Light-Skin Brothers Making A Comeback

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I was watching The Last Dragon last night, and joking with Kenyatta about Vanity. Man, the whole neighborhood had it bad for her. We were in the middle of that scene where DeBarge does "Rhythm Of The Night" and Vanity sings "Seventh Heaven." (Kenyatta kept yelling "She's horrible!" And yeah, she basically was. Fine as hell, but no Aretha.) Anyway we were talking about how yellow was thing back then. It's standard business these days for black actors to note their "exotic" lineage ("Such and such has French, Cherokee, Aleutian and Martian ancestry...") but back then everyone, it seemed, wanted to look, and claim to be, biracial.

I'm talking about people who I worship today, and half-worshiped then--Mike, Prince, DeBarge etc. I'd watch their videos, and it wasn't just the personal optics that offended, it was the multi-racial cast--the whites, the Asians, the Latinos etc. (Yeah, mostly the whites.) I think so many of us grew up in neighborhoods where there wasn't that sort of diversity and we believed that the pulsing heart of American music was there on the block, and anything that didn't pledge fealty to the block, wasn't "real" music.

There's a passage in my book where I try to explain the appeal of hip-hop (circa '88), from the perspective of people who feel like their heroes are compromising themselves in order to get heard:

Niggers were on MTV in lipstick and curls, extolling their exotic quadoons, big-upping Fred Astaire and speaking like the rest of us didn't exist. I'm talking S-curls and sequins, Lionel Richie dancing on the ceiling. I'm talking the corporate pop of Whitney, and Richard Pryor turning into the toy.

We felt--I felt--that these guys were taking our music, but not taking us. And so when hip-hop started cresting into it's golden age, it felt like, "Yeah, this is us. This is the whole of us." To me personally, these are some of the most meaningful words ever recorded:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant ---- to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother---- him and John Wayne
Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps

Now they are also erroneous words (the evidence of Elvis straight up racism is thin) but that only makes the point. These were the things--rumors, warts and all--that were said when it was only us around, and we were tired of whispering them. When Chuck said that it was like an exorcism. It was a statement about an almost parallel reality ("Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps") that had gone unacknowledged. I can't speak for black youth everywhere, but in my set, by 92, you were embarrassed to say "sexy young ladies of the light-skin breed" or "redbone booties I'm out to wax." You couldn't really rock the S-Curl anymore--at least not out east. And you'd be publicly mocked for throwing in green contacts.

I'm thankful for that. And yet, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time these past few months, thinking about what my own anger caused me to miss. Likely because the pain of those years is so removed, I can look at the video for When Doves Cry, not just without angst, but with a sense that that really was the future, that Prince for all his faux biracialism, was on to something. The '80s were so segregated, and when we saw Mike with this diverse group in the Smooth Criminal video, we didn't think he was bringing the real. But he was bringing the future.

I think now, that all of us, from that period, walked with some shame about how we looked--our kinky hair, full lips, differing shade of brown. But I think it was wrong of me, and those like me, to write off what these guys were doing strictly as shame, and wronger still, I think, to not see the visionary aspects that were there too. Shame was there, but there was also so much more.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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