Colorism is an issue that is still overwhelmingly present in the black community. Although one can argue that every black person of every shade deals with it, it is usually the people who have the darker pigment within the race that are criticized both overtly and covertly, through images in media, family members, and sometimes by other authority figures such as teachers or leaders within the community. Colorism is very much an issue for the main character, Vanessa Martin.
Vanessa is an 8th grade student living in the projects of Newwark New Jersey with her father, cousin, and her maternal grandfather. Years previous, her mother left the family, after which her father withdrew himself from Vanessa’s life emotionally, leaving her to deal with the absence alone. Following the crowning of Vanessa Williams as Miss America, Vanessa dreams of becoming Miss America someday, but lacks confidence of achieving such a success due to her blue-black skin complexion and kinky hair.
The lack of self-confidence that a child can lack when they are taught to associate their skin with only negative traits is a topic that is explored throughout Vanessa’s story. Written in first-person, one can see the world through Vanessa’s unique lens and understand the many social actions she encounters daily to reinforce the idea that she is not beautiful.
One understands the casual hints of what is considered beautiful and what isn’t through her classmates teasing her about her skin color, her grandfather and brother’s enthusiatic praise for her teacher’s beauty (a white woman), or the crowning of the first black Miss America in 1983 (62 years after its debut). Even with Vanessa Williams success, Vanessa is repeatedly told that it came from her being fair-skinned.
Referencing Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, Vanessa identifies with Pecola in a childlike manner, journaling:
I love that part in The Bluest Eye that talks about the soil being bad for certain types of flowers. Pecola thinks that’s why the seeds won’t grow in her town, among the garbage. That maybe it’s just too late. You think Toni Morrison’s ever been to Newark?’Cause there ain’t nothing but garbage here too.
Interestingly enough the author subtly compares Vanessa to Pecola as they both have identity issues, despise their deep complexions, come from dysfunctional families, and identify fair-skinned and white features as the standard of beauty (Pecola admires Shirley Temple).
As a dark-skinned black woman I have never faced the issues that Vanessa has. My experiences are different because in my large family (which consist of fair-skinned and dark-skinned members) our skin tones were never discussed. One was not considered better or worse than the other and even better, it was not mentioned at all. Because of my families attitude toward it, it was never an issue for me and continues to not be an issue to this day.
However, this is an issue for many daker-skinned people of color and this book gives a great glimpse into the impact this issue can have on a vulnerable child. When what is considered beautiful is taught by society and internalized by people of color, these views can be unknowingly passed on through generations.
The depth, complexity, and tragic outcome colorism can have on a child’s confidence and development is explored in this novel. It will be interesting to see where Vanessa’s travels take her and if she is ever able to overcome her lack of self-confidence and her fears.
Author: Tami Charles
Genre: Children’s Literature
Release Date: March 13, 2018