Posts filed under skin tone

Brian Kamanzi: My Story as a South African Indian Ugandan

My name is Brian, in 1990 I was born to a South African Indian mother and a Ugandan father in Mthatha, a small city located in the hilly region of what is still often referred to as the Transkei in the heart of the Eastern Cape.

During Apartheid the Transkei (or Republic of Transkei was a designated Bantustan for the Xhosa.

This is my home.

When I introduce myself as someone who grew up in Mthatha it is often accompanied with a great deal of surprise.. And more often than not I am prompted to prove my authenticity by answering a series of questions.. Because, I mean, why would I be from Mthatha right? *sigh*

Surprising as it may be the Transkei has been home for a fairly large, diverse and reasonably well integrated immigrant community for several decades. Many internationals in the area, including my father, were employed by what was then called the University of Transkei. It was there that the unlikely union of my parents began, in the midst of turbulent race relations across South Africa in what was a small town with entire neighbourhoods filled with academics from Kenya, Poland, Uganda, India and many more.. Sounds romantic doesn’t it?

In reality it was probably not as integrated and accepting as I imagined.. But for now please humour my romanticism’s…

It was in this environment that I began my early childhood life, in a suburb called Fort Gale. This suburb was largely owned by the University and many families of the staff lived in apartment complexes and homes across our neighbourhood. In my early years I was very fortunate to be surrounded by several members of my fathers side of the family from Kenya and Uganda. So much of my earliest memories are of thoughts and experiences I shared with them.. They were all older than me and I looked up to them immensely.

Most of my mothers side of the family lived in Durban and while we did not see each other often, I felt a strong connection to them whenever we saw one another. Regular visits from my grandmother often included every Indian dish she could fit into her luggage that would survive the 6 hour bus trip on our roads. I looked forward to those sweet meats and curries and strange deserts packed meticulously in her cases. I remember she always used to ask if we ate “hot” food, this confused me because my parents cooked curries regularly and I didn’t think anything by it.. So answered that same question – year after year. In the early years it did not occur to me in any sort of profound way that I was biracial.. Or that it was unusual, it simply just was. I liked fried green bananas from Uganda in the summer and I loved the jalebi in the spring time from Grandmother’s visits.. That was my experience of my heritage, through our conversations, through shared meals and through the stories of the old days in far away lands. I assumed this is how it was for everyone.. In some ways I was right.. But in painful ways I was very wrong.

As I grew older I started to become aware of this thing called”race”. It was something quite unfamiliar in my house, we didn’t speak about people this way. When it came to start navigating school this started to become an important thing. “What are you?”. In all honesty more often than not this question was answered for me in one way or another. “Well your dad is Ugandan so that makes you Ugandan”. “Doesn’t that make you coloured”. “You kind of look more Indian”. If I’m to completely honest, I was very uncomfortable about all this growing up. I hated these questions. I am ashamed to admit that at several moments, particularly in Primary school, I lied about my heritage in the hope that I would gain the elusive acceptance with my Indian classmates. I wanted to be like them. They had a special regard for their culture, they were always talking about some community event or something, I desperately wanted to be a part of it and feel like I belonged. But I could not. At the end of the day, I was not Indian enough.

By the time I had reached high school my extended family had all left the Transkei. There where not that many young Ugandans in my age group but we all knew each other and in most cases we were all friends. In all fairness we were not the most cultural lot, growing up spending most of our days watching British and American television and playing video games we did not share a collective cultural identity.. At least not one that I was aware of. I could not find what I was looking for there, I felt. So I kept trying, probably not in the most productive ways but trying nonetheless.

Family holidays *Ugh*
My parents are workaholics, during the year there is rarely a moment when they aren’t doing something productive. So when it came to the end of the year they were adamant that we go on holiday to explore the country and get away from it all. They love nature. I hated these trips. We always went to obscure but beautiful parts of the country, and while I was always grateful to be there I dreaded going outside. Walking around town with my entire family made me very self conscious about how other people where looking at us. I was and I still am ashamed about how I felt about this. I know I shouldn’t have cared but I couldn’t ignore how different we looked to the other families. We all looked so different from each other. I felt somehow embarrassed about what I am, very sensitive to how other people would treat us, increasingly bitter. I regret feeling like this on those trips, it was an amazing opportunity to see the country but no matter where we went I couldn’t bring myself to care about what the landscapes looked like or what the wildlife was up to…

I started to become aware that I had a chip on my shoulder, for some reason I felt defensive and in a sense bitter with the world. I had really begun defining myself in opposition to others. I started to think of myself as an other. This was not how I was raised. My mother would have been very upset if she ever knew I was looking at life like that.. So I kept it to myself.

I was lucky enough to gain entry into the University of Cape Town after high school. I was incredibly excited to head off to the big city. This was a chance to redefine myself. To be just Brian and not have every stare at me when I walk with my family through a mall or when my father fetches me from a local barber shop. I was finally free. Or so I thought. Within minutes of arriving into the residence where I spent my first two years I was faced with that painstaking moment where you need to decide where you’re going to sit in the cafeteria. As I looked out into the hall it may as well have been colour coded. At a glance, white students sat with white students, black students with black students.. And well you get the idea. Luckily I spotted a senior of mine from high school sitting in a fairly mixed table (although it was predominantly Indian) and I chose my seat. It took me a very long time before I developed the confidence to break the barriers that existed in my own mind and decide to sit at other tables. I really wish I had been braver sooner.

Even though it took me quite a while to break out of my comfort zone I was lucky enough to befriend many students from all walks of life quite early on, many of which had similar identity problems to me. I often reflect on many conversations with my dear late friend Steven who was of Taiwanese ancestry but had spent his whole life in South Africa. He had a wonderful spirit and an approach to life that really impacted my thinking. Steven was the among first of the many young people I would go on to meet here who were unashamedly themselves… And were okay with that

In my first year I met a group of students who were born and raised in Uganda. We quickly became very good friends, I was fascinated about them. I gorged myself on their stories and descriptions of home. I learnt the slang and was quickly starting to feel like I was part of a community where I belonged. There are many East African’s here and they formed quite a close knit group, they embraced me warmly and I appreciated it deeply. For the first time many people sounded excited to hear that I was biracial, apparently it was interesting. I started to speak proudly about my heritage… and then as though the universe had conspired to respond to my encounters my father had arranged for us to visit Uganda at the end of that year. This was it, I thought. This would be the moment where I could find out where I belonged… Were I would feel some kind of spiritual connection to my fatherland and magically everything would make sense once and for all…

As you’ve probably guessed my trip didn’t really work out that way. But that’s another story. I hope you found this interesting, let me know what you think and look out for Part 2!

Photo and story submitted by Brian Kamanzi
More of Brian's writings may be found on his website

This is our 15th weekly personal story in a series curated by the creator of 50 Shades of BLACK, in partnership with I Love Ancestry called BRIDGING THE GAP featuring contemporary stories of people like YOU from around the world. 

Each week we will feature one of YOUR stories about your ancestors, your heritage, and/or your coming to understand/celebrate your OWN identity.

We personally invite you to join us on this journey of discovery and healing. Share your stories, find your voice, speak your truths.


Finding Myself in Belle: a review by a biracial woman in America

This film is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle.

This film is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle.

“I don’t know that I find myself anywhere.”

Thus responds Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the movie Belle when asked if she finds herself in a book she is reading.

As a biracial woman, I could almost say the same today. I don’t see myself as the subject of many books or movies—which is why 50 Shades of Black is so refreshing, and why I was excited to see Belle in theaters last week.

It tells the true story of a girl born to an enslaved African woman and a white aristocrat in 18th century England. After her mother dies and her father sets out to sea, she is raised lovingly by her father’s uncle and aunt in high society.

The story situates itself around the infamous Zong case brought before Belle’s adoptive great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), chief justice in Britain’s supreme court. In the case, merchants sued an insurer for monetary compensation for the 143 slaves they purposefully drowned at sea.

Painting attributed to Hohann Zoffany of Dido Belle with her cousin  Elizabeth

Painting attributed to Hohann Zoffany of Dido Belle with her cousin Elizabeth

Belle learns of the Zong massacre through her love-interest, an aspiring lawyer named John Davinier (Sam Reid). She shares his convictions about the injustice in treating human beings as property. Together, they attempt to cut away at Lord Mansfield’s inclination to protect the institution of slavery (and his reputation).

This is a story about a woman whose unique position and background created opportunity for the moral advancement of a nation. She seized the opportunity with courage and grace. In that sense I connected strongly with the movie and Belle’s character. Being placed, by God or by chance, at the intersection between divided worlds creates a tremendous opportunity to reexamine unspoken and written rules that dictate the status quo, into which we do not neatly fit.

We are the enigmas that breathe humanity into the people whom hatred, ignorance and bitterness abstract. That is what is captured so well in this movie. Belle’s white family is forced to see black in full human form, with all her intelligence, beauty and virtue. They cannot deny her, as they have already loved her as their own child. What proceeds from this buildup of cognitive dissonance is Lord Manfield’s uplifting and cathartic speech on the immorality of the Zong massacre and the sense that Belle is truly an equal.

That being said, I left the movie wanting more depth and less melodrama.

In one scene Belle desperately rubs her skin, as if trying to remove the color. This was too brief a snapshot of the tumult she must have experienced in coming to terms with the complexity of her identity. Confronting people with the “problem” her existence poses to their beliefs is a scary place to be as a young woman. I expected more attention to the difficult process of developing that sense of self.

That process for me has involved surmounting innumerable seeds of self-doubt planted by subtle gestures and overt comments of “you don’t belong.” My attempts to claim a place in either the white or black communities constantly meet resistance even in the 21st century. It is a back-and-forth dance of asserting myself and retreating in rejection. My parents were open to discussing the issue, yet it is still difficult to navigate. I can only imagine it must’ve been much more difficult in Belle’s conservative upbringing.

It was also difficult to believe Belle was so incensed about equality, yet demonstrated little interest in her black heritage, or developing a connection with the few black people she had contact with. As she grows up, Belle—along with the audience, is sheltered from the harsh realities of the time. Only one other black character enters the screen and Belle’s interaction with her is limited.

Danielle is a writer and special contributor to 50 Shades of Black.  Her contribution, "Papa Am I Black?" was featured in  50 Shades of Black Vol 1

Danielle is a writer and special contributor to 50 Shades of Black.  Her contribution, "Papa Am I Black?" was featured in 50 Shades of Black Vol 1

I was disappointed in the predictable and safe delivery of an infinitely complex story. I understand it is too much to ask of a single work of art, and the first of its kind, to tell all aspects of the experience of living between color lines. There is but so much you can explore when taking on historical fiction. At least, it’s a start. I am hopeful more will come in varied forms, and that soon other Belle’s and I will find ourselves more often reflected in the world around us.

—Danielle B. Douez

Emory University Grad
 Psychology 2013,
Freelance Writer & 50 Shades of Black Contributor

Posted on May 22, 2014 and filed under art, blog, family, film, history, personal stories, race, skin tone.

Reflections of an Undercover Black Girl from San Francisco

My skin is tan. My hair is wavy. In Nina Simone’s “Four Women” I might be considered a Saffonia, though my father was neither rich nor white.

As a child living in a 1970’s San Francisco, I looked exactly like what I was: a nappy-headed mixed child. Born to a fair-skinned, Caucasian mother and a medium-toned Black/Italian/Cherokee father, I have been told I look Brazilian or Cape Verdean or just Plain Ol' Regular White Girl. As I aged, my skin naturally lightened and my hair relaxed of its own accord.

At the age of nine, I moved to the Midwest. I wasn’t exactly Black or White or what was easily recognized, and my racial backstory became a constant topic. As a nappy-headed mixed child in San Francisco, I never lied about my ethnicity; there was no need for it. But, living in the Midwest, even my maternal grandmother held issue with my color; she lied to protect herself against the judgment she believed would be passed by others and, I believe, her own loathing of her non-White grandchild. Following suit, I began to tell the same lie. I hated the curliness of my hair and spent hours each day straightening it, trying to look White. White is right…right? I don’t believe that now, but I believed it then.

Living with White family members, I internalized the bigotry around me. As I matured, I finally accepted who I was; I remembered who I was; I forgave myself for believing those fear-induced lies and again became…A Mixed Girl. I am very proud to be a Mixed Girl. I am more than Black. I am more than White. I am more than simply “Other”.

While there is more to my story, I will say that as an Undercover Black Girl, I have been privy to some of the most unbelievable racist views and statements. See, I don’t look the part, so I hear it all. And, even when some know, they still share bigoted parts of themselves, I believe, in an attempt to better understand the things they don’t. I will never know the racism my Black brothers and sisters experience, because I am rarely perceived for being what I am. But, I have seen much. And my truth is this: racial fear, racial prejudice, entitlement, “White is right”, self-imposed limitations, and denial of all these things are very real.

I am an Undercover Black Girl—a Mixed Girl—whose life experience has been mostly that of a White Girl. I am an American Girl, so add that to the equation, ‘cause most of my International friends don’t have this same issue with race, though they still deal with plenty of ‘isms. I have faith in the changes that can be made in this country, in the new conversations that can take place, but everyone has to be willing to get dirty…to get naked about their fears, their expectations and their suppositions. ‘Cause it’s the subtle, clothed, barely buried-beneath-the-surface stuff that really is the most telling.

~Stacy Jethroe

Photo submitted by Stacy Jethroe


This is our 14th weekly personal story in a series curated by the creator of 50 Shades of BLACK, in partnership with I Love Ancestry called BRIDGING THE GAP featuring contemporary stories of people like YOU from around the world. 

Each week we will feature one of YOUR stories about your ancestors, your heritage, and/or your coming to understand/celebrate your OWN identity.

We personally invite you to join us on this journey of discovery and healing. Share your stories, find your voice, speak your truths.



Ashley Murphy, Ebony Williams and Misty Copeland are BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE

 June/July cover of Pointe Magazine

 June/July cover of Pointe Magazine

Congratulations to each of the beautiful women who grace the cover of the latest issue of Point Magazine.  When we saw the cover, we were reminded of our signature campaign, BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE.

BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE (TM) is the signature, global empowerment campaign of 50 Shades of Black.

We believe in the beauty found in every human being.

Our goal through this campaign is to offer everyday people a chance to see themselves in a way that many of them never have before.  Through this, we hope to connect with local communities in meaningful ways and to promote a positive and healthy sense of self-image and worth.

We've hosted 5 BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE Open Photo Shoots across the country and would love to "capture the beauty" in your community.

CONTACT US to inquire.


Posted on May 3, 2014 and filed under Body Image, skin tone.

Emory Black Star Magazine & 50 Shades of Black Release Special Edition Magazine

Screen Shot of Digital Magazine Release.  Print copies available this week!

Screen Shot of Digital Magazine Release.  Print copies available this week!

Emory Students at Black Star Special Edition Magazine Release Party.

Black Star, Emory University's first and only black student publication partnered with 50 Shades of Black to release a special edition magazine to close the year.  Dressed to impress, students crowded into the Emory Black Student Union (EBSU) for the unveiling of the magazine.

This special edition magazine comes on the heels of the two organizations successfully executing the first college campus open photo shoot of the BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE (TM) Campaign, the signature empowerment campaign of 50 Shades of Black.  Atlanta Sports and Fashion photographer Breonca Trofort captured over 100 Emory University students, faculty, and staff.

A collage of images from the BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE (TM) Open Photo Shoot grace the cover of this Special Edition Magazine.  The magazine also includes a 10 page spread featuring deeply personal reflections from students who explore their own identities ranging from black Latina, biracial, queer, Jamaican, and East African.

Samantha Scott, the editor and chief of Black Star, wanted to offer a platform for exploring the question: "What is it like being black at Emory University?"

We couldn't be happier that she chose 50 Shades of Black as a partner for helping navigate that exploration.  We are so grateful for the entire Black Star Staff, and the 100's of people from the Emory community for their powerful witness and testimony.


Wonderroot Podcast: Interview with the Creator of 50 Shades of Black

In this WonderRoot Artist Feature Carlton Mackey, creator of "50 Shades of Black", talks with WR Interactive Media Manager Floyd Hall about the origins of the project, its evolution as a platform for dialogue about race, sexuality, and identity, and why the tag line "Beautiful In Every Shade" is so meaningful.

For more information on 50 Shades of Black, visit:

WonderRoot is an Atlanta-based non-profit arts and service organization with a mission to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change. By providing production facilities to Atlanta-based artists and coordinating arts-based service programs, WonderRoot empowers artists to be proactive in engaging their communities through arts-based service work. For more information, please visit:


In school, or even outside of school, I have always been gawked at just because I looked different. I have thick long hair down to my waist, tan/medium skin, and almond, deep set eyes. People would always ask me what my race was, and I would always say "Human" I asked my Mom when I was younger what I was, then she told me her story and then my Father's story.

Firstly my Father is full blood Italian. And both of his parents roots were in Southern Italy. My Mother's on the other hand is African and Blackfoot Native American. She told me about her parents, which in fact both had Blackfoot Grandparents.  This intrigued me even more. She also told me about how her Great Grandmother, how she used to speak in her native tongue, and how she was beautiful beyond belief.

When I look at my Mom, I really don't see black, other than her skin.  Everything else is all Native: her nose, her eyes, even her hair, stands out from other black women. My Mother, also told me how in school people, other black students, would make fun of her looks because she wasn't "black enough." I compared my own situation to I was always looked at and I was never enough of anything because I was multiracial.

I felt so alone until I branched out into the Native American community and to other multi-racial people who felt as I did and who weren't accepted like I was. Even my Italian family, disowned me because I connected more with my Mom's heritage then their own. To me you can be a million things, a million different bloodlines intermingled into one, but if you don't feel connected spiritually then you aren't part of the circle. I feel and have always felt close with my Native and Black side..and always will. But, that doesn't mean I disown my Italian side. I am three parts to one puzzle, and I fit together perfectly.

Now that I am twenty years old, I am still learning so much about my self and about my family's history. I learnt some words in my tribal language. Pretty soon I will jingle dance in the up and coming powwows, and I hope to one day act and model and speak for my people, my ancestors, and ALL the bloodlines that are in me.

No I am not just one part, I am a whole.

Read Full Press Release about New Partnership

Read Full Press Release about New Partnership

This is our 11th weekly personal story curated by the creator of 50 Shades of BLACK, Carlton Mackey, in partnership with I Love Ancestry (facebook) | called BRIDGING THE GAP featuring contemporary stories of people like YOU from around the world.

Each week we will feature one of YOUR stories about your ancestors, your heritage, and/or your coming to understand/celebrate your OWN identity.

We personally invite you to join us on this journey of discovery and healing. Share your stories, find your voice, speak your truths.


50 Shades of Black Creator in Featured Podcast at Wonderroot

Floyd Hall in Recording Studio at WonderRoot in Atlanta, GA

Floyd Hall in Recording Studio at WonderRoot in Atlanta, GA

This morning I had the distinct pleasure to sit down with Floyd Hall, the Interactive Media Manager for Wonderroot for an interview.  Floyd curates the WonderRoot Podcasts series which offers listeners a vast array of conversations and insights into WonderRoot, artists and the Atlanta cultural community. Each podcast is recorded in the audio studio at WonderRoot Community Arts Center.

I can't wait to share to share more with you.  Expect podcast release early next week.

50 Shades of Black Creator Carlton Mackey and Floyd Hall at WonderRoot - Atlanta, GA

50 Shades of Black Creator Carlton Mackey and Floyd Hall at WonderRoot - Atlanta, GA

African, Native American, Irish, & Italian: I Am Here



My name is Linda Simpson [Bradford] Jenkins. I am the youngest of three siblings, and the only biological child of my parents' union. I grew up in a deeply spiritual family who loved and fought fiercely for what they believed in. 

My father, the great grandson of freed mulatto slaves, was raised by his maternal grandparents. Although my grandparents weren't married, cemetery records and oral accounts from my father's second cousin, reveal a long history of connectedness between both families (Simpson and Bradford). 

The Bradfords (African and Cherokee heritage), and the Simpsons (African, European and Cherokee heritage) have been buried in the same Tennessee cemetery dating back to the 1700s. 

My mother's lineage on her mother's side is Ethiopian and Choctaw. I remember my mother talking about conversations between her mother and grandmother (who she described as Black Indians "with coal black skin and long straight coal black hair that shined as if it was always wet). She said they would "shoo the children outdoors to play" as they talked in the Choctaw language. 

To both my mother's and my dismay, my grandmother's children never fully learned, and ultimately lost the language of their mother because my grandmother was insistent that "You kids must learn to speak English". I always felt "different" as a child--never really feeling as if I "fit it" or "was accepted". At visual appearance, I was African American, but I was always reminded at some point, that I "don't talk like us". I remember being teased by a young classmate who called me "pie face" for years. Almost 50 years later, "it all makes sense". In recent years, I started conducting my ancestry research, and the discovery has been nothing short of "liberating". 

Every child and individual should know and have access to their "culture and heritage". We are a magnificent sum of our parts, and I have much to celebrate, as do we all. I am proudly African Native American, with a dosing of Irish and Italian. I celebrate life and my ancestors each and every day, and I am loving the reddish-brown skin I'm in!

~Linda Simpson Bradford Jenkins
Photo by: Creative Silence and Edited by Carlton Mackey

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BRIDGING THE GAP: Contemporary Realities, Our Ancestral Past, & Our Liberated Future

This is our 10th weekly personal story curated by the creator of 50 Shades of BLACK, Carlton Mackey, in partnership with I Love Ancestry (facebook) called BRIDGING THE GAP featuring contemporary stories of people like YOU from around the world.

Each week we will feature one of YOUR stories about your ancestors, your heritage, and/or your coming to understand/celebrate your OWN identity.

We personally invite you to join us on this journey of discovery and healing. Share your stories, find your voice, speak your truths.



Red Bone with Blue Eyes - Ross Oscar Knight Reflects

a reflection on my journey for personal self-identity | &nbsp;photo-culturalist and International Project Coordinator of 50 Shades of Black

a reflection on my journey for personal self-identity |  photo-culturalist and International Project Coordinator of 50 Shades of Black

Does the lack of melanin in my skin make me any less black? Does the absence of a darker pigment in my eyes distance me from my cultural roots? Who am I?

I was called a "reverse-oreo" cookie growing up. The kids in my middle school told me that I was white on the outside and black on the inside. Even though I wore urban clothing and cut my hair into a "gumby," I was still ostracized by my black brothers and sisters. I was searching for my identity as a "red-bone" as I was called on the basketball court and in the black community. I felt that the color of my skin made me both intriguing and an outcast in different situations. It was depressing, and I can still clearly remember when the color divide was evident from grade school inclusion to high school segregation. I still sat on both sides of the cafeteria. No one noticed. Especially when I was wearing a hat.

By the time I made it to college I learned to be more political with the color of my skin and the color of my eyes. I felt that getting jobs was easier because I was seen as the "safe" choice. Or better yet, the "lighter face" of diversity. If I went into a marketing department at my internships, I was always chosen as the "racially ambiguous" poster child. Back at my HBCU campus I met more people that looked like me from all over the world. It made me wonder even more about my roots. Jamaican? Italian? German? African? French? Still, there was the ultra "black power" crew that told me I was only 10 percent black. They made it certain that the lack of melanin in my skin made me inferior to them. They said that my lighter skin diluted my intelligence, and their darker skin tied them closer to the Motherland and to black culture.

Today I fully embrace the beauty of my culture and mixed ancestry as well as others'. Furthermore, I feel a deep appreciation for diversity both within my own race and outside of it. My experiences as a youth planted a seed in me, a desire to understand the commonalities of the human experience despite the outward differences of culture, upbringing, appearance, and origin. I am a photo-culturalist who travels the world documenting the pinnacles of joy and the depths of sorrow in people's lives. As I continue to grow as an artist, my professional experiences coupled with my past, help me to understand the complexities surrounding identity formation from a global perspective.

~Ross Oscar Knight

(chapter 3, page 47)
50 Shades of Black Coffee Table Book Vol. 1
Photo by: Yvonne Lin for Ross Oscar Knight Photography



Posted on March 13, 2014 and filed under Identity, personal stories, race, skin tone.

We don't look the same, but our Great (x3) Grandfather was Solomon Northup of 12 years a slave

12 years a slave family collage.jpg

My great (x3) grandfather was Solomon Northup. His life was depicted in 12 Years a Slave , last night's Oscar winner for Best  Picture.

50 Shades of Black explores sexuality and skin tone in the formation of identity.

23, 5th great-grandson. The recent college grad has received many queries about Northup’s story and is thankful “people are interested in [my] family’s history.”

23, 5th great-grandson. The recent college grad has received many queries about Northup’s story and is thankful “people are interested in [my] family’s history.”

46, 4th great-granddaughter. “I’m proud I came from that bloodline,” says the real estate agent who read&nbsp;  Twelve Years a Slave  &nbsp;when she was in the military. “I’m glad his story was told.”

46, 4th great-granddaughter. “I’m proud I came from that bloodline,” says the real estate agent who read Twelve Years a Slave when she was in the military. “I’m glad his story was told.”

4, 5th great-granddaughter, daughter of&nbsp;  Justin Gilliam.

4, 5th great-granddaughter, daughter of Justin Gilliam.

Kyle Farr  27, 4th great-grandson

Kyle Farr

27, 4th great-grandson

Allan Scotty Cooper  63, retired, 3rd great-grandson

Allan Scotty Cooper

63, retired, 3rd great-grandson

"Bearing the gifts that the ancestors gave, I am the hope and the dream of a slave" -Maya Angelou

See More of Northup's descendents at


Ross Oscar Knight Beautiful in Every Shade Rwanda_0002-sm.jpg

50 Shades of BLACK | Rwanda:

50 Shades International Liaison, Ross Oscar Knight, traveled to Rwanda this February to teach a photography workshop to a group of 30 students. He's been planning this trip for the better part of two years. "I'm so honored to have been provided the opportunity to not only teach students there, but to learn from them as well. It was fascinating to see the students eyes and minds light up with curiosity and courage," says Knight. He also spent some time engaging with the community and conducting field research about how skin tone and sexual orientation are perceived and offering the message of our global BEAUTIFUL IN EVERY SHADE Campaign. This image of a young man was taken in Northern Kigali.

Stay tuned to see and hear more stories from Ross Oscar Knight reporting from around the world.

>>Order Shirt to Support Our Efforts

FREDI WASHINGTON: Why Pass for White? I'm Black...and Proud.

Fredi Washington.jpg

BRIDGING THE GAP: Celebrating Fredi Washington (1903 – 1994) in partnership I LOVE ANCESTRY

You see I’m a mighty proud gal and I can’t for the life of me, find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons, if I do I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.

I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and whenever and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight...and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.
— --Fredi Washington (1903 – 1994)

Fredi Washington was an accomplished Black American dramatic film actress, one of the first to gain recognition for her work in film and on stage.

She was active during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s). She is best known for her role as Peola in the 1934 version of the film Imitation of Life, in which she plays a young mulatto woman.

Throughout her life, Washington was often asked if she ever wanted to "pass" for white. This was a question almost unique to United States society after the American Civil War and Reconstruction. 

It classified people by hypo-descent, that is, mixed-race people were classified as belonging to the race of lower social status, in this case, Black, regardless of appearance and ancestry. Other multiracial countries tended to recognize a wider variety of classes. Washington answered conclusively, "no."

"I don't want to pass because I can't stand insincerities and shams. I am just as much Negro as any of the others identified with the race." --Fredi Washington (Fay M. Jackson, The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Apr 14, 1934)

"I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race." In 'Imitation of Life', I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt." --Fredi Washington (The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967). Chicago, Ill.: Jan 19, 1935)

Washington was fearlessly outspoken about racism faced by Black Americans. She worked closely with Walter White, then president of the NAACP, to address pressing issues facing black people in America.

Her experiences in the film industry and theatre led her to become a civil rights activist. Together with Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy and Dick Campbell, in 1937 Washington was a founding member with Alan Corelli of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in New York.

She served as executive secretary, and worked for better opportunities for Black-American actors. She also was active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to secure better hotel accommodations for Black actors, who were often discriminated against while touring. She promoted less stereotyping and discrimination in roles for black actors.

In 1953, Washington was a film casting consultant for Carmen Jones, which starred Dorothy Dandridge, another pioneering Black-American actress.

Washington died of a stroke, the last of several, on June 28, 1994 in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 90. According to her sister, Isabel, Fredi never had children.

At her death, Washington was survived by her sisters Isabel Washington, Rosebud Smith of Jamaica, Queens; and Gertrude Penna of Orlando, FL; and a brother, Floyd Washington of Hempstead, New York.

BRIDGING THE GAP: Contemporary Realities, Our Ancestral Past, & Our Liberated Future

This is the fifth of a weekly series of posts curated by I Love Ancestry on 50 Shades of BLACK featuring stories of ancestors that contributed to the struggle for freedom.

50 Shades of Black will also be curating a weekly series of stories on I Love Ancestry featuring contemporary stories of people like YOU from around the world.

We personally invite you to join us on this journey of discovery and healing.

Share your stories, find your voice, speak your truths.

Each week we will feature a story of a historical figure & one of YOUR stories about your ancestors, your heritage, and/or your coming to understand and celebrate your OWN identity.

Would you like your story featured?

Share it now at

Modern Identity of the Black Madonna?

Black Madonna

A Black Madonna or Black Virgin is a statue or painting of Mary in which she is depicted with dark skin, especially those created in Europe in the medieval period or earlier.

Since joining this blog, 50 Shades of Black keeps me thinking about identities and diversity via our skin tone and sexuality. As a minority of any sort sometimes we adopt the positive and negative connotation associated with our Race. Even as we give such connotations power by confrontation, feelings like ownership and resentment and guilt affect the culture of a group.


Last week Madonna was quoted on Instagram calling her son a “nigga”  --the same woman who popularized the gay black underground ball cultural interpretation of voguing through song, video, and employment of the underground’s most prominent. In an apology on Facebook, she wrote the following:

"I am sorry if I offended anyone with my use of the N word on Instagram," she wrote. "It was not meant as a racial slur.. I am not a racist. There's no way to defend the use of the word. It was all about intention.. It was used as a term of endearment toward my son who is white.  I appreciate that it's a provocative word and I apologize if it gave people the wrong impression.  Forgive me." 


Last month I hosted a Caucasian colleague in New York from North Carolina. As we pulled off from his hotel in Midtown to head to Harlem for dinner at Red Rooster, he threw his hands in the air where the roof was missing as he rambled off every lyric to Yeezus song Black Skinhead, politely editing himself each time Kanye West said “nigga” and “coon”. Focusing on the road I couldn’t help but count the number of pauses and the fact that he knew exactly where all of the niggas were: pun on Harlem.

The blunt reality of Hip Hop culture and Rap as its spawn is indicative of the transparency culture that started after the US civil rights & sexual revolutions in the 1960’s. Just because something exists in the culture that we know, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good for the individuals of the culture to internalize. Having stated that, western society has historically done a poor job of stifling cultural shifts. I don't know that it can, or ever will.

jigga is present

When I listen to Mac Miller (a white rapper) get called "my nigga" by Tyler The Creator (a black rapper) , I realize that the word has been normalized. This isn't the language of camaraderie that existed with a duo like Eminem and Dr. Dre in the generation before Miller and The Creator. Times are constantly changing. Further, we’ve seen Rap’s foremost mentor normalize the word more than anyone. Jay-Z’s live performance called "Picasso" based on the MoMA presentation of "The Artist if Present" is the most prevalent. In the live show Jigga presses his head against Marina Abramović and then use the word "Nigga" multiple times. His breath leaving a legacy of the word on her face as the crowd chants “Picasso Baby”. While watching the show, I thought of the 2007 funeral that the NAACP hosted in Detroit, MI for the death of the word Nigga. Immediately Eban Thomas’ voice pops into my head from his rant on Nas’s untitled album song Project Roach:

It is absolutely silly, and unproductive to have a funeral for the word nigger when the actions continue.

While Madonna is correct in that her intentions mattered, intellectuals who identify as “Black” must meet the changing culture with PEST (political, economic, social, and technological) activism instead of washing their hands of the generational-ly loaded words. The only way to counter culture is with an actual counter culture.


writer, cultural critic, special contributor to 50 Shades of Black

Posted on January 23, 2014 and filed under art, personal stories, skin tone.

12 Years A Slave Kenyan Actress Lupita Nyong’o WOWS on cover of Dazed and Confused Magazine

lupita nyongo.jpg

WOW...the magazine title may sum it all up for us.

Just off the red carpet of the golden globes where she put everyone else to shame, Lupita unveils her first UK Magazine cover.  Inside she discusses the making of Steve McQueen’s uncompromising film and how she aims to shatter stereotypes of women in Hollywood.

On newsstands Feb 16.

lupita nyongo2.jpg

Lupita Nyong'o wears clothes and accessories all by Prada

Photography by Sharif Hamza, Styling by Robbie Spencer


50 Shades of Black

Sexuality & Skin Tone in the Formation of identity



Posted on January 14, 2014 and filed under africa, art, film, skin tone.

Let Jesus Walk (Part 2)


*I put a very challenging image into the universe two days ago to start a conversation not to shut down one.

Images are important to all of us.  This is part of the reason I believe in the power of art to change the world.  The fact is it already has.

The fact that the most reproduced image in history is a piece of art created in 1940 is testimony of that. Therefore, that piece of art not only has to bear accountability but also comes with a huge responsibility.  I believe that now that responsibility is ours: those of us who spread it, those of us who believe in it, and those of us who consume it...and there are consequences for us all.

The images we consume in media and art where the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, Superman, John Wayne, Mel Gibson, or Sandra Bullock comes in to save the day are infinite.  This troubles the identity forming process for all: for those who always look like the savior and those who look like the ones who always need saving or defending against.  It impacts all of our religious, charitable, philanthropic, personal lives, and relationships.  It plays a role in shaping the way we see ourselves and the way we see others.  That is in essence what art does and why it is so powerful.

It is super hard for all of us to grapple with the fact that this is the reality...particularly if we are well meaning and good hearted.  But we must if we wish to change it.  The fight to rebel against this narrative belongs to all of us and it starts with acknowledging not only its existence but its deadly consequences.

If for those who believe that the First Century Palestinian Jew named Jesus is the Savior of the world...who was born to be a liberator, a healer, a revolutionary, and the one who is to reconcile relationships between all of humanity and God, then the way the teachings, message, and images of him are understood, spread, and interpreted...and the consequences of all of the above have to be taken seriously.

If Jesus is the savior of the world and IF human beings must see images of Jesus to truly worship him and IF who he was/is does not have to match a fixed point on a historical timeline AND therefore we are allowed to create images in a way that help us relate to make him personal for make him the embodiment of our hopes and make him one's personal savior, then Sallman's Head of Christ may, in all fairness, may be one of those images.

But IF all of the above exist, then it can't be the only one.  The fact is that Sallman's rendition is an imaginative, historically inaccurate, personally suiting, reflection of Jesus from the perspective of the artist. Since this is true, then there can (and always have been) others...and the others should not be seen as any less valid.  The problem is that in a context of Western dominated, classist, patriarchal world, this is a tough sell...and they are hard to seen as anything but "alternatives".  Although they were all created by artists just like Sallman, they are often hard to be taken (by people who they are created in the image of or by others) as legitimate options.  (Selah)

But nevertheless they do exist.  Folks who understand Christ as the "suffering servant" of varying ethnic and gender groups have created images of Christ in (maybe/maybe not) the same way Sallman did.

Just like those of us -all of us who are committed to justice have reached across the aisle to break down segregation and have done everything in our power to erase hate and love our neighbor as ourselves we can continue to do so.  Let us challenge ourselves to do just that.

None of these images are sacred simply because they were created.  The only thing sacred about any of them is what or who they point us to.  What is your image of Jesus?  What/Who is it pointing you to?  

Your ideal?   

A transcendent, resurrected savior?  

The suffering in the world? 
The people you most need to be reconciled to?
Does it call you to action...or does it make you complacent?

When you look at it, does it make you want to love more?  Does it make you want to fight against injustice? Does it make you forgive?

Whatever it is, let it be a choice...a conscious choice...a well thought out conscious choice...even if you decide that it is better to not have one at all.

...and may it lead to all of our collective liberation.


Carlton Mackey

Creator of 50 Shades of Black
Exploring Sexuality & Skin Tone in the Formation of Identity

Sexuality & Skin Tone: 28 Years of LL Cool J's Radio

28 years ago almost to the day (November 18,1985), LL Cool J released his first studio album RADIO
...and has been at the center of conversations about (sex)uality and skin tone every since.

Tomorrow 50 Shades of Black presents a concept photo shoot (with a twist) inspired by the light skinned, lip-licking legend himself. the meantime Download the Free 50 SHADES OF BLACK MUSIC Mixtape
feat music from LL Cool J to Lord Invader!  TELL A FRIEND

Photography by Carlton Mackey   Make up by Chevon Dominique   Styling by Kari Mackey

Photography by Carlton Mackey
Make up by Chevon Dominique
Styling by Kari Mackey

Posted on November 25, 2013 and filed under art, fashion, music, sexuality, skin tone.

Leading Authors Discuss Colorism and Impact on Global Society


*Why should we be concerned about colorism in 2013?
*How is it impacting our lives and our progress today?
*What are some of the ways that colorism intersects with racism and sexism?
*Why is it urgent that we address colorism, in the midst of "The Browning of America"? 
*What are the solutions? What can we do as individuals? And as a community?


Dr. Yaba Blay: (1) Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race


 Dr. Yaba Blay is a professor, producer, and publisher. As a researcher and ethnographer, she uses personal and social narratives to disrupt fundamental assumptions about cultures and identities. As a cultural worker and producer, she uses images to inform consciousness, incite dialogue, and inspire others into action and transformation

While her broader research interests are related to Africana cultural aesthetics and aesthetic practices, and global Black popular culture, Dr. Blay’s specific research interests lie within global Black identities and the politics of embodiment, with particular attention given to hair and skin color politics.  Her 2007 dissertation, Yellow Fever: Skin Bleaching and the Politics of Skin Color in Ghana, relies upon African-centered and African feminist methodologies to investigate the social practice of skin bleaching in Ghana; and her ethnographic case study of skin color and identity in New Orleans entitled “Pretty Color and Good Hair” is featured as a chapter in the anthology Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair/Body Politics in Africana Communities.

One of today’s leading voices on colorism and global skin color politics, Dr. Yaba Blay is the author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race and artistic director of the (1)ne Drop project. In (1)ne Drop, she explores the interconnected nuances of skin color politics and Black racial identity, and challenges narrow perceptions of Blackness as both an identity and lived reality. In 2012, she served as a Consulting Producer for CNN Black in America – “Who is Black in America?” – a television documentary inspired by the scope of her (1)ne Drop project. In addition to her production work for CNN, Dr. Blay is producing a transmedia film project focused on the global practice of skin bleaching (with director Terence Nance).

Dr. Blay received her BA in Psychology (Cum Laude) from Salisbury State University, M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology from the University of New Orleans, and M.A. and Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple University with a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies. She is currently co-Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University. Dr. Blay is also the publisher and editor-in-chief of BLACKprint Press.

Carlton Mackey:  50 Shades of Black

@ carltonmackey @50shadesblack

Carlton Mackey is a visual artist and Director of the Ethics & the Arts Program at the Emory University Center for Ethics.

50 Shades of Black is committed to exploring the complex relationship between race, skin tone, sexuality, and the formation of self-identity. Through collaborations with visual artists, scholars and the general public, this project hopes to offer a deeper understanding of what diversity means. It is in the recognition of this diversity that 50 Shades of Black acknowledges the historical role that race and skin tone have played in shaping the way we engage the world, how we perceive beauty, and our own self worth.

Marcia Alesan Dawkins: Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity


Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Ph.D. is a technology-loving, diversity-oriented intellectual entrepreneur from New York City and communication professor at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles.

An award-winning author, speaker, and educator, Dawkins -- known to "tweeps" as @drdawkins09 -- is a leading authority on how diversity, technology and creative storytelling are changing everything.

Her expert opinion has been sought out by Google, NPR, WABC-TV, TIME Magazine, The New York Times, HuffPo Live, The Leadership Alliance, The Mayo Clinic, The Nashville Public Library Foundation and The Public Relations Society of America.

Her first book, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, was released in August 2012 to rave reviews. Most notable among these is Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, who remarked, "Clearly Invisible is a thought-provoking analysis... that challenges the way we view race and culture in our society." Dawkins's second book, Eminem: The Real Slim Shady, is now available and nominated for the 2013 USA Best Book Award.

Dawkins has received grants and awards from organizations such as the National Communication Association, the Eastern Communication Association, the Irvine Foundation, the California State University and Google Project Glass. She has been recognized by the University of Southern California for outstanding teaching and mentoring. In addition, she has been awarded residencies and fellowships from Brown University, Vanderbilt University Law School, New York University, Villanova University and the USC Graduate School Office of the Provost.

Dawkins holds a doctorate in communication from USC Annenberg, master's degrees in humanities from USC and NYU and bachelor's degrees in communication arts and honors from Villanova.

Lakesia D. Johnson, JD, PhD
Grinnell College Department of  Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies and English

Lakesia D. Johnson has a law degree, M.A. and Ph.D. in Women's Studies from The Ohio State University. Her areas of teaching and research include visual and narrative culture, Black women's studies, Chicana feminist theory, critical race theory and feminist legal theory. Her essay, "Othermothers, Amazons and Strategies of Leadership in the Public and Private Spheres" is featured in Black Womanist Leadership: Tracing the Motherline (SUNY Press 2011) edited by Toni C. King and S. Alease Ferguson. Her book Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman was published in August by Baylor University Press.

Book:  ICONIC: Decoding the Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman
When Lakesia D. Johnson set out to write her book – ICONIC: Decoding the Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman – she had two primary goals in mind: to explore how representations of strong, revolutionary black women within pop culture are used to reinforce mostly negative stereotypes about black women and to trace the numerous ways that African American women activists, actors, writers, and musicians have negotiated, confronted and resisted stereotypical representations of black womanhood by taking control of their public images and constructing iconic depictions of and narratives about African American womanhood.  

One image that has circulated the Internet for months was the mugshot of recording artist Lauryn Hill. Once viewed as a strong, independent, extremely successful pop cultural figure, one which extended beyond the boundaries of her music, Lauryn is now depicted through this very photograph as an unhappy, sad woman.  And in many respects, it might be easy for some who view the picture to categorize her blank, empty stare as typical of the "angry black woman."  Johnson is able to discuss this present-day image of Lauryn Hill, what it means to her musical legacy and how it may or may not change the scope of how she is viewed today as a once iconic black woman figure. 

Further, Johnson can focus on how ICONIC chronicles how strong black women, from the past to the present, have taken control of their own imaging despite consistent negative characterizations.  Through their speech, demeanor, fashion, social relationships and historical contributions, women from Sojourner Truth to Michelle Obama have counteracted these negative depictions.  With ingenuity, fortitude and focus on the greater good, these women transformed the cultural images of themselves and, simultaneously, those of American black women as a whole.

Sophia A. Nelson, Esq 
Author. Columnist. Political Pundit. Speaker. 

Book Title: "Black Woman Redefined - Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama"

Sophia A. Nelson, Esq.  is “redefining” the rules for 21st Century living and success. She is the author of the award winning book “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama” (May 2011). 

Sophia A. Nelson writes a national lifestyle & political column for Newsweek/Daily Beast, and does various opinion columns for Huffington Post Healthy Living, Black Voices & Women.  She also writes for NBC's theGrio , and is a contributor to MSNBC, Essence Magazine, USATODAY and NPR. You can watch Sophia regularly as a noted political pundit & social commentator on MSNBC & TVOne's Washington Watch with Roland S. Martin. Her second book "The WOMAN CODE" is due out in late 2014. You can learn more about her on

Black Woman Redefined was inspired in part by what Nelson calls “open season on accomplished black women,” which reached a tipping point in 2007 when Don Imus referred to black female Rutger’s University basketball co-eds as “nappy-headed hos.” Since then, we’ve seen First Lady Michelle Obama caricatured on the infamous New Yorkercover, when she was called “angry” and “unpatriotic”; the 2009 groundbreaking Yale University Study on professional black women titled, “Marriage Eludes High-Achieving Black Women”; ABC’s “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” and the Internet video that went viral, “Black Marriage Negotiations,” featuring a successful black woman interviewing a nice black man to be her mate in a robotic, controlling, emasculating, Bible-thumping demeanor. 

More recently, we were subjected to the 2011 Super Bowl commercial that started a national firestorm featuring an “angry black woman” throwing a soda can at her mate, after first kicking, slapping, and emasculating him.  Nelson says black women are tired of such depictions that portray them as manless, childless, angry, and unfulfilled. Nelson sets out to change this cultural perception, taking readers on a no-holds-barred journey into the hearts and minds of accomplished black women to reveal truths, tribulations, and insights like never before.  She says it is time for a REDEFINITIONamong black women in America.

TaRessa Stovall: Other People’s Skin: Four Novellas


TaRessa Stovall is an author/blogger/identity activist committed to honesty, healing and progress. She co-edited and contributed to the anthology, Other People’s Skin,crafted with fellow sister-authors Tracy Price-Thompson, Desiree Cooper and Elizabeth Atkins to explore ways of healing the rifts between Black women caused by colorism and hairism.

Other People Skin, which kicked off the Sister for Sister Empowerment Series, was followed by My Blue Suede Shoes,four novellas exploring what lies behind and ways of healing from various forms of intimate violence/domestic abuse.

TaRessa, a native of Seattle and graduate of The Evergreen State College, co-authored the book A Love Supreme: Real-Life Stories of Black Love, which was featured on Oprah, and has authored, co-authored and/or co-edited (with Tracy Price-Thompson) several other works of fiction and non-fiction.

TaRessa blogs at


Ella Curry, President of  EDC Creations 
About Me:
Black Pearls Magazine Online-Founder
Black Authors Network Radio-Founder
Social Media Expert - Internet Publicist - Brand Strategist


TONIGHT, Nov. 22. 

Call in number:  (646) 200-0402

Listen here:



Meeting the Legendary Joyce Bryant (Part Two)

"Up to the debut of Joyce Bryant at the Aladdin black entertainer had ever performed at a Miami Beach hotel."-Ben Burns

"Up to the debut of Joyce Bryant at the Aladdin black entertainer had ever performed at a Miami Beach hotel."-Ben Burns


(READ Part 1)

“It is such an honor to meet you”.

A smile preceded her words.  But when she responded I realized that I was not prepared for the person I was about to encounter.

“Why, thank you so much.”  It was a simple phrase in part, but she spoke it with such power in her voice that I was taken aback.  When I admitted this to her toward the end of our visit, she responded, "What did you expect?"  Even in her 80's she refused to be defined by perceived limitations.  She would be understood on her own terms.  I know now that this approach was inevitably behind her rise to the spot light and her enigmatic existence since purposely leaving from in front of it.

Her words were immediately followed by a hot plate of food with a taste and smell so good that they still linger in my memory today (two weeks later).  I was sitting down for a meal with Joyce Bryant.


I raved and raved about the food.  I publically confessed that the only reason there was food still on the plate was because I didn’t want to embarrass myself.

“Eat!  That’s what it’s there for!  You don’t have to sit up here trying to eat pretty on account of us.  Eat son.”  I smiled.  Everyone else laughed.  It was a laughter that suggested they knew very well that she would then and for the rest of our time together speak exactly what was on her mind.

“You cook?”

I paused.

“Obviously, not very well if you have to take that long to think about it”.  The same laughter ensued.  This time I was prepared for it.  I felt like part of the family.

“I know my way around the kitchen; let’s just say that.”  I was curbing my comments knowing that I was in the presence of the person, her niece Robyn, who invited me…an organic chef who had prepared meals for Aunt Joyce and A-listers for years.

“What is one of your best dishes?” she asked.  I told her about my new favorite kale dish and my honey Dijon mustard, pecan encrusted salmon.  She was affirming but not overly impressed.

I gobbled down the rest of my food and played friskily with Jazz, the adorable Rottweiler puppy that had been weaving between our feet.  When Aunt Joyce finished her food we picked up the conversation and followed it wherever it lead.  Like kids running down a trail in the woods for the first time there was both the mystery of the unknown but the confidence that the trail would be safe -the grass beaten down before us signaling that others have been this way before.

We talked about race relations in the American South.  When I told here I was in Atlanta now she asked if they were still lynching folks down there and if I felt safe.  When I said that I did (for the most part), she seemed to have a flash back to her days performing and touring in the south.  She lifted her head and peered off in to the distance commenting that they’d lynch you in a heartbeat back in the day.

joyce bryant beautiful dark skin.JPG

I stared at her beautiful skin.  It was dark and smooth.  There were no wrinkles in sight.  When I asked her what her secret was, she invited me to touch it.  It felt like her voice sounded.   She asked to touch mine.  I leaned in closer and she touched my face –forehead then cheeks.  She told me some ‘beauty secrets’ and warned about keeping it moist.  The advice was followed by a very interesting conversation about dark skin wrinkling less than light skin.

With a sudden turn on the trail, we ended up somewhere that totally caught me by surprise.  What seemed like out of the blue she commented on my voice and asked me if I could sing.  Like earlier when she asked me about my cooking, I paused.

“Oooh, I guess not.  Here you go taking forever to think about your answer,” she responded.  Everyone erupted with laughter…again.  I told her that I could definitely hold a tune and that I was raised in the Baptist church.  She knew exactly what I meant by that.  The moments that followed will forever be etched in my memory.

"I think as a group, entertainers should fight Jim Crow because as individuals we can't break it down."-Joyce Bryant

"I think as a group, entertainers should fight Jim Crow because as individuals we can't break it down."-Joyce Bryant

“It’s all in your breathing,” she said as she sat straight up in her chair.  For the next 15 minutes, Joyce Bryant coached me on how to breathe.  It was a lesson that surpassed any expectations that I had of my visit.  It was a lesson with meaning that stretched far beyond any implications on bettering my vocal ability.  It was a lesson about centering.  It was about being present.  It was about being fully present.  It was a lesson about being whole.  As we sat exhaling and inhaling together, I felt connected to myself and to a woman who I had just met for the first time –a woman who as I was seeking so hard to know more about, so many before me seemed to have forgotten.

There at that dinner table, I was remembering how to breathe by someone who probably doesn’t have as many breaths in front of her as those she has already taken but insisted on teaching someone else while reminding herself to make each one count.

For that I’m forever grateful.  For that, I want to work harder to ensure that who she is, the breaths she has taken, the lives she has touched, and the breaths that she has helped others take more deeply are not forgotten.                                                    

It’s not every day you get to meet a legend.  Yesterday I did.  I’d like to introduce you to her.  Her name is Joyce Bryant.


-carlton mackey
Creator of 50 Shades of Black

**A Special Tribute and Exclusive Reflection by Joyce Bryant's Niece is featured in our Coffee Table Book, 50 Shades of Black Vol. 1! 


Posted on November 21, 2013 and filed under art, history, music, personal stories, sexuality, skin tone, race.