What Color is Black In America? (Say It Loud!)


“Coming to America,” the movie: The movie was on television this past week. We have seen it many times, but this time my daughter wondered why the father worried more about the older daughter liking Akim than the younger daughter (even if she thought the friend was the prince). I was working on my Tuesday show and it came to me: Look at the older daughter, she is light skinned and has long haie; of course she would fit in with the black bourgeoisie of Darry’s family, while the dark skinned, nappy headed younger daughter belongs with dark skinned Akim. Smh. Even in “our” movies.

I had just attended the People of Color Conference for educators in independent schools that was held in Houston and I was still thinking on the things I had heard in workshops and the discussions in the affinity circles. As a child of the Jim Crow South, I keep wondering why we are still having the non-conversation about race almost 48 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed. When will we overcome, and by we I mean America? When will be set free from the issue of color in America, and by we I mean African Americans. When will we sit down at the table and without fear or apprehension have that candid conversation about race and colorism in American, and by we I mean every single one of us who declare ourselves to be American?

How ironic was it that right on the heels of the PoCC, Soledad O’Brien asks a most germane question (probably more germane to African Americans than the rest of the world):


Soledad O’Brien, CNN

Listen to the questions from the program, then think about your answers:

1)    Who is black?

2)    What makes you black?

3)    Who determines who is black?

4)    How does skin color divide black America?

Yes, it is a valid question, “Who is black in America?”

Yes, I do know that race is a social construct and every person has the right to name himself or herself.

We must, however, acknowledge the elephant in the room, the elephant that uses color as a template for racial identity.

Racial identity, “What one chooses to call himself or herself,” except in America where though you may not call yourself African American, you will be viewed as African American simply because of the color or your skin.

Here’s another question: “What color is black in America?”

The biracial individual has to deal with another question: “What are you?” because even though your hair texture may hint at African descent, your skin color is causing me some confusion. One of the participants put it this way: “It helps them sleep at night if they can pin it down.”

What is it, then, mixed race or mixed ethnicity?

The bottom line is simply this: “No one else can choose for me; I choose for myself.


That elephant is still in the room, so though you may choose to name yourself, society will remind you of your blackness in a million subtle ways.

Here’s another question: “Is the sum total of who I am found in the color or non-color of my skin?”

The brown paper bag rule was used by African Americans to separate the elite from the street.

The slave master separated the slaves by giving extra privilege to the light skinned thereby gaining their loyalty with the hope that in the event of a slave revolt, they would side with the Master.

The conversation of skin color (white, alright/brown, stick around/black get back) is confined to the African American community for we do not air our dirty laundry outside the community, but when the conversation comes up in the community it turns to anger and blame.

There are two sides to blackness: For the light skinned, it is the issue of identity; for the dark skinned it is the issue of self-esteem.

So who decides if you are black in America? Well, we would love to choose what we are but most white people will choose for you.

One drop rule: One drop of African blood = black and the rule was not outlawed until 1967. One person five generations back made you black.

Whiteness = pure, ergo Blackness = impure.

Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin”:


Quick summary: Desiree was a foundling, taken and raised by a prominent family as a white child because she looked white. As a young woman, she fell in love with and married a young man, Armand, from a prominent family. Eventually a child is born to this union, but there is little celebration, little joy for there is one big problem, the child is not white. The child is colored. Brutally rejected by her husband, Desiree takes the child and walks into the swamp, never to be seen again. The following is an excerpt from the short story, the final words:

The last thing to go was a tiny bundle of letters; innocent little scribblings that Desiree had sent to him during the days of their espousal. There was the remnant of one back in the drawer from which he took them. But it was not Desiree’s; it was part of an old letter from his mother to his father. He read it. She was thanking God for the blessing of her husband’s love:–

“But above all,” she wrote, “night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.”

I have said this many times, the culture called African American was created here in American. People of mixed languages from different parts of the African continent were thrown together to create a new language, a new way, a new culture, a new people, all of which separated the following generations from an ancestral memory of home. Yes, we are home grown, brought to the country in 1619, before the Mayflower. Though I wholeheartedly embrace my culture, my culture is not the sum total of who I am, just like my color does not define me.

Am I black because of the color of my skin?


Am I black because of my experience?


Is it the culture that makes me black?


Is it my mindset?


In American to be black is to be seen as black and the blackness of that skin may mean you are less privileged that the fair skinned (high yellow/light skinned).


If you are light skinned, you will too often get the question, “What are you?”

It’s called colorism, the method used to divide and conquer, a tactic that too many African Americans have yet to identify and conquer.

One of the young girls called it “Quiet ignoring,” the space in which you find yourself when “they” either don’t know how to connect with you (in her case, biracial in an almost all white environment).

The young women in O’Brien’s program were spoken word artists which inspired me to write my own piece:


I was black

Long before black was the word

That became proud

Shouted out loud.

Long before I was black

I was colored and a Negro (with many derivations thereof)

When the time came

Black was a hard word to swallow

Long before black was proud, black was a fighting word

Angry epithets spewed out at offenders

But, eventually,

Black became proud

But before red, black and green pride

Before black gloved fists were lifted at the Olympics

I was



“Instead of Snow White, you should call her Snow Black”

“Girls your color usually don’t have hair like yours.”

Girls my color could not like those boys lighter than a brown paper bag

Color struck dark skinned girl

No mixing of the colors even in the community

Taught by history

My place was in the shadows

In the back

Behind them who told me what I was.

Who said my color makes me who I am

Rather than

My mind

My experience

My education

My laughter

My love


I was black before black was the word

That was proud

Shouted out loud.


It’s a real question; it’s a valid question: “Who is black in America?”

A never-ending question: “What color is black in America?”

When will we overcome?

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