In the Castle of Our Skins: Darkies, Brownings and Red Woman

By: Tanya Marie WilliamsDarkies, Brownings and Red Woman: Female Desirability and Skin Color in the Caribbean

By: soyluv (Soyini Ayanna)

The proliferation of “darkie” to describe women of a dark skin tone in Trinidad and Tobago is a fascinating and complicated space within which to explore. Though “darkie” and its popular conflation with “sweet” may exist as catcalls alongside a sout [1], frequently proclaimed by men to dark-skinned women out in the street or elsewhere, this term is not solely reserved for females. Men can and are categorically defined as “sweet darkies” too. Most importantly, darkie is understood to be reserved for those of a specific skin shade and ethnic group simultaneously.

In Trinidad, where “darkie” takes root and flourishes in the local parlance with t-shirts available by a local designer proclaiming, “I love my Trini darkie,” (as well as “my Trini reds” and “my Trini browning”), the term functions as an important reaffirmation of Afro-descendant beauty, by calling attention to a certain skin tone in all its chocolate splendor. Its contemporary usage in Trinbagonian society is also markedly different from the American term “darky” (or other cultural uses, with or without a “y”) which is an old termed racial slur, rooted in the era of blackface, epitomizing the negative stereotypes of all dark-skinned people.

This is a country where “madras” refers to a dark-skinned East Indian person and a “dougla” (any person of mixed African and East Indian descent), may fall within a range of skin tones from fair to dark. Darkie functions in a slightly different way, where it serves to singularly encompass an Afro-Trinidadian aesthetic of perceived attractiveness. It certainly can be used as purely descriptive, along the lines of a general physical trait, but darkie is usually understood to be nuanced in a way that makes it different from the terms mentioned above. Darkie is flexible, in that it may solely be attributed to implied attractiveness or one’s skin tone and usually, the context involves an understood interconnection of the two. Far from simply objectifying the individual, darkie is a celebratory, verbal sound-kiss against ebony skin and represents a reimagining of who can be declared attractive.

Against a backdrop of slavery and colonialisation, religious doctrines, heterocentric and patriarchal norms: prescribed gender roles and perceived female desirability become informed by a variety of these institutions. Skin shade, socioeconomic class and perceived attractiveness often become interconnected. One term that comes to mind in correlation to darkie is “browning” and the two terms function differently in distinct ways. Patricia Mohammed describes the usage of “browning” in Jamaica and the rest of the region as connected to “a preference for ‘brown’ as opposed to black women or unmixed women” (22).

On the other hand, in the Caribbean, like many regions within the diaspora, where gradations of color and their categories sometimes abound, there is no such confusion as to who constitutes a darkie in Trinidad. In Jamaica, stereotypes of an economic frame, such as the so-called “brown tax”[2] are directly linked to the assumed socioeconomic status of persons of a particular shade. Browning then, operates in Jamaica as a kind of attributed socioeconomic marker as well. It is class, color and status (and for women especially: desirability) all rolled into one, in a way that darkie is not. Comparatively, the term “darkie” does not confer any particular social or economic status for the ascribed individual, other than, being a dark-skinned person. For women in and of the Caribbean region, brownness is usually directly linked to perceptions of beauty and desirability.

Much like the infamous paper-bag test in America, “browning” embodies the notion that browner is better and lighter is better. Concurrently, the “red-bone”[3] in American culture, especially in hip-hop pop culture, is almost always a desirable female of a particular shade. She is the counterpart of the desirable brown-skinned woman and the similarly lauded mixed raced woman. One of the things that colorism enables is the separation of some people from their trace blackness, as well as systematically serving the role of helping people to distance themselves from blackness as a whole and the legacy of that association. It also allows some people to safely attribute some non-specific racial heritage with just the right amount of select African heritage and/or physical traits.

In Trinidad, Aisha Khan 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 stronger more clear-cut expressions of ‘African’ or ‘black’ attributes” (185). And what of the desirable dark-skinned, phenotypically black looking, African descendant woman one might wonder? The counterpart to the “browning”, “red-bone”, “spanish”, “dougs”[4] and the “red-woman”[5]—except for “darkie,” it’s like she doesn’t exist anywhere in the lexicon.

Darkie then is more than just a kind of vocabulary to describe dark-skinned Trinbagonians; rather, it allows a site for asserting unambiguous black beauty that rarely takes place in some spaces. When female desirability becomes stacked inside culturally prevailing Eurocentric ideals, dark-skinned black women are usually relegated to the bottom rung, esteemed occasionally for a redeeming factor like quality or length of hair, or watered down, strategically placed African derived attributes.

In 2008, Orlando Octave Jr.’s hugely popular reggae love song “Darkie,” rode a wave of popularity on the airwaves in Trinidad and Tobago and throughout the region with its sweet melody, verbal play and recognizable hook of “darkie, whey yuh from?—a long time me a call you but yuh never wah come.” Paying homage to the lovely dark-skinned female who is “a helluva girl” with “de face and de figure,” Octave’s darkie is desirable, beautiful and elusive. Her elusiveness is embodied by Octave’s constant quest to know “whey yuh from” and Octave is careful to distinguish exactly what kind of dark-skinned beauty this is, lest listeners make presumptions. Similarly, he is personally invested in unpacking some of his darkie’s attributes, both internal and external, while being acutely aware of the responsibility behind the creation of this anthem for darkies.

Thus, his darkie “went tuh school and she came out a scholar,” is a “leader of de pack, rest ah girls have tuh follow.” She is “from down South” though she is liming/espied or visiting “on de Beetham”[6]. Similarly, she is fittingly “nuh gold digger / When yuh come to she / Yuh better come to she proper / ‘Cause, say, she got all she need in life / And, she doh need a boyfriend fi survive.” Most significantly, he asserts that “most of all gyul / I’m in love with yuh color.” In an interview in Abstract magazine, Octave explained his intention behind the song noting, “I sang about darkies because darkies don’t have a song,” added to the fact that “red woman always get the ‘rate-up’ ” (“Orlando Octave”). Somewhat ironically, when asked in the same interview about his own preference for women, Octave admits with a “blush” that “actually I go for red-skinned girls but complexion does not really matter” (“Orlando Octave”).

Still, for many dark-skinned women and most significantly, the young girls who tune into new popular music in droves and are especially susceptible to the images within, the message in song was widely appreciated. In a continuously media driven world, where pop cultural images in music and media assault us from every angle, West Indian women of every shade may grapple with self-identity and beauty issues. It is imperative that we all continue to contextualize, challenge and deconstruct these long-held notions of beauty and desirability with regard to skin shade. “Darkie” then, by its mere existence as a construct within the lexicon, as well as through its semantic power of implied endearing meaning, helps us to do so. It does so through its direct simplicity, its self-affirming implication of beauty and desirability and its locale, deep within a dark skin tone.

Artwork, “Forgive and Forget” by Tanya Marie Williams.

Notes

[1] A distinct, non-verbal catcall that is well known in TnT. It is sort of like a suck-teeth sound crossed with a hiss that can be sent across a distance to get someone’s attention that you may or may not know. It can be made and employed by both men and women to one another; may include a verbal accompaniment such as “darkie!” or “family!” for two examples.

[2] I learnt about this phenomenon through reading “The Browning Complex I,”a hilarious and poignant blog entry that decried and explained the “BMS” or “Brown People have Money Syndrome” in Jamaica, which the writer has unfairly suffered and is manifested by the “brown skin tax” (BST) that he invariably has to pay higglers, fridge repair men and other assorted individuals.

[3] From my understanding, a light skinned, black female (usually) on par with the red-skinned woman in Trinidad, who of course, may or may not self-identify as racially mixed. Some variegations can be found in its usage, as well as regional and cultural disagreements over where this skin shade starts and ‘stops’ so to speak. In hip-hop and urban culture, the red-bone is always linked to sexual desirability, being a prize and a “dime piece” (that is to say, the kind of female a man will covet, treasure and be proud to show off) and overall, is cast as the desired.

[4] A colloquial shortening of “dougla.”

[5] A light-skinned female: black or “mixed-up.”

[6] Refers to Beetham Gardens, also called Beetham Estate Gardens. A low-income, purportedly primarily Afro-Trinidadian community outside of Port-Of-Spain. Because of the perceived socio-cultural stigma of being “from” the Beetham (however ill-placed and ill-founded such things are), I interpreted Octave’s line as symbolic and significant of a couple of things. Firstly, of esteeming Beetham: because this gorgeous, highly educated, dark skinned girl, who is not from there but is comfortable with going there for whatever reason. Problematically too, this darkie is “on” the Beetham but not from that place, so this allows her the distinction of not actually being envisioned as one of them, in case anybody dared to place her there inside the song, simply by virtue of being a dark skinned female.

References

ETNT, “Orlando Octave.” eAbstractMag. Abstract Magazine, n.d. Web.

Khan, Aisha. “What is ‘a Spanish’?: Ambiguity and ‘Mixed’ Ethnicity in Trinidad.” Trinidad Ethnicity. Ed. Kevin Yelvington. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Print.

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.” Feminist Review. 65 (2000): 22-48. Print.

Octave, Orlando. “Darkie.” Trinidad and Tobago. MP3 file.

Stunner, “The Browning Complex: I call it Discrimination!” Stunner’s Afflictions: My amazing Adventures and Perspective on Life, 09 Mar. 2006. Web.

A version of this essay first appeared on Trinidad Junction.


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9 Responses to “In the Castle of Our Skins: Darkies, Brownings and Red Woman”

  1. In the Castle of Our Skins Blog Carnival Posts « creative commess Says:

    […] Darkies, Brownings and Red Woman: Female Desirability and Skin Color in the Caribbean, by soyluv […]

  2. derevolushunwidin Says:

    It was certainly difficult for me to wrap my mind around the use of the word darkie in Trinidad. I was initially suspicious b/c of the connotations of browning, red, clear, Spanish etc. but I realised with time the darkie was actually simply a descriptor that appeared to have no negative or privileged connotation attached to it. It was a positive and I would argue affirming reference in the diaspora that so often privileges that which is not African.
    Thanks for fleshing it out. Excellent piece!

  3. soyluv Says:

    Thanks! The manifestation of this piece came through an older blog piece where I spoke about loving being “a sweet darkie” myself, really liking hearing it tossed my way in the street at home because I missed hearing it, and I knew it warmed me on the inside because it was powerful and did something that other similar terms didn’t (couldn’t) do but I hadn’t begun to unpack why, until I started writing about it. I knew my color was being objectified in a sense–I didn’t feel I was, though I was too, in a way. As a feminist, writing about it was awkward at first, to begin to acknowledge the implications behind all this. But I stand by its positive affirmation more than anything else.

    That “darkie” is anywhere in the realm of complimentary, given that our society is still rife with color-complexes and everything connected–is very amazing. And we still know about calling people “blue-black” or “so black dey blue”–which is just a degree of skin tone description that’s not at all celebratory. It’s no different from how the “red woman” is always presumed to be appealing and attractive–unless said otherwise. Color helps carries the notion. This is evidenced by those instances when people might say of a certain person, “they only have color” but they’re not attractive. As if color is currency by itself–and we know to some people–it is. If color is currency, then what is the worth of “darkie” in the landscape of brown and light skinned notions of prettiness for women?

    Knowing too that language is alive and ever evolving; I really hope that doesn’t change. But I see generational shifts already. When I was a younger, darkie was always implied with attractiveness embedded in there. It was almost implicit. A sweet darkie was sexy, attractive and dark-skinned simultaneously–male or female. And that’s some powerful assertions. Otherwise you could just describe someone otherwise. Teenagers now, I’ve noticed, sometimes use darkie to be more skin-tone descriptive in a way–so the pendulum swings a bit. Though for girls, you can still see it used as a barometer for good looks and skin tone at the same time. And that distinction is so damn necessary.

  4. Dave Says:

    If y’all want the “final solution” to this dark skin “problem” I suggest a visit to the new Republic of South Sudan and bring back some pics of the most gorgeous, tall, sexy and VERY DARK women who never need any condescension from Orlando or anyone else that “Black is beautiful” or any such patronizing comment. These women can stand toe-to-toe with any “lighter-coloured” women anywhere in the world. While you’re at it, check out the women of Kenya, East Africa, and South India, all very dark-skinned and all (or most) exceptionally classy and gorgeous. The truth of all of this will eventually come out and this tendency to make a spectacle of the very dark-skinned will die out, the sooner the better. Btw, how come no one in the Bible (except for the Queen of Sheba) was dark-skinned or ever depicted as such? Could that be where the problem for the dark-skinned started?

  5. soyluv Says:

    Dave, you’re right, those women are astoundingly gorgeous. As are dark-skinned black and other women from all over. The hierarchy of beauty ideals is complicated and difficult to dismantle and some people have a vested interest in maintaining it at all costs for various reasons. Even cultural beauty constructs get complicated–sometimes I squirm when I hear those “you Trini women are so beautiful” comments directed my way. It’s great sometimes on the one hand (because I don’t think I’m at all a typical ‘pretty girl’) but there’s also this imagined, construct of Trini woman beauty that some people have in their heads that leaves others out or is really just recreating another kind of marketplace of beauty ideals each time those people say that. Not every single time but a lot of the time. I also think it’s a little bit different from unequivocally lauding African women. So, yeah, stuff gets complicated and definitely overlaps in many places. And absolutely, I think there are points of connection between the erasure of African people from scripture in variant ways, and from some divinity on a whole even, and a beauty hierarchy that privileges Eurocentricity, or just how far removed select aesthetics might be from those least celebrated aspects of black phenotype. Everything’s connected.

  6. Dave Says:

    Hey Soyluv
    Bin so long Ide forgotten abt this posting. Thx for your eventual response. Particularly striking : “… sometimes I squirm when I hear those ‘you Trini women are so beautiful’”. Imo, you’re rite tu feel uncumfuttabl, bcz, again, imo such statements have a ring of condescension or patronization, esp. if coming from a member of the male gender. Heers how it works : A man hu is for real duzznt tawk abt beauty to a woman unless heez trying tu turn her on and pick her up. He wood never tawk abt other women’s beauty aw abt the beauty of women in general since heez trying to get HER, rite? So you can safely discount and DISMISS any such empty, patronizing commentary. This whole subject of the psychological/social significance of dark skin deserves REAL STUDY, however, if true Black Liberation is EVER to become a reality. The only people truly qualified to undertake such study are “Black” people themselves but they would face a major deterrent in the form of considerable psychic pain, as attested to by Frantz fanon in “Black Skin, White Masks”. Imo, the whole African diaspora tragedy dwarfs the horrific Nazi Holocaust in at least two respects : 1)The length of time over which the atrocities were committed. 2) The powerful on-going sequelae of dark skin-colour invalidation and discrimination. However daunting and however reluctantly, the modern diasporic African-descendant simply has to find a way to collectively shoulder the African cross and DEMAND an explanation from “Westerndom” as to how the perpetration of such gross atrocities over such a long period of time could POSSIBLY be compatible with their lofty religious claims. In other words if “Westerndom” gets a pass, so should the Nazis, no?

  7. Darkies & Brownins: Commodifying & Consuming Women | Feminist conversations on Caribbean life Says:

    […] to add: Creative Commess argues that the term darkie (at least in the context of Trinidad and Tobago) is used for both men and […]

  8. The Problem with Red Woman (And Red Man) | creative commess Says:

    […] “why the hating on red woman?” categories, as though the listing themselves indicated anything less than a preferential inclination toward light skinned men and women–the irony being that this was cast (ironically) as a bad thing, but clearly, obviously […]

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