on being a darkie

May 31, 2007

So, I’ve been thinking about language and the many ways we express our deeply imbued societal notions, through speech and popular colloquialisms. Specifically though, I’ve been thinking about those various instances while walking down the street in Trinidad and some random man at the side of the road hisses, “darkie” to me in a licentious tone as I walk on by. It usually brings a smile to my face these days and it’s not just nostalgic because I spend most of the year in school in the States. The contemporary usage of the word “darkie” fascinates me. Despite the scope of this blog, I am a feminist, so I believe that it is no where near as offensive as say, a man shouting, “yuh have REAL nice breasts!” (which has also happened. cringe.)

Funnily enough, it seems as though it’s not really me, or this female body that I possess, that is being objectified per se (though technically, it’s still a kind of catcall). It’s really largely attributed to the fact that I am a particular shade. While catcalls of darkie are still sexist to a certain extent; it is not reserved solely for women. Men can be darkies too. Women can also employ “darkie” towards other women. When someone says darkie to me, it’s not as overtly sexist as some other things one might say. Its contemporary usage here is also markedly different from the American “darky” (with or without a “y”) as well as the usage in other places, which is an old-termed racial slur rooted in the era of blackface and  epitomizing the negative stereotypes of dark-skinned people.

Which begs the question, are you a “darkie” because you are dark-skinned and perceived as attractive by the said individual or are you one just because of your dark skin tone? Depending on the context, the answer may fall somewhere between a combination of the two. And so I find myself contemplating the way in which the term “darkie” is used at home. I like the term darkie, in fact I am quite fond of the word itself because it is rooted entirely in skin color. But not just any skin color but a dark skin tone.

It’s more than just descriptive as well. More like a verbal sound-kiss against ebony skin. One that is not heard too often in many other places. Darkie is an offspring of the word dark and exists on the opposite end of the spectrum from “light.” It is talking specifically and entirely about a beautiful dark skin tone, in all its chocolate splendor. Especially in Trinidad, where it is frequently paired with an equally endearing qualitative adjective, “sweet.”

As in, “dat is one sweet darkie dere.” I love it. I cannot think of any other endearing descriptive term that is located entirely in a dark skin tone. “Black” people are all tones and it’s kind of a neutral term. “Darkie,” is full of warmth, at least when used by a Trini and even more complimentary when you place “sweet” before it.

I’ve had some Latinos call me a “morena,” and depending on who you ask, it either means a Dominican female, a black female from anywhere, a black Latina or any female with African ancestry mixed in there somewhere. My Trini friend studying in Brazil (who might be a few smidgens lighter than me) told me once about the Brazilian men referring to her on the street as “mocha.” I am not exactly sure if it was always positive or negative or mixed.

One term that comes to mind in correlation to “darkie” is “browning” and the two terms function differently in very distinct ways. Patricia Mohammed in her piece describes the usage of “browning” in Jamaican culture as connected to “a preference for ‘brown’ as opposed to black women or unmixed women.” Furthermore, a Trini friend who did her degree in Jamaica, complained to me once that everyone there thought that she was rolling in money only because she was “brown,” even though she was not, and this was always annoying to her. “Browning” then, functions in Jamaica as a kind of perceived socio-economic marker as well. It is class, color and status all rolled into one in a way that the term darkie is not.

The term “darkie” does not confer any particular social or economic status for the ascribed individual other than, well being a dark-skinned person. This need for a kind of induced othering (that is other than black that is), exists in many places to varying degrees. This comes as a result of slavery and the high value placed on white culture and by association, anything that was further from African-ness was closer to white and therefore better. Black was visibly other than white and therefore bad. Saying darkie is like calling attention to that which others fight to be other than.

Black Americans instituted the “paper bag test” which followed the same theory that the category of “browning” seems to allude. That is, browner is better, lighter is better, prettier, and more desirable. Probably “red-bone” in the States as it is used today particularly in urban culture is closer to “browning.” Just as Mohammed references the Buju Banton song “Love mi Browning,” in the States, the “red-bone” is almost always a desirable female of a particular shade.

She is the counterpart of the desirable brown skinned woman and the much sought after mulatta. It is interesting to note that it is always women who get color categorized the most by societal terminology. Colorism serves an important function of separating certain people from quote-on-quote ‘blackness.’ You know, if one happens to be so inclined that is. It allows people to safely attribute some ambiguous mixed heritage with just the right amount of African heritage.

In Trinidad, Aisha Khan in her piece notes that the term “Spanish” functions in that way, where “‘Spanish’ is used in part to affirm an ethnic hierarchy where ‘softened’ or ambiguous ‘African’ or ‘black’ convey and confer a higher status that modifies the perceived stronger or more clear-cut expression of ‘African’ or ‘black’ attributes.”  The thing is in the West Indies, significant amounts of people are in fact mixed.

However, what concerns me though is the ease with which we tend to steer away from an African connection as though this is bad. All these terms in effect serve as ‘ethnic modifiers’ of blackness. That is to say, this is where they are historically rooted. As though being black is something dirty, that we’d rather not be tarnished with. So let’s move away from any linkage to that. That’s kind of sad, the fact that people are so deathly afraid of being linked to blackness.

And what of the desirable dark-skinned woman one might wonder? The counterpart to the esteemed “browning,” “red-bone,” “spanish,” “dougs,” and the “red-woman.” Except for “darkie,” it’s like she doesn’t exist anywhere in the lexicon. For many young black girls, this is problematic. Color is important in lots of places apparently. We categorize it, qualify it and compartmentalize definitions of color. We rank shades and attach the appropriate social meanings that go along with them. I wouldn’t care so much about what people call me if it wasn’t all entrenched in such a painful legacy that continues to affect future generations. A legacy that is important to recognize and understand.

The fact is that slavery and colorism are directly connected to one another and we all need to recognise that. I personally don’t care about color that much other than the way it functions in particular societies and the crazy things that people see attached to a shade. Sometimes it’s funny when people say, “so-and-so is this shade so they must be that way.” It’s strange too. Like measuring the “quality” of hair. And sad. It’s only color people. As fleeting and as transient as the flesh within which it is housed. One day it will all decompose into nothingness…

The only thing I am concerned with doing here is making sure that the glorious dark-skinned hue of my ancestors and that of little black kids drowning in self-hatred is uplifted. Someone needs to shine a light on it–that color, that deep mahogany color and say, see, you are beautiful. And certainly everyone is, in their own way.

Related references: Khan, Aisha. “What is a ‘Spanish’?: Ambiguity and ‘mixed’ ethnicity in Trinidad.”

Mohammed, Patricia. “But Most of all Mi love me Browning: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired.”

Yelvington, Kevin. Trinidad Ethnicity.

2008 update: I really liked what Orlando Octave said in relation to his song “Darkie.” In an Abstract magazine interview, he noted that, “I sang about ‘Darkie’ because darkies don’t have a song. In a country like Trinidad where there are lots of red women [and they] always get the ‘rate-up’ and I just wanted to bring something for the darkie dem.”

*grin* Thanks! Speaking for all de sweet Trini darkies–I think it’s safe to say, we likey.

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6 Responses to “on being a darkie”

  1. Austin Browne Says:

    Hey just wanted to say that my dark skin (and I mean dark skin) has been my biggest asset thus far.

    I am a born and bred trini, but I think I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to travel to the extents of the globe and meet and work with all types of people. It is during these travels that I really appreciated my dark skin.

    I mean, when I go to places where blue eyes and blonde hair is the norm, I stand out like a giraffe! With everyone staring and taking pictures, I mean a real tourist attraction! It is then I appreciate my extra dark skin, prominent nose and big ole smile. It is when I have every other person rubber-necking as I glide by, I truly understand that beauty lies in difference.

  2. Lin Says:

    I found this to be a very interesting and deep piece. When I mean deep I mean you tackled the goodness as well as the bad in being called a darkie or rather linking it to the other people in the world mainly blacks who shy away from their ancestry and the whole brainwashing that slavery has done to us. I am glad to that you drew the point in Trinidad darkies are beautiful people who really stand out.

  3. Makeda Says:

    Girl! This piece wicked!

    I, too, am a darkie. And I love it!

    However, I don’t want to be exoticized the way Austin Browne enjoys. And keep in mind, it may have nothing to do with perceptions of beauty. Nonetheless, I am going to keep this post close to educate my students and company members about these dynamics in Trinidad. You covered the topic well. Thanks!

  4. Marc Hill Says:

    Hopefully we will get over it before blue and orange skinned beings start showing up on the planet.


  5. […] While the Caribbean is no less a space for some of the exact same hierarchies of beauty & desire & Eurocentric ideals, the presence of “darkie” constantly reminds me of what is possible and why I am happy that it exists as a site for considering dark skin tones attractive and lauding that. And why I’ve written about it more than once. How often is that kind of reaffirmation happening? Why not? Language is not all there is to it but it helps. If you hear you are pretty enough; you just might believe it, because it hasn’t been my experience that we draw these constructs of beauty without input from others, devoid of context and not as a result of no-end of weighing in by the media or other people, whether we want their opinions or not, unfortunately. On being a darkie. […]


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