Ode to Dark (Skinned) Girls

9 Jun

My melanin proficiency has often led to color complex(ion) issues brought on by my country (rural) upbringing in a community (and country) fascinated (via the hegemonic influences of beauty) with my yellow-skinned sister with looooooooooooooooooooong hair and generally ambivalent with me (and my dark skin and short/er hair).  They (the adults and other children in my life) always knew my sister was beautiful but for me it took time, years, deep long looks and depth of consideration to finally determine that I was cute, ish, beautiful even for a dark-skinned girl.  I have often pondered the implications of those terms of my beauty, put on me by society, community, and sometimes my self  (I told you I had color complex, read complexion, issues that resulted from what I was taught to find attractive and desirable).

It is hard to love your black (beauty) when you know Black men who exclusively date nonblack women or who refuse to date dark-skinned Black women because they are not “beautiful.”  The Psychology Today article that accused black women of being ugly hit close to home and pushed me back to so many moments of insecurity that I thought I would explode in rage.  I had thought (read hoped) that we had made strides past the paper bag test and expanded, culturally, what constitutes beauty despite the unspoken preference for red bones.

But this is not a critique of societal hate of black girls (though it could and perhaps should be) but rather a prelude to a preview.  The documentary Dark Girls is directed by Bill Duke and will premiere in October at the International Black Film Festival (check out the trailer below).

When I saw the preview (I wish the title was different, by the way, Dark-Skinned Girls perhaps, but Dark Girls implies something sinister that makes me sad) I sat with my tears and remembered my own sadness and memories of growing up a dark (skinned) girl in a space that prefers something/anything else.  The stories were so resonant with my own memories that I was reminded about how important it is to tell and hear your story in a chorus of others.  I felt validated by the confessions and emotions brought forth by the women included in the showing, many of them unable to recall their feelings of inadequacy and shame without tears.  As I watched and listened I realized that my struggle(s) are not over and that despite my best intentions and awareness, there is still the little dark skinned black girl in me who wishes to be different.  Acceptable. Lovable. Beautiful (as quoted in the introduction to the film).  For so much of my life no one seemed to notice that/if I was beautiful at all.

I have the kind of beauty that moves slowly and sneaks up on you—in those few seconds when you are still trying to decide what you think of my face you realize that the thing that made you unsure was not my features, but my skin.  I know it, I see it, I recognize it in the eyes of women and men 30 seconds before they speak (or don’t speak, depending on the situation).  But I have grown into my beautiful.  After years of looking past my own pretty, I finally found it was there all along.  It is a subtle, disarming, vulnerable, newly-confident beautiful that I inherited from my mama’s cinnamon skin (which she got from my grandmother’s Native American/light as White legacies) and my father’s sepia-shade sprung forth from his light skinned, heavy-tongued mother and pecan skinned and dark eyed father (all of their children were the color of Hennessy).  I used to find solace in knowing that I coulda been light-skinned, and that perhaps I really was on the inside, under the curious layers of dark brown skin that showed on the outside.  As a dark (skinned) girl I spent hours in the mirror imagining how different I would look with light skin (I wonder if light skinned sisters have that same wondering).

This documentary is important because it seems to speak to the silenced (and hurtful) experiences of a group of women who fail to consistently hear their worth (Psychology Today anyone?)  It is time that someone starts telling dark (skinned) girls they are beautiful, because of, not in spite of their skin color.  It has taken me years to combat the colorism in my own life but I think it is time for a shift in the narrative so that little dark (skinned) girls don’t have to wait ‘til they are grown to get self esteem– and so that as they are growing up and dealing with the prejudices of being dark-skinned they do not suffer in silence or isolation.  I wish someone would have been there to tell me it would be all right.  To remind me/show me/tell me I was beautiful.

I am not sure how the documentary ends but I look forward to seeing it.  I imagine (read hope) that it finds a way to affirm and re-imagine beauty for dark (skinned) Black women so they (we) can see themselves (ourselves) as beautiful.

But just in case the documentary fails to affirm dark-skinned girls (it is not clear if it is merely a collection of narratives or a larger commentary on how to re-frame our gaze), I wrote a short poem to celebrate dark skin.  I call it,

Ode to Dark (Skinned) Girls

she waited


and in silence

never admitting

out loud

that she secretly wanted to be



brown but in a lighter shade

she would say it out loud

but in whispered tones

“make me white-like

damn near transparent

so that these people can see through me

instead of just past me…

make me


like the color of the earth  I already was


this skin,

this house to my soul

is only almost pretty

they say

and if I weren’t so dark

I might be worth


but instead I am just


in the dark or in secret

or worn on your shoulder


an unnecessary accessory

creating your celebrity








teach me how to love




the color of fire

in the middle of its escape

skin and eyes round

and regal at once

You are beautiful

I am beautiful

the color of coffee with no cream

dark like the bittersweet chocolate of my dreams

caramel-coated coquette

honey dipped and full of vigor

full lipped and full bodied


dark-skinned and exquisite

majestic even

with your brown-black self!

Black is beautiful

You are beautiful

I am beautiful

We are beautiful

23 Responses to “Ode to Dark (Skinned) Girls”

  1. Adrian June 9, 2011 at 4:16 AM #

    Denial of dark-skinned beauty enrages me. It constitutes genocidal cultural theft.

    • tdixon June 18, 2011 at 7:19 AM #

      such a beautiful poem – thank you

  2. Nicole June 9, 2011 at 5:24 AM #

    I’m also looking forward to this film. I’m an in between black girl. I’n not light, yet I’m not dark. The clip of this film made me cry when I saw it. I had a boyfriend who saw a girl, and said the infamous: ” She’s pretty to be so dark.” I really flew into a rage. I never looked at him the same way after that.
    I’ve seen unattractive light-skinned folk. This misconception that everything light is alright is pure madness. I’ve met quite a few dark skin brothers who claim they are not attracted to dark sisters.

  3. MMILLER3 June 9, 2011 at 7:58 AM #

    This article is wholly visceral and mesmerizing! Your “Ode” is sublime / quintessential “Beautiful!”

    – Matthew William Miller

  4. nappysnatch June 9, 2011 at 10:19 AM #

    I love all the talk about Black Girl-ness right now, being one myself. It seems we only get bad press. I produce a show called Black Girl Ugly. It opens tonight at the WoW Cafe Theater in NYC.

    Here’s the link to my website. Come and see. http://www.blackgirlugly.com

  5. junebug June 9, 2011 at 10:33 AM #

    I think the title is fitting because it calls to mind the way these girls feel. Just because they have dark skin, they feel that they themselves are ‘dark,’ which is indeed a sinister and unfortunate thing.

    Your poetry is beautiful and I really enjoyed reading your article. Also, watching that video was quite saddening. I can’t believe the interview with the little girl. I hope that’s not how most children feel.

    • rboylorn June 9, 2011 at 12:26 PM #

      The doll test is a throwback to Kenneth & Mamie Clark’s experiment in 1954, which yielded similar results…it was recreated in 2006 by Kiri Davis and the outcome was (still) the same. Little black children, not even school aged, admitting to self hate & white/light preference. I wish it were outdated data, but it still (unfortunately) rings true.

  6. sheridf June 9, 2011 at 1:46 PM #

    RB, I know your writing voice now. It is so soothing that I feel like I’m being told to “be still and listen” in a very gentle manner. The truths you share are so intimate and disheartening and as an new friend confusing. The first day I met you I thought wow she knows she has it all going on. The outfit, the demeanor, how you spoke…completely impressive and oozing with the highest confidence. So when you talk about your treatments past and present and about having insecurities it is still so surprising because your dark complexion is such a huge part of your beauty.

    The damage that black folk do (all-inclusive) is deep and widespread. I have moments where I don’t trust myself to speak on skin color. I feel like the same cultural literacy, embedded with heterosexist, ableist, and sexist language that I work to combat from within, is also infused with color coded meanings that are likely to betray me when I do speak about color, shade, and complexion. As a bright…redbone…light-skinned-ed woman, I think many light-skinned (relative to who is standing to the left) women particularly avoid having the conversation fearing that betrayal or being engaged in a way that makes us/them uncomfortable. But our daughters, sisters, nieces, friends, godchildren, mothers, grandmothers etc. are suffering because of this refusal to listen and engage in a meaningful way the stories that you and the women in the trailer express.

    It is in my own self interest to participate in this discussion and to challenge myself and others to look at one another with our own eyes and to look away from narrowly constructed beauty standards. Shout out and be deliberate about speaking on the beauty we see in dark skinned black women and girls…compliment the complex and intricate hair styles and non-styles of our little girls natural hair. We cannot afford to assume that our young girls know how beautiful they are so we must go overboard–tell them everyday. In the current visual climate of very few (not nearly enough) dark skinned women/girls in mainstream media and film, I assume they have not been complimented enough and that they have not seen themselves reflected positively today. I intend to continue doing this for all black girls until we no longer need to.

    Thank you again for always being willing to share your stories for our progress and to promote our self-care.

    • BrownGirl June 9, 2011 at 6:36 PM #

      I can’t even collect myself after that post, ohhh and that poem, other than to say: you shut some shit down. well.done. oh, and i’m seeing this on a wall hanging or a tee or something…

    • rboylorn June 9, 2011 at 7:08 PM #

      CF, I ❤ me some you! Thank you for those beautiful and choice words and reflections from the post. Indeed, I wanted this piece to open up conversations instead of shutting them down, so that things can look different for the the dark girls of the next generation–so that they can automatically see themselves as beautiful…and believe it…and not because a little boy whispers it in her ear/s as a way of manipulating her out of herself. I feel like that is when I heard I was beautiful–when it was too late to matter, too late to save me from myself.

      It is ironic that the confidence you saw when we initially met is and was indeed the performance of my life–though I can say that in the last few years it has been less of an act and more of me loving myself…fiercely…flaws and all. And it helps, so much, being loved by others (like you, my love) whose beauty springs forward from the inside out.

      • crunktastic June 9, 2011 at 8:12 PM #

        I love this love fest. If I did hugs, it would be a hugfest all around. LOL. Love both of you, CFs!

    • ashaf June 13, 2011 at 7:47 AM #

      I know I’m late, but I second what Sheri said here, “It is in my own self interest to participate in this discussion and to challenge myself and others to look at one another with our own eyes and to look away from narrowly constructed beauty standards.” And I love this post, the bravery, the honesty, the love.

    • @SugarKovalczyk June 18, 2011 at 3:17 AM #

      Sheridf thank you for what you are doing on the behalf of little girls! Have you seen the Sesame Street video I Like My Hair?

      We should also be conscious of what we teach our sons as well. We can not ignore little black boys because society will not be ignoring them with messages about what beautiful women look like (light skin, straight hair, etc.).

  7. watsmyname June 9, 2011 at 7:10 PM #

    I am glad when I see our baby pictures, not-one of them was light skinned as a kid. But now, you would call them fair, very fair skinned girls. I shriek when the guy at the makeup counter suggests am a dark shade. Am not that dark-i insist. I opt for colors to brighten my day! From a greenish-blue sandal to a yellow shoulder bag, Red hair bands and multicolored bangles to of course my orange painted nails. Let there be light!! Am falling in love with my colored dark skin-and you all should too.

  8. kirinkhan131in June 9, 2011 at 11:43 PM #

    My family is from South Asia, and while acknowledging differences in (personal, cultural, historical) experience, I relate to this. My mother is very, very light skinned, and very proud of it. My father is darker. I resemble my father. White was always the halmark of beauty growing up – both in the US and in Pakistan. My mom/aunts would tell me to stay out of the sun, even if it meant missing out on playing sports or just having fun outside. Skin bleach, laden in carcinogens and sold throughout Asia, was recommended, encouraged. I used it, and dyed my hair lighter, wore colored contacts…No outsider told me to do these things. They didn’t need to; to not do so meant being invisible, both in US classrooms and family gatherings. Even now, in my late twenties, my mother told me that I’m pretty “even though (I’m) dark.” The thing is, in some ways, I get it. There are privileges that people are given based on how light-skinned they are – this was a colonial lesson perpetuated . Wanting those privileges isn’t wrong – I wanted to be loved, to be beautiful, like other, ‘fairer’ cousins. As in this video, the people holding me to a light skinned beauty standard (also, green or light colored eyes are a thing) were and are my own people. Thank you for the post. Lots of thinking to do…

  9. Iya June 12, 2011 at 2:52 AM #

    Black is beautiful and so are the other colors. Who said Black or White was ugly and unworthy, anyway, and whoever said it certainly said it a million times more often about Blacks than others. Unfortunately we listened to the lies. We now have permission to stop listening to hurtful untruths and love ourselves with our whole heart and no apologies, but lots and lots of kindness. Unattractive and different is Beautiful, too, if the heart is Beautiful. Devaluing leads to loss of respect for life and loss of life and violence. Love of self and others will heal the wounds. Please give loving kindness a chance.

  10. filmfemme June 13, 2011 at 8:45 AM #

    What interesting in watching the trailer for “Dark Girls” is that the majority of the women in it aren’t that dark (to me anyway)! I consider someone like model Alek Wek to be “dark skinned;” most of the women in the trailer are lighter than that. The whole dark skinned/light skinned insanity is sad; and tragic that it’s still going on! It’s also interesting that the issue doesn’t come up as much with Black men (Djimon Hounsou. Enough said). We deserve love, and to love OURSELVES!

  11. filmfemme June 13, 2011 at 8:46 AM #

    Sorry. That should have started with “What IS interesting…”

    • allergictothe21stcentury June 14, 2011 at 11:27 PM #

      I am the opposite, while dark skinned I always looked at the darker skinned relatives I had and wanted their deep dark skin colour. My background is from India, and I was jealous of the confident beauty of the relatives from the very South of India, where the deep rich skin colour is like the deepest mahogany and seems lit with beauty. The men especially seduce with their skin. I think there is a fallacy that darker skin is not beautiful, however the cultural preferance for society currently is the tanned golden skin look. That has it’s beauty but we ALL have our unique beauty.

  12. @SugarKovalczyk June 18, 2011 at 3:07 AM #

    Sweetie if you felt a kindredness to the Dark Girls trailer then you absolutely must see this video on global colorism;


    It is the second video I speak of. The problem goes so much deeper than just a black self-hatred. The preference for a white standard of beauty affects all races the world over. It’s global, so you are definitely not alone.

  13. ivyleaves July 5, 2011 at 6:26 PM #

    The whole global beauty imperative is wrong, wrong, wrong. What about ugly women of all colors? Longing for beauty is the enemy.


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