Commentary: Sammy Sosa and black identity revisited

The Miami HeraldDecember 2, 2009 

Please indulge me as I answer an e-mail from a guy named Dunbar. It says in part:

"Your column on Sammy Sosa's skin cream use is off base and sends a wrong message. The issue is the man's character — not the color of his skin. Your column seemingly assumes he lightens his skin color out of shame and fails to recognize that he may simply be doing it out of vanity or his own sense of personal style. Plenty of fair-skinned people use skin-darkening creams, sun baths, tanning beds for that purpose and the only criticism leveled at them is vanity and stupidity for ignoring skin cancer warnings. The same should hold for Sammy.

"...I think I know what point you are trying to make and that is a laudable one. But your delivery was clumsy and it might come across to some as 'me thinks thee doth protest too much.' "

Dear Dunbar:

Thank you for writing. It's always a treat to receive such a thoughtful dissent.

Hope you don't mind my using your e-mail as a vehicle for revisiting my recent column on Sosa, the once-black former baseball star who now looks like a photo negative of himself, but that piece generated so many missives like yours that I thought doing so might be of value.

I'm intrigued that you "think" you know what point I was trying to make. The fact that you have to guess, that it wasn't starkly obvious to you, suggests that what we have here is a gulf between life experiences. It brings to mind a parable to the effect that the rabbit and the bear will never agree on how threatening is the dog.

I'm going to assume -- I apologize if I'm wrong -- that you're not black. I say that because I've not yet encountered a single African-American reader who did not know immediately what my point was. My white readers, though, were more likely to see me as chiding Sosa for what they regarded as a benign cosmetic choice, such as when they color their hair, inject Botox in their faces or, yes, lie under the sun trying to get a tan. From where they sit, it's the same when a black man lightens his skin.

I'm here to tell you: It isn't.

I'd like you to do something for me. Go to YouTube and look up a movie: A Girl Like Me, directed by Kiri Davis. In the 7:15 it takes to watch, you may get a better understanding of the point I'm making.

The centerpiece of the film is a recreation of the old "doll test" conducted by a black psychologist, Dr. Kenneth Clark, in the 1940s. Clark found that black children, asked to choose between otherwise identical black and white baby dolls which one is "nice" and which one is "bad," overwhelmingly favored the white one. Davis found that nothing has changed, six decades later.

Why is that the nice doll, the unseen researcher asks a little boy. "Because she's white," he replies, savoring the word like candy. Why does that one look bad, the researcher asks a girl. "Because it's black," the child says. Then the researcher asks this girl to indicate "the doll that looks like you."

She jiggles the white doll, obviously wanting to choose it. And when she surrenders to reality and slides the black doll forward, it is with a deflated reluctance that sears you.

I submit that what you see in that moment is not a cosmetic preference. Rather, it is distressing evidence of how early and how profoundly the self-image of black children is maimed. We are taught from birth in a thousand ways, big and small, to hate the darkness of our very skin.

Some of us grow up to recognize and reject that brainwashing. But some of us are never able, no matter how many home runs they hit -- or hit records they sell -- to be at home in their God-given skin.

I understand if you can't understand. You and I discussing Sosa are like the bear and the rabbit discussing the dog. You see a cosmetic choice.

I'm afraid I see something else entirely.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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