Monday, September 10, 2012


seen on TV @ TCM

There's a book that came out in the 90s that I bought after reading an excerpt in a paper, called The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans. It deals with how differences in shades of skin color within the black community unite and separate us, in all facets of daily life. It's a problem that dates at least as far back as the slavery era, when being either a "house nigger" (light-skinned) or a "field nigger" (dark-skinned) made a huge difference in how you were treated by the master.

I spent Labor Day weekend on the beach, so right now, I'm perhaps a little bit darker than normal, but I've always had a medium-brown complexion, leaning towards the dark side. My sister is somewhat darker than me. I can't say for certain whether I've experienced any kind of color bias amongst other black people, though I don't believe I have. That seems like something I'd remember, like the very light-skinned girl in 3rd grade that I mistook for white for a long time until I discovered otherwise.

Reading The Color Complex was quite a revelation for me, but I think I may have been aware of this mentality, on some level, growing up: for example, seeing Lisa Bonet on The Cosby Show or Jasmine Guy on A Different World and how popular they became in comparison with their co-stars, or watching Michael Jackson's strange transformation from one album to the next. I may not have been able to put a name to it or why it existed, but I think I knew somehow that light-skinned blacks tended to be more prevalent in pop culture than dark-skinned ones, especially women.

In the chapter on media, The Color Complex deals with, among other elements, the trope known as the "tragic mulatta" - the light-skinned black girl who is light enough to pass for white, and can go places and do things that her darker brethren can't. As a result, she has a foot in both the white and black worlds, and this dichotomy always tends to lead to Bad Things. Stories like these were immensely popular in American literature during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The book offers speculation as to why:
One theory holds that White females, the main reading audience for romantic fiction then and now, saw the mulatta through a veil of resentment. Southern White women, in particular, had felt victimized by their husbands' raping of slave women, but, being ladies, they had had to look the other way. Stories featuring mulattas may have offered this segment of the population a way tacitly to acknowledge the unsavory history of plantation rape; but the mulatta heroines had to die tragically, lest the stories appear to sanction miscegenation. In the North, and in the South after the Civil War, the stories may have served another purpose. The mulatta represented the vanguard of a fully integrated society, and stories about her tragic downfall might have helped soothe White anxieties about unchecked mixing of the races.
The protagonist of Elia Kazan's Pinky (based on a book) is a mulatta, but her story has a more-or-less happy ending. She doesn't die, at any rate. Pinky, played by a white actress, Jeanne Crain (another issue in itself), returns to her Southern home after studying to be a nurse in the North. She moves back into the shack she grew up in with her grand-mammy, who urges her to work for an old white woman that was mean to her as a kid, but showed her grandma kindness. Pinky's parents aren't talked about much. 

The old white lady eventually dies and leaves Pinky her house, but her will gets contested in court by a distant relative on the charge that the old lady wasn't in her right mind when she wrote it - because why would a white woman bequeath property to a black woman? Also, Pinky's white boyfriend from up North shows up, wanting to marry her, but not knowing that she's bi-racial.

I've known quite a few bi-racial people in my time, which, admittedly, is quite different from 1949. I'd say the one thing they all had in common was that whether they self-identified as one race, the other or neither, it was their choice. Often, it had to do with how they were raised: for instance, I know bi-racial sisters, half black, half white, who grew up with their black mother, so they tend to identify more as black. I also know a bi-racial guy - again, half black, half white - who was raised by his white mother and is married to a white woman, and I would say that he doesn't tend to emphasize one side of his heritage over the other most of the time.

We as a society tend to notice the black side of a bi-racial person over the white side most, if not all of the time. We need only look at our president for proof. Barack Obama can't be seen any other way but black. His place in a position of power has social implications for blacks and whites alike that are impossible to ignore. Fair? No - but it's reality. Within the film world, the same could be said for Halle Berry, who, ever since her Oscar win, hasn't had as many plum roles as comparable actresses like Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore.

I wanted Pinky to realize that she didn't have to be one or the other if she didn't want to. Her boyfriend struck me as being insensitive to her situation and the old lady seemed to get off on keeping her in her place, so maybe Pinky didn't think she could be anything other than "black" in the eyes of the world. This movie is very much of its time, well-intentioned though it may be, but it's interesting from a sociological perspective, I guess.


  1. Rich, your moving, intelligent review of PINKY gave me plenty of food for thought. Growing up in New York City in the 1960s and '70s, NYC became more of a living mosaic, in both good ways and bad, the "bad" aspect being ignorant jerks. Thank goodness there decent folks are outnumbering the jerks over time, but nobody can ever take the good things for granted.

  2. Amen to that! I came up in NYC a little bit after you, but almost all throughout my childhood, I had all kinds of people as friends. To me, a "mosaic" has always been the norm.


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