By Tafi Mhaka
I can remember getting up to no good with other kids in the dusty township I grew up in. Everyone in my life happened to be black. So being a black person felt normal. It felt like the only thing I could be in my small and isolated environment.
It felt great. I was happy. I loved my community. But things changed later on. I began to question things. Being black did not seem as straightforward as I had imagined it to be. I did not understand what it really meant to be a black person and what defined our likeness.
My mother had a short fuse. I remember that clearly. So any time my friends and I painted our faces, arms and legs white with sand, and pretended to be white people for an afternoon, my mother got really mad at us for dirtying our clothes. I can’t recall who introduced this activity to us but I do remember many kids in the township loved doing this sort of thing.
Young as I was (I was four or five years old), I had limited personal interactions with white people. I encountered white priests and bishops at the Anglican Church my family and I attended on Sundays, and my favorite actors and singers happened to be white, so white people fascinated me a lot. I found white skin and hair intriguing. I enjoyed listening to white people speaking in English – and laughed when they addressed my friends and I in our mother tongue.
But I realised white people did not live in the townships. They lived in the suburbs somewhere. So I began to understand the otherness of being white. I began to associate all things English and white with a status foreign to us in the township.
I remember hearing nasty rumours about people who had irreparably damaged their skins after applying skin-lightening creams to their black faces. I began to see so many ladies whose cheeks had been scarred by dubious facial creams. I could see and sense the discomfort they felt whenever I stared at them at the bus terminus in town. I did not mean to stare, but felt I had to.
The light-skin movement had also made it to TV by the time I was seven or eight years old. I hated Grace Jones. I did not like her dark chocolate-like look. I liked the light-skinned and picture-perfect models I saw in hair and beauty advertisements. That really was black beauty at its very best for me.
But I began to question the whole idea of blackness when Michael Jackson changed his look. I remember asking myself: ‘Why would he want to change his black nose and lighten his skin?’
We all loved the Jackson Five. We loved their big Afros and big noses. We adored their groovy dance moves and uptempo songs. They made us proud to be young black kids. We all yearned to be like Michael Jackson. Randy and Tito may have had that swagger as well, but MJ was our man.
So MJ looked so bad after surgery. I felt awful. He looked a pale shadow of the young black entertainer from Gary, Indiana, whom we had grown to love. I felt like my blackness had been skinned off as well. I reckoned he had sold his soul and left me soulless in the process.
Marjory happened to be the other big revelation in my life. My late niece got a job working as an au pair in America when she was in her early 20s. Her departure for the USA was a really a big thing for us.
She started sending us postcards and photographs of herself after she had settled down and had money to spare. Her skin appeared lighter and smoother than usual in the photographs she sent us.
The joy and happiness over her facial transformation filled us with so much pride. Our flesh and blood had made it in America. She had that gleaming look of success and happiness. That was all we needed to see.
I also remember the many crude jokes, twisted facts and racist innuendo about dark-skinned Africans, like thinking dark-skinned people lived in mosquito-infested and bushy rural areas or came from supposedly poor and underdeveloped places like Malawi or Tanzania.
Whenever the main news bulletin of the day carried a report about Sudan or Uganda, we would laugh at the sight of dark-skinned Africans who looked like Manute Bol, a tall NBA player, who was from Sudan; and we would ask ourselves: “How could these people be so dark and ugly?”
I cannot say things have changed much in 2017. Babies are, for the most part, described as cute, if they are light in complexion. Africans shun Sudanese models, like Alek Wek, who have done well in Europe and America.
Light-skinned models and actors still get the best roles in advertisements and sitcoms in Africa. And we, black people, consider being dark-skinned a stain on our image.
Beyoncé has bleached her skin. So has Rihanna. The fair and lovely or yellow-bone look remains the desirable standard for black women.
And, since we love to whitewash our black insecurities in pricey capitalist knick-knacks, or sell our souls to the highest bidders in town, reclaiming our black souls might be impossible in all honesty.