Fantasia Barrino's Suicide Attempt Sheds Light on Classism and Colorism in the Black Community
Many people were surprised in August when it was announced that former American Idol winner and Broadway actress Fantasia Barrino was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. What was more surprising is how quickly she returned to the spotlight. She appeared on the talk show circuit, openly discussing the recent tribulations that caused her to take a handful of aspirin so she, in her words, could "sleep forever:"
"I always covered up everything so well," Fantasia said, sipping a glass of wine at a Beverly Hills hotel after taping "Lopez Tonight" last week. "I'm always the bubbly life of the party. And for so long, I pushed and pushed and pushed. And, this day, I had no push in me."
The catalyst for her suicide attempt was a married man whom she believed was separated from his wife. But when pictures of the couple surfaced, the wife of her boyfriend filed for divorce, named Barrino in the papers, and accused her husband and Barrino of making a sex tape (you would think that in this day and age people take the camcorder out of the bedroom, but apparently not in this case). According to Barrino, the disapproval of family members, harassment by strangers and the fear that the affair might ruin her career put her over the edge.
Unlike other people -- both celebrities and "regular" folks -- Barrino seemed to bounce back quickly. She didn't spend time in a facility to bolster her mental and emotional strength, or retreat from the public eye to spend time with her nine-year-old daughter. Instead, she hit the talk show circuit and said that one of the reasons why she was so fearful of the media's spotlight was because as a darker-skinned woman, she was more criticized and had gotten fewer opportunities than lighter-skinned female musicians and actors.
Fantasia told Vibe:
"They never put me in those magazines [featuring] the red carpet. Everybody there has long hair and everybody is bright-skinned, and I was like, 'But wait a minute. They never gave me that.' That bothered me." She continued, "And then I tried hard to find people to dress me, and they still would not put me there [in those magazines].”
The comparisons Barrino used call to mind singer Alicia Keys, who recently married producer/rapper Swizz Beatz. Beatz was allegedly still married when the two started dating, and Beatz's ex-wife, Mashonda, also publicly called out the mistress of her husband. Some have questioned whether Keys, who is due to give birth later this year, had an easier time in the public eye because of her light skin. From The Root:
They painted Keys' wedding as a fairy tale, even though she allegedly did what many women other than Angelina Jolie consider to be the unthinkable: steal another woman's husband and get pregnant before the divorce is even final. Most women on the receiving end of that behavior would take the pregnancy as a great big open-handed slap to the face. Of course, we don't know if Keys "stole" Beatz from his wife -- no one knows what goes on in marriages -- but it appears that she was romantically involved with someone who was married. Beatz's wife, Mashonda, maintains that she was blindsided by the affair with Keys, who was even a guest at her baby shower.
I'm wondering why the mainstream media are so willing to let Keys off the hook for what many would call socially unacceptable behavior at best, and immoral behavior at worst, while taking Barrino to task for similar behavior.
On one hand, it is surprising: Keys is vastly more successful than Barrino, yet Barrino can outsing Keys with a sore throat. Keys' public persona is one in which she can do a duet with Bono and be invited to perform in front of President Nelson Mandela at the World Cup. She seems to easily move between having a "street" attitude (shown in her first album) and and a classy demeanor. Barrino, on the other hand, has a reality show (which I can't get in Canada) that reportedly shows a rather unflattering side of African-American life. With her numerous ill-conceived tattoos, dark skin, stereotypically "African" features and a southern drawl, Barrino can be perceived as having barely made it out of the "ghetto" with her big voice and a big smile. Keys grew up poor in Brooklyn -- but with fair skin, aquiline features, and naturally long hair, seems to have avoided the "ghetto hoodrat" stereotype because she doesn't look the part.
And what is "the part," you ask? Bloggers are now talking about color and class and how they played a role in the media's coverage of the two stories about black celebrities openly having affairs with married men -- and about how light-skinned black women have an easier time not only in the white-dominated media industry, but also within the urban media outlets.
Eco.Soul.Intellectual wrote a post about Barrino that caused so much friction with her light-skinned friends; she followed up with another post. In the original post, the blogger argued that yes, skin color and class played a part in Barrino's coverage:
Fantasia fits perfectly into the quintessential black woman that mainstream America imagines -— uneducated, lonely and poor. The fact that she is darker in her brown complexion with broad facial features and big-ole booty, made it easier for the jokes and perceptions to continue.
She is the Jezebel, the Mammy, the Sapphire, the Aunt Sarah and Peaches in Nina Simone’s infamous song, "Four Women." Hell, look at how Nina Simone herself got treated. Or for that matter, Shirley Chisholm, Cicely Tyson and even Gabrielle Union who can’t land a job if she sucked every director in Hollywood.
Fantasia is aesthetically displeasing from the lens of a supremacist mindset that has never embraced brown-skinned ladies as the epitome of beautiful.
In her second post, Eco.Soul, while acknowledging that to many, "black is black" -- that it is not skin hue that is important -- she still defends her original argument:
So let me restate my point. I agree that Fantasia's assessment of her being targeted for her extra-marital affairs because she was darker than Alicia keys was wrong. BUT I do agree that in her career, like so many other darker-skinned female performers, she has gotten the short end of the stick.
And until black women stop using skin lightener to be "beautiful" then I stand by my words.
Colorism and classism within black communities is an issue that has been in existence since the slave era, when the owners of plantations and other white businessmen used the hue of their slaves to determine what work they would perform. The lighter-skinned slaves were often regulated to domestic chores (and in some cases, made sexual concubines), and the darker-skinned slaves worked outside, performing more rigorous yard and field work. This practice occurred not only because the lighter-skinned blacks were thought to be more aesthetically pleasing to their owners, but also to psychologically separate the slaves and cause enough friction to deter them from getting together to escape or overthrow their owner.
Unfortunately, the tactics used during the slave era still exist. Recently, blogger and writer Demetria L. Lucas of A Belle in Brooklyn wrote about a recent experience hosting a party at a well-known club in New York City, where the bouncer of the club would not allow "certain guests" in the club -- regardless of their position and (more important) that they were invited guests of Lucas:
The doorman ignores her. "I get paid very well* by the owner, not the deejay, to maintain a visual aesthetic. If your guests come and mention you, and they meet our visual aesthetic, then I don't have a problem letting them in. If they do not, I won't let them in."
"You understand that the woman you won't let in is [list job title and affiliation], i.e she's kind of a big deal," I say.
He looks at me blankly.
"Please explain the visual aesthetic," my PR insists. She's pushy. This is why I have her.
The doorman finally addresses her. "I won't explain that to you." Then its back to me. "If you have any additional concerns, have the DJ come talk to me. I won't be speaking with either of you further."
Jack and Jill Politics recently posted an "Invitation" that was received by one of their writers to join The Harlem Club, an exclusive club in ... well, Harlem. For the ladies, it's not so easy getting in, and many felt that, unless the women somehow were to fulfill a man's sexual fantasies, there was no way they would get membership:
Associate Membership (open only to women from all racial groups)
1) Very Attractive;
2) 21 to 35 years of age;
5) College Educated.
Women from all racial groups who meet the above guidelines for Associate Membership are required to email a resume (one page) and one photo (head-to-toe) to info@HarlemClub.com.
Founding General Members (open only to men from all racial groups)
1) 25 years of age or older;
2) College Educated;
3) Membership Fee: $5,000.
No, the above doesn't mention that the women need to be light-skinned, but obviously there are some disparities between which men will be selected and which women will not be. The most disturbing issue lies on The Harlem Club's website:
For too long, professional women in Harlem have been denied the opportunity to socialize with like minded professionals at a Harlem venue -- FREE of hoodrats and pigeons. At The Harlem Club, a select group of professional women will be able to network with African-American men who are college educated and employed with incomes of $250,000+.
(I bolded the above words, slang terms for men and women who have a lower economic and social status. In other words, "ghetto.")
Hmm, maybe Fantasia had a point.
Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture
Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com
Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca
More from entertainment