read in: 24 min
One-On-One with Charlene Muhammad
Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): What I would like for you to do, along the subject of beauty and your experience growing up as what is referred to as “dark-skinned”, and to share what it was like for you growing up in the light of how society defines beauty. What are some words of encouragement that you would give to young girls and women who are struggling with their complexion?
Charlene Muhammad (CM): Okay, yes ma’am. In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger. If I could start with your question, Sister Ebony, with the word “encouragement” I would love to do that. I would have to say that it is a sense of Self and a cling to family that really helped me through my adolescence. I would like to offer a word of encouragement to any young lady and adult right down to seniors, because it’s so pervasive in our community. A lot of times people suffer in silence. I would say stay true to who you are, and know that your color, doesn’t make you nor does it take anything away from you.
Skipping back to my ordeal…I didn’t get picked on a lot, it was the exclusion. I was picked on, but so were my other classmates by this one person who was a bully. She would say things like “Big Bob” or “Black Bob”. I grew up with the last name “Bob”. Yes, B-o-b, was our plantation owner’s name. I grew up in the deep South in Louisiana. There were seven children and a mother and father in the home and that helped me. Yet, what I went through with my complexion was more so exclusion. When you’re in it you don’t necessarily realize it until maybe when you get home and events are happening. I was just in the corner and was not invited to participate. When I started reflecting on it, I asked and the girls about it and they just stopped talking about the events all together so I wouldn’t know what was going on. It was only when I looked up and these things had been occurring and I would say to myself, “Oh that looks like fun, why couldn’t I do it”? Well, all of the girls were light-skinned; all of them had the long, thick braided hair. I started noticing that pattern.
It even came to play out in high school as well as college. I attended a religious school, and I’d rather not say the religion, because I don’t want to seem like I’m labeling that religion. I think it happens across the board.
In high school and college I was on the dance team, and I danced very well. The band director noticed me and he said, “Somebody get her up to the university, because she can dance”! However, when I got up to the college after graduation, their band director had a preference; very, very light-skinned or girls who were in high school coming onto the campus. I don’t know what the high school thing was about, but I remember trying out for the band’s Dancing Dolls. We were trying out and having grueling practices, studying then practicing; it was at SU (Southern University). I remember two of my roommates running in screaming saying, “We made it, we made it”. They were very light-skinned girls. I was like, “Made what? What are you talking about? When were tryouts?” It was the same thing, it was that exclusion. I didn’t even get the call and several other dark-skinned girls were like, “Wow…” That took me back to childhood once again.
You have girls who would get called out of class to participate in things. They normally had long hair and light skin, and we would look around in class to see who didn’t get called out and it was the “darkies”. I hate to say it like that, but that’s a fact. I clung to my family and had this attitude of, “I don’t need you”. I have six brothers and sisters, a lot of family love, I had my skates, I had two dogs and I had my bike.
When I became conscious and started looking back I remember saying to myself, “You were discriminated against a lot”. To add to that, Sister Ebony, I’m tall and I’ve always been tall. So you’ve got this big, tall Black girl. I would say to my mother, “Well mom, no I didn’t get invited” or “No I couldn’t participate”, and she would ask me why. We would go to the school and you would see the gambit of it. That’s how I experienced the sadism. The girls, themselves, didn’t just say, “You black” or “You can’t”, they just ignored me. Now you tell me if that’s not coldblooded! It’s one thing if you can go toe-to-toe with somebody and say, “I don’t care, you ugly”, but it’s like an outcast. What do you do with that?
So when my husband and I got married and I conceived I knew it was a girl from the start because of my demeanor. I had a very nice feminine demeanor. To show proof of that, when I was pregnant with my son, I cut my hair down to two inches and started locking it and had a “What you gotta say about that” attitude (laughing). So when I was pregnant with my daughter, I was saying to myself, “Oh my God, I know this is going to be a chocolate baby, because both my husband and I are very dark”. How am I going to prepare her for this life? We were in California, but we have Louisiana roots. Even within our own family we have a cousin that we grew up calling “Black Jesus” not understanding what that meant. I used to be afraid of Goodtimes, now when it comes on I’m watching it, because it was political before its time even though it shielded some knowledge in buffoonery. Yet when they get to the “Black Jesus” I just sit there and shake my head.
Now as far as my daughter and thinking about how was I going to help prepare her and protect her, I realized was that I just had to tell her the truth and that’s protection. I would rub my tummy and read my Quran and say to her, “You’re going to be a beautiful chocolate princess”, “Wear your Black [skin]” and “Don’t hate others because they’re lighter or they may have long hair”. I would just talk to her while she was in my belly. I would tell her, “You’re going to be okay. I’m not going to let the stuff that happened to me happen to you” and “You can do whatever you want to do”.
That band incident which happened at the university was so subtle, Ebony. It wasn’t like what happened to my sister where someone walked up to her and said, “You ain’t nothing. You just yellow”. You see we have different shades in my family, and people in my family had to protect her, because she was light-skinned will long hair.
So I would just talk to my daughter in the womb, and she came out chocolate. We’re about as brown together as those garments (laughing). I would always tell her, “You’re going to be tall, you’re going to be brown, love your skin and be humble”. She’s just so humble Ebony. She’s not mean to people, she’s actually a shield.
However, I was really upset thinking back, because I didn’t realize it. It’s
like when Harriet Tubman said that she freed many slaves and she could’ve freed more had they known they were slaves. I could’ve done something had I really understood that it was totally race. The thing with college was what really scared me with the girls and the exclusion in school. My mother told me straight up that this is how it is in the South and don’t worry, because they have all kind of problems in their families, so don’t let them make you feel bad because of your skin color.
So she would just run down the family names and issues that were going on, and I would go to school and see them and think, “I know something”. It wasn’t like I know something and I’m going to tell it. It was like I know something and I don’t want to be associated with that anyway. Therefore, I would find those ways to cope, but the biggest thing I would do is be alone. I would get a stick, you know how we do, and throw the stick up and get some pecans and sell the pecans, and whatever I felt like buying or doing, I would go do it. I had one true friend, and we’re friends today. Her name is Kelly Willis. Beautiful girl, some would say she’s light-skinned. She’s about your color, so she’s not high yellow. She’s very confident, but still had certain issues too.
I just clung to what was good, and what I found was good was that I had a mom and dad in the home, my family loved me, I was treated very well and I just had to make due. I was very creative with my time and that’s what I teach my daughter to do. I don’t talk to her about it now from the perspective of color. I talk to her from the standpoint of if she meets people that want to be her friend and want her around she can be with them, but if they don’t then don’t be with them. I tell her not to look back on it, and when she has her friends I tell her not to exclude any of them because they don’t look a certain way.
It was a journey, Ebony. I was mad. That college situation…I mean its one thing to be excluded because you’re Black, but the band director was blacker than me! Ebony, I haven’t told this story to anybody. That was one of the hardest realizations, because it was a Black college and he was Black band director. I know some of the people reading this may not think much of it, but that was my turmoilous event!
EM: Yes ma’am, absolutely. It makes me think of the classic film by Spike Lee, “School Daze”. He sent such a powerful message that I really don’t think a lot of people see as relevant today as much as it still is. The musical portion of “Good and Bad Hair” where you had the light-skinned girls versus the dark-skinned girls is a reflection of what a lot of us went through and what you experienced in college.
CM: Right. It’s there Sister Ebony, and let me tell you the tragedy is. It’s like what Minister Farrakhan told us recently when we were dealing with our Form 4. Where did we learn this behavior? The Honorable Elijah Muhammad told us to study the white man, because where did we learn this? We must now unlearn it. It is still there, but what’s concerning me is all you have to do is teach us self-hate and we’ll perpetuate it. It wasn’t a Caucasian band director; there wasn’t anybody white on this staff at this Black school that was supposed to be a haven of Freedom, Justice and Equality that made him do that. What must have been ingrained in him?
It continues for men and women. Some of our sisters look like someone just took a pile of yellow yarn and dumped it on their head and they’re okay with it. It because in society, in their homes somebody told them that’s what they need to do to have this man, have this job…it’s a heck of a thing to see time after time and generation after generation your man, the mate that you’re supposed to be with turn to these Caucasians women. People say get over it, but it is a constant thing. The rejected person is saying, “Maybe if I looked like them…”. You know what they say, the wives whose husbands have cheated on them say, “What does she have?” Then they become that person who their husband cheated with. So if your husband left you for a “scooch” down the street, next thing you know you’re “scooching”; wearing what you would never wear and acting the way you would never act. Therefore, we perpetuate it.
We perm little girls’ hair at the age of five! Some people say it’s about detangling, but is it really? It may start like that, but once this child gets to be in their teens it’s about what’s in the magazines and what society deems as “beautiful”. It’s all a lie. So that’s my experience Sister Ebony. I pray I answered your questions.
EM: Yes ma’am you most certainly did! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and the words you use to encourage your daughter with. You are a gem! May Allah continue to bless you sis!
CM: All praise is due to Allah! Thank you for the opportunit