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 , 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” 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” 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” and the “red-woman”—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”. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 A colloquial shortening of “dougla.”
 A light-skinned female: black or “mixed-up.”
 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.
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.