Photos by danielle c milesPost Soundtrack – “Brown Skin Lady” BlackStar
7th Ward: This shoot was done in my neighborhood, the 7th ward of New Orleans. Its right outside of the Treme (well it used to be the Treme before they built the Claiborne overpass which divided the Black neighborhood. The Treme is a historically Black part of New Orleans (the backatown) and is America’s oldest surviving Black neighborhood.
This block is the coldest block in the whole city (don’t ask them niggas on Roman…they might have something different to say lol but thats cool). At Roman and Columbus we got wild roosters and wild bunnies at Rocheblave and Columbus. We also have an accident committee. For some reason there’s always accidents on either corner so if you get into a wreck on either one of these corners, we’ll be out there with water for you and help you watch your kids. If its a hit and run…we got ways to deal with that too.
This yellow car been here since I moved and I’ve always wanted to do a shoot in front of it…I just thought, a car with foliage growing out of it was pretty cool and a nice juxtaposition to the clothing and theme of this shoot.
-danielle c miles
MWENDE: Once I was at an event at the New Orleans Public Library that was quite crowded. In NOLA, crowded rooms quickly turn to funky rooms, so I decided to step out and listen from the hall. While out there, a man who I kinda-sorta know came out. We awkwardly said hello and exchanged pleasantries (as is custom when you’ve met someone like 5 times in passing but have never actually had a conversation), before I settled into an awkward and distressed silence realizing that we would probably have a conversation since we were the only two in the hallway (most folks don’t believe me because the freaking out happens internally, but I’m incredibly awkward and hate talking to people 😀 ). As my eyes are desperately darting around the room looking for something to comment on, I see him lean towards me out of the corner of my eye, look expectantly at me and say to me in a lowered tone, ‘you know…I like dark skinned girls’. My head snapped back in his direction and I’m not sure what my face looked like (I’ve been told I have quite an expressive face. Once I was sitting in a city council hearing right in front of the camera and I had like a dozen people text me telling me the faces I were making behind the speakers made it hard to even listen to what was being said…), but it must’ve been looking some type of way because he then said, ‘Didn’t you hear me? I said I like dark skinned girls’. I’m pretty sure he expected me to smile or be a little ‘friendlier’ after that statement, but instead I raised my eyebrows even higher and said, “And? What you wanted a cookie for doing something that you should do…?”.
See the problem with what he said and the expectations he wrapped his words in was that it inherently implied that there is something about dark skinned girls/women that makes us intrinsically unlikable/undesirable meaning that those of us who are lucky enough to run into someone who doesn’t mind our hideous darkness should be thankful for their attention. Instead of uplifting dark skinned women (which I hope is the goal of this guy and other “lovers of dark skinned sistas” instead of using our relationships to our darkness in an anit-Black world to manipulate us for your sexual/romantic gains…), comments like this tend to reinforce the notion of dark skinned inferiority and prey on the vulnerable experiences that living with dark skin leaves us, especially Black women subject to on a personal, community and societal level.
I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a time in my life when such a comment would have made me smile and given me a shallow boost of self-confidence. Growing up more masculine centered, I already had an uneasy relationship with femininity. The older I got (especially after puberty when everyone was concerned about their looks and how everyone else around them looked), the more my dark skin seemed to become noticeable to me and those around me. What made it worse was that I had an older sister who was not only more feminine than I was, but was also much lighter skinned. At times it felt like we were two tired stereotypes: she, the pretty sunshine-smiley light-skinned girly girl who everyone wanted to be around and me, her rough, boyish, moody dark-skinned sister that never got any attention if it wasn’t on the basketball court.
I think Black people growing up/coming of age in this era of Black Lives Matter that intentionally centers Blackness and calls for radical self/community love of Blackness forget how recently this has been the case. Growing up, I was flat out told that Black wasn’t beautiful over and over again until I internalized it. I was told everytime I opened up a magazine to a beauty tutorial and it was not written for my skin or my hair that I couldn’t be beautiful. I was told everytime my mom permed my hair, my screaming scalp silenced by the compliments I got after each session that I couldn’t be beautiful. I was told with every new white girl my brother dated and the disdain he and other Black men in school had for Black women that they refused to date that I wasn’t beautiful. In middle school I made the puberty induced leap from tomboyishness to reckless femininity and wore blonde extensions and badly matched makeup that lightened my skin tone (I could say in my defense it was because none of the style magainze were for Black people but really its cuz I wanted to look lighter skinned so I would snatch some of my sister’s makeup). I wore more revealing clothing that I wasn’t really ever comfortable in because I knew it was for other people’s consumption. These days I’m getting more and more comfortable with wearing more revealing clothing as I explore my feminine side, but it’s hard because even if I’m doing it for myself, it doesn’t stop the feeling of being consumed when people look at me and treat me in different ways because of it.
Right after I hit puberty (at age 12…) I had an experience that started me on my journey to loving myself in the context of my Blackness. Before puberty, the girls I hung out with all had similar girl-child bodies, but after puberty, the white girls around me did not come out looking the same, and a resentful ugliness started to happen when they spoke about my body. A racial turn occurred too when my body started to be described in terms of its Blackness instead of ‘general’ womanhood. I remember once we were dressing up in different outfits (one of my white girls friends was rich so she had a wardrobe for days). When I stripped down to put a new outfit on, they all shrieked and insisted they be able to take a look at my post-puberty body. I stood there like a deer frozen in headlights while 5 white girls looked over my body as if I was a specimin. I hadn’t yet learned about Saartjie Baartman, but in that moment I think I felt like her. When they were done, the girl whose clothes we were trying on told me that I couldn’t try on any of her clothes anymore because my butt was too big, and not big in the normal way, but big in the Black way.
I’m sitting here writing this in tears because apparently I have a lot of dark skinned trauma I have yet to address in my life even though I can absolutely 100% say I love the skin that I’m in (I can’t concretely give any pointers on a path to loving the skin your in because my love for my skin grew from a seed of hatred. I think this is definitely something I need to look into more…). Although this and other experiences were difficult, one of the hardest things for me to admit is that my biggest issues with my dark skin didn’t come from things white people said or did, but those that Black people, specifically Black men said or did. For most of my life, Black men have used my darkness as a weapon against me. There are times when this is done in relationship to lighter skinned women (let’s not play like white people are the only ones who use the pretty for a dark skin girl line…) but often it seemed to just come out of an internalized hate for dark skinned Blackness, especially from dark skinned boys. In the past, if a Black boy/man wanted to insult me, the first thing he used against me was the darkness of my skin, as if that in itself was an implied insult.
White people on the other hand…well lets start with white men. In my experience (and if one person tries to come for me being like #NotAllWhiteMen ima side eye the shit out of you. Yes I know. I also know that everything I’m typing is true so bye with your bullshit), white men classify dark skinned women (namely me) under “The 3 Fs”: Fetish (also known as exotification but that starts with an E so it messes up my snark), Fuckable or Forgettable. Amongst other things, I’ve been called ‘the dark meat on a turkey’, ‘a Black Panther that causes my jungle fever’, ‘charcoal to light my fire’ (Fetish). I’ve been told in explicitly racial terms what men white want to do to my Black body that always has a weird Jezebel/Master dynamic put in (Fuckable). I’ve been told that I was cute and smart and everything that he would look for in a girl but he’s just not that into Black girls (Forgettable). I’ve been told all of these things and I don’t think a single one of these men was trying to be offensive. And that’s what makes it an even bigger problem.
White women on the other hand…well….white woman have always loved my skin. And by loved my skin I mean felt like they could reach out and touch me at any moment while describing their surprise at how soft and shiny it is. The way they describe me also usually takes a exotification or racialized tone. Instead of saying my skin looks beautiful I get compliments like that one white woman who told me she wanted to wear my skin like a coat because it was so dark and soft or I get a bunch of snaps and YAAAS SLAY GODDESS! Your tone is so [Fill in insulting thing white woman says]. I wish my skin looked like yours! (to which I will from now on reply, sorry boo boo, a study recently came out that proved the ancient theory of “Black don’t Crack”. There is at least 10 years difference in Black vs white skin aging). It’s always been really hard for me to hear from white women, that they wish their skin looked like mine because they have no idea how we as dark skinned girls (hell we as non-white girls) are taught that they are the epitome of femininity, beauty and womanhood. It just shows a frustrating and glaring lack of understanding about how womanhood is experienced for a good number of non-white women in white contexts.
In my experience, most Black Africans don’t actually consider me that dark, they see me as more of a neutral to darker brown skin tone. Most Kenyans see me and guess I am a Kamba (my dad’s people) because they tend to be darker unlike my mom’s people the Kikuyu who my sister takes after.
OK OK I’m wrapping up. I just wanted to leave yall with this. I cringe whenever I hear Black people who are not from African countries or who have not visited any African countries talk about “the motherland” as if its this mystical magical place of Black love and self acceptance removed from the issue of white supremacy and eurocentricity that are here in the states. I’m gonna end with this sad but beautiful short film ‘Yellow Fever’ by Kenyan filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii which explores colorism in her family and in the continent and a question from Andre 3000, “across cultures, darker people suffer most. why?”
DENISIO: The first time I truly thought about my skin, my skin color and the implications of both was when I was six at a daycare in my father’s favorite sports center. Prior to that, I had lived in Liberia for a short time, and before that I lived in a small blue stucco home in Pueblo, Colorado. My mother and I returned to that house during Monrovia’s 1989 coup, leaving an impending conflict for the war brewing between my parents.
That day wasn’t my first time at that daycare, but it is the only time I remember. Usually, my dad would play racquetball with his work friends while I watched cartoons I already found too kiddish or played alone. On that day, I was building something with Legos and a boy with sandy blonde hair, squinty eyes, and a pug nose proceeded to take the bucket from me. When I protested by grabbing the bucket he kicked me, then looked me dead in the eye and said “You’re a nigger. You’re the color of poop.”
Parents were paged over loudspeakers. I remember his father, red-faced and slapping him. I remember my own father, red-faced, yelling, angry, fed up. My father grew up a Black man in pre-civil rights North Carolina, so racism was an old familiar presence, but I think deep down he thought he could shield me from it, like the monsters under my bed. The episode stuck, clung to me like my tee shirt, damp and cold with tears because it was the first time I consciously realized that the color of my skin could cause not just dislike, but total abhorrence. That my complexion could be compared to excrement frightened me.
Some years after the daycare incident, after being yanked from a wealthy liberal private school to a sad excuse for a public school where I was one of two Black children, after being bullied daily for my Blackness, my mother decided to move us to Maryland to live with her older sister and my baby cousin. My skin color was made aware to me again by my mother’s sisters and family who hadn’t seen me for years and were surprised at how much I took after my father and how little I looked like my mother (Putu), “But Putu! How yor daughta skin reh so?!”… “But, Putu ! How is your daughter’s skin so red (light). I looked at my mother and her sisters. Each sibling had varying degrees of beautiful, deeply melinated and seemingly poreless complexions. Eash sister with their kittenish round faces, their full lips and perfect almond shaped eyes were the shades of my favorite paints. Sepia and Violet combined. Burnt Sienna with a Crimson underwash. Umber with a dab of Cobalt mixed in. Plum with a hint of shimmer. I looked at my own skin more yellow than brown. Jaundice. A banana peel with spots. A glaring hazard sign. In my previous world I was insufficient because I wasn’t close enough to whiteness but in this one, I didn’t belong because I was too light. Instead of being shit colored, I was closer, in my families eyes, to what they described white people’s complexions as. Scraped hog.
The relationship between me and my skin only became more complex in my adult years. Acne and the remnants it left behind, small pigmented marks that dotted my face, shoulders, breasts and back, became my constant focus. They say a leopard cannot change its spots, but I tried in vain. I stopped wearing sleeveless tops and dresses or if I did, I’d pair them with a shrug or bolero. When I had to show my shoulder and back, I’d douse myself in foundation and bronzer and pray I didn’t have to hug anyone wearing white. And I tanned. A lot. I burned my skin with the hope of transforming it until one summer in Puerto Rico I went too far. I laid out beneath a 98 degree sun for hours. Asleep beneath its oven-like blaze slathered in oil, I roasted. I pan-fried. My entire face burned. It hurt to the touch for weeks, and after it turned red, then shiny, then dark, then peeling I was a tiger with a new classification of spots. Freckles.
The irony did not escape me. In an effort to change my skin, I abused it and got a huge FUCK YOU from the universe. I hated my freckles. I’d always had one or two on my nose or cheek, but this time they covered my nose and cheeks and required ‘layer cake’ makeup to hide.
One day in my late twenties, I woke up. I knew about white privilege, but I realized that my complexion and light skin came its own privileges and I needed to name them instead of hiding behind my skin’s shame. In being a lighter skinned black person, I am sometimes viewed as “less threatening” by white folks. I’ve dated men and women who were color struck. I’ve seen the giddiness in people’s faces when they ask me if I’m mixed and how their faces fall when I tell them no. I once went on a first and last date with a (white) guy who boldly told me to my face that I was the first Black girl he’d ever considered attractive and that he probably wouldn’t date anyone darker than me. I recognized and owned that there was nothing wrong in admiring darker skin or appreciating its beauty, but this wanting to posses it like an accessory picked from a shelf was not only unflattering, it was downright insulting. It didn’t matter that I myself was Black or even African. In wanting to be darker skinned simply because I thought it would make me “prettier” I was dismissing and undermining the hardships, oppression, and discrimination that darker skinned people face and specifically the pressures that dark skinned Black women have to deal with. I would never know what it would really feel like to be told “You’re pretty for a dark skinned girl.” I could never truly comprehend what it was like for my mother when she first arrived to America. The wide eyed stares she got. The comment from a member of her then husband’s family that she was “Burnt like toast”. The way in which men and women would objectify and fetishize her because she was “exotic“. And here I was, appropriating my own mother and her siblings. I felt ashamed.
I wish I could say that I’ve fully accepted my spotty complexion but the truth is that I am still uncomfortable with my shoulders and back. I still prefer my complexion in the summer rather than the winter. I wear little jackets a lot and still avoid sleeveless clothing. But I let my freckles show and they remind me to accept the skin that I am in and to celebrate my darker hued black folk without coveting.
Also, I bathe my ass in sunscreen.
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora