Healing a Legacy of Slavery One Community at a Time

By Teresa Ann Willis (MSW'05)Teresa Willis at a book signing in Atlanta

An Atlanta high-school student with beautiful bronzed-colored skin raised her hand and calmly announced that she sometimes wished she were darker.

“Sometimes me and my little sister stand in the mirror together and look at ourselves, and my little sister always tells me how pretty I am,” she said. “I tell her she's pretty too, but she doesn't feel pretty. She tells me she wishes she could be a little lighter like me; then she would feel prettier.”

Her voice cracked as she pushed out her next few sentences. “I sometimes feel guilty about that so that’s why I said sometimes I wish I could be darker and she could be lighter. So she can feel pretty.”

I hear in her words the pain of countless African American girls and boys, men and women, young and old who’ve been fed the lie that because their skin is dark they are less human, less beautiful, less worthy than someone whose skin is light. Or white.

This collective pain has propelled me on a nationwide book tour, hosting “healing dialogues” for African American and Latino communities caught up in colorism or the notion that “light skin is the right skin.”

On Saturday, Feb. 2 at the University of the District of Columbia, local teachers, social workers, students and their families will convene to discuss colorism, which is rooted in slavery and which exposes the untreated trauma of African Descended people and our need for healing.

Like a Tree Without Roots Book CoverThat afternoon local teens will offer up a staged reading of a scene from Like A Tree Without Roots, my young adult novel that explores the problem of conflict within the color line for one marginalized teen and her friends.

An Atlanta high school re-enacts scenes from the book

When the Atlanta high-school students staged their re-enactment recently, some saw themselves reflected in Jasmine, the beautifully dark-skinned protagonist of my novel who, when she grows up, wants to marry somebody Hispanic or white so her kids will have “good hair”.

In the discussion that followed, two girls, one dark-skinned, the other light-skinned broke down as they revealed to us the pain they’ve endured during their short time on earth. The lighter-skinned sister had been weighted down by hearing, not just in our discussion that day but, according to her, all the time, that “light-skinned girls think they’re better than dark-skinned girls.”

The dark-skinned girl spoke about the self-loathing she harbored because of her skin color, but said she’d worked through that and now loves the skin she’s in and herself to boot.

Hallelujah!

As I continue my travels, I’m sure to hear similar tragedies sprinkled with similar triumphs. My prayer is that the conversations students and teachers and church goers and community engage in when I’m there will continue long after I’ve left.

The Atlanta teachers who invited me to their school had, earlier in the school year, engaged students in dialogues about colorism. And even though our classroom sessions were intense, the teachers said they were necessary. Those teachers, and many of the students as well, are eager to continue the conversation.

Colorism—the symptom of a larger ill

Colorism, though, is but a symptom of a larger ill suffered by African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Jamaicans—all African Descended people—as well as people of color the world over: the internalization of oppression. Latino children, for instance, also know colorism’s pain and are often exhorted to “mejorar la raza” or “lighten the race” by marrying someone lighter. Similarly, “pelo bueno, pelo malo” or “good hair, bad hair” is a language staple in brown communities.

Brazilian educator and organizer Paulo Freire writes that “the oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.”

Some ten years later, brother Bob Marley melodically reminded us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery saying, “none but ourselves can free our minds.”

But it takes a lot of courage to claim your freedom when doing so means swimming against the tide. When Hollywood sells us “the look.” A look that’s unnatural and unattainable to many who aspire to it. For our children, it’s particularly hard to embrace dark skin and natural hair when the cultural icons they worship extol all that isn’t dark or natural.

But if the real-life Jasmines of the world are to be free of colorism’s pain, then a lot of us are going to have to step up and claim our freedom and show our babies the way because they can’t do it without us.

The campaign to reclaim Blackness

In my cross-country travels, I've encountered several sisters who are working to dismantle the centuries-old notion that dark skin is shameful and a Black child's god-given hair is bad. At a natural hair care expo in New Jersey, I met Simeko Watkins-Hartley, owner and Creative Director of Meko New York Natural Hair Care Spa. Earlier that year, Simeko overheard several teens warning each other that their “bad hair” would keep them out of a corporate America job.

In 2012 Simeko gave birth to the Born to Be a Natural Leader Teen Workshop Program—a mentoring program for girls. She’s also begun raising scholarship funds for them, she said, because of her commitment to “creating a network of young girls who can and will empower each other to embrace their natural beauty and to see themselves as valuable, intelligent leaders.”

Our ancestors were similarly obsessed with their hair. Before the Maafa, before Africans were sold and trafficked across the Atlantic to South America, the Caribbean and later North America, on the appointed day they spent hours caring for their hair, adorning their hair, loving their god-given hair as documented in Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (St. Martin's Griffin).

And they spent no time hating on each other’s dark skin because they’d internalized something all right. Pride.

We’ve got to get back there. For ourselves and for our children. One of our children, 17-year-old Crystal from Brooklyn wrote to tell me she’d been inspired to learn the stories of her elders and ancestors and to learn about their customs and the things they did to survive. She said that, just like the character in the novel, “so many of us are Jasmine, seeking love and validation. We just need to be guided in the right direction.”

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Readers, any comments or questions for Teresa Ann Willis? Note that if you live in D.C., she will be facilitating "A Healing Dialogue in DC" with students, teachers and parents at the University of District Columbia this Saturday, February 2, 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Go to event poster.

This post originally appeared on January 30, 2013, in Root DC Live, under the Local section of WashingtonPost.com, and is cross-posted here with the author's permission.

Teresa Ann Willis is a teacher and the author of Like A Tree Without Roots. She graduated from CUSSW in 2005.

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Images: Teresa Ann Willis at a book signing at the Montgomery City-County Public Library (Montgomery, ALA), 2013; book cover.