By Marcus Borton
Another day, another dollar, another night, another chill session. He could host and host well he did. He stared at me, after asking if I was comfortable, and shared, “You know, I really have a thing for dark-skinned guys.”
The always relevant quote, “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act [of the the 1980’s],” from anthologist Joseph Beam, has become politicized as a call to action. If black queer men do not date within their own race, some might see it as betrayal. Whenever a high-profile black person goes public about not being heterosexual, there’s a hope, within certain circles, this individual will not present, or take, a white lover.
These ideas often center on the uneven dynamics within interracial white/black same-sex relationships. The black partner, it’s projected, has convinced himself he has won a prize in his white lover. Now he will fail miserably at neatly transcending into a world of whiteness. The white partner, however, will enjoy his fetishized love(r) and the socially instilled power of being able to manipulate his partner’s stability through his privilege. While these dynamics are important to analyze, a conversation I rarely ever hear in the black queer community is one about the dynamics of social capital, privilege, and desirability between black queers of varying complexions.
If you believe the scriptocentric myth that history began with the written word, then in 1926 Richard Bruce Nugent wrote black gay life into existence with his prose story, “Smoke, Lillies, & Jade,” published in the art quarterly, FIRE!! He was known for being what we now understand as “out” about his [homo]sexuality when it was considered very taboo. Nugent’s work, and life, also traces a direct lineage of shadism within black [gay] community.
In his roman à clef, Gentleman Jigger, he writes about disliking fellow writer Wallace Thurman solely based on his darker skin color. “Stuartt [Nugent] decided that Pelman [Thurman] was not to be trusted. He was too black. Stuartt had been taught by precept not to trust black people-that they were evil.” Both Gentleman Jigger and the two of Thurman’s novels, The Blacker the Berry and The Infants of Spring, interrogate colorism within African-American social life.
The first chapter of Jigger delves deep into Nugent’s personal heritage. No details are spared describing the various complexions, ethnicities, and lineages of his middle class, fair-skinned, Washington D.C. family. The power and privilege of being fair-skinned (and, in his case, white-passing) within the black community were very present realities in Nugent’s life. Nugent’s mother took advantage of her white-passing privilege, left her family behind, and lived as a white woman in New York City for better employment opportunities. Likewise, Nugent enjoyed several evenings passing for white in order to gain entrance into white only theaters. Sexually, Nugent preferred white men, and Jigger elucidates on his preference for Italian gangsters. [Nugent later apologized to Thurman for his deep-seated internalized anti-blackness in the text and in real-life. He developed a deep respect for Thurman’s work as an editor and shared a mutual interest in “rough trade.”]
My date shared a similar personal background. He mentioned not associating with darker-skinned individuals as a child. He couldn’t give me an answer besides having learned they were “bad.” When he realized his personal biases, he began working through his antiblackness by associating with black people of all shades. I could tell he felt awkward, as if he had shared too much, too fast. I told him he wasn’t the first to feel this way, or to express a similar preference to me.
I’ve had light-skinned men approach me expecting me to believe the white supremacist myth established by Eurocentric beauty standards that I am unattractive, while they are the prize I am supposed to degrade myself for in exchange for their fetishized interests. “Isn’t it so TABOO that I find you attractive? I shouldn’t want to be with you and touch your skin, but I do!” This thinking turns into racial violence, created to diminish the self-esteem of black people, across complexions, into a bludgeoning sex toy.
Eurocentric beauty ideals, in part established through the systematic rape of black women—called “breeders,”—by white slave owners at “binge parties,” can create queer carnal bedroom tensions, but they also birthed a caste systems by separating enslaved black kin into the house or the field.
Light(er)-skinned men have expressed nativist ideas to me about blackness that speak to this caste system. Some become very disinterested when I tell them I am American-born, “just regular black,” disrupting their exotic fantasy. The ones with really intense dark-skinned fetishes will quickly dispose of you the moment they find a man a few shades darker, because he is considered “more black.” This creates a perplexing paradox of being repeatedly told by media images, hiring managers, and other black suitors that my skin is too dark to be seen as desirable in society, yet I could be darker to become more desirable for those craving the purest mocha almond crunch they can devour. There are even lighter-skinned men who feel they are not authentically black, and can vicariously experience blackness through their darker-skinned lovers.
In the Spike Lee joint School Daze, colorist tensions between light and dark-skinned students arise. The classic dance number, “Good and Bad Hair,” shows women across the complexion spectrum excoriating one another for their good/light/Wannabe, or bad/dark/JIggaboo features. A scene later in the film quickly brushed past another idea that sometimes occurs in intraracial relationships: the idea of vicarious blackness, or using the complexion of a partner, or friend, to experience a purer black experience.
There are times when light-skinned individuals will take dark-skinned lovers to prove to themselves, or onlookers, they’ve worked through anti-black sentiment, just like white people use their “black friend.” In School Daze, Rachel, played by Kymie Sallid, accuses her pro-black Garvey-esque boyfriend of not being in a relationship with her due to valuing her as a beautiful, intelligent, sensual woman, but solely because she has one of the darkest complexions on campus. Her dark-skin is meant to function as a display of him valuing blackness, while actually he’s merely tokenizing and exploiting her.
As the phrase concerning white people that appropriate, exploit, and destroy black culture goes: “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but don’t nobody wanna be a nigga.” Light-skinned folks, especially those with a fetish for darker skinned lovers, must reckon with the idea, “everyone wants to love a field-hand, but don’t nobody wanna work in the field.” Taking a lover in the fields of this structurally racist nation will not bring you closer to an authentic blackness you feel denied because you’re more white-passing than you’re very black partner.
Similar to how black-white couples are made to reckon with the various privileges/prejudices they embody in our racist/shadist society, so must those entering intraracial relationships. Factually, a dark-skinned partner is less likely to be hired, more likely to be underpaid or fired, stopped and frisked, convicted, or to receive a longer prison sentence. This is if they are not murdered on film by another frightened, armed police officer for simply existing with luscious, paper-bag test failing melanin.
Looking your lover in the face after being told about being fired, evicted, or followed by police due to your complexion shouldn’t bring a sadistic validation that our feverish country is as sick with discrimination as you imagined, but didn’t quite personally know. It should inspire deeper empathy and a (re)dedication to find moments where you can diffuse your complexion-based privileges for all black people to be free. Experiencing racism should not be the defining factor of your blackness. Remembering you derive from a rich legacy of heritage, culture, and persistence that shines across continents, hair textures, and skin complexions should.
Expecting someone to be okay with an undisclosed fetish you’ve masked as a preference can cross-designated consent boundaries. Open communication is key, and closed mouths don’t get fed.
After sharing some of my experiences, he couldn’t believe how transparent different men had been about their inner fascination with skin color. I told him it was normally just the light-skinned men who didn’t feel empowered who articulated these desires. All lighter-skinned black folks, however, could do better remembering the discrepancies in state-sanctioned violence, housing, healthcare, employment and education opportunities, and, overall, quality of life provided to their darker-hued suitors.
Marcus Borton is a cultural worker + sex educator + black writer with a B.A. in Human Sexuality/U.S. Literature from Goddard College. Hailing from Fruitvale by way of Harlem by way of his mama, Marcus knows it is not only necessary people of color survive globally, but imperative we thrive through embodying fullness, wholeness, and roundness. In his spare time, he casually stunts on cisheteropatriarchal ableist white supremacy by remaining well-purposed, hydrated, nourished, moisturized, prayed up, read, and rested, in that order! His work can be found at https://medium.com/@mr.