I Am A Black Woman With Kinky Hair, Full Lips And Very Dark Skin, And I Do Not Have A Complex About It
When I saw the latest still from Zoe Saldana’s movie Nina, I laughed. Here was Zoe with her light brown skin darkened and her nose seemingly altered with a prosthetic in order to portray the incomparable Nina Simone. I laughed because now, months after the news first came out that Zoe was going to play Nina Simone in the bio-pic, months after the first pictures of her in blackface and an afro wig emerged, months after Zoe defended herself by saying she was making the movie for her “brothas and sistahs,” I am no longer angry.
I had been angry at first because, to me, hiring a lighter skinned actress, no matter how talented she might be, felt like a slap in the fact to Nina Simone’s memory, a slap in the face to the darker actresses who could have played her (Adepero Oduye, for instance), and a slap in the face to all dark-skinned black women who have been fiercely and unapologetically themselves in a world where light skin is always seen as better.
I am a black woman. I have kinky hair. I have full lips. I have very dark skin. I do not have a complex about it. And yet, at every turn, I’ve been made to feel like I should. I often feel as though people see me and then form a narrative in their heads of my self-esteem — a girl who grew up longing to be lighter skinned, who cried every night because she didn’t look like Beyonce, a girl who had to scratch and fight to get over feeling ugly because she felt her dark complexion wasn’t beautiful. That narrative of pain is not everyone’s story, and it certainly isn’t mine.
But, often times, I can tell this is the narrative running through people’s heads just by the way they talk to me. When people compliment me, it always hinges on my complexion, an overeager overstatement about how gorgeous my skin is. Once, while I was waiting in line at a Target a woman put her hand on my shoulder, squeezed, and said, “I love that skin, darling. It’s beautiful. Don’t you ever let anybody tell you different. You’re beautiful, too!” I could only mumble a thank you, but a part of me was exasperated by people, be they strangers, friends, or acquaintances, feeling the need to reassure me that I’m beautiful, as if just because I’m dark I couldn’t possibly feel anything but hideous.
But my experience as a dark-skinned woman has been different. I’ve had conversations with Latina and South Asian friends, all significantly lighter than me, who’ve opened up about how they’ve always hated their skin, how they’ve always wished they were white, blue-eyed, and blonde. They’ve stared blankly at me, waiting for me to commiserate and share my own pain, but I can’t. I’ve felt kinship with them only in that I’ve seen how colorism has affected so many people of color across the board — in my own country of Ghana there are large billboards that advertise lightening products like Fair & Lovely.
But for whatever reason, I have never felt less than because I am dark. I’m not sure why. I vaguely remember a girl in middle school calling me a “black piece of charcoal,” but she was the same complexion as me so I was more amused than hurt by the insult. Skin color was never really discussed in my home growing up. And as a young girl, my ideal of beauty was my older sister Zandile, who was even darker than me and who I longed to look like.
Yes, I have my insecurities. I absolutely love the color of my skin but I wish my face was smoother. I enjoy rocking my fro, but I do pine for it to be bigger, longer. I’ve never thought I was beautiful, but I’ve also never really been too attached to the concept of being beautiful, especially where other people’s opinions on that front are concerned. And perhaps it’s that level of detachment, that understanding that my body is a tool that can look cute but that also does amazing things like dance or kiss boys or write down my experiences so I can share them with the world, that has helped me bypass taking on the supposed burden of being dark.
Still, as much as I can remove myself from how the world thinks I should feel about my deep complexion, I can’t remove myself from the everyday realities that come with being dark. With dating, I’m often either being exoticized or fetishized or completely ignored. I rarely see women who look like me reflected in media, which is why the Nina movie was so upsetting, and why women like Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Uzo Aduba, Aissa Maiga, and Gabrielle Union are so important.
On the same day I saw the Zoe Saldana picture, I also watched the trailer for “How to Get Away with Murder,” starring Viola Davis. It was monumental. I may have miraculously dodged a bullet when it comes to how my skin affects my self-esteem, but I know that there are many girls who look like me who do still struggle. And seeing Viola Davis, a dark-skinned woman (and not a 20-something at that), was so wildly refreshing and exciting that I watched the trailer two more times.
Because there is a kind of validation that comes with seeing and recognizing ourselves in the media we consume. Viola’s face on television screens every Thursday night is, to me, a tiny but significant step towards making women who look like her, look like me, more visible.