Is Dark Skin A Sin?

10856651_826008774130194_8062477244597007895_oI am black, but [AND] comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. Song of Songs 1: 5-6

As the Executive Director for Faith in New York, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, I organize faith communities to take action for justice concerning issues that threaten the health of our communities. One of our campaigns is Live Free New York, which is a part of a national movement in which people of faith are working to end mass incarceration, gun violence, and police brutality through policy change and direct action.

Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many in the black community don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”
In the black community, we usually see colorism as regulated to beauty and dating choices, but research shows that colorism (defined as a practice of discrimination where those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin), affects educational and economic opportunities, as well as who is swept into the mass incarceration system and how long they reside there. Colorism is an implicit bias; research shows a connection between implicit bias and mass incarceration. From the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity:

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.”

The implicit bias of colorism affects prison sentences. Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. Mass incarceration is showing that we can no longer ignore colorism in our communities. What many are not aware of is that black woman of child-bearing age are one of the largest groups entering prison for the first time. While the New Jim Crow was coming through the front door and removing black men from our communities, it was going through the back door and quietly removing black women. We are unaware of the impending crisis that the incarceration of black mothers, daughters, and sisters is going to cause in our community.

As a person of faith and someone who has studied colorism for more than 15 years, I recognized that throughout American history, black skin has been deemed sinful, with false theologies such as the “curse of ham” where Genesis 9:20–27 was incorrectly interpreted to deem all people of African ancestry as eternally cursed and sinful. In the famous passage from Song of Songs, we see that most English Bibles translate the verse to state, “I am dark BUT lovely,” which is an apology for darkness, whereas the correct translation in the original Hebrew is “I am dark AND lovely,” which is not an apology but a bold declaration of beauty. This is a small change that makes a huge difference in the message the reader receives about dark skin. The implicit bias of colorism or anti-blackness is fostered through all aspects of human activity: religion, relationships, business, and politics. As a black faith leader, I struggle with the fact that although the black church has been a healing agent of justice for our community, it has also been one of the institutions that promoted colorism through historically inaccurate icons of Jesus and other religious figures that support the idolatrous notion that whiteness is next to Godliness.

As the black community grapples with the effects of incarceration on generations of black men, we now have to grapple with the incarceration of black women and the fact that colorism and the disdain for blackness is a contributing factor to who enters prison and how long they stay there. When black is deemed sinful and thus regulated to incarceration, what is the future of melanin, that powerful chemical we all possess but that blacks possess most explicitly? When even our holy books are translated and interpreted in a way that deems blackness as sinful and something to be apologized for, how can we truly say #BlackLivesMatter? If we are honest even in the black community, #BlackLivesMatter as long as they are not too dark or too poor. The research on implicit bias, colorism, and mass incarceration are all intersecting to challenge American society, but especially the black community to deal with the long-term, deeply held belief that blackness is inherently sinful. Instead of waiting for American society to absolve blackness of this imagined sin, what would it look like for the black community to stand empowered declaring that blackness doesn’t just matter but is beautiful, powerful, and worthy of freedom? Only when we stand in empowered blackness can we fight strategically and powerfully to end mass incarceration.

 

Show-Up! Show Out! A Celebration of Natural Hair!

I am currently in Saas Fee,Switzerland doing a short term Philosophy & Media program and today we looked at the work of the German Philosopher Theodor W. Adorno who speaks of “Natural Beauty” vs. “Artistic Beauty” and this reminded me of the agony many Black women have over their natural beauty. Adorno was speaking of nature vs. art and the fact that art tries to capture what is seen in nature but cannot.Many Black women have difficulty accepting their natural beauty which is unfortunate because natural beauty cannot be duplicated. As Black women we possess Mitochondrial DNA and from this DNA all of humanity was born, therefore the Black woman is closest to nature and natural beauty. Sadly, we fear and often resent our natural beauty. As the Bible says “we perish for a lack of knowledge” and as Black women we are not loving ourselves because we lack the knowledge of who we truly are. We attempt to look like everybody else yet we are the prototype of humanity, which does not mean we are better than others but it does mean we are valuable.

On Saturday July 28th I attended a fabulous event: Show Up, Show Out hosted by Imena Salon and I Love My Fro. This event was a night of fun to celebrate women with natural hair and the men who love them. The celebration was held at the fitting Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in Harlem. As I walked up the stairs of the center I saw a powerful quote about beauty from Malcolm X where he talks about true beauty or what I would call “natural beauty”.

“Love is disposition, behavior,attitude, thoughts,likes, dislikes-these things make a beautiful woman, a beautiful wife. This is the beauty that never fades.”-Malcolm X

The night included a hair show, massages, dancing, vendors, belly dancing and more. I loved seeing so many sisters in their natural beauty, confident in the crowns God gave them. See the pictures below.

   Amen! (I don’t know where the light orb came from)

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Poetry Challenge Day 30: The New Jim Crow

Today is the last day of my 30 Day Poetry Challenge! I can’t believe I am done. Today I am in Cincinnati, Ohio for the Children’s Defense Fund National Conference
which is convening thousands of child advocates, faith leaders, Social Workers, community organizers and activist to build a movement to protect children in our country. This morning at 6:00am young leaders convened outside the convention center for a time of silent reflection on African-Americans, especially young men in the prison system. What many may not know is that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and it is overwhelming inhabited Black men. Author Michelle Alexander calls this phenomena the New Jim  because many of these men were led to prison due to economic and racial circumstances. After getting out of prison most ex-offenders lose voting rights and can’t get jobs which means they are basically a separate class. The poem below was inspired by poems I read this morning that were written by young people in prison, their poems touched me and reminded me that I was born and raised in one of the 12 communities in NYC that sends the most people in the state to prison. To read my poetic reflection:

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