Yellow became my favorite color several years ago because by wearing it, I could prove that my skin is not yellow.
Itâ€™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 sisterâ€™s skin tone. The vendor asked, â€œWhat does your sister look like?â€ The woman in my group pointed to me, and said, â€œSheâ€™s Mariamâ€™s color,â€ to which the vendor replied, â€œSheâ€™s yellow?â€
The hairs on my skin, which was getting delightfully browner by the tropical minute, bristled.
â€œIâ€™m not yellow,â€ 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 Iâ€™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 â€œredâ€ was acceptable to me in Trinidad & Tobago, just as â€œredboneâ€ is in the U.S., but yellow Iâ€™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 didnâ€™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 SanterÃa, authors Magarite FernÃ¡ndez Olos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gerbert listed some basics about Oshun (which they spelled â€œOchÃºn,â€ 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 Lovehallâ€™s â€œA Blues for Nina,â€ 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, â€œOshun!â€ after I emerged from the dressing room in one of my costumes for the show: a simple orange dress and traditionally tied Gele. It wasnâ€™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 OchÃºn I would learn about a few years after that production wasnâ€™t. That OchÃºn, like the Yoruba theology she had descended from, was syncretized. She was â€œusually represented as a beautiful, light-skinned â€˜mulata’,â€ I read. According to one New World myth, a grieving OchÃºn 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, OchÃºn asked her sister YemayÃ¡ to â€œplease make my hair straighter and my skin lighter so that all Cubans can see some of themselves in me.â€ And it was so.
The night we discussed the reading in class, someone pointed out that Cuban SanterÃa OchÃºn would look a lot like me. She glanced at my dress. â€œYouâ€™re even wearing yellow,â€ the classmate observed.
In April of this year, when I saw the scene in Lemonade in which BeyoncÃ© 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 traditionalâ€”and some scholars would say, reductiveâ€”attributes of sensuality and beauty. As the movie progressed, BeyoncÃ© also displayed the deityâ€™s lesser-known qualities, like her creative power and her prowess as a fighter. I thought toÂ myself, â€œThe artists behind this are doing the damn thing.â€
Nonetheless, for a moment, that golden yellow dress evoked the same feeling Iâ€™d had in class that night in 2014. I had come to class annoyed with the depiction of OchÃºn 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 deityâ€”what was BeyoncÃ© 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 Solomonâ€™s concerns about colorism in Lemonade (and previously in the â€œFormationâ€ video and BeyoncÃ©â€™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 â€œnaturalâ€ hair as background noise. â€¦ Beyonce doesnâ€™t place herself in community with these women. The lighting, her position, her lighter skin and long straight blonde hair make her the queen. â€¦ The â€œFormationâ€ lyricsâ€”â€Mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas â€˜bamaâ€â€”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 Solomonâ€™s interpretation, and if I ever get the chance to interview Bey, Iâ€™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-blackâ€”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, â€œSo what are you?â€ 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 BeyoncÃ© want us to see her? I donâ€™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 OchÃºn, BeyoncÃ© 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 BeyoncÃ©â€™s work, they do see their beauty, sensuality, creativity, warriorhood, and power. And maybe theyâ€™ll see me as all that and regular-black, too. Even when Iâ€™m wearing green.
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