Play explores corrosive prejudice within black community
Annie Nakao, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
"If you're white, you're right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back."
It's a playground ditty many African Americans have grown up with. Yet most blacks find its message profoundly painful to discuss.
But the ugliness of skin color differentiation among blacks is just the kind of tortured human experience that fearless playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith relishes as material. Her first non-solo work, "Yellowman," which opens today at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is both a lyrical and brutal examination of the complexities of internalized prejudice and its centuries-old roots in slavery.
"I wanted to look at the ramifications of race," said the 44-year-old playwright from her East Village home in New York. And when it comes to skin tone prejudice, "everybody does it," she said. "White people do it. The rift between blondes and brunettes has nothing to do with hair color. It has to do with racial purity. So I don't let anybody off the hook."
The title of her play, "Yellowman," refers to one of several derogatory childhood labels that have been hurled at lighter-skinned blacks by darker- skinned blacks, such as "high yella," "school bus," "zebra," "redbone," and, perhaps more benign, "light" and "bright." Then there are the hurtful insults used by lighter-skinned blacks against their darker-hued brethren: "tar baby," "ink spot," "shine" and "chocolate."
Uttered in the South Carolina Gullah/Geechie accents of the play, the epithets serve as a visceral portal into Orlandersmith's unblinking examination of prejudice, self-loathing and the ghosts of childhood. In "Yellowman," Alma, a dark-skinned woman, and her childhood friend, Eugene, a light-skinned black man, fall in love. But they face insurmountable conflicts over their skin color because their families and community have been deeply splintered by colorism -- skin color prejudice that pits members of one race against others in the same group.
Eugene's dark-skinned father worships his light-skinned wife but envies the same lightness in his son.
"Do you think I'm handsome, Eugene?" asks his father. "... I said, 'Yeah, Daddy.' Then he stood over me/Towering over me in all his blackness and said with incredible menace, 'Do you think I'd be more handsome if I was high yella like you?' "
When Eugene raises his balled fists, his father says, "You wanna fight me high yella, huh? I think your best bet high yella is to get outta my face before I hurt you/cause I will knock your high yella/red a -- down!"
Brown-toned Alma, on the other hand, suffers under her darker-skinned mother Odelia's self-hate, which Odelia drums into her daughter.
Alma: "How come when I git old and wanna git married, I can't marry somebody who got Alton's color?"
Odelia: "He is too dark, I keep tellin' ya -- he's too dark -- iffin ya dark like that it don't look nice -- it look ugly."
Alma: "Yeah, but you dark."
Odelia: "Dat's why I know what I saying -- I dark, fat, Black an ugly - - Goan outside and play!"
None of Orlandersmith's characters are autobiographical, but the playwright, who grew up in New York, spent summers in her mother's native South Carolina. The inspiration for the play came from a couple of light- skinned families there who, she said, "mated with each other to keep that (lightness) going."
Even before it was produced, "Yellowman" created buzz. Orlandersmith spent an unheard-of two summers at the Sundance Theatre Program in Park City, Utah, working on "Yellowman" because the play was seen to be an important work. That is, perhaps, a reflection not just of Orlandersmith's provocative narrative, but of the incendiary and, to many whites, surprising issue of black-against-black skin color prejudice.
But colorism in the black community is as old as slavery. White slave masters who raped black female slaves had mulatto offspring. These fairer- skinned youngsters were often favored by their white fathers -- given easier house jobs, fed better, given educations and even allowed to travel abroad. Darker-skinned slaves, by contrast, were given the most arduous work in the fields.
It was a deliberate policy of "divide and conquer," says San Francisco psychologist Brenda Wade, who with journalist Brenda Lane Richardson co-wrote "What Mama Couldn't Tell Us About a Love," a book about the emotional legacy of slavery.
"This behavior drove a wedge among our people, and that was the point," she wrote. "In pamphlets that offered slaveholders advice on how to 'manage' their captives, one key strategy ... was to keep us at one another's throats over our physical features. Willie Lynch, the (West Indies) slaveholder ... recommended that plantation owners use envy to control their slaves, pitting the light against the dark, and those with 'coarse' hair against those with 'finely textured' hair. It was a strategy that worked to some extent."
After the Civil War, light-skinned mulattoes further disassociated themselves from darker-skinned blacks. The Bon Ton Society and the Blue Vein Society were formed and applicants had to be fair enough so the blue veins on their skin were visible. Fraternities and churches would use the paper bag test. If the skin of an applicant was darker than the bag, he or she couldn't join. Sometimes, a fine-toothed comb was hung at the door. If one's hair snagged in the comb, entry was denied. (Straight hair was often regarded as "good hair" -- as opposed to tightly curled hair -- often associated with lighter skin.)
Skin-tone came to carry social and economic meaning in virtually every aspect of black life. In essence, lighter skin translated into social capital.
"Look at the color of the presidents of black colleges over the last century," said UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster. "You'll see a pattern where it was very rare for a black-skinned person to be president."
Lighter-skinned blacks assumed early political leadership. Of the "Talented Tenth," those black leaders recognized as indispensable by black statesman W.E.B. DuBois in 1903, nearly all were mulatto. DuBois, also of French and Dutch descent, was so light he could have passed as white.
Eventual intermarriage with upwardly mobile darker-skinned blacks did darken the ranks of the elite somewhat, creating a rainbow of skin tones among African Americans that is evident today. But even through the 1960s, lighter- skinned individuals continued to be far more advantaged.
Even the "black is beautiful" message of the 1970s was short-lived, and effects of being "color struck," that is, having a bias toward lighter skin, are still evident.
"We wanted to invert that long tradition of (skin color) privilege," said Duster. "But just like slavery didn't end overnight in terms of all of its implications in the social structure, you can't turn away two centuries of stratification by asserting that black is beautiful."
Today's studies show that lighter-skinned blacks are more educated and earn more than darker-skinned blacks. And as reflected in a Newsweek cover story last year, top black CEOs are mostly light-skinned. Lighter-skinned black women also marry earlier than their darker-toned sisters, more often than not to spouses with high incomes.
Lighter-skinned blacks, with their straighter hair and keen features, often pay for their advantages, growing up with taunts and hostile resentment from darker-skinned blacks around them. They're made to feel they're not black "enough" or have it too easy. Often, light-skinned children are ostracized or mistreated by resentful siblings when a color-struck parent favors them.
"It's subtle and it's complex and it plays out in all those ways," said Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University historian.
The corrosive impact of colorism was the subject of two Spike Lee films, "School Daze," about skin color bias at a black college, and "Jungle Fever," about a married black man who falls for his white secretary.
The consequences of colorism were also grist for writers like Toni Morrison ("The Bluest Eye") and Maya Angelou ("I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings").
Yearning to be white, Angelou's protagonist pines: "Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my Black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes would hypnotize them."
Media images that broadcast what is desirable make it hard to counter such yearnings. Consider that the first black Miss America, (Vanessa Williams), the first black woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Tyra Banks), and the first black woman to win a best actress Oscar, Halle Berry, are all light- skinned.
Color plays out differently for black male film stars, for whom opportunities have opened up significantly. But skin color still plays a role on the screen. Few light-skinned black males are ever leading men, and the unwritten rule is that a black actress is always lighter in skin tone than her black male romantic interest.
But on or off the screen, it is darker-skinned black women who are most affected by skin tone bias because, like all women, they are judged by their appearance and how closely they fit the Western feminine ideal: light skin and eyes and straight hair. Many black women no longer feel beholden to such "standards," and yet they spend $44 million a year on hair and skin products. Some may attribute that to self-hate, but the loaded meaning that physical appearance has taken on for African Americans is much more complex, according to the 1992 book, "The Color Complex."
"Throughout American history, degrees of skin coloring and kinkiness of hair have had the power to shape the quality of Black people's lives," it said. "Thus, it is no surprise that a heightened sensitivity has developed around the issues of appearance. ... for many African Americans, embracing Whiteness is a matter of economic, social or political survival."
Orlandersmith called that heightened concern an "adaptation to WASP patriarchy" that subverts and distorts self-image. "Your culture is taken and thrown back at you."
She, too, has tasted the bitter effects of colorism.
"I met a guy from New Orleans, we really had a strong liking for each other, hung out for three whole days," she said. "Then I met his family, and I didn't hear from him after that. I ran into him later and asked him what was up with that. He couldn't look at me. That's when it hit me -- I was too dark for his family. And that happened in the 1990s."
Tapping into that painful legacy is what inspires Orlandersmith, even if it makes members of her audience -- black, white or other -- squirm. But she hopes they come away with more than that.
"The question is always, what are you guys going to do about this?" she said. "I say, what are we going to do about it?"
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