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               When I was a little girl, my mother would make me eat cigarette ashes. “Cigarette ashes will make you pretty” she told me.  I was one of three sisters and I was the darkest sister.  My hair was course and kinky and my forehead big.  My eldest sister could pass the paper bag test and had long pretty hair that she would fling like a policeman’s weapon. The middle 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.  “Red does not look right on a dark skinned girl” my mother would tell me. “Red is for light skinned girls. She dressed me in green and told me it was my favorite color.  Friends and neighbors used to identify me as the ugly one-yet I was confused when I looked in the mirror. I didn't see ugly when I looked in the mirror--but according to everyone else, I was ugly because I was dark. I didn’t have the words to speak up. I didn’t know what to say.  But eventually, pennies began 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.


                  I’ve never met Lupita Nyongo. Gabrielle Union, and KeKe Palmer but we are a part of the same congress of dark skinned sisters with similar afflictions.  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, he dumped her for a light skinned girl and that experience ate at her self esteem.  Gabrielle Union picked herself apart when she looked in the mirror.  I have been to Italy three times.. It’s not one of my favorite countries.  Italy never fails to make me feel invisible when I visit. It’s hard to explain how they don’t look at me. They didn't talk to me.  They don’t acknowledge me. When I go to Italy, they have a way of making me feel like I’m nothing.  And it hurt.

                     KeKe Palmer used to pray for light skin as a result of her always hearing how pretty little light skinned girls were.  She never heard people say how pretty little dark skinned girls were.  Or she would hear “you’re  pretty… for a dark skinned girl” as if it is not normal for dark skinned girls to be pretty. 

                   Lupita Nyongo, as a youth, also begged God for lighter skin. She would wake up in the morning disappointed when she ran to look in the mirror and  see that her prayers for light skin had not been answered.  It was not until she saw the success of model Alek Wek, a Sudanese supermodel, that she began to appreciate her dark skin.  But with trials come strength. Lupita was dark shamed even after receiving her Oscar. A photographer deliberately altered her cover photo on a popular magazine to fit European standards. Armed with courage and words, Lupita, stood up for herself and publicly shamed the magazine and the photographer for altering her looks.

          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.” 

Teased, bullied, looked over, ignored, unwanted, dismissed, shunned, ridiculed, taunted, and undervalued; the battle for dignity comes is constant for the congress of the dark skinned.


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. 


Enter in artist and photographer Erskine Isaac, an informal super hero to the ebony woman and man. Erskine says, “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.” Erskine Isaac is noted for his ability to handle and render black skin tones so beautifully and demonstrates extra sensitivity to how dark skinned women are portrayed.  


“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” he says.  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 time to make sure dark skinned women are portrayed in a lovely and respectful way.” Erskine is an observant artist. 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.”


A firsthand witness to the layers of damage to  dark skinned women--he sees it when they step in front of the camera.  “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. 

Dark women hold back because of what they have been told for so long.”


Erskine finds beauty in photographing dark skin tones which he calls “rich and creamy.”

He also notices the extra push it takes to get dark skinned women comfortable in front of the camera.  “So many dark skinned women have that psychosis from society, from their own people and some from their own parents.”  As an artist, Erskine coaches and coaxes dark skinned women to show them they are as beautiful as he sees them. There is a moment he calls when “the Black Butterfly takes 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.”  


I Lisa Love, evolved and transformed in front of Erskine’s lens (no cigarette ashes required). 


Black Butterfly in full flight.

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