Drexel prof Yaba Blay's striking new photo book "One Drop" explores how a wide range of different skin tones affects Americans' personal identities. In this PW excerpt, eight Philadelphia-area residents of mixed heritage concur: However light they may be, they're still most certainly Black. Our own Kennedy Allen agrees...
Growing up in Mt. Airy, an ethnic and economically diverse neighborhood, instilled within me a level of acceptance and tolerance regarding my fellow man that, confoundingly, many didn’t seem to share. I was one of seven Black kids in a class of 42. Because I spoke English properly and preferred rock to rap, I was deemed “White girl” by my racial peers—a label that haunted me for what felt like eons. I knew I wasn’t White, nor did I ever have the urge to be, outside of wishing my hair would blow in the wind like some of the girls in my class. Flash-forward to my final years of high school, in a black school where I was the “light-bright girl who talks White.” Dark-skinned people still sneer at me, somehow assuming that I believe myself to be “better” than they are because of my buttered-toffee skin tone.
When all is said and done, racial or ethnic identity rests upon the individual and their experiences. I identify myself as a black woman who happens to have Irish and Cherokee lineage. What of all the others who identify as black, but appear otherwise? Scholar and activist Arturo Schomburg, whose extensive collection of books and historical records of African people’s achievements eventually became the famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, N.Y., identified as an Afro-Puerto Rican. (In fact, his passion for gathering all those documents was born after a grade-school teacher told him that black people had no history, heroes or accomplishments.) Would Schomburg’s experience be less valid because it fails to meet some homogenous notion of Blackness? Who has the right to determine these standards in the first place? And in an age of global interconnectedness and the instant, worldwide exchange of information and ideals, why does it still even matter?
Dr. Yaba Blay wondered some of the same things. A first-generation Ghanian-American and the co-director of Drexel’s Africana studies program, Blay has spent the past two years gathering vibrant portraits and intimate stories from nearly 60 individuals across the country in an attempt to shine some light upon questions of racial ambiguity and legitimacy. Those portaits now comprise a new book that she’s edited and published, (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race—as well as an exhibit of the same name, currently on display at the Painted Bride Art Center.
In (1)ne Drop, Blay—whose own portrait adorns PW’s cover this week, and who was featured last year in CNN’s Soledad O’Brien-hosted Black in America docu-series—talks about growing up in New Orleans, where she began to speculate about a person of color’s “authenticity” because of her own experiences due to lines drawn hundreds of years ago between Whites, Blacks and the Creole community in between. “This project is descriptive, not prescriptive,” she writes. “It is not my goal to tell people how to identify. I am not the Blackness Whisperer, nor am I the Blackness Hunter. However a person chooses to identify is just that—their choice. My aim here is to challenge narrow yet popular perceptions of what Blackness is and what Blackness looks like. If we can recalibrate our lenses to see Blackness as a broader category of identity and experience, perhaps we will be able to see ourselves as part of a larger global community.” (Note: Blay chooses to capitalize both “Black” and “White” in her book, speaking “to lived, racialized and politicized indentities,” not “colors found in a box of crayons.”)
PW this week presents eight of (1)ne Drop’s profiles of Philadelphia-area residents in the hope that their essays—heartbreaking, inspiring and enlightening—will, as the book’s title suggests, shift the lens. / KENNEDY ALLEN
“Black / African American”
A lot of Caucasians think I’m White because they’ve never run into somebody that has albinism. I’m in the nursing field, so a lot of the people that I deal with are older White women. As soon as they see my white skin, they become a little more comfortable. A White male that I cared for at work shocked me one day while we were talking about politics. He has issues with his eyes but he can recognize me and he recognizes my voice. He said to me, “So how do you feel about the president, President Barack Obama?” After I answered him, he said, “I don’t get it. How do we, a White nation, elect a man like that?” In my head, I was like, Oh my God. He’s a racist! I didn’t say anything, so he just goes on and on with it because he feels comfortable with another “White man” around him. “You know, it’s like we’ve got an orangutan in the oval office.” I was floored. When they’re around other White people, some White folks talk very freely about Black people. And I never knew that until that day.
At the same time, I don’t feel like I’m passing. I can’t hide being Black. My nose, my eyes, my lips, my cheekbones. Come on, ain’t no white part of me except my skin. You can’t judge a book by its cover. I know that’s the oldest cliché in the world, but it’s true. Don’t judge me automatically because of the first thing you see. You see my skin and you automatically get your perceptions about what I’m about, but really you don’t know me. So just ask and I’ll tell you. I get approached at restaurants, gas stations, in the mall, everywhere. “I don’t wanna offend you or anything, but …” And before they can even say, “Are you … ?” I’m like, “ Yes, I’m an albino.” Everybody asks me, “Are you Black?” “Do you have the same thing Michael Jackson has?” or “I don’t mean to be in your business, but is everything that color?” I’ve actually had people date me because they wanted to find out if everything was that color.
Some people just don’t understand that being a Black albino is part of my identity. Every culture has albinos: Black, White, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, everything. So I don’t even really identify myself as a color, I identify myself as a race. I’m African American. If I say I’m a Black albino, accept me for who I am. My Blackness is important to me. I don’t feel like I have to be over-Black. I don’t have to prove who or what I am. I ain’t gotta pull the ghetto out the trunk just to show that I’m Black. I know who I am and I’m comfortable in myself.
“Black and Mennonite”
Race was never, and I mean never, discussed growing up. There was never a talk about “You have a White mother and a Black father. How do you feel about that?” Never. So it wasn’t until college that I started thinking about it and feeling like I had to decide for myself. I had always allowed my surroundings to identify me. My small town didn’t have many Mixed people in the early ’80s. In fact, I didn’t know any Mixed people growing up. I was Black because in a lot of ways, for a long time, I was the darkest thing a lot of these people had ever been around. It was my Blackness that made me stick out. It was very clear to me, and no one questioned it. It wasn’t like, “Are you Mixed?” It was “You’re Black!” And that was it.
I went to an almost all-White school—one of four or five Black kids in a fairly nice-sized school. I didn’t adjust well. I wasn’t accepted in school. And it wasn’t the kind of racism that you can point to. No one called me names. I was invisible in a lot of ways. I wasn’t acknowledged. So I didn’t have anything concrete to explain, This is why I’m hurt. But every day I was hurt—I mean, destroyed. No one was mean to me, but no one was nice to me either. The one thing people did come to me for is if they had a problem with someone else. Because I was the Black girl. I knew how to fight, right? I always knew when someone was like, “I have to talk to you after class,” it was because they had a problem with someone else and thought that I was gonna beat this person up. I had never fought. Ever. But what I quickly determined was that I didn’t have to, because this other person also thought Black people could fight. So, all I had to do was have this person’s back and go with them and confront the person, and they would be scared and that would be it. I thought that was gonna be my way to gain friends. And I was happy to do it if it meant a slumber party here or there or whatever. But it never resulted in that.
In the first few years of college, I went through all these experiences where people would ask me, “Well, are you Puerto Rican? Are you Italian?” And I was floored. I could not believe that it wasn’t clear to people. The only times I’ve felt hurt by it is when I didn’t feel Black enough. I started hearing, “Oh, you from Amish country? Oh yeah, you’re not Black.” Other times people just wouldn’t believe me: “You’re not Black.” And even when I tried to explain that I’m Mixed: “That doesn’t make you Black. Where’d you grow up? No. You’re not Black.” You know, people telling you you’re not who you think you are. Joking, but very serious about it. I started feeling not so comfortable saying I’m Black, and I had to decide what that meant to me and where I really fit. I ended up coming back to the same reality: No, I am Black. I just needed to define it for myself and be able to talk about it.
I decided that I would do a master’s in African American Studies and learn more about me. The reason why I’m happy today is because I did those two years of really learning about myself and being in an atmosphere where I was constantly feeling like I was doing me justice. It wasn’t a short unit on Black History Month or a semester-long college course. It was two years of soaking myself in the Black experience and reading and writing about it. And it really changed my life. It brought full circle everything that I felt up until that point.
Although I might interchangeably use the terms “Black” and “African American,” how one conceptualizes “Black’’ can take on many meanings, and it’s usually used in the description of the complexion of one’s skin. In my particular situation, being extremely light, if I choose to use the term “African American” or “Afro-American,” in my mind it relates me more with the cultural, civilizational and historical elements of African people, both Africa and America, and it doesn’t limit me to just the experience of one’s complexion. The race concept is very complex, and its meaning is much deeper than just the physical differences in phenotype. This is part of the complexity of language and terminology. Whatever term allows me to share more of the history, the traditions, the language and the civilization of Black folk, where all complexions are included, I’m down with using that.
My consciousness never really allowed me to think of myself as anything else but Black or a person of African descent. Anyone who has had the opportunity to get to know me never questions my race. They never question me being Black. Never. Regardless of my complexion. But for those who don’t necessarily know me, based on my phenotype and their perception, I’ve had some interesting experiences. I used to work as an account executive traveling many places and seeing many different things. I had many interactions with Black, White and Hispanic folk. When visiting Hispanic offices, I would oftentimes be perceived as Hispanic or Puerto Rican, and those folk would automatically start speaking Spanish to me. When encountering White folk, a majority of the time they would automatically perceive me as White and nothing else. Sometimes I had a little fun with it and played the game a little bit. And when I say “the game,” I mean basically just not letting people know exactly what I am until a little ways into the conversation. Some Whites would talk a certain way whenever the conversation circled around Black folk, and then I’d have to catch them quick and put them in check — like, “Oh yeah, by the way, I’m one of them.” Their reactions were priceless. But I never try to pass, and I have never willingly passed in my life, but I play the game just to see where people are going to go in the conversation, see people’s real thoughts and feelings when they feel comfortable amongst “their own.” But I’ve always made it very known that I’m Black. I’ve always put it out there. I take pride in myself, and I take pride in being Black.
I’ve had people, both Black and White, ask me why I would identify as African American. My answer is “Why would I not?” Why would I not want to be who I am? I’ve got a calling, not a career in wanting to be a professor of African American Studies. I live by the words of Frederick Douglass: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and incur my own abhorrence.”
Anita Persaud Holland
When I met one of my husband’s cousins for the first time, he didn’t say anything to me, but after a while and kind of off to the side, he said to my husband, “She’s not a regular old nigger, is she?” It’s funny, but that epitomizes the way I am perceived by some people. Most times, people are not so impolite as to inquire about my ethnicity. But sometimes they do. They ask whatever they can ask to find out where I come from. And I don’t think there’s any specific thing they assume I am, just that I don’t look exactly like any other group. I’m not African-looking. I’m not truly Indian-looking. I’m just kind of a blend—like a lot of America’s becoming these days. For the most part, they just assume that I’m “different.” I get “different” more than anything else. I guess because of my coloring. I am kind of pale, and my hair is usually straight more than not. And I guess I speak a certain way. I’ve always been taught to speak as proper English as I could because, as I grew up among accents, I knew that speaking to be understood was the point. But believe it or not, it doesn’t bother me a bit. People are curious about people all the time, and if the people who are curious about me are important enough to me, we’ll have a conversation.
People always look for something to distinguish, to either make somebody a part of their group or not a part of their group, in whatever their context. It’s the people most similar to you that have one little thing different that are the most irritating to you in society. So, I don’t know if dark-skinned people feel like there’s been privilege given to people of every other shade but their own, but if you perceive that you’ve suffered discrimination more than somebody else, well, that would be a little bone you have to pick. And that’s all there is to it. Why take exception to my Blackness? Is Angela Davis Black like you? Rosa Parks isn’t Black like you either, right? But guess what? She got on the bus. And guess who they thought she was? Black. So I’m just as Black as you are, but in a different way. It’s human nature to want to defend your position, but to me it’s easier to have a bigger group. So, I think it’s beneficial for more people to identify as Black than it is for less.
“Black / Mixed / Cape Verdean”
My grandmother is very light-skinned, and she doesn’t call herself a Black woman. She calls herself a “woman of color.” What I’ve learned in talking to her about this is that when Cape Verdeans came to this country, they were perceived as Black first, before they even opened their mouths, so obviously they were treated as Black. Because they realized the discrimination that came along with being Black, I think a lot of Cape Verdeans were quick to say, “Oh, I’m not Black. I’m Cape Verdean.” And to this day, there are some Cape Verdean people who are very clear that they’re Cape Verdean. If someone were to be like, “Are you Black?” they’d say, “I’m Cape Verdean.” For them, there’s a distinction there.
I identify in more than one way. Black, Cape Verdean, Cape Verdean American and Biracial. It depends on how specific I want to get. Some people, they don’t know what Cape Verdean is, and I don’t feel like explaining. Sometimes I’ll just say I’m Mixed. But not as a way to distance myself. There are some Biracial people who don’t identify as Black. They only say, “I’m Biracial,” or “I’m Black and White.” If you say to them, “Oh, you’re Black,” they’ll correct you. For me, I feel that there’s what you identify as and then there’s how people perceive you. I may identify as a Biracial person—I’m Black and White—but if people see me as a Black woman, that’s how I’m treated. So I identify as a Black woman because I move through the world as a Black woman.
I do think there are limited definitions of race, but I don’t think people have a right to tell you what you are either. Let people identify how they want to identify.
I could have grew up in different surroundings and identified a different way, but it just so happened that I ended up with a Black family. My mother was Black, but my father was White. In those days, when I was born, my mother’s father felt that he couldn’t have me in the house because of pressure he might get. I don’t know if he was thinking about the Black people in the neighborhood or what White folks was gonna think with this White baby running around. So he made her get rid of me. And it just so happened that the people next door said, “Hey, we’ll take it.” I could have easily lost my life if I had not been adopted. At one point, my father was coming to the house and was asking to take me. Had he taken me, I’d have been a different person altogether. I’d have grown up in a White surrounding. But Mama said, “No, I got him. I’ma keep him.”
My mother didn’t tell me all of that until I was 12 years old. But in the neighborhood that I grew up in, the people around the corner were my cousins. They knew, and I didn’t. The kids that were my age knew. And it was a thing where some of that was brought down on me. “Hey, there’s the White boy!” or “Come here, White boy!” I didn’t know why they were doing that. I couldn’t figure it out.
Throughout my life, though, a lot of people have said, “You mixed with something.” I think visually, people see me as Hispanic. But then when the name follows—Cloud—of course, they think I’m American Indian. But I’m neither one. My mama, the lady that adopted me, was actually my color, and she was a full-blooded Cherokee. And my dad, who was probably a reddish-bronze, was a full-blooded Cherokee too. That’s how I got the name Cloud.
If I had wanted to, I probably could have passed. But I would have had to change my whole demeanor, because my background wouldn’t allow for it. I’d have to change the way I talk, the way I carried myself. But I know a couple people did tell me, “You know, man, we thought you was White.” And at times that’s what made me feel as though I needed to go out of my way to be another way. To overly compensate. To make people really, really understand that I’m not White or that I don’t feel like I’m better than anybody else because I am light-skinned. But I’m at the point now where I don’t care what you think. It don’t matter. And that definitely came with age and experience. At some point you realize that you can’t please everybody. This guy thinks I’m this. What do I need to do to change his mind? Back then, maybe I’d bop a little harder, talk a little rougher, do whatever I thought maybe would change his mind or make him realize I am Black. But now I ain’t gonna change his mind. He’s gonna have to take me as I am.
When I think of myself, I still think of myself as the color that I used to be, so I get a little bit annoyed when people look at me in a different way. My husband is dark-skinned, and sometimes, depending on where we are, when people see the two of us together, they kind of look at us like they’re trying to figure out who I am.
I’ve had vitiligo since I was a young child. It was basically on the side of my face around my eye. And it would come and go. I didn’t have that much of it. I had a couple spots on my legs, but it wasn’t so much that it really bothered me. My parents took me to a doctor at a young age, but the doctors didn’t know what it was back then. They had a name for it, but that was it. They didn’t know what caused it or knew anything about it. Later on, somewhere in the ’90s, I started to lose a lot of my pigment, probably about a fourth of it. And it always seemed to start with my face. Or my hands. I found a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania who is Black and specializes in treating vitiligo. It’s treated like psoriasis, where you take a drug and then you stand in a light box, and between the two, it activates the pigment cells. So I did that for probably about two or three years, three times a week, and I got all my pigment back. Then, around 2000, I started to get sick with diverticulitis and ended up having surgery to have part of my intestines removed. That’s when I noticed that a lot of my pigment was starting to disappear. My doctor said that he thought the sudden loss of all my pigment was due to the stress of my surgery. I started wearing a lot of makeup, and then I got to the point where I just said, “It’s too much. I just can’t do it anymore,” and I stopped the treatments. By 2006, all my pigment was gone.
It was a hard thing to go through. People stare. People want to know what’s wrong with you. I was constantly putting on the makeup and trying to cover up. I didn’t want my skin to show. Sometimes my husband didn’t know when I was going through it, because I would get up in the morning and I would put my makeup on so that he never really saw it. I remember one of the doctors that I went to see asked me if I wanted to bleach my skin, but I told him no. I wasn’t going to go through all that. After a while, I realized that there are so many things that I have reason to be thankful for. It wasn’t like I had anything fatal. I started thinking about things that other people were going through which were much worse. I used to pray about it a lot, and finally I just came to peace with it.
Whenever I hear people make negative comments about Michael Jackson or speak about how they think that he bleached his skin on purpose, I get really annoyed and become very defensive about it. They don’t really know what his story was. I believe he had vitiligo. Nobody knows what he looked like beyond his hands and his face. His body could have been brown. Or he could have been all one color. Look at me.
Vitiligo is not something that changes you as a person. I may not be the color I used to be, but I am the same person. I don’t try to pass myself off as somebody that I’m not. I’m still who I’ve always been—a strong Black woman who is very proud to be a part of a race of people that have endured a lot.
Perry ‘Vision’ Divirgilio
I come from a Black woman, and for me, that’s it. It really is that simple. I’m Black because my mom is Black. If my dad was Black and my mom was White, I would say the same thing. If I was half White and half anything else, I would probably identify with that other half too. That’s how it is, specifically in this country. I know the world looks at me as a man of color, so I would never say I’m White. And I would never just say I’m Biracial either.
Even though in my mind, it’s my mom who makes me Black, when I was very little she always told me, “You’re Biracial. You’re not Black.” But that didn’t work, even when I was 2 or 3 years old. My mother is dark-skinned—a beautiful woman, but she hates her skin color. I really feel like she wanted to be White, from the neighborhood that we lived in to the way she dressed to the way she tried to dress me. She has four kids older than me. She raised me; she put them away. She told me they were in boarding schools, but more recently I found out that they were in the system. We never talked about it. It’s always been this secret. I guess my siblings were trying to save me from it; but this year, I sat them down and asked them to tell me the truth. And they did. I’ve never talked to my mother about it, so I don’t know why she did it, but I have my theory. I think it was because they were fully Black, and I think she thought she could navigate the White world a little better with me. She had me believing that my Black family hated me because I’m light-skinned and my dad is White, but I later found out that that wasn’t true either. Once I found out the truth, it really made me feel some kind of way, like I was the product of self-hate. But when I talked to my dad about it, he told me I was a product of love. He said, “I love you.” And that’s what made me feel better.
I grew up really backwards. My Black mom raised me in a White neighborhood; my White father raised me in a Black neighborhood. So, I caught hell wherever I was. I was a straight-up “nigger boy” and “monkey” five days out of the week when I was at my mom’s house. I was getting my ass kicked all the time. I was the darkest of all dark-skinned people on my mom’s block. But then on the weekends, when I was at my father’s house, it was like, Oh yeah, he’s cool. But he ain’t really one of us. They never called me White racial slurs; it was almost like this affectionate neglect. But at least I wasn’t getting jumped.
If somebody were to ask me, I would say I’m a Biracial Black man. Sometimes I’ll leave the “Biracial” out, but it’s always “Black man.” For me, it’s just who I am. I’m Black and I just happen to be Biracial. And although there’s clearly more comfort with me than somebody who’s darker, when it’s just me, when I’m getting harassed by cops, I don’t get harassed half as much. It doesn’t work that way. Cabs don’t pick me up. I get racially profiled all the time.
Somebody once told me, “If your dad is Black, then that makes you Black.” And I was like, “Well then, there’s a whole lot of descendants of slaves who ain’t Black then. ’Cause they daddies was White.” People think they have the keys to Blackness: All right, this is what I think, so this is what it has to be. And there’s no room for negotiation. No, you’re not Black; you’re Biracial. Cool. So, make sure you don’t claim Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington during Black History Month. We’ll have our own.
Dr. Yaba Blay will be a guest on FXX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell tonight, Wed., Nov. 13, at 11pm. (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race goes on sale Nov. 29. A second First Friday reception for the (1)ne Drop photo exhibit, on display now through Dec. 21, will be held at Painted Bride Art Center on Dec. 6. paintedbride.org
Photos by Noelle Theard
[Perry “Vision” Divirgilio photo by Zun Lee]