High on the euphoria of first-time motherhood, I remember the day I brought my newborn to the office. Colleagues surrounded the stroller 15 years ago wanting to hold my son. After dispensing the obligatory hand sanitizer, I placed him in the arms of an older Black woman I’d known for several years. Pulling back the hood on his onesie bodysuit, a look of satisfaction spread across her face as she proudly proclaimed: “He’s going to be handsome. Look at those ears.”
It’s commonly believed in the Black community that you can tell the final skin tone of a baby by the color of the tips of the ears. Whether it’s medically sound or Black folklore is less important than the need to affirm this practice, generation after generation. I was struck by the significance of that long-forgotten episode this weekend as I sat in a room of adolescent teen girls in Baltimore. Far more perceptive than I was at their age, the young ladies engaged in a rich conversation on self-esteem and the historical underpinnings that lead many of us to reject and disparage the skin we’re in.
The Flourishing Blossoms Society For Girls, Inc., a mentoring program addressing the holistic needs of its participants, is the brainchild and product of the energy of Valencia Clay. Clay, a graduate of Morgan State University, started her teaching career at a Freedom School in Baltimore where she cultivated a passion for teaching social justice. For Clay the Blossoms give her life purpose and meaning. Moving back home to New York City this summer couldn’t break the bond – she travels to Baltimore monthly to continue running the program.
Seated on a brightly colored rug in the Southwest Baltimore Charter School library, a tight-knit group of 8th-grade girls chatted excitedly with Clay on Saturday morning. On the agenda: exploring the concept of self-hatred. It was intriguing to watch each girl slowly come to recognize and accept how self-hatred operates and the subtle yet profound, insistent influences that permeate American culture allowing prejudice like colorism to take root.
Reading from the biography of Assata Shakur, Clay shared a passage from Shakur’s childhood involving a young man named Joe. Joe, with an unrequited crush, was cruelly rejected by Shakur on the basis that he was “too Black and ugly” in the estimation of her peers. The moment deeply changed Shakur – her consciousness as well as her perception of self and others. Writing about the scars of internalized racism, she reveals:
For weeks, maybe months, afterward, i was haunted by what happened that day, by the snakes that had crawled out of my mouth. The sneering hatred on his face every time i saw him after that made me know there was nothing i could do but change myself. Not for him, but for me. And i did change. After that i never said ”Black” and “ugly” in the same sentence and never thought it. Of course, i couldn’t undo all the years of self hatred and brainwashing in that short time, but it was a beginning. And although i still cared too much about what other people thought about me, i always tried hard after that to stand on my own two feet, to stand by what i felt and thought and not just be a robot. I didn’t always succeed, but I always tried like hell.
In unison the Blossoms were appalled that Shakur could be so mean to Joe, who had been so nice to her. But Clay deftly brought the topic back to them: “Have you ever had a moment when you projected your self-hatred onto someone else and didn’t know it? Have you ever seen it?”
The spark of realization was instantly apparent in all of their faces. Boys in class who tease each other for being “Black as…” but they’re just as dark-skinned as their targets. A sister who labels others girls as being “so ‘hood” but they’re from the same community. Now understanding how self-hatred presents itself, Clay transitioned into its roots with the documentary “Dark Girls,” a 2012 film examining the origins of colorism, its lineage dating back to slavery and colonialism, and how early it materializes – showing a contemporary version of the black doll experiment from the 1940s.
Skillfully integrating her own family history Clay was able to elicit spontaneous awareness in the group of Black girls about their experiences with skin tone and hair and how self-hatred manifests. In a safe space created through genuine care and trust, the one white girl in the group even shared how she always wanted the texture of Black hair. The weight of her statement resonated throughout the room. Over the course of a few hours – teaching, punctuating, clarifying, affirming, reinforcing – Clay guided the girls to see the damaging and destructive effects of colorism. She closed the day inviting them to explore through poems, itemized lists, and storytelling how they’d grown from what they learned that day.
For me, more aptly described as well-developed foliage than a Blossom, so many memories came flooding back: the times I was silent when I shouldn’t have been, the times I made assumptions I shouldn’t have, the times I subconsciously viewed proximity to whiteness as the measure of a Black woman’s beauty or status.
Maybe I wasn’t the audience, but it left me thinking and reconsidering. Thank you Ms. Clay.