Nearly 150 years later, the black community still suffers the after-effects of slavery. Colorism and sexual violence — both rampant during slavery — are commonplace even now.
Intergenerational trauma began when our African ancestors were kidnapped and brought to this country. Like most black people, I know nothing about the violence and sexual abuse they experienced during the Middle Passage and when they arrived in this country. Yet I know the horror they endured lives in my genes.
We’ve internalized the same colorism our ancestors experienced on slave plantations. Lighter-skinned slaves worked in the Big House and darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields. Black people learned early that light skin was better.
Every black woman has a story about her own family — how lighter-skinned women are considered beautiful and darker-skinned women ugly. Black women fall victim to this criticism more often than men. We’re held to a standard of beauty foreign to our African ancestry. Instead of embracing our full lips, kinky hair and ebony skin, we’re told we’re too black, our lips too big, our hair too nappy.
When I was a child, my paternal grandfather had little to do with me or my siblings. I asked my father why. He said Grandpa didn’t like dark-skinned people. That meant he didn’t love three of his four children. It also meant out of his 14 grandchildren, he only loved the three light-skinned ones. The rest of us didn’t deserve his love or attention.
My mother’s side of the family also didn’t escape colorism. One of my aunts inherited “good hair” and didn’t have to put a pressing comb to it. I inherited my dad’s thick, coarse hair. From a young age, my aunt would say how nappy my hair was as she grabbed a handful of it like I was some pet that needed grooming. The last time she did this, I was 30. She said, “Your hair is nappy like your daddy’s.” Then she yanked my hair. I must have had enough. I slapped her hand away and told her not to touch me. She never did again.
The older generations in my family didn’t escape it either. My great-aunt was born in 1903. She was dark-skinned. Yet she favored her lighter-skinned relatives. She wanted little to do with her darker ones. Her own grandchildren knew she disliked them because their skin wasn’t light. Other relatives displayed colorism too. My male cousins married white women, bashing black women for being too bossy, too angry, too black.
According to my DNA test, I am 15% Western European, Irish, English and Iberian Peninsula. I know of two biracial women in my ancestry. I suspect at least one of them was a product of rape. Black women regularly suffered sexual violence at the hands of white men. This violation of their bodies stains our reputations to this day. White men believe we are promiscuous and hypersexual. Never mind that female slaves couldn’t have rebuffed a sexual advance from a white man. If he wanted her, he would have her. She was his property.
As a black woman, I’ve encountered many white men who believe black women are “easy.” They make comments like, “I’ve heard that black women are wild in bed.” Or “You just seem so sensual.” He made this comment when we were having lunch. I was dressed casually. Or this one: “I’ve never been with a black woman. I want to know what it’s like.” This has happened countless times, like I am some kind of experiment or conquest. These men never wanted to know about me. And every black woman has these stories.
Black men saw how black women were treated by white slave owners. A white slave owner could leer and grope a black woman any time he wanted. Her body was his to do with as he pleased.
Now that’s how many black men treat black women. I’ve received unwanted attention from black men since I was 12. I was just starting to develop, and I was self-conscious about my breasts. When I walked past black men, I got whistles, asked if I had a boyfriend, if I wanted to go home with them. They would grab me and try to kiss me or touch my breasts or butt. It was terrifying.
A friend of mine relayed this story to me. It’s not unique. Her 11-year-old sister was molested by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her mother, and her mother didn’t believe her. Instead, she got angry and called her daughter “fast.” She stayed with the boyfriend for years after that. The molestation continued until her mother broke up with him for cheating with another woman.
Slavery continues to hurt us — particularly black women. Because of it, we are the least valued in our society. We are unprotected and unloved by far too many people. It’s time that changed.