. Rita had a reputation as a bully and she was also a good fighter.  At one of the discos, Rita confronted Norma about her identity.   black female dread

“And what do you look like?”  Rita scowled with contempt.  Norma just laughed with her locks swinging from side to side. Her blithe response was fearless. Rita, built like a tank could have floored Norma, easily.  But as with Rita and the rest of us, there was an assumed feeling like some sort of edict, that physically attacking Norma would result in her parents, our parents and the police descending on you. In the days where Child Line was yet to be born, getting ‘lix’ from your parents was a fear, far greater than other parents or the police!  Norma was sacrosanct: an untouchable, where she could do whatever she wanted and they’d be no consequences from us nor interference from her own community.  Just as a pretender who has usurped the throne from its rightful Queen and remains unsurpassed, was like Norma.  And just like a Queen holding court, she would ridicule her conquests and be untroubled by her defeats; she would inject and impose her opinions on top of our views while editing our experiences.

At times she would make it hard for us to criticise her when there were injustices. It would make her angry when young black men were being stopped and searched by the police or, pitied hard-working immigrants who could never satisfy the relentless criticism.  And just like anyone of us, she was also contradictory.  There were moments when her actions worked for us?  I remember an incident which took place not too far from the Gestetner factory on Tottenham Hale, when one of us were called names by an elderly white woman. I remember Norma charging towards the woman, snatching her hat from her head and hitting her continuously with it.  A crowd closed in as we all watched her belt the woman with suRachel Dolezalch fury.   It was incredulous to believe that Norma was doing this, on our behalf.  We told her to stop, as the incident was taking place on the High street somebody was bound to have called the police.   We dragged Norma away and the woman quickly retreated into one of the shops.  I remember seeing the woman again, a week later. Maybe she recognized me, I don’t know, but she took one look, and crossed to the other side of the road.

Years later, one of the friends in the group, Brenda, told me she saw Norma in Enfield Town.  She said Norma had married an English man and had two children.  With the dreadlocks and patois gone, she spoke in a Standard English accent about her eldest getting into university and wanting the family to move to a better area.  She appeared happy and satisfied but she did not ask any questions of us or the guys.  Brenda, tempted to ask for her mobile number to arrange a reunion of sorts, sensed Norma’s disinterest to be reacquainted with the past.  In fact, Norma wished her all the best when saying good-bye. ‘It felt final’, Brenda said ‘as if she didn’t expect to see me again.’

Brenda and I explored this.  We remembered she did not have a good relationship with her family and perhaps found sanctuary in the people she moved around with. Being us, or having another identity perhaps enabled her to escape the shackles of her own life. Our readiness to accommodate her without question is what she embraced.  Norma mimicking us or appropriating our culture, I did not see it as a threat because deep down, we all knew it wasn’t for real. How could it be?  You could not compare her to the level Rachel Dolezal took it. Norma heading the Race Relations board or becoming a lecturer on Black Studies at Middlesex Poly by ticking the wrong ethnicity box? I don’t think so.  I remember the time when we no longer saw Norma.  We wondered what had happened to her. We called at her home where she had lived with her parents (they said she had moved out and staying with a relative, which I didn’t believe) checked her last boyfriend and she was nowhere to be seen. I think somewhere within us all we were not surprised.  If I were to hazard a guess, perhaps black life was becoming too real. It was time to get rid of the disguise, since it had served its purpose, and head to the suburbs.white dreadlocks

As for Rachel Dolezal, she had given lectures on black hair, helped to fight some of the injustices faced by the black community.  You could say she had good intentions but spoilt it all by stating in one video that she is black. She used her make over, her knowledge to transition herself to secure a top job with the NAACP.   But as one African-American writer Alicia Walters writes, ‘the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes’. Norma did this and Dolezal is still doing this.  I welcome Dolezal’s concern but I’m not sure whether pretending to be black or culturally nicking bits and pieces of a culture is the way to go about things. There are a number of white people who similarly hate injustices meted out to ethnic minorities but don’t find it necessary to pretend to be something they are not.  Also I feel the dishonesty reduces the seriousness of a people’s experiences as well as mocking them.

The other key thing whilst practicing Mindfulness Meditation, you realise that you eventually learn to embrace and love who you are. As someone who has struggled over the years against the pervasive, dominant images that I see from the press and print media, forcing me to rework my look, hoping that one day, the reflection in the mirror will return the ‘look’ I want.  Trying to exist in someone else’s image does not lead you anywhere. So whether I braid or relax my hair, I will always look like me.  Rachel, I hope you’re listening…