When my sister and I were left alone, we put on my mother’s dresses, slipped on her high-heel shoes, powdered our faces, and added headscarves to pretend we had long hair. In the mirror we posed—our bony arms jutting out from the elbows above our narrow hips, lips puckered, lashes fluttering like the wings of the flying cockroaches in the cupboards. We walked like them. Talked like them. Tried on their smiles. We kissed the selves we imagined in the mirror. We wanted to be them. How beautiful they were, how graceful, how well-spoken, how fair. Their long hair. Their large, expressive eyes. Their cream-colored skin, which, apart from beauty spots and strategically placed moles, was free of blemishes.
Though they were strangers, our community seemed to love them more than they loved us. Pictures of Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe beauty queens hung everywhere. It was their faded photos that we saw printed on dated calendars at Mr. Harvey’s shop when we asked for rice and cornmeal. It was their smiles that beamed at us above the racks of liquor in bars we passed on our way from school, where old drunks bickered about politics and women—”Dat coolie one ‘dere in di wet see-through JAMAICA shirt g’wan be me wife! Mark my word!”
Their lives existed far away from ours in a world beyond Kingston 8—worlds beyond Constant Spring and Hope Road. Their worlds existed on hills that seemed to touch the clouds. At night, the lights on those hills blinked like stars, mocking us for living in the pressure-cooked alleys of Kingston, the ugly trenches. They seemed to have it easy, never once having to think about disguising their blackness or growing their hair. They woke up that way. Went to bed that way. Sometimes we spotted them in public. They stood out among the dark black faces like beautiful red hibiscus flowers among weeds.
THEY WOKE UP THAT WAY. WENT TO BED THAT WAY…. THEY STOOD OUT AMONG THE DARK BLACK FACES, LIKE BEAUTIFUL RED HIBISCUS FLOWERS AMONG WEEDS.
The solution first appeared in hushed whispers throughout the school compound. Dark-skinned girls flocked to the restroom on the fifth-form block. “Yuh see how Lola face look clear an’ pretty? Is bleaching cream do it!” The other girls listened reverentially, as though what they heard would somehow answer a lifelong prayer.
Denorah, one of the few other girls at my school from a working-class family, had discovered Nadinola. She stole a jar from her mother, who rubbed it on her knees and elbows, blackened from years of scrubbing other people’s houses. She hid it inside her frayed backpack and when she came to school revealed it to us. That was the year that Buju Banton, a renowned Jamaican dancehall and reggae artist, came out with the smash hit “Brownin”—a song that expressed his love for lighter-skinned women. “Me love me car, me love me bike, me love me money an’ ti’ng, but most of all me love me brownin!” What would happen if we used Nadinola for extended periods of time? Would we be invited to sit among the lighter girls at lunch? Would the boys who liked them like us too? Visions of Miss Jamaica flashed across our minds.
It began as innocent curiosity, but as we saw the attention the so-called brownins were getting, our motivation shifted. We had stepped inside an open wound, a painful history fraught with yearning—a yearning that our adolescent minds were only able to understand as vanity. We began to fear the sun. In their fine print, the creams advised avoiding it. But it was the bold warnings of our elders that stuck with us—”Stay outta di sun or else yuh g’wan get blacker!” They were trying to protect us from something we only vaguely understood. Many of us were too busy being children to acquiesce, too innocent to realize that our bodies were exposed wounds; our flesh, the perpetual shame.
IT WAS SO OVERWHELMING, SO DEEP, AS IF THE ONE REDEEMING QUALITY SHE SAW IN HER CHILDREN WAS THE LIGHTNESS OF HER PEOPLE’S SKIN.
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One day, I asked my mother why she chose a dark-skinned man like herself. I was 11 years old and had already begun to infuse the birds and the bees with my knowledge of color and class. I was beginning to realize that there was no way I could look like Miss Jamaica World/Universe Sandra Foster or Lisa Hanna with just bleaching creams and hair extensions, and I thought that my parents were to blame. I envied the popular girls at school whose parents bequeathed looks from indentured ancestors on the island—unique blends that made them desirable as our future beauty queens. My mother did not reprimand me that day, though her disappointment was as thick as grief. She sat down a bit too heavy on a chair on the veranda, slumped in what appeared to be a dilemma. “We made you beautiful,” she told me.
When I told my mother that I didn’t think I was pretty like the beauty queens, she reassured me. “Of course you are! Yuh much lighter than me and yuh father. Yuh tek after di Brooks. Di Indian side. You an’ yuh brother an’ sistah have dat going fah ‘oonuh. Fi ‘oonuh skin cool an’ pretty.” I was aware of the regret in her voice, like the sound of a plucked guitar string. It was so overwhelming, so deep, as if the one redeeming quality she saw in her children was the lightness of her people’s skin.
WHEN I TOLD MY MOTHER THAT I DIDN’T THINK I WAS PRETTY LIKE THE BEAUTY QUEENS, SHE REASSURED ME. “OF COURSE YOU ARE! YUH MUCH LIGHTER THAN ME AND YUH FATHER.”
In 1995, after years of believing that all Jamaican fashion models and beauty queens were light-skinned, a woman named Lois Samuels took the modeling industry by storm. Her dark, sculpted face was everywhere—from Calvin Klein CK One ads to the cover of Vogue. She was also spotted on runways, walking for Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior, and a plethora of big-name designers, sheathed in silks and fur and glittering diamonds.
Lois Samuels, who was born and raised in St. Elizabeth—a working-class place not many Jamaicans would have imagined our next internationally acclaimed beauty would come from—was often compared to Grace Jones, another dark-skinned Jamaican beauty from Spanish Town. Both hailed from gritty Jamaican cities that were worlds away from the cool hills of upper St. Andrew, home of the traditional brownin beauty queens.
Though their stars shone bright outside of Jamaica, the Jamaican masses barely knew who Lois Samuels and Grace Jones were. Yes, there was a huge billboard of Lois Samuels’ beautiful face at Pulse International Modeling Agency’s headquarters on Trafalgar Road; and yes, Grace Jones snarled at us from the silver screen in Boomerang and the James Bond movie A View to a Kill—but these two women were never introduced into Jamaican mainstream society. America and Europe embraced them, gave them what we as a country never gave our dark girls—affirmation.
Two more girls were crowned Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe last year. Like most of the other girls before them, they were fair. The reigning Miss Jamaica World has dreadlocks, something that people who point to Jamaica’s motto—”Out of Many One People”—use as an example of a progressive, inclusive culture. I thought back to my sister and me prancing in front of the mirror. It wasn’t the hair so much that awed us, but the package of beauty sold to us, wrapped much lighter than the proverbial brown paper bag. Lost in our reverie, we worshipped that ideal.
I left Jamaica when I was 17 years old to attend college in New York, where my father also resided. The experience of leaving Jamaica behind, of leaving the complexionism and classism, was a great relief. But I was warned by my father about the other dragon of a complex awaiting me in America. “America is racist,” he warned the second I greeted him at JFK airport. On our long drive from Queens to Long Island, he listed neighborhoods I should avoid, neighborhoods where he constantly got pulled over even though he was dropping off passengers from his cab. He told me to be careful and that I should be wary of white people. “They see you as black no matter what you do.” My first thought was, “What could be worse than living in a place where I felt oppressed by my own people?” I was excited to be in my new country, feeling free for the first time.
But I was later shocked to find that in America it doesn’t matter what shade of black you are—that here, the one-drop rule is taken seriously. Racism trumped class and complexion. I became black in America. The realization drove me to reevaluate what I once valued. It was this change, this shift, that made me more conscious of myself and of the ways in which we—no matter who we are and where we’re from—dismiss each other because of our perceived differences on the surface.
It was while living with a group of conscious black American women in college that I was introduced to the “black is beautiful” concept. The young women wore their hair natural in Afros and dreadlocks with not an ounce of lightening makeup. Around that time Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill were making waves in the music industry and in popular culture, boldly Afrocentric with their natural hair and head wraps, and a dreadlocked songstress named India Arie came out with her hit single “Brown Skin”—an instant anthem for black love. I started to grow my hair natural and spoke openly about colorism. Of course, my family regarded it as unusual. So unusual that my grandmother, who was taught that there is a perpetual war between God and Satan, thought I was possessed. My sister, on the other hand, watched from a safe distance, in awe of my defiance.
I WILL ALWAYS WONDER WHY IT TOOK ME SO LONG TO SEE MY OWN BEAUTY.
Acknowledging my own beauty is new to me. It took many years for me to unpack my own internalized prejudice. For the first few years in college, my lovers merged into a type: women with loose curls, caramel-hued skin, and amber eyes. “You’re beautiful,” I’d tell them, a memory reel going through my head of the days when beauty looked like them, not me.
I will always wonder why it took me so long to see my own beauty. I proudly examine my familiar dark-brown eyes, my brown skin, my high cheekbones, the unrelenting dreadlocks I let grow in rebellion against everything I had ever felt, against all restraints. Then I remember the Jamaican vendor on Flatbush Avenue who threatened to erase all that pride by attempting to sell me bleaching cream last summer. “Yuh could use a likkle skin lightening,” she said, holding up the jar to my face. “Why do you think I need it?” I asked, offended. “I’m perfectly fine.” She must have picked up on the sternness in my voice, because she lowered the jar, still managing to hold my gaze. “But who want to be black in dis place?” she said, echoing the sentiments I’d heard back home. The only difference was the pity I felt for her. I wanted to cry for her. She was older than I was, maybe in her forties or fifties, her face bleached to an unnaturally pale color. If only she knew her beauty—that nothing needed to be added or taken away from it. But I cannot criticize her for being ignorant or superficial, since none of it is her fault. I saw my old self in her, fleeting like an image caught in a mirror inside another room. I was given the privilege of going away to a college with a handful of conscious, educated blacks empowered to fight against internalized oppression. She was not. Our history hasn’t permitted us to see beauty in ourselves, much less each other. The self-loathing is as deep and weighted as the fear-stricken voices of our elders that seemed to have blown across the Atlantic Ocean and risen above the hustle and bustle of Flatbush Avenue—”Stay outta di sun or else yuh g’wan get blacker!”
Presently, if I were to find myself sitting in my old childhood living room with Sandra Foster’s image hanging over my head, or back on the school compound where the popular brownins distanced themselves from the rest of us, none of it would have the same power it once had over me—the power to make me feel ugly.
Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of the forthcoming novel Here Comes the Sun