A Look at 90s Tv and Colorism

When W.E.B Du Bois wrote about the quintessential black experience in America he defined is as double consciousness, putting into words an identity that is divided into multiple facets. (Black and American)
He uses this idea of a “veil” to metaphorically describe 3 things: literal skin difference as a physical separation, white people’s lacks of clarity to see Blacks as true Americans, and black’s inability to see themselves outside of how white Americans see them.

“One ever feels his two-ness- an American, A Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one day body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Double consciousness and the veil convey underlined issues of racism and the social constructs to which race builds prejudice in a black American vs. white American nation. But let us be honest: There is a second sensation of double consciousness  black Americans are facing within the realm own their own black community. Colorism can be formally defined as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically amongst people of the same race. It is Colorism that gave birth to the light-skinned vs. dark-skinned beef.

Black 90s sitcoms showed us colorism in the following variations: “Aunt-Viv” Who?, Pam vs. Gina, and what I like to call revenge of colorism: The Hilary Banks, and Whitley Gilberts. 

It is safe to say that colorism is a kin to racism that black folks have taken right in. Early twentieth century there was the Clark doll experiment in which children would answer questions regarding characteristic in which they attribute to a doll. Results showed children attributed traits like “prettiness, and good behavior” to lighter dolls, and “ugliness and badness” to darker dolls,” proving the social construct of race begins early, leaving much time for its ideologies to truly embed in one’s beliefs.

Well into the mid-twentieth century we had the paper bag test, in which black institutions would use a brown paper bag to determine whether an individual’s skin was light enough to gain membership.

Too, let’s acknowledge the existence of passing in which lighter-skinned blacks or multi-racial persons were able to assimilate into white culture to avoid the legal and social conventions that being black would subject them to.

Now here comes the 90s, administering deadly doses of colorism:

I think it’s safe to say the impacts of colorism is part of the reason why so many viewers weren’t here for Aunt Viv 2.0. For the first three years of “The Fresh Prince” we bonded so well with Janet Hubert’s loveable portrayal of Aunt Viv with her feisty, joke cracking personality, accompanied by her beautifully-fixed brown-chocolate skin.

Hubert lasted half way through the series until they brought Daphne Reid in. Aunt Viv 2.0 was much lighter, and noticeably less feisty. It appeared as if Aunt Viv 2.0 was the example of what it means to be seen and not heard, while the original dancing diva of Aunt Viv could have easily stolen the show. But there it is; a stereotype that appoints darker skinned women as more antagonistic, while Janet Hubert’s replacement with a light-skinned women supports the notion that the best “do over” for a feisty darker toned woman is a less antagonistic, light-skinned woman. Viewers yearned for Hubert’s return. They never got it.

The 90s also gave us aspiring news anchor Dexter Jackson, in Livin’ Large who finally got his chance on the local news only to end up with a mistaken image of himself (lighter toned and European features) in which was considered ideal. This is an example of the impact colorism can have on oneself.

Now let’s really talk: Pam and Gina. For five years viewers watched as Gina (played by Tisha Campbell) was the kind, beautiful, light-skinned, sought-after and perfectly silly partner of Martin. On the other hand there was Pam; (played by Tichina Arnold) dark-skinned, loud and confrontational, though still attractive. Gina was the love interest to the main face of the series, while Pam was simply Gina’s combative best friend. Pam’s relationship with Martin was playfully explosive, with the two consistently making fun of each other. Martin consistently referencing Pam’s “bad attitude,” “nasty mouth,” “buck-shots;” while also deeming her as animal like and the type of woman to run men away. I don’t think it lightened the blow to see Martin’s real-life wife as light as Gina.

Don’t get it twisted. Martin is a respectable classic, whose re-runs we all love. You just can’t help but to point out the aesthetics that speak to a harsh reality within the black community.

Some people will say the portrayals stand without colorism and remain true to some woman who fits the description of the character, but the underlying issue is variation!!!!!

The last instance of colorism I’d like to point out is one that goes against what we typically see as “colorism”: The Hillary Banks (Fresh Prince): light in complexion, self-centered, air-head that can never do right. The Dionne Davenport (Clueless): light-skinned, knowingly beautiful, rich girl who prefers not to use her popularity for good cause. Whitley Gilbert (A Different World): snobby as hell, though she eventually mellowed out. Regine Hunter (Living Single): image-conscious, materialistic and men loving.  Could these portrayals of “air-headed” lighter toned women be some sort of “revenge” for society’s seemingly admiration for lighter skinned black women.

These instances of colorism have us feeling combative towards our own sisters. Dark-skinned women consistently feeling as if their chocolate skin makes them less attractive or even less acceptable. As well as light-skinned women feeling as if their complexions forbid them from having a real seat at the table.

Skin should never be the deciding factor to how anyone feels or views about another person. Just as black Americans want white people to quit stereotyping them, we in the black community have to quit stereo-typing and disqualifying one another.

Note: I think it also important for light-skinned women to acknowledge their particular privilege and USE IT when combatting issues of racism. 

-Tysheira Scribner

Let’s Talk Julie Dash’s 90’s Indie: Daughters of the Dust, & What It May Mean For Black Identity

 

 

 

"I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name." Nana Peazant (Daughters of the Dust), via The Thunder, Perfect Mind

It was through this incredible 90s seminar that I was introduced to Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust. I thought to myself, “this looks like Beyoncé’s video.” In fact, the year that Mrs. Knowles-Carter dropped her historic Lemonade visual album marked the 25th anniversary for Daughters of the Dust, as well as a seemingly pivotal time in defining and accepting black identity; I don’t think it happened coincidentally.

Daughters of the Dust tells a compelling story of a self-preserved Gullah Island family who overtime, has been able to maintain their ancestor’s unique culture.  They are the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the area.  The film is packed with tradition and gives a new meaning to perseverance. However, after many years, much of the Peazant family has decided to move into the “mainland.” This manifestation of assimilation into mainstream and modern culture is a major theme throughout the film. While the matriarch of the family, Nana, would probably never give the mainland the time of day, others are willing to part ways with tradition in hope of easier life. What they don’t realize however, is that mainland life isn’t as glorious as it appears. (As evident in the return of Yellow Mary)

I began to think about black identity, specifically, black American identity. I can’t be the only one who has felt as if black Americans, to Africans, are another rendition of the light-skinned versus dark-skinned beef. Again, it brings me to question what black identity really is, what it isn’t, and who gets to make these decisions?

Maybe we are struggling so much in determining black identity because for once, we are peaking out of the veil and feeling the need to define ourselves, for ourselves. Daughters of the Dust offers a revelation that the antagonist of their black Gullah identity is influence of European culture. (The mainland) This could explain why blacks from Africa often disregard black American’s as their own, due to American influence in our black American culture. This also helps to explain the dark-skinned versus light-skinned beef, as lighter-skin is too often associated with European relation.

So…I paint the question to you; what really is black identity? Sociologist have long said that race, “black” and “white” are merely social constructs but with what identity does that leave the entire black race when we consistently label the assets of our identity with the inclusion of the word “black”?

Could it be possible that identifying black culture begins with embracing, understanding, and breaking down what it means to be African American? Both African. And American.

I believe America’s war on black people makes it difficult for us to want to identify ourselves as pieces of them, but truth be told, we are. Also, and not to be confused with assimilation, maybe we can come to consider ourselves as the evolved versions of our ancestors. Not to get evolution confused as being “advanced,” but rather “a new model fit for its circumstances.”

What Daughters of the Dust offers us is a chance at witnessing a facet of our African American culture.

Let us consider long gowns in modesty, oversized hats, Sunday’s best with ruffles, white lace and a small dose of sheer, capable of bearing imagination. Let us consider traditional names that speak to our being, and a tongue that makes love with the creole. Let us embrace, and not abuse family; “Eli, your wife does not belong to you, she only married you.” And for our women, embrace your independence, “for it fine to want a man to depend on for only if you need to.” Embrace nature around you and the organics things nature give to you. Try fresh gumbo and weaving baskets.

Let your hair be the feelings that you wear; brief or long, twisted or puffed, free or tamed. To be sassy in demeanor is ok, enthralled with the spirits of your ancestors, but always in love and protection. If you shall dance, dance; Practice your footwork, let your arms go and let your body tell its message. Be spiritual; in whole like your hopped jewelry. Love and respect thy elders in a way the master respected thy whip.

Too, the pieces of this very archive, the years surrounding it, the historical black American events, trials and tribulations, further aid in the quest to define our African American identities.

On this 27th anniversary of Daughters of the Dust, I consider preservation, multiculturalism and evolution. From the time I began to learn in depth about black American identity I felt that black Americans must have it the hardest. Because truly, we are African and truly, we are American. One must come to a place of balance, a place of love, two seemingly polarized identities in which you’ve been birth. Without the impact of this social construct of  what”blackness” means to our European counterparts, the African and the America represents the true essence of double consciousness. (As defined by Du Bois)

-Tysheira Scribner


More To Ponder: In defining black and African American identities Daughter’s of the Dust can give us insight on assimilation as a negative occurrence. I think it is important to note that as African Americas, we are not assimilated, yet more so of heterogeneous nature. 

More Than Noise: “Hip-Hop you the love of my life” (An Ode to Black Culture)

In my mind it is the bridge between the unspoken and white picket fences. We’re talking as gutta as Wu-Tang Clang, as authentic as The Roots, as everlasting as Pac and Biggie, and as pivotal as Shawn Carter; there is a reason this black noise was bursting through Jordan Davis’ red dodge Durango. I believe the misinterpretation and seemingly irritable nature of black noise served as a death sentence for Davis; but unfamiliarity is always the archenemies of privilege.

What black noise is, is a lifeline for pain and questionability. These are real voices that convey the everyday lives, perceptions, and inevitable truths of  one of American’s third worlds. Reality defines the state of things in which they exist. To be blinded by such, can be defined as privilege.

Early black “noise” was the inspiration behind a once billion-dollar Black Entertainment Television network. It is more than noise. It is kin to the triangular trade that birthed this discarded third world nation. Though this vibration driven tale dates back to the tumultuous 70’s, it is its 90’s alliances that put these voices on the map. Hip-hop deserves its own Mount Rushmore up on Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx.

It didn’t surprise me in 2018 when I was tackling Tricia Rose’s critical analysis Black Noise, when she revealed an encounter with a colleague after which she had presented some research on this thing we call hip-hop. For the same reason it served as a death sentence for Davis, it served as a simple “nothing” to Roses’ colleague, the same nothing Jordan Davis’ privileged predator left him to descend into. In chapter three of the 1994 publication, Rose recalls hip-hop’s misinterpretator as stating, “Well, you must be writing on rap’s social impact and political lyrics, because there is nothing to the music.” (62)

“They ride down the street at 2:00 am with it blasting from car speakers, and (they) wake up my wife and kids. What’s the point in that?” Rose further recalls. (62)

As a self-proclaimed hip-hop baby I know how it makes me feel to ride with reasonable doubt blasting through the highest volume of my Civic. I am relating. I am feeling. I am understanding. Obliviously, I am dreaming. Can I live, in imagination that life has something more for me than it did my mother? Can I live, feeling in empathy for the black men whose public school systems don’t believe in anything more than their ability to be a drug dealing or dead ridden statistic? Can I live, with the least bit of comfort knowing somebody out there knows my story? And cares too.

Those political lyrics are as acquainted with Keisha down the block as the star spangle banner is to American stadiums.

Hip-hop’s coded language is the underground railroad that for once, refuses to cross its legs in favor of lady-likeness. Hip-hop lets the truth hang, something political correctness has never done. Hip-hop is a gift only received by those rich enough to understand our value.

As real as it gets, hip-hop tells the 1991 story of the 12-year-old Brooklyn girl that threw her baby down a chute and into a trash compactor. That’s “Brenda’s got a baby.” For those who have consistently lived behind white picket fences, the traumatization of third world tendencies are imaginable. I’m talking Margaret Garner and Beloved feels. I’m talking “the damage is irreversible” pull the plug type of feels.

“Can I live” speaks the inevitable consequences of the the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the ways in which something as politically correct as gentrification leaves third world residents to by any means necessary, make things happen for themselves.

This revelation that rap is mere noise is a reflection of the heart and eyes in which our melanin has always been regarded. For my fellow hip-hop babies, welfare recipients, affirmative actions beneficiaries, and driving while black inheritors, this revelation of meaningless noise is as Jim Crow as it gets.

Hip-hop is perfectly imperfect in the sense that it accurately lets the rest of the world know of the unprosperous cards black people have been (and are being) dealt.

For a moment, I will entertain the foulness of NWA’s “Fuck The Police” era that often ends up being the burden of proof that rap is merely a loud, violent, and unnecessary hobby.  If “affluenza” is legit, so is “Fuck The Police.”

Why is it that affluenza [i] can get a wealthy white teenager out of drunk driving and killing four people yet a black man cannot utter a cultural expression to his oppressor?

It is unfair to hold one to a standard of moral and political correctness, while the other through the lens of superiority. Two wrongs don’t make a right but they do enforce a pattern. Expecting black men who have lived their entire lives under racial and social inequality to suddenly take the “high road” when you have yet produced them with some sort of ladder to equity is incomprehensible to say the least.

America’s law enforcement system was founded through the same moral and politically incorrect systems that make black bodies “less than” and a target for unjust treatment. The only time a black body is held in high regards is when it opposes its oppressor. It is then that the 3/5th compromise never existed.

“Fuck The Police” is a black man’s back against the wall (literally) and his only way out is to fight the thing that put him there. Hip-hop is not guilty of creating detrimental social impacts. In order for something to not be innocent it has to be the perpetrator of wrongdoing or crime. Verbal expression over banging beats regarding 1990s crown heights or 1990s Compton is as virtuous as we know.

Yes, hip-hop is noise. Voices are noise. And voices are quintessential to this thing we call life.

Hip-hop is necessarily unapologetic, too, a result of morally incorrect ideology this country stands on. Hip-hop’s critics may never acknowledge the role black coded laws played in putting black expression on the map.

I recently encountered a 23-year-old Chinese woman who has been a U.S resident for just 6 years. She began to speak to me regarding the interesting American things she’s encountered; a colleague had just given her an introduction to rap. Stunned, I immediately asked if hip-hops controversial lyrics interfered with her ability to enjoy it. Her response, and I quote “Not at all. It is part of the culture.”

In 5 years of American culture and 1 brief lesson on hip-hop, this China native who was still grasping English orality understood this black expressiveness. I stand strong when I say, black noise is consistently and inaccurately regarded as “nothing” due to its close resemblance to black life. Hip-hop’s acceptance as legit art is parallel to white Americans acceptance of black Americans, and the removal of the veil in which black Americans have always been hidden under.

-Tysheira Scribner

Footnote

[i] Affluenza- a psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethan_Couch

Work Cited

Rose, Tricia. (1994). Black noise : rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Hanover, NH :University Press of New England.