For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told “you’re pretty for a darkskin girl”. Make no mistake, that there is no compliment in these words. As if Black beauty must be light, with green eyes and soft hair. It took me years to appreciate my skin. Sometimes, I still struggle to do so. I have suffered years of unsolicited verbal and physical trauma from my skin tone, and what I used to call a curse is somehow becoming a blessing, granting me a higher knowing and growing love for myself.
However, this journey to self-acceptance has not been easy. There are a few moments I can recall in my childhood and early teenage years when I was made to feel uncomfortable and ugly, even though no one said it directly (eventually they did).
My Aunts are “yellow bones” from the south. I never took note that all my uncles are dark and their wives are light or that it even mattered, until someone I love the most told me otherwise. One summer in July, when I was about 6 or 7 years old and was helping my eldest great aunt clean her house. My mother bought me a bright yellow top and I adored it, thinking I looked like the sun. While I scrubbed the floors of her old house she said, “Whew child, you’re so dark,” and make a frown as if to say what a shame. Going on about her cleaning as if nothing happened, I felt hollow, like someone had knocked my being from inside of me. I swallowed hard and my eyes hung low to the floor, staring at my skinny black hands on the tile. I thought I was beautiful, much like the sun – to her I was not.
A few years later, my mother and grandmother made the decision to send me to The Shipley School, just west of Philadelphia city limits, one of the most prestigious private schools in the area. This is the place that told me I was different and did not quite belong. This is where I understood that I was not only Black, but also dark. More importantly, this is where I learned what my skin tone meant in a place and country that did not love those who looked like me.
In the fifth grade, I met Alexandria, one of the few other Black students I had met at Shipley at that point. I had been the only Black child in my class from Kindergarten to the fourth grade, so I was ecstatic to have a friend who looked like me. But the fact of the matter is, Alexandria looked different from me. She was lightskin, tall, and had long soft curly hair and hazel eyes. I remember she straightened her hair one day, and she looked like Pocahontas. I told her she looked beautiful and wished my hair would look like hers. Another Black girl in class, Aja, told me, “Courtney, you’re never going to look like that. Alexandria has good hair and you don’t. You’re Black.” The words stung, hitting the back of my throat and settling in my stomach. I felt small, unworthy, and ugly. As if the way I looked was not beautiful. As if Aja didn’t look just like me.
Upon entering middle school, the age of social media arose. I joined Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat just like any other tween. The elevation of light skin Black women in pop culture conjoined with the social media disparagement of dark skin. I read some truly repulsive things about highly melanated Black women, and to my surprise it was often from within the Black community. I constantly saw posts and pictures praising mixed or fair skin women, while constantly belittling and degrading dark skin women. I would often wonder how internalized hatred could run so deep. The hate even seeped into me. Foolishly, I began to hide away from the sun that I loved so much. I began obsessively wearing sunscreen and even looking at home remedies to lighten up a bit. I believed what history told me: dark skin women are worthless, and we are not feminine or worthy of humanity and love.
Though the time that stung the most was when I was about fourteen years old. Attending the Shipley School caused me to develop somewhat of an identity crisis and crippling self-esteem. This resulted in spending many of my lunch periods alone, in the library, or with my advisor, away from the Black and white kids who teased me.
I remember walking past our computer lounge, a common hangout spot for the few Black students at Shipley. I didn’t have access to a printer at home, so I decided to print out a few of my assignments. While logging on to the computer, I heard some of the girls and boys basketball teams getting into a debate about skin tone. While I don’t remember the details of the conversation, I do remember hearing, “Yeah, I’m not black like Courtney”.
I remember feeling shocked, as if something had fallen into the pit of my stomach. Having a chronically disabled mother, being low income, and feeling socially ostracized (not to mention sucking at sports, which most of the Black students had earned a scholarship for), I often times felt lonely and depressed. I still grieve for that girl sometimes. Looking back, the student who said that to my face was quite dark; perhaps even darker than I was. Though I adored his skintone (maybe even a small crush), he felt the need to ridicule mine, as if being dark was disgusting or a sin. It felt like my heart had finally broke. What hurts the most about this memory is that my own peers – who were just like me, and were in a school where they didn’t belong – felt the need to tear me down to feed their own anti-blackness and self-hatred. This was one the first of many times a Black man told me I wasn’t beautiful enough. I started to believe it.
Despite these traumas, and the feelings of lonely and unworthiness, I turned to music to help cope with my feelings of low self-esteem. My mother kept me in dance school for much of my life, where I was taught by Black women and surrounded by Black girls. Ms. Banks, my dance teacher, used to play Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and Chaka Khan. This is the place I learned about soul music, art, and the vast culture Black people have. Dance school became my safe haven, where there were Black girls of every shade, and it didn’t matter what we looked like; we just loved music, and we loved to dance.
I do remember one childhood memory in the old, dusty, and small dance studio above a diner on Germantown Avenue. One day, Ms. Banks dusted off the old record player, and soon Denice Williams’ “Black Butterfly” played. She said to us, “Do you know why we’re dancing to this song?” We stood, with Denice Williams as a soft hum in the background. A girl in my class, Imani answered, “Because we are Black butterflies.” “Exactly!” said Ms. Banks. She began to pass out our costumes, each the brown of our skin tone with wings and sparkles to match. Looking in the mirror, I felt beautiful and seen.
About a year ago, I was walking in the mall and ran into a close dance friend of mine Imani. It had been about fifteen years since I, now in my early twenties, had seen her, but when she introduced herself I broke into a smile, remembering all the laughs and the love I felt in that dance studio when we were little girls. I teared up when she gave me a big hug and saw that same gap tooth smile from when we were six and seven; she was one of my first friends. Seeing her reminded me that I am pretty, I am smart, and I have something to offer this world.
It’s been years since I’ve seen that old dance studio, or Miss Banks, but I’ll never forget how I felt that day. Even though I continue to hear slurs towards darkskin women, I think fondly of that day and that dance studio, Imani, and the old soul songs that played on the record player.
One thing I know for sure; only Black women can love Black women the way we need to be loved. Only our self definitions will be most true.
My story is my own, but it’s not unique. There’s a long road to loving yourself when you’re Black, and even longer as a dark skin Black woman. I’m learning what it means to find love within myself. I am glad to see that the culture has made progress, but there’s still work to be done. We need more Lupitas, Violas and Michelle Obamas to affirm the worthiness of young, dark girls in world that often tells us we are nothing. You must seek out the good, and you have to be the good in a country that values European beauty. Black and beautiful are synonymous. We come in all shades, and you need all the colors to make a portrait.
Courtney Patterson is from the Overbrook Park section of West Philadelphia. She graduated from The Shipley School in 2017 and is a current senior at Furman University where she is majoring in Politics and International Affairs with a minor in African Diaspora Cultures. She self-identifies as Black, womanist, sister, auntie, warrior, and poet. She plans to take a gap year to focus on writing before attending graduate school.