Hey there, Reader! Do you have any idea what this is? No, no. Not the white fluffy stuff. That’s easy. We all know that’s cotton. I’m talking about the big wooden thing it’s sitting in. I’ll give you three attempts before I tell you.
That, folks, is Eli Whitney’s cotton gin…or a replica of it, at least. Did you know that just before this invention, slavery was on its way to being phased out in the South because it had become so unprofitable to grow and harvest cotton? The overhead cost of housing and feeding slaves was blowing cotton planter’s margins so abysmally that they nearly gave up on the enterprise! But then came Eli Whitney (and his Black apprentice too) with his witty invention that separated cotton fibers from their seeds and *POOF!*, Black people found themselves in bondage for another hundred years!
Most White folk don’t use cotton gins any more, seeing as there aren’t that many cotton plantations dotting this country’s landscape. The once useful cotton gin – this innovative tool that tied Black folk in bondage – has become a relic of the past. That’s what White people do: they develop tools and discard them when they have no more use.
That’s what they did with colorism.
We all know colorism was a tool used on the plantations to create social hierarchies that would pre-determine what benefits every person of color would receive. At one point in time, there were about 285 designations of Black color based on pigmentation, hair type and features, as well as accompanying tests to determine where an individual fit in the spectrum. Some of the more famous ones are the “brown paper bag” and the “pencil” tests. Colorism, just like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, was yet another effective tool that the white ruling class used to keep Black people in bondage. But they don’t need it anymore so guess what? It became too became a relic.
Oh, please. Make no mistake. To the average Caucasian of a certain age Black is Black is Black. I work with a particular (white) gentleman named Will* who routinely calls my other (black) co-workers by wrong names. He is always quick to apologize.
“I’m sorry so!” he said with a chuckle once during a break. “It’s just that Mark and Kevin look so much alike!”
I snorted in contempt, replying “What are you talking about Will? Mark is four shades darker than Kevin, and Kevin was a bodybuilder. Even their frames are completely different!”
“Well,” he went on the explain, “to the average white man like me, they look pretty much the same…”
And THAT folks is how Mark could do the crime and Kevin could end up doing the crime. The idiotic nature of his view aside, Will unwittingly revealed something about how people who are not black see blackness: and that is that it is universal. It’s just “Black”. And why should it not be? After all, whiteness comes in peaches n’ cream, chalk and olive, but it still has the ‘benefit’ of being just plain ol’ white skin. There is no more stigma to having a creamy complexion than there is to having a copper colored one. This dynamic does not exist in the Black community, and I’m here to say it needs to!
My Twitter timeline has been alight for the last few days about a little girl named Zendaya. Zendaya Coleman is a Disney star: she sings, acts dances – you get the picture. Zendaya has also been tapped to play Aaliyah in an upcoming Lifetime biopic. This has certain Black folk – who are still stuck with a plantation mentality – very angry indeed. They say Zendaya is “too light” or “not black enough” to play Aaliyah.
This is where it gets complicated and really political. This is Zendaya’s dad. He’s about as dark as my dad, which is pretty darn dark. Zendaya is biracial – her mom is white. It is no fault of Zendaya’s that she was not born darker. She’s half black, and according to what society has been telling us for years, that makes her “all” black. However, because she is not an “acceptable” shade of black, she is unfit to play Aaliyah (God rest her soul). Looking at these two pictures of the pair side-by-side, I’d say she’s an afternoon in the sun away from matching Aaliyah’s complexion.
But who cares? Seriously! Is this something to be miffed about? Zendaya has the talent to play the role, so why are some factions so eager to keep her from an opportunity based on the circumstances of her birth? Isn’t that what the whole Civil Rights/Lunch Counter/Bloody Sunday thing supposed to be about? So that mainstream society would judge us based on our abilities and not on the color of our skin? Why are we still holding on to relics from the past that our former oppressors themselves not only no longer use, but don’t even recognize?
On a certain level, I get it. Hollywood has long used lighter skinned Black people as the standard of “good enough” in marketing and film-making. I had a lengthy discussion with a friend about this last night, who is herself very light skinned. She was incensed. She talked about how hard it is for black women beyond “this” shade of brown to get any major roles, and that light skin is the only Black face white Americans feel comfortable seeing on screen and in print.
“That may all well be true, but we’re the ones with the power to change that, and we haven’t,” I pointed out.
Any one of our top producers and directors could have chosen to make an Aaliyah biopic and cast Keke Palmer (which would be absurd) or Raven Symone (even more preposterous) who both have the benefit of being born to two black parents to satisfy this ridiculous self-hatred that pervades our culture.
So there you have it: Zendaya can’t play Aaliyah because deep down inside, despite all of our progress, some Black people would still really rather be picking cotton.
Be honest: does Zendaya’s mized race heritage make her unsuitable to play the tragically departed singer? Halle Berry is biracial, but her skin is darker than Zendaya’s. If Ms. Coleman had been born “darker” would it make casting her in this role “better”? Are there larger political implications of a mixed race girl playing a Black girl that I’m ignoring? Just raise your hand if you think the whole thing is just asinine. Discuss ↓