a thousand words

Friday, May 28, 2010


If a picture is really worth a thousand words, then Harry Reid was right.

Senator Reid said President Obama was elected in part because he was light-skinned. No one knows why he said it. Maybe he’s got Alzheimer’s. (I bet he wishes he didn't screw up that health care bill now, huh?)

Anyway, I’ve heard two reactions to this. The first is outrage: “How dare he?!” The second is a sad agreement with the notion: “It’s true but I wish it wasn’t.” At the same time, your government is asking you whether you’re Black, Negro or African American. (I have this dream where Obama gets a tan then starts talking like Snoop Dog)

Outrage and sadness aside, a look at some of the images of Black men in the media suggests why Senator Reid made the statement.

Remember OJ Simpson’s Time Magazine cover? It was darkened to make him look more “menacing.” Because, you know, a double murder wasn’t enough to scare people. OJ had sex with a white woman and killed her and this was not the act of a brown-skinned man, so they had to darken him, lest we all be awakened from our dream where everything light is good and everything dark is bad.

Tiger Woods is on the cover of Vanity Fair. His image was darkened by Annie Lebowitz but only after the sex scandal was uncovered. Because, you know, that whole out of control penis thing is the province of dark men and their animal sexuality. Tiger Woods a thug? Give me a break. But Tiger as sexual predator could not be consistent with his buttery brown appearance so he had to be darker to sell the act.

And then there’s the Christmas Day Bomber on the Newsweek cover. It doesn’t look darkened because already he’s dark enough. Imagine the confusion in the media room when they saw him. “Turn off Photoshop! We don’t need it this time.”

When it happened, your media was quick to show this unfortunate kid's face and plastered him all over creation. Not that they shouldn’t but I always find it interesting, the subtle notion that when a white person kills it’s against their nature but when a dark one kills, it’s consistent therewith.

Contrast these covers to Tim McVeigh who killed 168 people many of them children in a daycare center in 1995. The cover of Time appeared with the question, “Should He Die?” We executed McVeigh but during the trial all the media talked about was his “boyish good looks” and alluded to the inconsistencies between his appearance and his murderous act.

Hey maybe the problem is Time and Newsweek! They seem to be deceptive and obsessed with dark skin. This doesn’t explain why all the other magazines and papers do it or why sometimes the Black people on Ebony and Essence are some golden color that doesn’t exist anywhere in the human population.

Across the country in the Black community recently, there have been “light-skinned” parties. Some even pit dark-skinned women against “redbones,” a nice, colorful term (no pun intended) for mixed race women. The Black community is so protective of our dirty laundry and yet the sickness of it seems to be passed along with each generation.

A paper bag party in 2010? (It occurs to me that Barrack would get in but his wife wouldn’t.)

When Barrack Obama got into office and assembled his team, there was grumbling that all of the black people he appointed were light-skinned. I wonder what Senator Reid would think of that? “Good going Barrack, that Eric Holder looks just like Harry Belafonte.”

This notion was raised again briefly when Roland Burris accepted the Senate job in Illinois and it was widely speculated that Obama wanted Valerie Jarrett for the post. (Burris dark, Jarrett light) We should have known that the first man of color in the White House would bring all of the laundry (dirty and clean) to the job.

I’ve talked ad nauseum about the image and imagery of darkness. But for those of you who didn’t see it:

1. Our anthropological fear of the unknown is hardwired into our most basic instincts.
2. Darkness takes away the sense we are most dependent upon: sight.
3. And so we fear the darkness.
4. We assign a negative value to darkness in imagery and metaphor and ultimately,
5. The image, the personification of darkness scares us in ways both subtle and profound.

How long, people?

When are we going to evolve beyond this simple-minded and counter-productive behavior? When will we look that scared little primate in the eyes and yell, “Stop it!” And more importantly, why can’t we seem to do it? If black people, who know this is a problem, can’t get away from negative color-value assignment, then how can we hope that anyone else will do it?

Yes, Harry Reid was right. A lighter-skinned black man is perceived as more intelligent and less threatening than a dark one. He is closer to white, you see and for many, black and white, that is better. You just don’t say it out loud, Harry.

And if his manner of speech is in a cadence that is linked to darkness, it will invoke the primal fear and weigh him down and diminish his persona in the eyes of some. You just don’t say it in public, Senator.

But maybe we should. Maybe Harry Reid’s foot-in-mouth moment can be a teachable one. We keep talking about a dialogue on race but we never get to it.

The way we treat people in the media shows how we still hold to basic notions of light as good and dark as evil. That may be fine in Harry Potter and Twilight books but in life it’s a little more complicated.

In the end, it’s an equation that can only be solved by the mathematics of compassionate humanity.

And in case you haven’t been counting.

This note is exactly a thousand words.