Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dark am I, yet lovely

One of the most viewed posts on my blog is the one about Rimi Sen's "black African" comment. Personally, after saying my piece, I was quite prepared to let the whole thing die. I mean, it's not like she threatened to put a pitch fork up anyone's hindparts or anything. Four months later in a new year, that post is once again getting hits [Hello black Britain!] so I figure it's way past time to collect and spew my thoughts.

Initially, I intended to do a multi-paragraph pondering on the semantics of "dark" versus "black." In one sense, dark is a more likely accurate description of someone than saying that person is black because they most likely aren't. Then again, dark is merely comparative--it can only be understood in relationship to its opposite--whereas black is definitive.

So then, to say that you are black is to define yourself. Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud! To say that you are dark is much more elusive. It establishes "otherness" without affiliation. (I guess this is where brownz comes in?)

So back to my post on Rimi. There was one comment that reminded me once again that "Who is black?" a neverending question with many possible answers.

I've never met or seen a "black African" that looks remotely like Beyonce, Halle Berry or Rihanna.
That's probably because those girls are black but not African! [FYI, Halle's mother is white and Rihanna is from Barbados. Her father is half white.] That leads to the question, "Does black = African?" Not necessarily but black is always a derivative of Africa, much the same way that high fructose corn syrup is all natural. ;) This leads to a second anonymous "gem":
The so called American Blacks like Beyonce and others are not like black Africans at all.
While I realize it's probably not the best use of mental resources to even bother with this, I'm always up for providing an educational moment. Of course there are tremendous differences between black Americans and residents of the Mother Continent! American life has ruined many a person for life anywhere else.

If I wanted to be all deep and break it down to minutia, I would give a detailed explanation of the Transatlantic slave trade that brought hundreds of thousands of West Africans of to the US and tell you which countries they came from then go into tribal affiliations but anyone who was really curious about that would already know something about it.

So what are we talking about here? The way people look? It's no secret that many black Americans aren't even close to being fully African in ancestry. About 30% of black Americans who take DNA tests to determine their African lineage prove to be descended from Europeans on their father's side. [ref] It's quite likely that Beyonce and Lord knows Harold "light, bright, darn near white" Ford, Jr. are in that camp. And we're not just talking a single white ancestor.

While taping the documentary, African American Lives, Harvard University's chair of African American studies, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discovered that his DNA was sourced as 50% European! Music Producer Quincy Jones is 34% European. Do either of them look European to you?

On the other hand, Oprah Winfrey is 89% sub-Saharan African and Whoopi Goldberg 92%. Is that what you think of when you hear the word "African"? Who among the two camps reserves the right to be called "black"?

Or are we decrying a difference in culture? I don't care what your background is when you get here, I'll bet money your great-great grandkids' lifestyles won't be much other than American with a twist. That being the case, what can we realistically expect from families that have been in the U.S. for 15 generations or more while unable to reconnect with their ancestral land?

As for Ms. Sen, she leaves a few questions lingering in my mind: Did she mean to say that black people are ugly? African people are ugly? Dark/black-skinned people are ugly? As for commenters on the fascinatingly unique situation of the "black American," I hope this post offers some food for thought.

Okay, I'm all blogged out. I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts!

FYI: Today's post title is brought to you by the Song of Solomon chapter 1, verse 5! [ref]


naina said...

beautifully written post, t-hype! you rock!

Daddy's Girl said...

That's a lot of food for thought... very very interesting.

Aisha said...

Rimi Sen is just ignorant. She's not all that fair-skinned herself. That was an interesting post on how many African-Americans have a lot of European ancestral blood in them. I never would have guessed that Oprah Winfrey had that much African blood in her. :)

The program director in the IT department at my University is Ghanaian (African), and he's so smart.:) I think the problem with some people thinking that dark skin is considered to be "bad" or "ugly" is rooted in ancient times; for example, ancient Romans considered people with dark skin to be a bad thing because the people with the dark skin usually worked outside in the sun all day and did manual labor. The people with the fair skin sat in the house while others worked (fair skin = rich aristocrats, dark skin = manual laborers). So, that's one way how the dark vs. light concept came about.

It was also this way in slavery in the United States before the Civil War. The dark-skinned slaves worked out in the fields all day doing backbreaking manual labor while the light-skinned slaves (usually children of the slaveowners) worked in the house as houseservants and got preferential treatment for having mixed-race blood and being lighter in appearance. An African-American film director from the early 1900s named Oscar Micheaux depicted the light skin vs. dark skin conflict in his movies.

Most Bollywood actors aren't fair-skinned but "dark." Take a look at Kajol, Shahrukh Khan, Abhishek Bachan, and Johnny Lever. I once saw an old picture of Aishwarya Rai, and she was brown skin with dark brown eyes!!!

A good movie that illustrated the light vs. dark concept in India is Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala." There was a part in there where Mina's (Sarita Choudhary) family considered her to be dark, but she looks brown-skinned, LOL.

Okay, I'll stop talking now, lol. This was a really good post because it gets everyone involved on the skin color issue not just in Bollywood but around the globe.:)

Filmiholic said...

I work in an office with an very international staff, and I'll never forget my surprise a good few years back when some asked one of my co-workers, who was from Guyana, if she was Jane (not the real name), another woman from Guyana, and she replied "Oh no, she's much darker than me."

I think my jaw almost literally dropped. I'd never heard anyone speak in such terms.

Years on, uuf, everyone talks about color, and so many subdivisions within groups.

In Malaysia and Thailand most women walk during the day holding a purse, magazine,large envelope, when not a parasol, over them to keep from getting tanned.

I seem to recall in KKHH Salman's character saying of Kajol to SRK's daughter "But she's fat and dark", and again, I did a doubletake.

Aisha said...


Oh, man...I think I do remember Salman Khan's character (Aman) saying that about Kajol! :O

Anonymous said...

Wow! Your post hit really close to home. I'm African-American and growing up, I would hear members of my family tell stories of how my light-skinned grandfather was almost disowned for marrying my grandmother. You see, even though she was part- Native American, she didn't pass the paper bag test. For those who may not know, the paper bag test was used to determine if a person was the correct skin tone. If the person was lighter than a paper bag, then he or she was deemed acceptable. If not, then he or she was considered too dark to be embraced by certain African-American families and communities. This was especially prevalent in the South where many in the upper echelons of African-American society were light-skinned.

While my grandparents’ situation occurred in the 1950’s, I believe that even today, within the African-American community there exists a belief that darkness, along with distinctly non-European features, is ugly. That concept unto itself is sad. It’s even sadder for me to know that brown people all over the world have problems with the very fact that being a person of color often means that he or she actually has color. Well, I believe that when one looks around at the earth we walk upon, the very earth that provides us with our life and sustenance, it comes in many colors, from pale sand to reddish clay, to rich black soil. It is a beautiful thing and we, in all our different shades, are a beautiful people.

Thank you for your post t-hype. Dark am I, yet lovely indeed.

Pardesi Gori said...

"The program director in the IT department at my University is Ghanaian (African), and he's so smart.:)"

Am I the only one that caught THAT?

Aisha said...

Pardesi Gori said...

"The program director in the IT department at my University is Ghanaian (African), and he's so smart.:)"

Am I the only one that caught THAT?

Hmm...not exactly sure what you're getting at. I didn't mean any harm with that considering the fact that I'm African-American myself. I was simply complimenting my teacher because he's one of my favorite teachers, and I love studying African culture seeing as how I'm African-American myself. I hope you caught THAT (no pun intended).

Anonymous said...

Does Aishwarya Rai wear contacts? And does it seem that there were more darker skinned actresses in Bollywood in the past? People are calling Bipasha Basu dark...please!!!

ashvin said...

There is no better response to R.Sen's comment than ridicule. Yes, it is really embarrassing to admit that many south-asians have issues with skin-color (their own and everybody else's). And, according to this public radio show (and the previous comments on this thread), the problem is global (from the Philippines to Ghana to Guyana to the U.S). The self-loathing reflected in certain dark-skinned people feeling superior to other dark-skinned people because they've got a "better" hue or the "right" under-tone (! which I first heard of via a person from the Caribbean) is really pathetic. On the bright side, perhaps it means a larger pool of cute dark girls for the rest of us (where by 'us' I mean me) ? But I think attitudes are clearly and quickly changing for the better.

About the word 'black' .vs. 'african' .vs. whatever-else, do you think a Venn diagram [like this :)] might help ? So black-not-african (Beyonce ?) may be differentiated from african-not-black (Teresa Heinz Kerry ?) and african-and-black (Genevieve Nnaji) and neither-african-nor-black (Boris Becker, atleast as far as I know). I think the problem largely stems from loading a single word (black) with so many meanings. It can mean an actual color, but also an ethnic-group, but also historically oppressed people (Indian Dalits sometimes describe themselves as black, and the palestinian Suheir Hammad has a book title "Born Palestinian, Born Black" which I don't completely understand) and more. It'd be a lot easier if there were completely separate words to describe all of these different aspects of the word. It's especially confusing perhaps to immigrants who are unfamiliar with the American use of the word (so when Chris Rock says "bigger and blacker" he's not quite referring to the color of his skin). Because many of the meanings are somewhat related it's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what is being referred to. So the solution I propose is to invent a few new words.

Finally, I love the title for this post and its interesting source. But the poet clearly should have written "Dark am I, AND lovely".

t-hype said...

10 cool points for Ashvin's use of "Venn Diagram"!

Daddy's Girl said...

I'm loving this discussion! And I'm going to be all ignorant, t-hype, and admit that I thought you got the title for the post from a popular line of hair products. Nice reference.

I don't even have to think about it, I KNOW silly Rimi Sen was talking about me (even though I'd probably be 'classified' as a light-skinned black person).
And being both black and African (black skin, born in Africa to Africans, no non-African ancestors, have lived in Africa all my life, love it to pieces - the good and the bad), I find it very fascinating to read about all the interesting and sometimes disturbing questions having more 'flavour' in one's racial background can raise.

I think Monica said it beautifully - we are all lovely. Shame some people can't comprehend that. And shame that this is one problem that isn't about to go away.

As for Rimi Sen, my interpretation of her comment is, 'the darker a person is, the uglier' PLUS 'if you grew up all savage in the jungle, you're bound to be ugly'. So I think she was capturing BOTH 'blackness' and 'Africanness' in her comment. I think she would put the gorgeous Alek Wek firmly in the 'ugly' category', whereas for Beyonce she might be like 'but she's not a black African!' Such a peanut brain. And she can't even act.

ashvin said...

10 cool points for Ashvin's use of "Venn Diagram"!

Thanks :) It's surprising how many things are more easily understood with Venn diagrams (as shown by the blog Indexed).

Anonymous said...

Rimi Sen has no reason to talk. She obviously hasn't ran into Halle Berry, Gabrielle Union or Beyonce. If Rimi did ran into them, she'd have to eat her words.

ianko said...
i was lookin fot lyrics to this...
so i ended here.
hope you like it

Anonymous said...

I came across this post and I find it very intersting. Yes, in American (as well as other places) people of African descent are usually only about 90% African. But the same goes for every other race in America. That last ten percent is most likely Native American or something like that. BUT what I do not understand is, why do people who are half black, consider themselves ALL black?? Halle Barry is mullato, Beyonce is 2/3 black, white, and Native American.

I just do not understand why people think black or dark is ugly! People should not be ashamed because of how much melanin they happen to have in there skin. What a sad thing to think that a person is ugly because they are tanner than you.

Anonymous said...

Halle Berry does very much look half-white - her small facial features and mid-brown skin tone is a dead give-away. I don't know why Mariah Carey isn't seen as mix-raced - it's what she is!

PS - Tatyana Ali is half-Indian!

All these people are "Blasians" (and yes, they do look somewhat part Asian): Tyson Beckford, Naomi Campbell, Tiger Woods, Foxy Brown, Kimora Lee Simmons, Kelis, Amerie Rogers, Ashanti and Ne-Yo.

t-hype said...

hey anon, I think it's because Mariah Carey looks too white. That's why she has to work so hard for street cred. lol.

I have a 1st cousin her complexion with reddish brown hair who has the exact same problem!

Anonymous said...

Yep, Henry Louis Gates DOES look mix-raced!

John said...

I don't understand why people don't think Halle Berry looks very black. Her features are African-ish. I've also heard that Beyonce and Berry have both gotten nose jobs. Don't know if it's true but they do both seem to have straighter noses than before. Also there are plenty of full-blooded Africans with smallish features. Also the hair straightening epidemic makes everyone look more white than they actually are. Almost no black women let their hair go natural and it's a shame. And then with women like Beyonce who straighten it and bleach it within an inch of its life --she really takes away from her natural African attributes. In the case of most of the female celebrities mentioned here, their African ancestry would appear in their faces even if they were "white" skinned.

Andy said...

As an Afro-Trinidadian-American (good lord labeling oneself has gotten complicated) Bollywood lover I would like to play Devil's advocate with an alternative viewpoint. I do feel a twinge when I hear remarks about color. For example Preity Zinta swearing off dark skinned men in Jaan-E-Maan. What I noticed however is that there are much more dark skinned actors than actresses in Bollywood. Is this because just like Hollywood the men behind the scenes are pushing what they feel is beautiful while at the same time representing a more realistic version of themselves? Is a quest for a lighter complexion no different than American women wanting to be ridiculously skinny because that is what is defined as beautiful in Hollywood? No this doesn't answer the question of the origin of colorism but this might be why it's still so commonplace. Or am I just stating the obvious?

To end on a positive note I do find it comforting that Rimi Sen was called out for her ignorance. Instead on dwelling on one stupid remark we should applaud the many that blasted her for it.

andy said...

Oops made a mistake with the Preity Zinta movie. It was Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Anonymous said...

It's obvious that Beyonce isn't 100% black - she definitely has some Asian or European blood in her. And let's face it, her skin tone is close to what many people desires to have - beige-ish-brown - yet she (or her make-up artist) still isn't satisfied...
...and people criticise Indians for trying lighten their skin tone.

Anonymous said...

What is European 'blood'? Why can't people use the word 'genes' or 'genetics' instead of 'blood'?

It sounds dumb as hell!

cristie said...

It is interesting to hear all your comments on this. I am Nigerian, born in Nigeria with no mixed ancestry. Some of my family members are so fair skinned you almost take them for white; yet some like me are dark skinned, yet we are all black because we are Africans. Beauty is not defined by skin color but by features. And some features are more beautiful with particular skin colors - either dark or fair. A white person can be ugly, same goes for the black and vice versa. I have an uncle that wont have anything to do with a light skinned lady - choice. I for one do not care whether a guy is fair or dark - he just has to look very good (features, not color). But, I guess Indians have problem with color generally (maybe Hindu beliefs has something to do with it. Someone pls explain).

Anamika said...

Wonderful Post and what an answer for a rude remark. I don't think one should be discriminated based on skin color.

Black Singles said...

Nice blog!
I'm so grateful that I suddenly drop by to your post and I really enjoy reading it. Thanks for sharing this stuff. Keep up the work t-hype!

Anonymous said...

No you are not. Did you see the part about never guessing Oprah had much african blood in heR?

chat rooms said...

Interesting article, Read through it and most of the comments, A few comments are a little strange but the most of them are quite nice to read.