When I was a little girl, my mother would make me eat cigarette ashes. “Cigarette ashes will make you pretty” she would tell me. I was one of three sisters and I was the darkest sister. My hair was course and kinky and hard to comb. My skin, more on the ebony side. My eldest sister could pass the paper bag test and had long pretty hair that she would fling around like a policeman’s baton. My other sister was the lightest of us all and my mother would dress her in bright pretty colors like red. I was not allowed to wear red and was always forced to wear the second hand colors. “Red does not look right on a dark skinned girl” my mother would tell me. “Red is for light skinned girls. Friends and neighbors used to identify me as the ugly one, yet I did not see ugly when I looked in the mirror. I was confused as to what they were talking about and exactly what ugly was. I did not see what they saw. Yet by society’s standards, I was classified ugly because of my ebony dark skin. As a child, I did not have the words to speak up to defend myself. I didn’t know what to say. In so many subliminal ways, the standards of society pecked at me. Pennies start to add up to a dollar. As I got older, I began to choose hairstyles that partially hid my face. I was dark shamed by society and members of my family.
Dark skinned actresses like Lupita Nyongo. Gabrielle Union, and KeKe Palmer also felt the effects of colorism and racism growing up. Gabrielle Union grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and developed low self-esteem because none of her classmates pursued her. Nobody wanted to date the black girl. When she finally was approached by a black boy at a basketball camp, he dumped her for a light skinned girl and that experience ate at her self esteem and she began to pick herself apart when she looked in the mirror. Young KeKe Palmer used to pray for light skin as a result of her always hearing how pretty little light skinned girls were. Nobody talked about how pretty little dark skinned girls were. Like many other dark skinned girls, she heard the statement “you are pretty… for a dark skinned girl” as if it is not normal for dark skinned girls to be pretty. That statement is a norm in colorism.
Little Lupita Nyongo, as a youth also begged God for lighter skin and would wake up in the morning disappointed when she ran to look in the mirror to see if her prayers had been answered. As a child, Lupita was bullied and teased for being so dark and her prayers were in desperation to be light skin and stop the harassment she received for being dark. The bullying ate at her self esteem. It was not until she saw the success of model Alek Wek, a Sudanese supermodel, that Lupita began to appreciate and celebrate her own skin color. But not even an academy award, riches, or fame could modify the standards and attitudes of society toward dark skin and kinky hair. Lupita was a victim of dark shaming even after receiving her Oscar. A photographer deliberately altered her cover photo on a popular magazine to fit European standards. Not a child anymore, and armed with courage and words, Lupita, stood up for her self and publicly shamed the magazine and the photographer for altering her looks.
Even the beautiful former first lady Michelle Obama had constantly been referred to as an ape in heels by racists. She learned to block it out, keep her head up, and lived by the mantra “When they go low, we go high.” Comedian Leslie Jones was attacked and bullied on Twitter and called “Big Lip Coon” and “Ape” after she was named as a lead character in Ghostbusters. Her website was even hacked and a picture of Harambe the Gorilla was posted on the top of her website.
Racism is a villain. Colorism is a villain. There are so many stories of dark skinned women being being teased, bullied, looked over, unwanted, ridiculed, taunted, browbeat, cast aside, dismissed, shunned, omitted, undervalued, and ignored just for having dark skin.
Enter in artist and photographer Erskine Isaac, a super hero to the ebony woman. Erskine Isaac is noted and esteemed for his ability to handle and render black skin tones so beautifully. “I love shooting all women and all different shades of women, but I am very sensitive to how dark skinned women are portrayed” he says. He recognizes that color lines and boundaries have been hurtful, painful, and damaging to to the psyche of dark skinned Black women.
“My affinity for photographing dark skinned women stems from society’s idea that dark women are not as beautiful as light skin or white women and the judgment from the sliding scale [of dark to light skin tone] that I detest.” He adds “I have dark skinned women in my family who all have gone through this dark skin complex and I am very sensitive to that. Erskine takes extra pride when photographing rich melanin women. “I want to make sure dark skinned women are portrayed in a lovely and respectful way.” America makes it seem that the lighter you are, the better you are. Europeans have forced that on the rest of the world.” He continues, “On television and in the media, you see white women and light skinned women get more opportunities. When I see certain dark skin actresses with make-up lighter than their natural skin tones it bothers me. Some make-up artist will make up black women, to look lighter. Then when you light them up in front of the camera, you see that the make-up is 2 shades lighter than what they really are. I tell any make up artist working with me to make sure the skin is even.”
He says “Dark skin tones are so rich and creamy. So many dark skinned women have that psychosis from their own people and some from their own parents.” Erskine works to get these women comfortable in front of the camera. “There is a moment of self doubt and there is a moment of self discovery . Once they see the pictures, something goes click.”
A witness to the layers of damage to the spirit of dark skinned women when they step in front of the camera Erskine admits “I am dealing with a whole bunch of things. Pysche. Self esteem. Baggage that they bring to the shoot “ He adds “Light skinned women may have some of the same issues. Hair issues, body issues, weight issues. But add on the stigma of being dark. With dark skinned women, I am dealing with their ability to see themselves in a different way.
“I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I do understand that we all have our issues and and that dark women have been put through the ringer. Dark women hold back because of what they have been told for so long.” Dark skinned women are used to hearing harassing and hateful terms like jigaboo, ugly, gorilla, aunt jemima, ape, tar baby, beast, blackie, coon, burnt toast. They are used to being overlooked, and overshadowed by light skin and white women.
As an artist, I coach and coax them and show them they are as beautiful as I see them. Skin tone has been used as a weapon against them for so long they don’t truly believe it.” Erskine Isaac loves to watch what he calls ‘the Black Butterfly take flight.’ “A dark skinned woman who goes through the battle and the trauma bestowed on her by society and then when you see her come out of her cocoon its beautiful. The transformation you begin to see is more than the skin color. When they do start to believe, it shows through their eyes and their body language. To have someone believe in themselves, is everything.”
Color struck people in the Black community complain about racism but practice racism within their own race. Like many racists, people who practice colorism are in denial or unaware they practice it. Many African Americans are color struck and have a history of attributing to colorism because they have benefited from a privilege of having a skin tone closer to white and embrace the notion that privilege comes with having lighter skin. Blue Vein societies were formed in which members were admitted if their skin was light enough to show the blueness of their veins then they had more European ancestry and were admitted into the society. The “Ruler Tests,” were practiced in 19th century middle and upper Black communities. Ruler Tests decided if a Black American was ‘white enough’ to be included in a given sector of society if the hair was straight as a ruler. Then there is the infamous Brown Paper Bag Tests which were also related to ideas of beauty. The paper bag test determined that if a person had skin tone lighter than a brown paper bag, then she was more beautiful. Historically, many fraternities, sororities, churches, night clubs, colleges, social events, and societies used the brown paper bag test as a standard for entrance and acceptance.
Erskine Isaac credits his technique to understanding the synthesis of history, science, and art.
According to Mr. Isaacs, photography is a science as well as an art. “You can only create what the tools allow you to create.” Erskine is an avid researcher and digs deep into the history of the film process to strengthen his knowledge and technique. “The filming process was primarily created and developed with a bias toward white people. It was difficult to get an accurate skin tone of Black people. If you go back and look at the old film, white skin looked pretty good because they were not concerned with how Black people looked on film. I go out of my way to make sure my tones look correct. There are different shades of blackness from Kenya to Ethiopia to Madagascar to Congo. There are so many different shades of dark skin and each of them have different tonalities. There is no one brush fits all when it come to photographing black people. The eye must be sensitive to that. In addition, being of African descent, I pride myself in making sure I render skin tone properly. If you light it properly and process it properly, you will see that.
But what about men? Photographing dark skinned men---yes they carry the same baggage. Black men have been fighting the sambo portrayal for 100s’of years. The darker you are, the less desirable you are.
Erskine himself was a victim of dark shaming as a teenager. I myself-- on a scale of 1-10--I am on the dark side.” Dark skin men deal with the same issues. I experienced that myself as a teenager in Harlem. I went to see this afro Latina girl-- she was a medium brown skin girl on the light side. I was considerably darker than she was. As soon as I walked in the door, I saw the look on her parents face and I knew I failed the paper bag test.” Erskine adds “the joke ‘dark skin guys are in’ is rooted in reality. Dark skinned girls lose out on a lot of attention to light skinned girls. Dark skinned men deal with the same thing.” Jazz artist Nat King Cole dealt with racism and colorism that are highlighted in the Netflix documentary “Afraid of the Dark.” Erskine adds, “ I have pictures of Nat King Cole who looks light skin. They made him put skin lightener on [to be more appealing to his audience].” Natalie Cole discussed how her family did not want her father, Nat King Cole, a dark skinned man, to marry her mother, a light skinned woman; he was too Black for them. Her grandmother did not want her daughter involved with a man who had too many “Black characteristics” because it would make their children look undesirable. She added “For a dark-skinned man such as my father to acquire a light-skinned woman such as my mother was a real important prize. Your status moved up.”
Erskine Issac summarizes, “As an artist, [these issues with dark skinned men and dark skinned woman] are always in the forefront of my mind. When I have a dark skinned person in front of my lens, I go out of my way, to make sure the skin tone is accurate. I go the extra mile because I want to make sure I portray dark skin tones in a positive and an equal fashion. I want to make sure that darker people are rendered in the most respectful way.”
As a dark skinned Black woman, I too evolved in the care of photographer Erskine Isaac (no cigarette ashes required). He’s been photographing and documenting me and my art for several years. It is truly an experience being in front of his lens. I stopped wearing my hair in my face and became very aware and very proud of my skin color and who I am. Each photo took me took me to a different place and I discovered a me I had not met before. Thank you Erskine Isaac for sending my Black Butterfly into full flight.
Visit Erskine Isaac at ivisionphoto.com or follow his work on Instagram at
Erskine Isaac website is ivisionphoto.com and you can follow his work on Instagram at…..