Nou lèd, nou la: We are Ugly, We are Here - About Colorism
Nou lèd men nou la: We are Ugly but We are Here
Colorism has been a topic that has recently become revitalized in both pop culture and academic discussions. That doesn’t mean that colorism is a new term or “made up” by twitter feminists as Hoteps and many others would like to claim, Alice Walker coined the term in 1982 and defined it as:
“Prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on color”
For context, when Walker used this term it was in regard to darker skinned black people dealing with double backhand of white supremacy of not only being black but being of a darker complexion as well and the repercussions of that fate from both inter and intra community oppressions. Walker’s character Celie, from her award-winning novel “The Color Purple”, existence was the focal point of this experience. Amongst a wide array of obstacles, Celie’s lived experience as a dark skinned woman living in the south made her character. She was taunted, she was abused, she was despised but throughout all of that she still proclaimed: “I’m poor, black; I may even be ugly. But dear God! I’m here! I’m here!”. Celie’s outcry resembles that of the common Haitian phrase: Nou lèd men nou la, we are ugly but we are here.
While the histories of African-Americans and Haitians experiences of colorism have differences, the hardships and obstacles faced by women of darker complexions and the character that rises out of that experience are echoed through a universal declaration.
Before giving a brief history of Haiti’s journey with colorism and the personal experience as someone of the diaspora in America, I will give a caveat that the personal narrative of colorism in Haiti should be discussed more by women living in Haiti. As someone who was born in the US and only visited Haiti a few times I can only speak upon my experience here and how that has shaped me.
However, it is imperative to know the history of Haiti to understand how colorism has had an effect on the islands’ population and how it has influenced the diaspora as well. This piece will be a very brief look into that.
In colonial Haiti there were caste divisions formed by the French: at the top were the white elites (blancs), in the middle were the mulattos (mulâtres)/gens de couleur libres (free people of color) and at the bottom were black slaves. Documents like the Code Noire upheld this caste system but also allowed some mobility for the mulatto class, many of them being offspring of French men who raped black enslaved women who would become legitimized under this law and become free.
As the years continued tensions between the white elites and mulattos were rising, the land acquisition and wealth of the mulattos steadily climbed to the point where the white elites implemented restrictions against them (e.g. what professions they could practice as well as having the mulattos address them with specific titles). The mulatto’s aspirations of power, their desire to be equal to the blancs, the blancs's refusal of the mulattos demands—coupled with the offset of the French Revolution—lead to the first rebellion of the mulatto led by Vincent Ogé. This rebellion was a failure but lead to the eventual slave rebellion by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a black freed-slave in the north, and André Riguad, a free person of color in the south of Saint Domingue. The color-drawn tensions of the black population supporting Toussiant versus the white/mulatto support of Riguad, as well as French support for Riguad and American support for Toussiant, eventually led to a civil war known as the War of Knives.
It doesn’t get more #TeamDarkskin vs. #TeamLightskin than that y’all. Fast-forwarding through various colorism rooted conflicts in Haiti, there are some highlights that might bring more clarity to the divide: the mulatto’s help in the French’s attempt of overthrowing Toussaint and the black autonomous state, Dessalines's (another former slave) rule over Haiti and the mulattos resistance against being labeled black under Dessalines's declaration, mulattos animosity over being ruled by someone they saw as uneducated, and the case of the two Haiti’s after Dessalines execution with Henri Christophe (black ex-slave) ruling the north and Alexandre Pétion (mulatto) ruling the south. Eventually with Pétion's death and Christophe’s suicide, Boyer (mulatto) became the president-for-life under a united Haiti. However, within and beyond Boyer's rule, the clashing power struggles between the black military elite and the mulatto elite persisted going into the 19th century with the mulatto’s becoming more educated, wealthy, and politically powerful than the darker skinned elite. This clash and hierarchy eventually even lead to a Noirisme movement which rejected all white/mulatto influences and upheld an African/black nationalist sentiment (for more information check out links below).
Now what impact does that history have on Haiti today and its diaspora? It’s very evident that the colorism dating back to the 1700s has had detrimental effects on Haitians today from bleaching creams, to class stratification, to general degradation of a Haitian's life based on the darkness of their complexion. The evidence of preferential leanings of lighter-skinned people to darker-skinned people is reflected in, for example, who gets to represent Haiti in international and national beauty pageants, primarily lighter-skinned women (as shown below)
We also unfortunately see Haitian women being targets of colorist statements from prominent people such as the City Girls rapper “Caresha”, as seen from her tweets below.
There are also devastating political effects of colorism.
The Dominican Republic has been long known to be a perpetrator of violence against Haitians and Dominican-born Haitian, this can be traced back with history as well as with Haiti’s rule over all of Hispaniola. After its independence in 1844, the Dominican Republic achieved their autonomy from Haitian rule. Over the 22 years of Haitian occupation and the subsequent years of freedom following, Dominican politicians fueled propaganda of anti-Haitian sentiments creating an association of Haitian-ness and blackness as something to be feared and hated.
Today, the UN has considered the situation in the DR a humanitarian crisis with the DR government revoking citizenship for Dominican born Haitians and leading efforts in wide-scale deportation actions towards this population. There have even been incidents of incited violence against Dominican-born Haitians. Some of this stems from the rejection of African lineage, the assertion of European ancestry of Dominicans, and their complicated relationship with blackness and colorism.
This also impacts how some Haitians socially identify, with some desiring to claim the label of Afro-Latino but feeling the access to that identity denied with the Latino community’s colorist sentiments of “mejorar la raza” (improve the race/click here for more information on this). Haiti is not only considered the first independent Black nation but the first independent Latino nation as well, and with the Latinx indigenous populations that inhabited Haiti before colonization, the Taíno, that connection Haitians have to Latinx roots and histories cannot be denied.
Yet that denial still persists, as colorism is a force that rears its head wherever it sees the opportunity. At the center of all of this is anti-blackness, a global rejection of blackness that is the catalyst for colorism and feeds its insatiable hunger.
My understanding of colorism came from Black-American writers as a Haitian who was extremely westernized, and yet the ugly histories of colorism that came from Haiti manifested themselves in the women of my family.
Colorism came in Caro Light jars, it came in relaxers (texture-ism connection to colorism), it came in whispers and looks of lamentation in the faces of elders who knew what grave fate would come with not looking like a grimelle. The histories of our people not only impact those on the island but the children of Haiti across the globe who not only deal with the disdain of dark skin from within their family and peers but societies that they inhabit that spout the same ideologies.
I have no solution. I have no all-encompassing answer. Colorism is a conversation that needs to be continued to be had, when I state this I mean in the correct way that doesn’t claim colorism is perpetrated against light-skin folk. History will be imperative in these conversations because we do not know how we came to be without looking back.
I only wish to say one last thing: my sustaining motivation in this world is to ensure that every dark child loves the entirety of themselves so that one day we may not be "nou lèd men nou la" but "nou bél e nou la”, we are beautiful, and we are still here.
Authors note: I used a lot of articles and reference points in this piece and I would be stopping a bag without linking or giving credit, some are already listed in the piece but here’s for the one’s that aren’t:
History of Haiti resources:
https://www.jstor.org/stable/3031518?seq=6#metadata_info_tab_contents, https://msu.edu/~williss2/carpentier/part1/codenoir.html, http://countrystudies.us/haiti/, https://haitianhistory.tumblr.com/post/78038434409/hi-this-may-be-a-strange-question-but-where-does, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duvalier_dynasty,
Social hierarchy/general DR and colorism things:
https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2055&context=gc_etds, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12001750, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKqL8BZqo8Q, https://news.un.org/en/story/2015/07/505212-dominican-republic-un-experts-warn-against-deportations-racial-profiling-people
General Resources to check out:
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Written by Keesha Moliere