I was born into a family like many other black families that have a vast array of color brown completed people. Our meliniated tones ranged from cream, caramel to dark chocolate. Not only did we differ in skin color, but eyes, height, and weight, but for the most part we had certain characteristics that showed our gene pool. We were raised, treated, punished and given compliments equally for the most part. I can’t remember a time when even the lightest child with the good hair was told he or she was more beautiful than any of us. Beauty standards did not define us, but who was smarter however did come up inside of our family unit. And I owe this to my grandmother, my Momo, who herself had several siblings and went on to have nine children.
The issues I had with being defined as “Dark and Ugly” came from people outside our family in the beginning. I was darker one in my family and if subconsciously and if possible in the womb I knew the prettiest girls were lighter with so-called good hair and not girls who looked like me. I wouldn’t truly understand that being dark-skinned with nappy hair meant something bad and ugly until I started school. My short afro puff pony tails were mocked and ridiculed along with my chocolate colored skin. This would be the beginning of a long journey of questioning who I was, searching for validation, depression all because I was trained to believe that the color of my skin and texture of my hair wasn’t good enough or acceptable. Being black hard enough, I was a little dark-skinned girl with nappy short hair, who was also taller than everyone my age even the boys. I was so tall that when I started kindergarten people thought I was a second-grader tall.
In “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin describes the inevitability of young black children discovering “the shape of [their] oppression”:
As adults, we are easily fooled because we are so anxious to be fooled. But children are very different. Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions. They don’t have the vocabulary to express what they see … but a black child, looking at the world around him, though he cannot know quite what to make of it … is aware that there is some terrible weight on his parents’ shoulders which menaces him.
I was miserable in school, but I enjoyed learning and the teachers seem to love teaching me. It was the only thing I found solace in at school.
Starting school and befriending children outside of our family changed our relationships and how we treated each other. I was always a quiet, sweet and compassionate child so not much has changed with me, but I can’t say the same for some of the others. In school, my neighborhood and with some of the cousins I endured teasing, name-calling or whatever you want to call it. I was called anything from Pickaninny, Jolly Green Giant, Baldheaded, Burnt Biscuit, and Beebee Shot Head to name a few… A family get-together meant two things, one being told I was the tallest, blackest one with eyes so black people would think I was blind and two, crying silently to myself. I couldn’t go rat, it was never in me to go be a tattletale, and even if an adult asked me why I was crying, I would say nothing.
There was even this mean 1st grade named Rodney who used to terrorize me. like it wasn’t just name-calling, he used to throw Coke Cola bottles at me and take my money. It took for me to bribe him with the purchase of a Butterfinger to leave me alone or maybe it was because my uncle started coming to get me. This was at Lockett Elementary on the Florida Project side and I hope his last name comes to mind soon so I can look him up on…
To this day when I’m in the mirror looking at myself, I wonder why I believed who others told me I was. I actually believed their versions of who I was not. I was told my eyes where jet black and that I would eventually go blind. I used to pray that my pupils wouldn’t take up all the white in my eyes as they said it would. I remember going to the library to read about Helen Keller and feel through books written in braille. When Stevie Wonder would come on I would hold on to every step and movement he made out of fear of waking up blind with eyes like so sort of monster.
Them one glorious day a relative pulled me under light and said “Dee, girl when your eyes became light brown like this.” Someone finally noticed and she said it loud enough for my cousins to hear. But that only lasted so long, the next imperfection they said I had was dark circles around my eyes. I was now ”Racoon Eyes.”
The crazy thing about it is my eyes weren’t black or even dark brown. I have light brown eyes and they get lighter when I’m sick, stressed and so on and maybe she caught me on a day when they were hazel. But thinking on it now makes me mad because it was the only thing I had that could have made me beautiful, special, unique and they took it from me for years. I was a brokenhearted girl and this issue slashes into the depths of my soul. I spent a good portion of my life feeling unworthy and invisible, because of others to the point I couldn’t celebrate a small part of me that was unique.
Sadly, over the years and actually just last year my cousins attacked my physical appearance on social media for me simply not agreeing with them. If you missed it, to put it simply someone in my family made a Meme that said “With yo Big Freddia looking azz. Oh, wait Freddia looks better than you.” I wasn’t like insulted, because I took a picture with Freddia and we have many of the same features. I don’t know all of my Daddy people so who knows, but this person said like before that I look like a man and that the man that I resemble looks better than me. Many of my readers came to my aid and I ended it all by posting the picture of me and Freddia at the Awards ceremony and put Twins shining at the Big Easy Entertainment Awards. And you know what it felt good to have a clap back like that. Since then it’s been like water under the bridge, but I make it a point to not trust them with my heart.
Colorism has always been an ongoing issue, one that we as African Americans must address. We must take it seriously before we can get upset with other races for doing exactly what we have been doing to each other forever… I can recall my Momo, who was a tall, creole, light-skinned beautiful woman telling me stories about the issues she had in the 1930s. She was the lightest and like me the tallest of her siblings, cousins, and friends and family, as a matter of fact, her mother and father were dark-skinned, she stood out like a sore thumb. I recalled her stating how girls disliked, even wanted to fight her because of how she looked. I couldn’t imagine girls of 1940s behaving as some do today. Mind you, my grandmother was just as sweet of a girl as she was in her 80s and to think someone was jealous of someone who didn’t see herself as superior, beautiful or special made me realize how deep the issue of color ran. She told me she detested her light skin and long wavy hair, started it felt like a curse. The perception of the lighter the better has roots so deep and long, but we can stop the continual growth of the issue by addressing our own insecurities and seeing the beauty in each other.
My grandmother is the reason why I was able to slightly hold my head up throughout my school years. Hearing her story and knowing how much she loved not only my completion but showed me a favor when she had grandchildren that looked like her meant a lot to me. It taught me love past the physical appearance and material gain.
Writing about this brings me back to my Wright Middle School days. I remember as if it was yesterday sitting in my seventh grade third period math class, the teacher stepped out of the class and Frederick Williams, one of the popular boys stood up on his chair and shouted: “There are No Pretty Girls in this classroom, but there are a few cute girls and they are… ” As he stood on his chair he pointed and named off the “cute girls” and they happened to be the girls in my krewe. I was happy he named them, but he didn’t say my name and that made me nervous. My heartfelt like it would jump out of my chest as I prayed for him to say my name which he always messed up. As he got to the fifth name and he pointed at me and said “DeAtress” and I didn’t correct him either; my name is DeAtra. That was one-day being DeAtress meant something good and from that moment on I felt validated in the eyes of boys, well for the most part. I still struggled with teen issues, short boy issues, and overbearing Mama issues.
But my Momo, my Daddy, one of my uncles and a few of my Aunties made it a point to pour positivity into me. I didn’t name my Mama, because she was finally coming into identifying as being “Black and Beautiful” when I came along. We mirrored each other. However, I think she had it harder than me. She was one of nine growing up when segregation and being poor. If by chance someone viewed me as an ugly little girl my Daddy made sure to dress me in the finest dresses, my afro was donned with satin bows and my earlobes stayed blinging. Yeah, I had it better, much better.
I don’t remember being told I was pretty, cute yeah but for the most part unless it was directly from my Momo. But I was often told how good of a child I was or how pretty my Daddy dressed me on any given day. When my Momo and I had our one on one time she would tell me how beautiful I was and how she wishes she had my skin color, thick hair, and long shapely legs. She was the godsend I needed to make it through some difficult years.
As if growing up in the 1970s wasn’t enough to add being poor, female and dark-skinned in New Orleans. Then topped that with being teased and traumatized for being who God made you be. All those things and more made my chances of aiming for the best almost impossible survival. I was numb and blind for some years and I believe that’s how wanting a husband and baby so young came into play. I felt if I had my own little family it would make me worthy and valued.
Being the tallest, darkest and nappiest girl was difficult, but it got better, much better. It was like one day I went to the mirror on the wall and she responded, “Girl, the dark-skinned, nappy-headed tall girls are IN! You made it Sista, you are now included in the most beautiful of them all!” I am a Swan now and I have been basking in my lil pond celebrating Me without splashing water on my haters. Shoot, I actually let them swim with me! Seriously though, I believe it’s because we became aware of what we were doing to each other. We realized that we fell for the hype of European beauty standards that we allowed it to divide us for years.
I can honestly say I have healed from the effects of Colorism for the most part, but underneath the healed scars lay a festering old injury that can easily ooze to the surface with just the slightest blow to my self-esteem. But the days of sitting outside on the porch with a plastic Jerry curl cap or headscarf to hide my so called “Dreadfully African” nappy short hair African. I no longer slather my skin with Nadinola skin bleaching cream in hopes of having lighter skin. Nor do I make a conscience effort in crossing the street to avoid passing a group of boys, well men out of fear they will say ”Bruh, you see that tall as link pole right there” has always been something I feared and never has happened. I enjoy outings and always the one snapping pictures with my light-skinned girlfriends instead of making up excuses about not being able to go with them because I didn’t feel pretty enough to be seen with them.
Yes, in my forty plus years I have overcome the stigma of being too this or that and not good enough for this or that. I only put on makeup and get dressed up when I feel like it and not to please no man or you, I do it for me. If you knock on my door you will find me bare-faced, I might have my head wrapped or you may be blessed to see my kinky locs and a cotton tee shirt, no bra and leggings or shorts. Don’t get me wrong, I may throw on some clothes and get a Lil dolled up depending on the company I keep, but it’s all about how I feel.
I hope it helps to know that even with our differences, flaws, and imperfection we are still beautiful. If it doesn’t, what helped me was the movie The Color Purple, specifically when Cecilia said, ” I’m poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here! I’m here!” We are here regardless of our outside appearances and we must find a way to see our beauty and the beauty of this world before our time is over.
Once I understood the story about the ”Ugly Duckling” you know know how they told the duckling he was ugly, but he really wasn’t, he was just different, unique. As we know he grew up to be the beautiful swan he always was and that goes for those of us who have been told the same ole lie too. It’s been a long time coming, but I finally found a place in time where I’m completely comfortable in my own skin. I have always been a swan. I realized some time ago that the naysayers knew it too. Its a blessing to be beautiful on the inside and outside and it’s a curse to be beautiful with a mean spirit and cold heart.