Title: Black history. Black present.
Took a little covid-safe vacation, but I’m back! And as always, there’s work to do, education to be had, edges to snatch, alla that. 😉Since it’s Black history month, my first IWW of February has to cover a Black hero.
I don’t know how you feel, but the big three in terms of activists, MLK, Rosa and Malcolm X, get their due (as they absolutely should – flaws and all, but that’s for another post) often – I’d much rather highlight a lesser-known, but equally important figure.
And in the spirit of IWWs, while we talk about this person who is to be revered, we GOTTA keep it a buck and mention the not-so-great things, that impacted this person’s life and the people/systems who had a part in it.
Who is this mystery person?
Imagine something for a moment, will you?
Picture being a young Black woman, in 1955, who is riding the bus home after a long day. You’re tired, maybe even hungry, but are acutely aware of your surroundings. It is the 50’s after all, and you’re sitting in the “colored” section of the bus, the back. A white woman gets on the bus after a few stops, and seeing as the white section was full, the bus driver orders you and two others in your row, to get up.
The other two women quietly get up, but not you. The bus driver is not pleased, of course.
Just as he is about to demand that you move again, a pregnant Black woman boards the bus and sits down next to you. Both of you refuse to give your seats up.
The driver, well, he isn’t having it and threatens to call the police. Neither of you budges. You paid your fare just like everyone else, why the hell should you move?
In a last-ditch effort, the driver, addressing the Black men who are sitting behind you all, questions their…manhood by not giving up their seat to the pregnant woman. The guilt trip (power trip?) works and they get up to make room for your seat-cohort in arms. She moves.
But you’re still sitting.
There are audible gasps, moans, “what’s wrong with the nigger” and “they’re going to take over if we let her get away with this” comments.” You are not moved.
The police show up and do what the police do. Terrorize. You’re kicked, several times, before being dragged off the bus flailing and screaming, by your wrists.
Does this sort of sound familiar? I bet you think I’m talking about Rosa Parks, don’t you? Nah, I’m not.
This happened to a young woman named Claudette Colvin, 9 whole months before the infamous Rosa Parks encounter.
In fact, Claudette’s experience here, is what civil rights leaders used, as the blueprint for acquiring support for Rosa. So why don’t we know about Claudette?
I’m glad you asked. First, though, let’s finish up Claudette’s story.
After being taken to jail, Claudette was booked as an adult. Which is noteworthy because she was only 15.
This, obviously, didn’t sit right with Black people in the area. Her case started to get attention and caught the eye of civil rights leaders, like MLK. Together, they raised money to cover her trial costs and to hire an attorney. It was all for naught, sadly. Claudette was still convicted of resisting arrest, violating segregation laws and disorderly conduct.
With the attention that Claudette’s case had received, civil rights leaders had a decision to make. See, they had been looking for a “face of the segregation movement” for some time now.
Claudette was perfect, wasn’t she? To a few people, yes.
But for most of the Black folks, who were in a position to decide, they leaned heavy on the “nahhh bruh.”
Claudette was too young.
Claudette was too poor.
Claudette wasn’t respectable. She was an unwed, 15-year-old, pregnant young woman. Oh, and the pregnancy was the result of rape.
Claudette was too militant.
And most importantly at the time, Claudette was too dark.
But, wasn’t it Black people who decided against using her as the face of the cause? Indeed it was.
When you look at what was said about Rosa Parks, by other Black folks, at the time – they mentioned how gentle she was (compare to Claudette being called militant). Civil rights leaders had been looking for someone respectable, who had integrity, and Rosa was just that (compare to Claudette being seen as not respectable). Though Rosa was not rich, she was seen as better off than Claudette, who was said to have lived in a shack. I can’t leave off, that Rosa was “more acceptable” because she was lighter.
So instead, Rosa, who was a powerhouse, make no mistake about it, was chosen, and we all know how that story played out. Claudette, on the other hand, was pretty much forgotten about. Despite the fact, that her actions and activism, spurred the end of Alabama bus segregation. She would be one of a few women, to testify in Browder v. Gayle, a 1956 federal suit that marked the end of segregation on public transportation.
Right about now, my kinfolk and skinfolk are reading this and are absolutely not surprised. Not even a little bit. I don’t mean in the “makes sense for that time” way either, I’m talking about the “that’s how it be” way.
Non-skinfolk, this next explanation is for you. What you read here, mostly, is a little thing we call colorism. With a touch of respectability politics and classism. I know what you’re thinking, “but, but, it was other Black people.” Yup. What’s particularly nefarious about the system of racism and white supremacy, along with the aftermath of slavery – is the psychological impact it has had. As a people, we are relentless in our quest to simply be treated right, and our seemingly neverending strength stands on the shoulders of that desire. If I haven’t said it lately, let me say it now, I am forever in awe of who we are, in spite of shit, and who we continue to be, unapologetically. I love us.
We also gotta be honest about some things though, y’all. If I’m nothing else, ima be real with ya.
That means also acknowledging that..
We are a people who have experienced and are experiencing trauma. It’s constant and damaging. One of the ways that damage manifests, is in taking on the views of our oppressors. Some of it is self-preservation and a lot of it is internalized anti-Blackness. It just is.
Like I’ve said, many, many times before – anti-Blackness and colorism are global. Across countries, borders, and lands, the Blacker you are, the lower your status in society. The history behind this is unique to each place, but here in the good ole U.S. of A., it starts with slavery.
Light-skinned women worked in the big house.
Dark-skinned women toiled the fields.
Both endured untold horrors, but a measure of worth was created here.
That “worth” was literally ingrained into so many of us. Beat into us. Raped into us.
We’ve fought it and are fighting it, but this bitch has hands. The “big house” turned into the paper bag test.
Where Black sororities, fraternities, social clubs, friend groups, etc, required the bag test as an entrance exam. Lighter than the bag? You’re good money. Darker than? Well, sorry for your luck.
Which evolved into who was deemed as an acceptable Black person, like Claudette. Or like Obama.
Just yesterday, my dad said “you know if Obama was dark-skinned, he probably never would have become president?” Although we were on the phone and he couldn’t see me, I nodded. I’ve had that conversation and seen it had countless times in intra-communal discussions. We’re all aware that played a part. We’ve seen this play out in media, where the lighter Black person or more ambiguous one is preferred. You’ve heard of whitewashing? This is its little cousin, light-skin-washing.
It plays out in which of us is seen as more desirable. It was just as true in the past as it is today. Redbone, high yella, light is right, are, for the most part, terms of endearment, from Black people to other Black people, that they find especially attractive. Particularly for women. When you try to forget this, there will be a song that comes out, or a show that sticks to the dark Black man + light Black woman romance trope, that reminds you.
If you manage to not be too concerned with all that, you’ll get a hard dose of reality when dating. You’ll be reminded of people’s preferences often, and it’ll be nothing short of sobering (if this is something you want for yourself. Not everyone does), when you find out that of the Black women who get married (I say of because we get married the least of any race), the majority of them tend to be lighter, per the stats.
Anti-Blackness, respectability politics, and Black classism, busts through like the Kool-aid man, when you see those of us who were thrown a few crumbs (looking at you Black middle class) snub their nose at their hood counterparts. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I know someone is fittin to type “not all,” no it’s not all of us, maybe not even most of us, but it’s enough of us.
In the year of Beyonce, 2021, on this February, forever known as Black history month, I want to make EVERYONE who was unaware, know about our good sis, Claudette. I also want us to pause and tackle some of the trauma that we’ve been carrying generationally. To stop using the “master’s tools” against our own. We didn’t create this mess, it’s not our fault, but we have a duty to heal, that which we are able to. A tall ass order, I know. Especially when we’re still dealing with so much, but we have to try. For the culture, for the future.
For Claudette, and all the hers of the world.
Claudette Colvin is still alive, if you were wondering. Somebody give her, her damn roses. Sis deserves it.
When JanayB isn’t posting memes, scrolling through “wokebook” posts, ordering food and otherwise being your typical millennial, you can find her here destroying white tears and basking in her unapologetic blackness. Get in touch with her at JanayBsays@gmail.com.