One Drop: Drexel professor's new book explores what determines blackness

Posted: November 26, 2013

UNLESS YOU want an earful, don't get Drexel University professor Yaba Blay talking about colorism. She sees examples of discrimination based on skin color everywhere - from drug stores that stock skin-bleaching creams to the online chatter that erupts when photos surface of Beyonce and Jay Z's daughter, Blue Ivy.

"[People say], why doesn't Beyonce comb that baby's hair?" Blay said. "You would rather put an entire pack of barrettes on that baby's hair?"

"I hate that," I murmured.

"I hate it more," she shot back. "[People] expect her to look like her mama. . . . She's 2."

And don't bring up the subject of Kanye West, who once famously referred to biracial women as "mutts."

"Kanye's choosing Kim [Kardashian] is not about Kim. It's about Kanye," said Blay, author of a new book called (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. "He's obsessed with her. It has to do with what her being on his arm says about him."

Yeah, Blay went there.

And, let me tell you, the codirector of the Africana Studies program doesn't hold back in that new book of hers, either. It deals with America's biggest third-rail issue: race. That subject hasn't gotten any less explosive since America elected its first black president.

The book is provocative right from its title, taken from the slavery-era notion that if you had one drop of black blood, you were considered black.

Plus, here's a darker-hued woman writing about the racial experiences of lighter-skinned people, many of whom identify as black or mixed race. That's an incredibly touchy topic among some black folk because of historical social stratification based on skin color that grants higher status to lighter-hued blacks.

The subject was explored in depth in a documentary called "Dark Girls" that aired recently on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

(1)ne Drop is sort of the reverse.

The dark side of light

Blay's book is about African-Americans with the fairest of complexions. Given America's racial baggage, a collection of profiles and photos of people (many of them Philadelphians) talking about how they self-identify racially will rile some people up.

"I think the assumption is that light-skin folks don't acknowledge their privilege," said Blay, 39, referring to practices dating back to slavery that rewarded lighter-skinned blacks with better jobs and opportunities.

"[People say], 'Y'all are light skin. Y'all don't have nothing to say. Nobody wants to hear your little sob story because it's not that bad for you.' "

Blay, a consulting producer on the CNN documentary "Who's Black in America," by Soledad O'Brien, pointed out, "This book is about opening up dialogue and challenging our assumptions and presumptions about blackness.

"Race is at the forefront of our shared experiences in this country whether you want to accept that or not."

Tough time in Big Easy

The daughter of parents from Ghana who migrated to the racial gumbo that is New Orleans, Blay first contemplated issues of skin color when she was a little a girl.

With her rich, chestnut complexion, Blay is darker than many African-Americans. She found life uncomfortable in a city known for its light-complexioned Creole population.

She neither passed the "paper bag test" (your hand is lighter in color than a brown paper bag), or the "blow test" (your hair moves in the wind). In her book, Blay recalls not getting invited to a birthday party because her friend's mother deemed her "too dark."

"Black folk don't let you forget your skin color," Blay said. "My skin color is the norm in my family and in Ghana. Despite what some black Americans might think, I'm not as dark as they come."

Eventually, her dad, a college professor, took a job at Delaware State University. After graduating from high school in 1992, she studied psychology at Salisbury State University. Between her sophomore and junior years, she gave birth to a daughter. She credits that with motivating her to graduate - with honors - in 1996.

Blay worked briefly as a counselor for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Delaware, went back to school for a master's degree and did more counseling. But she was restless.

In 2002, she enrolled in Temple University's African-American studies program, got another master's and a PhD. She began teaching at Drexel last year.

How do you identify?

Blay started researching her book in 2011, interviewing 70 people from around the world and asking them, "How do you identify? Racially? Culturally?"

People such as Deborah Thomas, a blonde Philadelphia teacher, who calls herself biracial and says, "I don't think my students know what they are seeing when they look at me, usually."

Or Anita Persaud Holland, of Ardmore, who self-IDs as Guyanese-American and still recalls the time one of her husband's cousins asked him, "She's not a regular old n-----, is she?"

Thumbing through (1)ne Drop, it's interesting to see how varied and yet how similar the subjects' experiences are, regardless of whether their blackness is obvious or undetectable. Almost universally, they speak of being asked, "What are you?" It offends some; others are just resigned to it.

"Before this project, I would never have had these conversations with people who look like this," Blay told me last week. "I thought I knew everything there was to know about them and their life experience."

She knows better now.

A book-launch party for (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, by Yaba Blay, will be held from 6-9 p.m. Friday at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 215-925-9914. An exhibit of photos from the book continues through Dec. 21.

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