No house slaves allowed
written by Nicole Crawford of http://www.nicolecrawford.com/
While I was growing up, my mother had a ten-year relationship with a man named Gary; he was a divorced electrician with a son and daughter who lived in a neighboring city. Gary never attempted to act as a father figure in my life, but in many ways, he did treat me as his own. I always got the same Christmas gifts as his daughter, Persephone, and he showed as much concern over my academic success as he did his own children’s. Not surprisingly, his daughter and I got along well and liked to pretend we were sisters.
Persephone looked as exotic as her name sounds. Even at thirteen, she was on her way to being what many men would consider a “brick house.” She had longish hair and the kind of fair skin that we often refer to in Mississippi as “high yella.” I both loved and loathed Persephone’s monthly visits to see her dad. Only a year older than me, she was funny, shared many of my interests and had a great sense of adventure. Unfortunately, she was also always hogging the spotlight. Now it wasn’t hard to steal attention from me, I was quiet, shy, and lived primarily in my own imagination (as only children are known to do). But Persephone stole even the little attention that I did want and feel comfortable with. She did so unintentionally, yet she did it frequently and with ease. I was the “smart” one and she was the beauty and we were both imprisoned by our labels. Everywhere we went people would comment on how pretty she was, what “good” hair she had, and her light complexion – all inherited from her biracial maternal grandmother.
In time, Persephone and her brother moved in with their father and she and I attended the same junior high school. I was heartbroken when she became one of the more popular girls in school and left me behind. She drew the amorous attention of both black and white boys, while I went unnoticed. We’d been good friends, but now she moved in a different circle and we had little contact. I didn’t even come to her defense when I heard other girls talking bad about her. In the middle of ninth grade, my mother and I moved to another city and I’ve only seen Persephone maybe twice in the many years since. I didn’t realize it until recently, but for much of my life she was the beauty standard by which I compared myself.
Last October, my memories of Persephone were reignited as I was in the Atlanta airport heading to Mississippi on business. The airport was crowded (when isn’t the Atlanta airport crowded?) and when I got to my gate, I didn’t immediately see an open seat. Now, this would be a good time to say that, as complexions go, I am what would be called chocolate brown. A few feet away, two black (or rather, dark chocolate) women gave me a little wave and nodded at two seats near them that were holding their luggage. One of them – wearing the absolute biggest hoop earrings I’ve ever seen – cleared a spot for me.
During the next ten minutes, more people came to the gate and sat wherever they could or on the floor, but no one took the other seat occupied by the women’s luggage. Finally, a honey complexioned woman with light eyes and long braids walked towards the seat and pointed: “Is someone sitting here?” She was looking at me and I indicated that the luggage wasn’t mine. “That’s our friend’s seat,” Hoop Earrings lied. When the woman walked away, Hoop Earrings rolled her eyes and whispered to her friend, “House slaves act like they can’t sit on the floor.” It took entirely too long for my shock to wear off, at which point I decided to give up my seat instead of being a silent participant in their conspiracy. But by then, it was announced that my flight would begin boarding. I had lost another chance to defend a sister.
There’s a book by author Marita Golden entitled Don’t Play in the Sun; it is all about colorism in America. (Editors note: This is an excellent book. Read more about it here. --Tami) As the plane took off and I thought of what had happened, I was reminded of a passage in the book where Golden tells of a light-skinned friend who was regularly beat up by female classmates out of “a rage born of their fear that her beauty left no room for theirs.” On that day, I guess Hoop Earrings’ rage, or whatever she and her friend felt, had left no room in our row of seats for the House Slave. It made me sad to know that in a time when nooses are still used to intimidate blacks in America and at least one in every three women in the world will endure some form of violence in her lifetime, we’re still (as women and people of color) allowing ourselves to be divided by the irrelevant. I wonder how many shades lighter I’d have to be for Hoop Earrings to relegate me to sitting on the floor as well. And I hope that next time (God forbid), I won’t pass on a chance to defend a sister, whether she’s black, white, “high yella”, or something in between.
Incidentally, a friend and I noticed that many of the terms we use to describe skin color have to do with food: chocolate brown, dark chocolate, café au lait, caramel, honey, almond, peaches and cream, vanilla, cinnamon, etc. I guess this is fitting since, in America, we’re as consumed by skin color as we are by food.
Nicole Crawford lives in Metro Atlanta where she works for a national non-profit, managing a self-esteem and health education program that targets adolescent girls. Born and raised in Mississippi, she is also an aspiring author, avid reader, and blog addict. You can visit her personal blog, A Woman Undeniable, at www.nicolecrawford.com.