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. 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 cheekbones, heart-shaped lips and a thick set of hair. She was always well presented and her make-up was meticulously applied. My grandmother 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 query. Not everyone was convinced for it did not stop the name calling and abuse from the other residents, nor did it stop the jealousy from the witch-like female members of my extended family. 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 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.