The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Free From Tired Old Beauty Standards
Imani Doumbia
headshot

From the time I entered kindergarten I felt different. The girls that surrounded me had long, flowing straight hair and long eyelashes. Their skin was light and their lips were pink like the Disney Channel stars. They also resembled the blue-eyed and blonde-haired dolls I played with.

My skin and eyes were dark like the night. My hair was too short, too nappy, and broke too many combs to be worn naturally, so I kept it in cornrows.

Everyone in my family is a variation of brown; some are extremely light, and others are what we call blue black. At home we’d say the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I assumed everyone else felt the same way.

The first time I felt subordinate to someone with lighter skin was when I was in 2nd grade. The teacher led a discussion about slavery, which we read about in a book called If You Lived When There Was Slavery In America. I was the only dark-skinned person in the class, so all eyes turned toward me.

The teacher went on to explain how people of darker pigmentations were mistreated. An auburn-haired Puerto Rican girl excitedly raised a caramel-toned hand. “Maybe Imani should be a slave because she’s so black.” This comment received claps and giggles from my other classmates. I wanted the ground to swallow me whole.

The teacher, a white woman, stifled a laugh and tried to quiet the class to no avail. I sank lower and lower into my seat as the hysterics paralyzed me. I never said a word, but tears streamed down my small face.

Later that night when I went home, I did my usual routine of going into the kitchen to see what my mother and grandmother were whipping up and tell them about my day. They immediately noticed my crestfallen demeanor.

“What’s the matter baby?” my grandmother asked. Her tender, fair-skinned hand stroked my face. My mother studied me. I knew that if I said anything, these two women would turn the school upside down and all hell would break loose, so I decided against confiding in them. It was bad enough being labeled slave girl; I didn’t want to be thought of as a snitch too.

I looked to the floor as if it had all the answers to my problems. I could feel their eyes boring into me. “Everything’s fine, Grandma, I’m just a little tired.” I could tell neither woman believed me. My mother opened her mouth to call me out on my lie but my grandmother’s raised hand silenced her. I pleaded to her with my eyes asking to leave the kitchen, which suddenly felt too crowded for three people. She nodded and I left the room with a huge sigh.

Bullied for Being Dark-Skinned

A few weeks later, the same girl and her group of friends cornered me while I sat alone at the weeping willow tree planted by students from my school. I had no friends; no one wanted to be friends with the slave girl. The tree had become my sanctuary.

“Chica, why are you so dirty?” the girl asked. “If you scrub really hard all the black will come off and then you’ll be pretty like me.” Her friend chimed in: “My mami says bleach is used to clean filthy things. You should buy some and take a bath in it so that the black will melt away.”

They all hugged and patted each other on their backs, commending themselves for their act of kindness. They actually thought they were helping me with their advice! I waited until they left to cry. As I watched their retreating backs, I leaned into the strong trunk of the tree. I had lost the fight and my pride; we all knew I wouldn’t do anything to fight back. The tears began to fall.

I began to hate being black. I felt like my people were weak. I was embarrassed by slavery. I couldn’t understand why all the slaves didn’t just say no to working. I didn’t understand that they didn’t have a choice.

I didn’t want to be called slave girl anymore. I didn’t want to be black anymore. I asked God, what was the terrible act that I committed to be cursed with this skin? My grandmother, mother, and sister are all lighter than me. I thought that I looked burnt, like a cookie that was left in the oven too long.

That night I went home and scrubbed my skin until it felt raw. I told God that I’d do anything to wake up lighter the next morning. I cried myself to sleep and when I woke I thought I looked darker than ever.

Throughout the remainder of 2nd grade, the girls continued to call me blackie and slave girl. I started feeling depressed. My grades began to fall and I didn’t talk a lot, even at home. My mother could sense my unhappiness, even though I never told her about the bullying. So she decided to put me in a different school.

Head High, Spirits Lifted

image by YC-Art Dept

I was determined to start 3rd grade with a clean slate. My motto was “new school, new me.” I wanted to leave the slave girl behind.

In honor of the new school year, I convinced my mom to buy me cherry-flavored lip gloss. It didn’t have actual color; it just made my lips extra shiny. It was similar to how the grease from my aunt’s fried chicken left them gleaming. In my mind, glossy lips made up for the atrocity otherwise known as my dark skin. I walked into my new school with my head high, lips sparkling, and spirits lifted.

When I stepped into the classroom, I felt that all eyes were on me. I nervously stood by the door, waiting to bolt the second I heard the words “slave girl.” I folded and unfolded my clammy palms. The teacher looked up from her desk and smiled warmly. She marked me as present and told me to find a seat. All the other kids were seated in groups talking and laughing. I noticed there were a lot of black kids.

“Hey! Sit with us!” called out a light-skinned black girl. I let out a huge breath that I hadn’t realized I had been holding in. I made my way to her table. She was sitting with another girl and a boy; both were light-skinned. I sat down in the empty chair and the other girl immediately said, “I’m Tyra and I think you’re pretty.” I smiled and it was then that I knew that my experience at this school would be different. I made a lot of new friends and was happy. No one bothered me about my skin.

Making My Move

By 6th grade, I was a social butterfly. I floated from group to group and everyone liked me. There was one boy I was attracted to. He was tall for his age, dark-skinned, and handsome. One day after school we did our usual routine of going to the pizza shop to eat and do homework. I decided that it was time to make my move. I reached across the table and said, “I think you’re cute, and I like you a lot.”

He sat back in his chair and ran his fingers through his hair. He looked down at the math problem we were working on. With his eyes still on the fraction, he said, “I like you too, as a friend.” I asked him why and he said, “You’re really cool, but I don’t wife dark-skin girls. Sorry.”

We continued our homework in silence. My heart was crushed! It didn’t make sense to me that a boy the same color as me didn’t want to have a relationship because of our shared pigment. I was confused, angry, and hurt, and I began to grow insecure again.

By 7th grade, it seemed like all of my friends had boyfriends and were sharing stories about their first kisses. I fell into the background of their raucous chatter. I felt excluded. I was no longer a social butterfly. I didn’t talk much and spent most of my time in the library.

Reading About Myself

One day, while browsing through the sea of books in the library, I picked up The Skin I’m In. The dark, almond-shaped eyes of the girl on the cover peered back at me. The photo of the girl was in black and white, but I could tell she was just as dark as me. Sinking into a chair, I opened the book and began to read.

I felt like the author, Sharon G. Flake, had written a story about my life. The main character, Maleeka, was picked on in school, boys didn’t like her, and she didn’t like herself, all because of her skin tone.

As I dove deeper into the novel, I began to form a connection with Maleeka. By the end, Maleeka had stood up to her tormentors and lost any doubt that she had in herself. With support, she was able to find peace with her dark skin.

Hope blossomed in me that maybe I would be able to embrace my skin color as she did. I read the book over and over, memorizing lines like, “Gotta realize that all you are is all you got.” My feelings of self-hatred started to dissipate. And as my spirits lifted, so did my confidence. That year, I got my first boyfriend.

As I continued to grow older, I began to realize that my skin color did not define me. Later that year, the movie Twelve Years a Slave came out. My mother kept commenting on how pretty Lupita Nyong’o, the actress who played Patsey is, and how similar our complexions are.

The media began focusing on Lupita’s very dark skin and marveling at her beauty. She was featured on the cover of a lot of magazines. I think her exposure shifted our culture’s definition of beauty.

Lupita began making speeches and doing interviews about what it was like for her growing up and how she too didn’t like her dark skin. I became obsessed with her and followed her on all of my social media accounts. I realized that I wasn’t alone: Lupita showed me that I could be seen as beautiful. I began to fall in love with the rich chocolate hue of my skin. I fell in love with the kinks in my hair and the fullness of my lips. My self captivated me. The idea of embracing all that I was persecuted for electrified me.

I hope that one day, young black girls aren’t bullied because of their skin color. Starting with this story, I hope to be someone else’s Lupita, and to start claiming the word “dark” as a word that describes beauty. I may not be a famous movie star, and there will always be negative comments, but I am a strong, confident, beautiful, dark, African-American woman.

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(NYC-2016-03-12)

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