Liberating Blackness: The Theme of Whitening in Two Colombian Short Stories

Liberating Blackness: The Theme of Whitening in Two Colombian Short Stories

Volume 35, Number 2, Spring 2012
pages 475-493
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2012.0074

Laurence E. Prescott, Professor
Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese
Pennsylvania State University

Hablaré del físico de los negros, casi como de carrera. Tienen dos cosas repugnantes para no gustar, el color negro y el mal olor. . . .

Pbro. Felipe Salvador Gilii

The convert may have found spiritual salvation in the White Man’s faith; he may have acquired the White Man’s culture and learnt to speak his language with the tongue of an angel; he may have become adept in the White Man’s economic technique, and yet it profits him nothing if he has not changed his skin.

Arnold Toynbee

The premium placed by many Negroes on a light shade of skin, straight hair, and Caucasian features, are all indicative of severely injured self-esteem and of the inferiority assumed in things Negro.

Peter Loewenberg

And above all, the author must believe in black folk, and in the beauty of black as a color of human skin.

W. E. B. Du Bois

In Black Skin, White Masks, a probing psychological exploration of the dynamics of racism and its effects on both Blacks and Whites, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes: “In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his body schema. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. The body is surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty” (110–111). As Fanon goes on to say, the equating of blackness with evil and ugliness stimulated white scientists to seek a means of removing “the burden of that corporeal malediction” (111). Simultaneously, that same malevolent identification prompted black people to go to extraordinary lengths to free themselves from their blackness, the alleged source of their discontent. Skin lighteners, hair straighteners, miscegenation, and “passing” are some of the more common methods that have been tried over the years. These preoccupations have not gone unnoticed by creative writers. In 1931 African American journalist and writer George S. Schuyler (1895–1977) published the humorously satirical novel Black No More, in which a black doctor discovers a process that changes black skin to white and transforms Negroid features to Caucasian in a matter of hours, thereby disrupting the racial status quo, bolstering the defenders of white racial purity and supremacy, and ruining black businesses and civil rights organizations.

Schuyler’s novel is probably the best-known African American work of fiction that deals with a physical transformation of black people to bring about group liberation and a “happy” resolution of “the race problem.” The theme and pursuit of whitening, however, is not confined to North American society and literature. It is also present in the cultures and literary and non-literary works of Latin America. Indeed, in the nation of Colombia, South America, whose citizens of African descent constitute a significant portion of the total population, both journalists and creative writers have shown a continuing interest in the physical whitening of black peoples. As early as 1883, for example, there appeared in the “Folletines” supplement of the Bogotá newspaper La Luz, a notice titled “No más negros” ‘No more Blacks,’ which reported on a doctor in South Carolina who was experimenting with “una agua milagrosa que da á la piel de los negros la blancura de la nieve” ‘a miraculous water which gives to Negroes’ skin the whiteness of snow.’ Lacking official confirmation of the extraordinary liquid, the authors of the note, associating the word “anti-negro” with “antidote,” wryly concluded: “Hasta que así sea y sepamos á qué atenernos, confesamos que el anti-negro nos parece un white lie” ‘Until it is so and we know on what to rely, we confess that the anti-black seems to us a white lie.’ Noteworthy, too, is the presence in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century publications of advertisements directed at women for products that lighten—and (thus) allegedly…

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