Shades of Black and Shadows on the Life of a Writer

“Ah just couldn’t see mahself married to no black man. It’s too many black folks already. We ought to lighten up the race.”
-From “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston

When you begin a book with a quotation like that, you’re inviting trouble to come in, kick off its shoes and stay awhile. That’s Marita Golden’s intention. She wants to ignite debate about one of the oldest, rawest issues among African-Americans. The aching honesty in the words of Zora Neale Hurston’s character, from 1937, Ms. Golden says, evokes a continuing aesthetic hierarchy among African-Americans that puts light skin at the top and dark skin at the bottom. It’s the subject of her new book, “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex,” which was published this week by Doubleday.

This book, Ms. Golden’s 11th, showcases her penchant for writing that weaves personal experience into explorations of topics like single parenting. She first won critical attention for her 1983 autobiography “Migrations of the Heart,” about coming of age in Washington in the 1960’s. She also won acclaim in 1989 for her novel “Long Distance Life.”Today, at 53, the soft-spoken Ms. Golden has become something of a black literary godmother. In 1990 she founded the Hurston/Wright Foundation, named for Hurston and Richard Wright, which supports black writers. In 2002 she and the writer E. Lynn Harris held the equivalent of a literary rent party for the foundation, together editing an
anthology of black writers called “Gumbo.”

For “Don’t Play in the Sun,” Ms. Golden interviewed black people, including a psychotherapist, a cultural historian, a biracial writer, a TV producer and her friends and her husband. The book’s title comes from her mother’s warning that the sun would make her deep brown skin even darker and less attractive. Through the prism of her own skin, Ms. Golden explores the belief that light skin and European features remain the highest standard of beauty in most places in the world. Color, though, is not just a black thing, she says. It is not even an American thing, with versions of lighter-is-better in India, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Ms. Golden considers this global obsession a legacy of
colonialism.

But this book focuses on black Americans. In America, she says, the color hierarchy is a legacy of slavery, when light-skinned blacks often fetched more on the auction block and were prized as house servants because they looked more like whites (and sometimes were their relatives). While there is sharp disagreement among blacks about the degree, or even the notion, of a color hierarchy, Ms. Golden leaves that dispute unplumbed. For her, even in the 21st century, gradations in color make a difference, and the topic still needs airing.

“The topic of color-ism is a powerful metaphor for all forms of marginalization,” Ms. Golden said over lunch in Manhattan, her long silver earrings dangling, her hair in a short, natural style. Even for whites the theme resonates, she said, in the idea that “tall, blond, blue-eyed Nordic types are privileged over shorter, darker, non-Nordic types.” Researching the book, she said, She went to high schools in Washington and read articles in Essence and in Vibe, she heard young black men say “the dark girls are O.K., the light-skinned girls are pretty.” Essence magazine’s May issue excerpts Ms. Golden’s book with the cover headline “Blue-Black, High Yellow. Yes, We Still Have Color Issues.”

When the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. did a four-part PBS television series on blacks in America this year, the segment on “Black Hollywood” showed black actresses complaining that lighter-complexioned actresses had it easier. Mr. Gates concluded that the beige coloring of an actress like Halle Berry or a pop singer like Alicia Keys has helped their careers, as it did for light-skinned entertainers like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.

In the 1960’s the “black is beautiful” moment promised change, and Ms. Golden said she eventually learned to love her hair, her skin, her features. But she also writes about parties among the black elite today in which dark-skinned men escort light-skinned trophy wives. She reports on the pain within black families in which color shapes affections. “My mother was well aware that the world attempted every day to erase me,” Ms. Golden writes. “She knew how little love lay in wait, how few open arms stood ready to embrace little brown-skinned girls with nappy hair and Negroid facial features.”

But the color complex is not just her personal musing, Ms. Golden contends. She grew up in Washington, long considered a capital of black bourgeois color and class fixations. Check out who wins beauty contests, stars in rap music videos, plays the female love interest in Hollywood films, she argues. Light-skinned women on and off screen are often hypersexualized by society, Ms. Golden believes. By comparison, skin shade seems not to be such an issue for black male actors, Mr. Gates said in an interview, suggesting that sex plays a role in the color complex.

If nothing else, Ms. Golden said, she hopes her book prompts blacks to sit down in churches, book clubs and in family meetings to wrestle with the color complex as a painful remnant of slavery. She says it can ensnare light-skinned blacks in a web of stereotypes about their racial allegiances or feelings of superiority to darker blacks. But not everyone agrees. David J. Dent, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, sees a broader standard of black beauty and a marked erosion of intraracial colorism. Mr. Dent spent years traveling around the country talking with blacks for his book “In Search of Black America,” (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

“I admire Marita Golden, but you can’t take her personal story and impose it on the whole of black America,” Mr. Dent said. “That’s a problem with a lot of contemporary black memoirs.” Recently, he said, “the most visible woman in the world was Condoleezza Rice. She’s a dark-skinned woman. Was she concerned at all about her skin color?” The issues for Ms. Rice are “the commission and 9/11,” Mr. Dent said. “People were not focused on her skin color and features. That’s where the world has gone.”

She has heard that argument, Ms. Golden said. She concedes that Americans seem to live in the best and the worst of times for dark skin and black features. What’s new is that although Americans are furiously blending and culture sampling, she said, the country’s pop culture – music videos, films, advertisements – also increasingly exports gorgeous black people who look racially ambiguous. “The world still becomes a village with one standard – McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna,” Ms. Golden said, her voice rising a bit. “Can Halle Berry open a path for darker-skinned black actresses? The reason pop culture is so important is, whether we like it or not, it tells us where we fit into the culture, how we’re valued, what we’re valued for.”

Contemporary writers of color are now weaving the legacy of colorism into their fiction and nonfiction stories, Ms. Golden said. She mentioned the novels “The Darkest Child” by Delores Phillips, “Song of the Water Saints” by Nelly Rosario and “The Farming of Bones,” by Edwidge Danticat. And as a challenge to those who dismiss its prevalence, Ms. Golden notes that the color complex is also a frequent topic or subtext of the work she sees at the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s writers workshops. “Whether they know it or not, people really do want to talk about this,” Ms. Golden said. “The job of the writer in fiction or nonfiction is to shape a language we can use to explore, discover and shape this legacy/reality into something we actually can use to free us, and not feel we have to deny or run from it and what it has meant.

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