In the weeks since Beyonce released her “Formation” video, several different controversial issues have come to light. Writers and politicians alike have dissected every verse of the song and accused her of everything from calling for an attack on the police, to profiting from the suffering of the Hurricane Katrina victims. Police unions have called for a boycott of her upcoming tour. Meanwhile at Red Lobster, they’ve reported a 33% boost in sales since Beyonce made reference to rewarding her man for giving her the big “O” by taking him to Red Lobster.
Out of the laundry list of issues sparked by the video, the oldest issue relates to colorism within the Black community. Specifically, the issue of the ever pervasive “light skinned” vs “dark skinned” debate.
I read an interesting article that discussed Beyonce’s verse in “Formation” about her “Creole” and “Negro” heritage. The New Orleans native author, Dr. Yaba Blay, talked about her experience being a dark skinned woman who was once intentionally excluded from a Creole wedding, because of her skin color. For Dr. Blay, Beyonce’s distinction between her “Negro” father and “Creole” mother is tantamount to a rejection of Blackness. A rejection that stems from the historically color struck city, with light skinned Creoles getting preferential treatment.
Which begs the question: How is acknowledging your true ancestry a rejection of Blackness?
Dr. Blay closes her article with a very self aware statement about how this issue isn’t about Beyonce, but about her own personal experience with colorism in New Orleans. It sounds like a very painful topic for her and I respect her transparency. Fact is that being told she wasn’t invited to her friend’s wedding because she’s too dark is deplorable. That was certainly a rejection. But how is Beyonce acknowledging the truth of her mixed ancestry a rejection of Blackness (especially when she mentions her father’s “Negro” Alabama roots)?
To be fair, I’m not from New Orleans. I was born and raised in Jamaica, but I’ve lived in America for over 20 years. Growing up in Jamaica, we had a stark division based on class, where the wealthy got better education, and better treatment because they could afford it. I grew up with that type of privilege with access to private school, helpers, and vacations to South America. My skin color was never an issue for me in Jamaica.
The first time I ever paid attention to my skin color was when we moved to Miami. That was the first time someone questioned whether my sister and I shared the same parents because her skin color is much lighter than mine and she has dark blonde hair. My response was simply that she looks like our dad (who is very light like my sister), and I look like our mom (who is brown like me).
As I got older, the desire to identify with my Jamaican background and trace my heritage grew stronger. My sister and I decided to do a DNA genealogy test. I already knew that I had Irish, Scottish, and Black ancestors, so when the test reported 66% African descent, 32% European descent, and 2% Asian descent, it was more confirmation than a surprise (well the 2% Asian was a surprise, but I digress). Yet the confirmation gave me a greater sense of self.
So you can imagine my surprise when a “friend” accused me of claiming to be “mixed Jamaican” because I didn’t want to be called “African American” or “Black.” This person viewed me identifying my birthplace as my attempt to reject any association with African Americans.
How can I claim a nationality that isn’t my own? I wasn’t even born here. And yes, I am Black. But that’s only part of my ancestry. Why shouldn’t I be free to acknowledge all of who I am? To deny that my great grandfathers were white would be a rejection. I would never deny them just like how I would never deny their Black wives, who were my great grandmothers. Frankly, my family tree is not unique. If any Black person living in the Western hemisphere were to shake their family tree hard enough, someone non-Black would fall out.
I didn’t take offense to Beyonce identifying her “Creole” and “Negro” heritage. That’s the reality of her ancestral background. Acknowledging all of who she is, both the Creole and Negro, should not be taken as a rejection of Blackness. After all, she’s telling her truth. Now if she were lying about her mother being Creole, or if she neglected to mention her father’s Negro background, then I could see the argument for rejection.
I had a real and honest conversation with my best friend, who is African American, about this controversy. We both know people who are very color struck and who further perpetuate the colorism thinking and debate about light skinned Black people getting better benefits. (As an aside, the so-called “benefits” raises another question: who is giving these benefits? But that’s a different topic). It’s sad that most of these adults then teach the same divisive thinking to their children.
We agreed on the theory that perhaps people get upset because they can’t “claim” any non-Black ancestry and thus can’t reap the benefits they think that “mixed” people have access to. It’s just a theory. But I’m curious to see if anyone is willing to look that deeply within themselves to consider it.