might at first prove easy to do but then what do you do when it wants to—fights to, curl back up on itself?
Late last week I finished Marlon James’ incredible Book of Night Women and I’ve been thinking about some of the many things that struck me about the novel. It was an extremely riveting and visceral book to read on some levels but I got through it and I would highly recommend it to anyone. On top of which, week before last, while I was still reading it, I heard Spokenheart ( a local poet) read her stellar poem “House Nigger” at an open-mike, reflecting on the historical legacy coupled with her own experiences of being a light-skinned, pretty, black American southern girl with light eyes, grappling with all that comes with inhabiting her skin. Her words were a powerful examination of colour privilege, stereotypes, intra-racism, race, identity and the self.
Because colourism, its manifestations and perceptions and constructs of beauty fascinate me (and also makes my head & heart hurt sometimes)—the colourism in James’ book was interesting to me. Inside a slavery narrative, where fiction meets historical context in the West Indies on a Jamaica plantation estate—of course there is going to be colourism and some of its attendant intersections; but the complexities of how it is woven into this particular story and James’ own attention to interrogating some inherent constructs of said colourism was some powerful stuff. In one fell swoop, he takes The Tragic Mulatto, the “browning”—the notion of the presumed beauty of the mulatto woman, the presumed unattractiveness of the un-mixed black woman—and complicates the whole lot of them. This, on top of everything else that is taking place within that space.
Lilith, in the book, is a beautiful mulatto with tell-tale green eyes from her white overseer father. Yes, she is pretty and thinks this and knows this about herself and this is in keeping with the positive stereotyping, albeit problematic one of mixed-race folks and attractiveness, which CVT’s guest post at racialicious blows up quite nicely. Yet, not every mulatto slave in the book is presupposed to be unquestionably beautiful. James instead, renders a nuanced and complex world, filled with black, brown and half-white slave women who run the gamut in terms of personality, looks and attributes. One is “fat” and “bantam-size”, another, ”tall, meager” (67). Some are friendlier, others are not. Some are tougher than others—none are especially tragic, at least, not as the proverbial mulatto woman goes.
Still, Lilith surely feels special for a long time due to her light-skin and the beginnings of her preferential status on the plantation but ultimately, her colour privilege doesn’t save her from pain and suffering, or from the raised “quilt on her back”.
Things start to go real lef’ from early on for her.
Now, even though Lilith is conscious of the tenuousness of her colour privilege on some level (and of course she becomes a house slave), her character is not solely defined by her colour privilege, even when she moves into the great house—that is to say, the reader understands this about her—what some of the other slaves see, interpret and imagine about her colour’s stake in her own self and her own identity may be something else entirely. Then there’s Dulcimena, perplexing Lilith’s worldview, as “the prettiest Lilith ever see on a negro” (181). Furthermore,
Lilith didn’t know God portion out them kinda prettiness to negro people. Lilith perplex a little, ’cause the girl lips thick and dark and her nose flat till it disappear between her eye. She didn’t have good hair and her skin too dark. But the girl was the prettiest woman Lilith ever did see, Lilith perplex, ’cause the arrow from ugly to pretty was from black to white (181).
Lilith’s very questioning of how Dulcimena can be dark-skinned, un-mixed, unambiguously black and pretty—her very careful, internal examination of the notion, is itself a complication of such a worldview. And it’s not just Dulcey—Lilith’s mother Demeter, is later recalled as a “pretty pretty girl”, a gorgeous young black girl, who was the “most beautifullest thing ever live on this estate” (375). In an incessantly colour-coded world, rooted in slavery and colonialization, the intersections where skin shade, beauty and desirability meet, often posits Eurocentric ideals and variants of whiteness over everyone else who is not. James’ book is full of characters who subtly at times, and forcibly at others, challenge long-held societal constructs of beauty—even within the brutality of slavery and plantation life.
One then, is forced to look beyond the external: past raised scars crisscrossed on backs, past limbs mutilated and marked by torturous beatings and other terrors. Past examples made on flesh—to see the people. We see all those other things too. But physical beauty of slave women was surely relative at best, (dependent on who is doing the gaze, whether colour privilege awards her anything so to speak etc. & more etc.), and marginally fleeting at worst: ever open to the whims and mercy of overseers, planters, any whites with any semblance of clout, even the black slave-drivers. A black female slave could never be solely defined by her physicality, for it was not hers to own nor safeguard. She could never be consumed with it for it could be wrested away from her, all too easily.
Physical beauty of slave women was also complicated, as James’ text so aptly reminds me. Very often, when I think about slavery and plantation life—whenever I happen to do so and it’s not a regular practice let me tell you, my heart aches too much—I tend to think of plantation life as extremely polarized. I imagine a neat demarcation betweeen the dark-skinned field slaves, the house slaves and the sometimes lovely, hand picked house girls and women domestics, the black or mulatto chere-amie. And it’s not that I foolishly think that it’s just that simplistic but rather, I sometimes forget to give attention to the inherent complexities even within that particularly wrenching, historical space.
I have only lived in a contemporary world and it’s easy to forget that just as there are complexities here—there were at another time too. I also write about and think about constructs of beauty a lot. I have a few fixed notions about ‘beauty’ with a capital B, what that means for the women who happen to possess it, along with the connectivity between skin shade and beauty. Some of those notions I hold, admittedly, could probably be tweaked some, depending on who you ask BUT something happens to them when conflated with slavery.
Alongside all of the pain, suffering and dehumanization inside of this story rooted in history—the specter of black dark-skinned and light-skinned women’s range of beauty quivers before my eyes—snaps. Dissipates. Then it is reborn like a phoenix from its ashes. Then it’s gone again. Then it’s back. It is a shape shifter. It is undulating. It can be life ending or life affecting, or anything in between. This cannot be depended on. (Not that I have depended on it). So I know this to be true.
I could scrape my own face off with a sharp knife and my reality would not change. I could do the same with my colour, peel away the dark-hued dermis—leave my face and still, the same result applies—for me. From my vantage point, somewhere on the flip-side (of conventional beauty that is), it feels a bit like force-feeding myself to swallow, whenever I make myself contextualize these things. Marlon James’ powerful book, poignantly takes me to this place, among others.