Light Women in Yellow
Image by Hervé Plattaeux, via Flickr Creative Commons

Image by Herv̩ Plattaeux, via Flickr Creative Commons Рsome rights reserved

Yellow became my favorite color several years ago because by wearing it, I could prove that my skin is not yellow.

It’s a fact people miss sometimes, like when I was with a group of other students in Tobago in 2014. Another black American woman in my group was trying to find a gift that would compliment her sister’s skin tone. The vendor asked, “What does your sister look like?” The woman in my group pointed to me, and said, “She’s Mariam’s color,” to which the vendor replied, “She’s yellow?”

The hairs on my skin, which was getting delightfully browner by the tropical minute, bristled.

“I’m not yellow,” I said slowly to the vendor, combining a glare with a subtle upturning of the corners of my mouth, for politeness. I was wearing a green rain jacket that day.

If I’m going to be called a color, I want it to be black. The color of both my parents, not the color of internalized white supremacy, of black people ranking their suitability for entrance into marriage, church, clubs, and leadership. Though it carries the same history, being referred to or described as “red” was acceptable to me in Trinidad & Tobago, just as “redbone” is in the U.S., but yellow I’ve always received as insult. At least I could link red with myths of Indian blood in the family. It kept me, well, a person of color. Yellow tied me to sour fruit, hair only the whitest white people could have, and fear. It was too detached from blackness.

I didn’t associate yellow with Oshun until I was 34. She was featured as prominently as other major Orisha, or Yoruba deities, in a primer on Caribbean religions I was reading for a class. In the chapter on Santería, authors Magarite Fernández Olos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gerbert listed some basics about Oshun (which they spelled “Ochún,” one of many different variations). Deity of rivers, fresh waters, and gold. Represents female sensuality, love, beauty, and sexual desire. Symbols include the peacock, mirrors, and coral. Her sacred number is five. Her color is yellow.

I had heard of Oshun before then. One line in Darius Lovehall’s “A Blues for Nina,” Love Jones, 1997. I was 17. All I knew at that point was that Oshun was the sexy one, and I wanted to be her. When I was 30, a Yoruba priestess who had cast me in a play set in Nigeria fanned me and said, “Oshun!” after I emerged from the dressing room in one of my costumes for the show: a simple orange dress and traditionally tied Gele. It wasn’t the color that evoked the name; it was the spirit. In that moment, I was the sexy one and I was unquestionably African, undeniably black.

But the Ochún I would learn about a few years after that production wasn’t. That Ochún, like the Yoruba theology she had descended from, was syncretized. She was “usually represented as a beautiful, light-skinned ‘mulata’,” I read. According to one New World myth, a grieving Ochún decided to join her kidnapped children in Cuba. Upon learning not everyone in Cuba was black like the Orishas, who still resided in West Africa, Ochún asked her sister Yemayá to “please make my hair straighter and my skin lighter so that all Cubans can see some of themselves in me.” And it was so.

The night we discussed the reading in class, someone pointed out that Cuban Santería Ochún would look a lot like me. She glanced at my dress. “You’re even wearing yellow,” the classmate observed.

In April of this year, when I saw the scene in Lemonade in which Beyoncé bursts from the center doors of an unnamed but important-looking columned building, a flood rushing around and through her flowing yellow, off-the-shoulder dress yet not knocking her over as the water cascades down the stairs and she steps, barefoot with red-painted toes, I knew instantly that she represented Oshun. I saw the traditional—and some scholars would say, reductive—attributes of sensuality and beauty. As the movie progressed, Beyoncé also displayed the deity’s lesser-known qualities, like her creative power and her prowess as a fighter. I thought to  myself, “The artists behind this are doing the damn thing.”

Nonetheless, for a moment, that golden yellow dress evoked the same feeling I’d had in class that night in 2014. I had come to class annoyed with the depiction of Ochún that reified the hot Latina stereotype, and offended at the thought that a deity needed to be whiter before everyone could identify with her. Yellow dress, rushing water, light skin, long blonde hair, representation of a deity—what was Beyoncé trying to get black women to do? Love themselves but still worship degrees of whiteness?

I thought about that textbook and the scene in class again after reading Akiba Solomon’s concerns about colorism in Lemonade (and previously in the “Formation” video and Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance). As Solomon wrote:

Beyonce has been doing this very particular thing of reinforcing color hierarchy by using groups of darker-skinned, similarly styled women with afros or some other “natural” hair as background noise. … Beyonce doesn’t place herself in community with these women. The lighting, her position, her lighter skin and long straight blonde hair make her the queen. … The “Formation” lyrics—”Mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas ‘bama”—tell a different story than one of that type of kinship. Beyonce is literally saying that Creole people are not regular-Black but special-mixed Black.

I agree with Solomon’s interpretation, and if I ever get the chance to interview Bey, I’ll ask her to clarify her intentions with the color hierarchy in her performances. But I also know how hard a light-skinned black woman often works to be counted as regular-black—and nothing else. After the discussion in my class a few years ago, I felt frustrated; despite all the sunny clothing in my closet, I was back to being questionably black. When class was over, no one stopped to ask me some version of, “So what are you?” but the association with a light-skinned mulata was enough to make me feel as though, through no fault of my own, I had failed another black-enough test.

How does Beyoncé want us to see her? I don’t know. To be honest, I’m neither stan nor hater, so I don’t really care. I do care about her influence, about how, through her image, black women see themselves and other black women. Maybe by representing Ochún, Beyoncé meant for black women with dark skin and kinky hair to see something of themselves in her. Perhaps in spite of the color hierarchy in Beyoncé’s work, they do see their beauty, sensuality, creativity, warriorhood, and power. And maybe they’ll see me as all that and regular-black, too. Even when I’m wearing green.

Want more to help you contextualize Lemonade? Download the Lemonade Syllabus. It’s free!

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2 thoughts on “Light Women in Yellow

  1. Boys would always holler, “Hey Redbone,” to my girlfriend who had light hair and blue eyes. She was always offended by it. It is interesting to know someone who is not offended by that term. I am glad you explained it here.

    I really don’t know what to say about BK. If dark skin and afros were the American standard of beauty, she would darken her skin and wear an afro wig. Her primary goal is to make money. I do not take her very seriously, and I do not understand her motives.

    She is gorgeous, head to toe, and she is an amazing performer. I do not expect any more than that from her.

    1. Beyoncé has become quite a polarizing figure. I wrote an essay when Formation was released that linked some of her more problematic aspects to some of Muhammad Ali’s more problematic ones. Now that he’s left us, I may return to that essay.

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