“Hey, dark ‘n lovely!”
Gotta love the brothers who show their affection for the dark-skinned girls, even if they are hollering out the window of a passing car.
Gotta love it even more when the brother is the president, and the object of his affection is front and center for the world to see.
It’s true: A lot of black women fell for Barack Obama the moment they saw his wife.
If a black president represents change, a dark-skinned first lady is straight-up revolutionary.
I won’t apologize for taking note of Michelle Obama’s physical appearance. Plenty has already been said about how she, with her double Ivy degrees, six-figure salaries and two adorable daughters, is crushing the image of the struggling black single mother. She is a real life Clair Huxtable! But the true breakthrough here is that sisters who look like Michelle Obama seldom become cultural icons, aesthetic trendsetters—a proxy for the all-American woman.
And don’t roll your eyes and ask why we have to go there; we haven’t completely gotten over our prejudices about skin tone and hair texture. Despite years of scholarly, literary and popular debate—from Dr. Kenneth Clark’s baby-doll tests, to Toni Morrison’s tragic characters in The Bluest Eye, to the showdown between jiggaboos and wannabes in Spike Lee’s School Daze—too many of us continue to accept a standard of beauty that does not favor ebony-hued skin, woolly hair and full lips (and not those surgically enhanced smackers, either).
I know from first-hand experience. I remember being taunted and shunned by some people who didn’t believe that old saying about the blacker the berry. Back when we were Negroes, the word “black” was used to describe the dark-skinned among us, usually not with affection. My mama assured me that I was a pretty black girl, but it was the brothers on the streets, cooing such compliments as dark ‘n lovely, chocolate drop, brown sugar, who convinced me.
Now that we’re all black—folks aren’t quite as open with their intraracial biases, but those old beliefs still haunt us. The lingering effects of racism and sexism, coupled with a beauty industrial complex that constantly assaults our senses with images of female beauty that trend toward the lighter end of the racial color wheel, has rendered dark-skinned women nearly invisible in mainstream media.
But consider the complexions of most of the black women who smile or stare seductively at the world from the covers of celebrity and beauty magazines—cream, café au lait, golden honey. Gorgeous sisters, yes, but we come in other good flavors, too. The failure to showcase dark-skinned beauties feeds the notion that pretty black girls are an exception. Not so much dark and lovely as dark but lovely.
The light-skinned, long-hair aesthetic reigns.
I think of India.Arie’s song from a few years back.
"I’m not the average girl from your video
And I ain’t built like a supermodel
But I’ve learned to love myself unconditionally
Because I am a queen.”
An empowering anthem, but even Arie acknowledges that many of us who don’t look like Barbie dolls—even chocolate-coated Barbie dolls—are not convinced of our beauty.
“I don’t know if young women necessarily think that certain women they see on TV are beautiful, but they do see that certain women are financially rewarded by looking a certain way and therefore that image is reinforced,” Arie told me via e-mail. She thinks that Michelle Obama’s presence on the national stage will “jump-start the challenge of those long-held beliefs. Not only is she naturally and uniquely beautiful, but she demonstrates a great deal of poise, class and style, which I think has and will continue to help capture the nation’s attention in a positive way.”
As much as we’d like to think that everyone will be instantly enlightened, the truth is it might not have much of an immediate or noticeable impact. Two years ago, Kiri Davis, at the time a high-school student in New York, made a documentary that recreated Clark’s psychological tests of the 1940s, in which black children were asked whether they preferred a black or white doll. In the original test, the majority of kids in Clark’s sample chose the white doll. Sixty years later, Davis found the same results.
Last Christmas, I got my niece a singing Hannah Montana doll. Actually, I got her two, each belting out a different song clip because I had no idea which was most popular with the tween crowd. If I’d been so inclined, I could have purchased a sound stage and dressing room, complete with working lights.
How cool would it be if next holiday season the hot gift for little girls is the Michelle Obama doll, with a replica of the White House, complete with a husband in the Oval Office who loves a dark-skinned black woman.