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I am the Darker Sister
on June 15, 2004
Don't Play in the Sun is Marita Golden's account of the complexities of the color issue within the black community as she has lived it as a darker-hued African American. Intra-racial prejudice and color consciousness has been a major part of her life since she was a child. When she was ten years old, Golden's mother told her she needed to avoid playing in the sun because she was dark enough; as it was she needed to marry a light-skinned man for the sake of her children. This one remark set off a lifetime of hurt and introspection where color issues were a constant presence.
Golden's views were "colored" by and large by the geographical area in which she was born and raised, Washington D.C. This area is the seat of the black middle and upper classes, many who are descendants of mixed-race people who can trace their roots back to the Founding Fathers of the nation. They are known to have their set of cliques and alliances that in numerous circles have historically excluded darker blacks, keeping their inner circle light, bright and damn near white through careful manipulation of family ties. At a young age, Golden expected the curly-haired, light brown-skinned boys to reject her dark, short-haired self and that she could not infiltrate the popular crowd of lighter complexioned kids in high school. She deliberately did not apply to Howard University because she felt that although it was a black college, the lighter skinned students were more readily accepted. Ironically, it was at predominately white college, American University, that she came into her own as a member of the Black Student Union and under the banner of the new proclamation of "I'm Black and I'm Proud." Golden relished in her dark skin and embraced an Afrocentric look. She eventually married a Nigerian, who reminded her of her very dark-skinned, estranged father and lived for many years in her husband's country. After a bitter divorce from her husband and return to the States, over the years she again became embroiled in the color complex issues that had plagued her young life. Thrown back into the dating scene, it became apparent to her that most black men wanted trophy wives---translated meaning lighter-skinned women.
This reviewer grew weary of Golden's constant harping on her color issues, wanting her to step away and analyze why, after over forty years she is apparently holding on to her mother's mandate. Although she claims to have conquered her demons, acknowledging that light-skinned blacks are also victims, I was not convinced by this discourse. Almost every daily contact, almost every encounter, almost every snub, real or imagined is analyzed and attributed to her color. Why this accomplished woman, a highly regarded author of several books, an esteemed professor, and founder of the Hurston/Wright Writers Foundation continues to be defined by the color of her skin is astounding to me. Her recounting of how an older black male author judged her by her Afrocentric look is perhaps debatable, as is a remark made by her current husband's student who expressed surprise when meeting her, but her blatant dissatisfaction about a character from a classic novel borders, to my mind, on overkill. Golden continually wonders (on the border of obsession) why the character, Janie from Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is light-skinned even as she answers her own question.
On one hand Golden's mother had issues with color, but her father came from a proud, dark-skinned family who seemed to be comfortable in their skin and their place in the world. It is unfortunate she did not inherit that legacy. I realize this is a memoir and therefore, this is her story, and through her eyes but this book, for me, was one continuous whine, decrying "woe is me, poor little dark-skinned girl" and could be deemed offensive to dark-skinned women who have learned to or always have loved themselves. However, I am well aware that this pervasive topic is the elephant in the middle of the room that we as a race are reluctant to confront and it is indeed a serious issue.
For an unbiased, well documented reference on the subject of color consciousness and intra-racial prejudice in the black community, I recommend The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans by Kathy Russell written almost ten years ago.