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Pretty for a Black Girl

Updated on September 9, 2009

Pretty for a Black Girl: The Back-handed Compliment

“You are pretty for a dark-skinned (black) girl”, or “I’ve never met a dark-skinned girl before that I thought was pretty but you fine, baby”, or “You’re a pretty black girl”. Growing up I’d hear people say these things and I would cringe. “What is that supposed to mean?” I’d think? I’d usually just say thank you through clenched teeth and a bruised ego. The ‘compliment’ was rarely given without the qualifier “Black or dark-skinned” as if being both a dark-skinned/black sister and being pretty were mutually exclusive.

Recently, two young women have brought the pretty, black/dark-skinned girl issue to the forefront- again. Tameka Foster, estranged wife of Usher Raymond posted a blog on the Huffington Post website within the last month chronicling a life of receiving the back-handed compliment and expressing, quite eloquently I might add, her dismay and disappointment that after 400 years, Black people are still dealing with the issue of color, tone and hue.

Aisha Curry wrote a book Pretty for a Black Girl: Compliment or Insult. Ms. Curry self published her book through Author House Books in March 2008 and her story, like Foster’s story and my own, deals with the pain of being pretty but black/dark-skinned. Foster’s essay on the Huffington Post website has shed some additional light on the issue. There has been some discussion as to whether Ms. Foster plagiarized her essay from Ms. Curry’s book. I haven’t read Ms. Curry’s book but if I were Aisha Curry I’d simply send Tameka Foster a bouquet of flowers and say “thank you”. Publicity is publicity. I personally had not heard of Aisha Curry’s book until Foster’s essay was published. I don’t condone plagiarism or theft. If Ms. Raymond did indeed read Ms. Curry’s book, she should acknowledge that fact publicly. If not, Ms. Curry just chalk it up to the fact that your experience has not been unique. I say let’s all of us pretty dark skinned girls go buy a copy of Pretty for a Black Girl and help a sister out! Visit Aisha Curry’s website at Let’s show the world that not only are we dark-skinned and pretty, but we’re smart and we read too, dammit! BANG! BANG! BANG! A triple threat!

Spike Lee aired these stained panties of the Black community’s dirty clothes hamper during the movie School Daze didn’t he? The Jigga Boos and the Wanna Bees. The Wanna Bees were the light complexioned sisters with the straight or wavy hair. The good hair. Wash and go hair. Men deified them and lusted after them. The long wavy hair and European features. The features of the wanna bees were more palatable to society than those features of the jiggaboos. Naturally, it was just understood that the wanna bees were pretty. They were the pretty girls. Not pretty light skinned girls. Just pretty girls.

Now the Jigga Boos were the darker complexioned sisters. Full lips, wide noses, high foreheads, beautiful glowing dark skin, full hips, buttocks and thighs, natural hair - fros, braids, locks. No mistaking that Mother Africa resided in those bodies.

Oh, did I describe one group in more detail than the other? Well that may be because I would have been a Jigga Boo had I been cast in the movie School Daze. Thus, the comments, you’re pretty for a jigga boo. That’s what may as well have been said.

The media has always placed a premium on lighter complexioned women in the Black community. The media, both Black and mainstream, extol the beauty of Halle Berry and Beyonce. But what about Angela Bassett, Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, LeToya Duckett formerly of Destiny’s Child, Kortu Momolu of Project Runway, Naomi Campbell, Gabrielle Union, Janet Jackson, Robin Givens, Nia Long, Kerry Washington and the list is endless (in my mind, at least, but maybe not the media’s)?

There is no doubt in my mind that Halle Berry is a very beautiful woman as is Beyonce, but can somebody show us girls with just a little more melanin in our skin some of that same love that’s shown to Halle and Beyonce?

It has even been observed in music videos at one time that the love interests of the rap/r&b/hip-hop stars were usually the lighter complexioned sisters and the booty-shaking, gyrating, sexually-charged sisters were darker complexioned. What do those images say to young Black kids?

Well I would imagine a young male would view darker women as sexual objects and the lighter skinned women as wifey. Reminds me of the slave master who kept his beautiful porcelain skinned wife tucked away in the big house and made love to her only when he wanted to produce an heir. But when he wanted some good sex, some good loving he’d sneak out to the slave cabins and bury himself deep inside a chocolate brown woman. Not to romanticize these rapes (some were rapes, but not all) but once again we have the European woman as the pure Madonna and the slave woman as a sexualized whore.

And what do these images say to young girls. The lighter girls, always knowing they’re pretty, always knowing they’re loved, always know they’ll grow up and be someone’s wife. And us dark skinned sisters, well if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to be pretty-for-a-black-girl, you’re the exception but otherwise you may be relegated to being the booty call in the middle of the night and not wifey material.

Or just consider the book The Ditchdiggers Daughters, by Yvonne S. Thornton, MD. Four dark-skinned sisters who all aspired to become medical doctors grew up in the 60s with their father and mother. Their father, Donald, a very loving, hard-working, uneducated but admirable man, told his daughters straight up with no chaser, “you’re not pretty girls”.

“You kids are Black. You’re dark-skinned and ugly. … no man’s gonna come along and offer to take care of you because you ain’t light-skinned. He later tells them in the story …”you’re not light[skinned], so studying is the only way I can see you getting ahead…

So much of the slave mentality still exists and is played out in our collective sub-conscious. Or is it being done subconsciously? Do we still subconsciously love massa so much that we idealize everything European and do we still continue to be disgusted by our African roots?

I believe for those of us who are students of real history and who are astute observers of culture, we realize how insidious and pernicious all of this division is [willie lynch]and how it has eroded the self esteem of generations of black women.

Our male counterparts seem to have escaped this prejudice that exists within our own community. Or have they? Every few years or so the media builds up either the darker skinned or the lighter skinned brother. Shemar Moore is popular for a minute then Ildris Elba steps into the spotlight. Then Boris Kodjoe is in vogue and then it’s Taye Diggs’ turn. But the darker skinned brothers do at least get a turn.

I have actually been called onto the carpet and have been accused of being color struck myself. I have been accused of being prejudiced against lighter complexioned men. This prejudice may have been illustrated in my signature poem, “Black” where I talk about always choosing dark – whether it be food or men. Drinking my coffee with no cream, choosing chocolate ice cream and chocolate covered doughnuts over everything and all other flavors, and preferring dark Hershey chocolate bars.

Throughout most of my experience of dating I have usually gravitated towards darker complexion men. I can’t explain it really. It may be about chasing that first love high – like a crack addict. Chasing that feeling I felt when I was once in love with Keith, my first serious grown-up love. Keith was a tall, super intelligent, super fine, dark-skinned brother who broke my heart almost twenty-five years ago. Perhaps that’s the reason. I can’t explain it. Then I married a handsome dark skinned brother, James who gave me two beautiful children and a broken my heart – and tried to break a few other things too, but I digress.

I’ve dated men who were so fair I wasn’t even sure of their ethnicity upon meeting them until they told me. I’ve dated an African dude who was as dark as a starless midnight sky. And I’ve dated every shade and hue in between. And yes, I have dated outside of the race. But I know my preference is unmistakably and undeniably Black – regardless of tone or hue.

My first boyfriend as a little girl of 4 years old, if you want to call him a boyfriend, was a curly haired light skinned dude named Dewey Brown who lived two houses away from me. I think this is funny because I now plan to pursue a Master’s degree in Library Science. (Dewey Decimal system) There is a certain irony there.

In kindergarten I had another curly haired, light skinned crush named Robert Barnes. I used to kiss Robert’s hand while he slept during naptime. (This says a lot about who I’d grow up to be.) Robert gave me a ring from a bubble gum machine and it smelled funny and I stopped liking him.

Then in fifth grade there was Michael, another light-skinned dude that I used to sing “Loving You”, by Minnie Ripperton to at recess and write about our “love life” in the fifth grade slam book and speculate with my girlfriends about when I was going to French kiss him . Then in the eighth grade there was Kelvin, another light skinned brother who also broke my heart by kissing Monique Taylor after I had to leave Dorothy Lucas’ party early. Kelvin eventually married a girl that I think is my cousin. At least I’ve seen them at the family reunions so I think she’s family. Well he kept the love in the family.

So I evaluated myself and found something very interesting. I really have no preferences. I just want to be respected, treated well and get butterflies in my stomach and smile with my heart when I think about him. I want the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up when he simply looks deeply into my eyes or when he strokes my cheek with his hand.

The bottom line is that we’re all Black. We come in shades as light as ivory to as dark as charcoal. We should learn to love each other and stop the hate based on skin tone and hue and hair texture. There is no good or bad hair. There’s healthy hair and unhealthy hair. And if you want hair, it’s good to have some.

I’ve even had to pause and take stock of my own prejudices. After a thorough self analysis of my seemingly prejudice against the lighter skinned brothers I’ve come to realize that I have been very mistaken – quite mistaken. Consequently I invite Eric Benet to allow me to wrap my cocoa brown legs…


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    • devin shakur profile image

      devin shakur 5 years ago from THE WORLD!

      Thanks to all the lurkers and stalkers as well! Keep reading and I hope you enjoy!

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      Minna 7 years ago

      Really enjoyed this article. Thank you.