How Colorism Affected the Life of Bob Marley

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In August 2003, Dwight Burch - a dark-skinned, African-American waiter at an Applebee’s restaurant in Jonesboro, Ga. filed a lawsuit against Applebee’s and his light-skinned African American supervisor. In the suit, Burch alleged that during his three months at the restaurant the manager repeatedly referred to him as “tar baby” and “black monkey”. Burch also alleged that the manager told him to bleach his skin and that he was fired when he threatened to report the man to Applebee’s head quarters. Burch was subsequently awarded $40,000 to settle the suit. (Reported by Alex P. Kellogg, BET.com Staff Writer).

In the case above, Burch experienced what several black scholars refer to as colorism. Colorism is discrimination within the black community based on skin tone (B. Maxwell). It is the belief that a person’s “goodness” is inversely related to the darkness (sometimes the lightness) of his/her skin.

My family comes in all shades: My father dark coffee, my mother mocha, my brother milk cocoa and I’m simply cocoa. Because we lived overseas, my experience with colorism is relatively limited. Yet I do recall family gatherings in the US where a few of my relatives would marvel over my brother and pay little attention to me. Until recently, I thought it was because he was the younger one. My mother was highly in-tune with color issues in black society. She made sure that my brother and I knew that we were equally handsome, talented and bright and that we should be there for each other. When I was about 8 years old, I remember walking into a restaurant with my mother and brother. A black waitress walked over to us and told my mother “wow, isn’t he a cute one”, pointing to my brother. My mother quickly snapped, “Don’t you mean, isn’t he a light one?” and walked us out of the restaurant, assuring us that we were equally cute.

Colorism is neither new, nor exclusive to one part of the world. It affects almost every black person directly and indirectly. My paper looks at the ways Bob Marley’s mixed heritage subjected him to the positive and adverse effects of colorism in Jamaica and the United States. I will examine the ways in which the colorism Bob faced as a youth, affected his decisions to adopt the religion of Rastafari and raise his fist for black power.

The roots of colorism can be traced back to the days of slavery where white slave masters would rape their African slaves who then bore children of “mixed” skin color. These children were typically disliked by the African slaves, and later the African Americans because their light-skin reflected the absence of some of the, so-called, “negative” traits of blackness that the oppressors had associated with evil and inferiority (K. Michelle Scott, 1). Many dark-skinned black people had absorbed and internalized these negative messages and thus light-skinned blacks were often thought to be smarter, prettier and superior to those of darker skin (K. Michelle Scott, 1). Public policy and societal tendencies, however, would make being light-skinned in Jamaica different from America. In the United States, the government was aware of the fact that miscegenation would soon bring into question the ethics of slavery. In order to avert this, they ruled that one-drop of black blood was enough to make a person “Black” in the eyes of society. This meant that light-skinned blacks were given no alternative but to identify as black.

In Jamaica, however, such laws were not adopted by the government. White slaveholders typically recognized their biracial children and arranged for them to study in Europe (Stephens 167). Gradually, a “brown” level emerged between black and white. Successful Brown Jamaicans typically distanced themselves from their “inferior” black counterparts by living in exclusively brown areas.

Though Bob grew up in Jamaica, he had little contact with his father and was reared by his mother in the predominantly black Trench town slum. Bob’s environment provided...
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