I remember when I first began performing spoken word with the poetry collective Black on Black Rhyme. I was introduced by the stage name “Black Girl.” Hisses and heckling greeting me as I graced the stage. “She ain’t black,” darted from the back of the room and hit me in the face like a paper bag of dog shit. I laughed and addressed the echo of our collective self-loathing. I knew exactly what they meant. It was a sentiment I’d heard my entire life. It was the mar of colorism.
If (we know that it is) the darker sister’s struggle is that she is not seen as beautiful, the lighter sister’s struggle is that she is not seen as black, by her own people. And then enters Beyoncé, stage left to center.
This past weekend she dropped a single so revolutionarily black (for an artist of her celebrity) that she has E-VER-RY-BODY talking about it. Even those that don’t want to entertain it, write about how much they don’t want to entertain it. Not one white person is able to sing along with this song without looking crazy, but any black person can. We all know and understand what it means to be culturally “mixed” without being racially so. She’s black mixed with black, but we know the difference. Some of us cringed and clutched our pearls, others of us rocked in bold affirmation when we heard her bellow, “My daddy Alabama. Mama Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole, you get Texas ‘Bama.” But, we’ve all claimed to have “Indian” in our family because we wanted to be “special” black and not just regular. And, when there was no evidence of anything other than pure blackness in our melanated skin and the tight coils of our natural hair; when we couldn’t mask it with concealer and flowing weaves; when our perfection of grammar and European languages didn’t erase our broad features; when we realized we could never “pass” and therefore a certain level of privilege within blackness would not be afforded to us, we began to hate….ourselves and anyone (of us) that represented the other end of the color spectrum. This isn’t some universal language song. This is an undeniably, unapologetically black song. It exposes the good, the bad, and the shameful self-loathing.
She did this the first weekend in Black History Month. She did this on an international stage Super Bowl weekend. She did this with an army of black women in afros. She did this in the state that houses Oakland. She did this with black berets and Black Power fists plunging in the air. She did this without any men in her squad (to correct the ails of the misogyny within the Black Panther Movement.) She did this in an “X” Formation. She did this for every person from NOLA that was called a “refugee” in their native land. She did this while referencing Katrina, hot sauce, the Jacksons and their original noses, how we grind, black lives, systemic genocide, our non-monolithic subcultures and her “baby hair in baby hair and afros.” For the power of the impact alone regardless of how we feel about the music sonically and lyrically, we should collectively be proud. And, yet, the internal struggle is real.
I’ve seen the comments repeatedly that she’s self-serving and that her lyrics are just about her. But, what black woman song isn’t? Cue I’m Every Woman . Yet, we still all relate. I’ve heard that she and the song lack substance; as if every song we’ve ever rocked to was the Black Revolution Manifesto. I’ve heard that she’s opportunistic and capitalizing on this vital time in black uprising. When wasn’t it a vital time? I’ve heard critiques of the song’s usage of stereotypes, but I fully embrace stereotypes that are true and rooted in our culture. There is no negative connotation to carrying hot sauce in your bag, taking your man to Red Lobster or making him tacos if he put in work unless, out of shame, you have detached yourself from parts of our black subculture; the parts birthed from poverty. We can’t even adopt the lyrics to her music because we don’t feel connected to her. Her struggle has never been that she wasn’t pretty enough and therefore she cannot fully understand the black girl’s plight. Her struggle has never been that she wasn’t popular enough,or loved enough, or accepted (we assume.) Whatever struggles she may have faced pale in comparison and therefore, her music, her lyrics, her voice is self-serving because she cannot possibly associate herself with the core trials of black womanhood. Damn! We have some healing to do.
We aren’t even conscious of this internal struggle and that this is the source for many of the palpable disdain for her; not just her music, her. Colorism is visceral. It’s intrinsic for black people, especially in regards to black women. The well read of us understand that this is rooted in the division intentionally perpetuated through centuries of chattel slavery and forced miscegenation, but we own it anyway. We rally behind it with banners that read “Team Light-Skin” vs. “Team Dark-Skin.” It’s cancerous to the core. It is the vile excrement and pus of the layered wounds of an earthed history cloaked in colonialism.
When I see black women divisive on this issue, I find it easier to be a vocal advocate for my darker-hued sisters because I too have been considered “privileged.” Erykah Badu can do no wrong. She’s the safe color. Her hair is just kinky enough to be black, but just soft and textured enough to be considered “good.” Mary J. Blige is safe. She can rock platinum blonde hair for her entire career and never be questioned about her identity struggles. Her music has always been undeniably black. She has so many black girl anthems in her catalog that we each feel she has read our personal journals and put our business in the streets. But, the others, the Janell Monaes and India Aries aren’t getting all of their just due praise. And, I call all of my lighter-hued sisters to the carpet about it. I can because I share ALL of their struggles. They can hear me.
It is undeniable that darker women have been marginalized and that their beauty has been overlooked. We, as black women of every shade, can stand in solidarity on that fact. We watched the documentary “Dark Girls” in horror and stood together against colorism, even though I was literally and figuratively given the side-eye because I just couldn’t possibly understand. However, I feel less supported by and less empowered to check my darker sisters on the visceral disdain for any black woman that doesn’t pass their paper bag test because they aren’t dark enough. Yes, it cuts both ways. The hatred of darker black women against lighter black women for that sole reason is dismissed and denied. It’s lumped in the same box with “white tears.” To offer such an accusation is internalized as insulting and demeaning immediately; the mirror is never held. No one wants to accept or hear these truths because to allow lightness (which we equate with whiteness) to play the victim in any way usurps the power of victimization from our darker sisters who’ve been denied so much already. When our refusal to recognize it in ourselves is presented in our defensiveness and justification for our feelings, I bow out.
I was talking to a girlfriend last night, a sister who shares a lighter complexion and a rational love for Beyoncé and black women in general. I was confirmed in what I was feeling. I shared with her a reluctance to recognize the reaction to Beyoncé because I feared putting a name to it. Though it was cellularly familiar, I didn’t want to make the bold accusation that we, as black women, still hate ourselves and therefore cannot fully embrace each other as a reflection of ourselves. “You know what you’re feeling as a thirty-five-year-old light-skinned black woman. I know it too.” I was feeling the discourse and challenge of my own blackness, just as I did on that stage years ago. I was feeling even more connected to Beyoncé in a way that I didn’t want to share. Beyoncé didn’t just have the nerve to be light. She had the audacity to come from a middle-class, two-parent household and be able to sing and dance as the leader of a black girl group where she was by far the lightest. How dare she?!
But, I saw an uprising when Faux News came for her. Nobody can talk about us, but us. That’s code. It is not until she is attacked by whites for her blackness that we will rally around her and collectively support her. A black woman is not a black woman unless she has scars.
The black women who have healed are obvious. It’s not just her fans, because there are those of us who are her fans because she’s light. No, they have not healed. There are those who dismiss her as an artist completely and overanalyze every single step she makes. “She did this too late, too quietly, too loudly, too….white.” They are those who look at her with the expression one makes when they walk in a house of someone cleaning chitlin’s. No, they have not healed. There are those who share her hue but who have denounced their “light privilege” and therefore hate her for benefitting from it. No, they have not healed. There are those who will only come to her defense when the attacks against her can clearly be defined as racially motivated and spirited with hate towards our collective. Then, they’ll jump to her/our aid. No, they have not healed. It is those who love her just as they love every other black girl using her voice; not necessarily all of her music or decisions, but the woman that she is and is becoming because they see her as a reflection of us all. They are the ones who have healed in this way, because be certain, we are all still wounded.
We believe that if you’re of a darker hue, you’re black and could be “pretty for a dark girl.” If you’re of a lighter hue, you’re beautiful, but “not black enough.” Our darker and lighter sisters feel the sentiments, “I hate you because you’re seen as beautiful,” and “I hate you because you’re seen as black,” respectively. We divide our blackness and beauty while failing to realize the two are synonymous.
Nina Simone is praised for her boldness in creating music that edified our people, our struggles, our resilience, our inevitable rise. She was unapologetically black and beautiful, though the latter was often overlooked. She did not have crossover appeal in the states because of her black brilliance and skin. We see Beyoncé draped in mass appeal and we challenge her allegiance to us. If white folks embrace her, then she must not really be for us we think. But, she is undeniably beautiful and black.
Beyonce is ours.
-Black Girl, T. Anyabwelé