Growing up in Trinidad in the early 1960’s, remembering and reflecting being just about six (6) or seven (7) years old and thrusted with an enlightenment that would forever bear impact on my life and sense of self.
One evening after school, my Granny (paternal grandmother) called me into the living room where she was sitting. She addressed me by her favorite way of calling my name – RaeRae, and said that she wanted to talk to me. I was still in school uniform. Granny sat me on her lap, held me close to her, with her hands holding mines. With her soft, yet stern voice, her caring eyes fixed on mine, she said – ” I want you to listen to me. You have to promise me that you will learn your lesson.” She went on to say -” Your sister, your cousins are all light skinned and you are the darkest of all.” (Granny named each of the light colored grandchildren within more or less age range which were five at the time). She continued – “They will get jobs because of their color, but you RaeRae, you have to have the education; it is only education that will get you a job and take you places.” Granny identified the banks as an example of where I definitely could not work, and sister and cousins could. I quietly listened as I was being informed, advised and made aware that I was different. My grandmother had armed me mentally. Oh,Granny even made me promise her that I would become a doctor.
Reflecting that the one-on-one with Granny was her clever way of introducing me to the harsh reality of life, the world in which we were living, and what she felt that I needed to do in order to succeed being dark skinned. Also remembering how Granny responded to an individual who questioned my ability for constantly doing well while attending elementary school. She took to my defense responding- “What you are born with, no one can take from you.” Powerful yes! Impactful, yes! My grandmother again cleverly reinforced my drive and my determination to keep up the hard work. Actually, her response was a form of empowerment for me. She definitely wanted me to know that I had the ability to succeed despite being the one with the darkest skin. Additionally, she wanted me to also know that I was born with worth. From my perspective, it was not color or shade that would define my success or who I was. Knowing my worth, believing in myself and my ability, in combination with my education would clearly define my success, jobs, opportunities, sense of pride, sense of status and much more.
While in High School in the early 70’s, almost a decade into post-colonization and the island’s independence, where every creed and race should find an equal place, the “Black Power/Black is Beautiful” movement came into force. The emphasis of such was meant to have impact on systemic colorism for darker skinned individuals and more so, nationals to be inclusive in positions generally held by whites and high colored individuals. Granny fortunately lived through this era and was able to see some of the changes.
Driven to achieve, I graduated from Secondary and High Schools with ten (10) Ordinary level subjects. Instead of a congratulatory greeting, my ability was again questioned by the “not so pleased” family who asked – “Don’t you have enough, how much more do you want?” My internal interpretation of the question was – how dare I achieve so much with my skin color and the others lighter skinned could not? Speechless, I did not respond. I also knew that I had to respect my elders. Thanks to Granny, I was not to be broken. With a strong sense of conviction, I was not about to feel guilty regarding my ability and my accomplishments. I am remembering the many sleepless nights, the studying with candles when lights were gone, the after-school group studies, the weekend study groups, the rigorous self-discipline, the ongoing support from both my parents, and of course the prayers that it took to accomplish and achieve at that time. I stood steadfast and focused on my education as my grandmother had instructed. Yes, Granny was around when I got that first job with the Ministry of National Security prior to high school graduation. A couple of months later, I was transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister and worked there briefly before migrating to the US.
I attended a two – year Community college, obtained my Associate degree, and was awarded the College prestigous Key Award. Actually, both my sister and I were awarded such honor. Additionally, I received the Alliance Francaise medal for outstanding performance in my French class. Noting here, that above all odds, I was informed that I was the first Black to place and be first runner-up in the College Homecoming Queen contest.
Education continued to be first and foremost on my mind while attending my 4 year college in NY. I made a clear decision and reminded myself that I came to the US to study and obtain an education. So I went from full make up to plain Jane at the end of the first week of my freshman year to focus on my education.
Acknowledging that my grandmother’s early “ism” seeding made quite an impact on my life. Her valuable input remained ingrained and prepared me for the reality in a world of “oppressiveisms”(™), where the struggle for equality continues to this day and where the belief in oneself is so important to overcome and achieve. Colorism continues to exist in families and impact lives with varying degrees. Still, so thankful and feeling very blessed that Granny took the time and applied a teachable moment at such a crucial point and age that positively helped shape my life direction.
My dear grandmother transitioned in 1980, just a few months after having obtained my Bachelor’s Degree. Yes, she was so very proud to see a copy of the degree. Remembering trying to translate the Latin for her. Noting that I did promise Granny that I would be a doctor as her heart desired. However, there were different life career callings. I can safely say that my career span as a clinician/LCSW-R involved touching numerous lives and helping to heal many wounds. Granny, wherever you are in the universe, I am certain that you would know that your “ism” lecture was not in vain.
Months after receiving my first degree, I decided to spend some time teaching. It was one of the most rewarding career I experienced. I strongly believe that teachable moments should be as active as possible. As a matter of fact, nieces and nephews that are close to me would generally
say – “Oh boy, there goes another lecture.” Yes, Auntie Rae always provides a lecture, always seeking teachable moments to impart knowledge. That firm conviction started early in life. Education yes, is key. Believing in yourself, knowing that you have worth, being empowered, remaining goal-focused and prayerful are all vital to success. No matter your skin color.
Please note that this introductory writing piece is not to be taken as the whole. There are many other areas of my life where colorism has impacted and not disclosed in this segment.
#shadeism aka #colorism
And all other “isms” that meet the criteria.
Acknowledging that – ” No one is equal until all are equal.”