I Married a Black Man in the 1960’s

As a white college student in the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we published in 2009, he shared his experiences in the Negro community during the 1950’s (including does light skin still matter).

Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

In the 50’s, Black Men Wanted A Light-Skinned Black Woman

In his words:

During the 1950’s, if a Negro couldn’t marry a white woman, a black light-skinned woman was second choice. As long as a woman had light skin, it didn’t matter if she was smart or pretty. Men assessed women solely on skin color. They said they were “dark, with good features” or they said, “Damn, she’s dark.” A light-skinned woman, called a “skillet blond,” was considered a conquest or prize.

Race at Fisk in Nashville

Slaves to Racism Book CoverAt Fisk University, Negro men definitely preferred mulatto girls. Nashville was called the “Athens of the South” because it had so many universities including Fisk, Vanderbilt, Tennessee State, and Meharry Medical College, among others. Nashville was highly segregated. Mulattos passed for white all the time. It was a rite of passage which affirmed their superiority.

Alpha Phi Alpha, the top fraternity at Fisk, was comprised of mulattos and a few dark-skinned men who were studying to be doctors or lawyers. The corresponding sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, had mostly light or very light-skinned girls, along with a very few dark-skinned girls from prominent families.

At Fisk, I taught a few courses as a graduate student. One of my students was Wilma, who was light-skinned, but not mulatto. When a dark-skinned medical student became interested in her, I told him, “Wilma’s a very nice girl.”

Does Light Skin Still Matter - Dr. Benjamin DennisOne day, Wilma told me, “Victor’s havin’ another girlfriend.”

“That can’t be. He loves you.”    

“Please talk to him. I love him so much.”

When I spoke with Victor, he told me, “The girl I’m goin’ with now is from Chattanooga. You can’t tell her from a white girl. On campus, they even think she’s white. She has to tell them she’s Negro.”

Several days later, when we were all eating together in the cafeteria, Victor told Wilma she should look for another guy because he was in love with this girl. Wilma went home and slit her wrists. Her roommate found her in a pool of blood. She was rushed to the hospital. As soon as she recovered, she packed her bags and returned to New York.

U of M-Flint in the 1980’s

During the 1980s at the University of Michigan-Flint, I was coming out of my office and ran into one of my black students. I had seen her with a young black man on campus and knew both of them, so I said to her, “He’s a bright young man and ambitious. You’d make a nice couple.”

She said, “Oh, I can’t marry him. He’s too dark. My parents wouldn’t approve.”

Benjamin DennisRace in the 2000’s – Does Light Skin Still Matter?

In the 2000s, a black friend told me, “Skin color is important to the eye. It’s just not talked about anymore. There were light and dark Alpha’s. The Delta’s were dark males and females. Spike Lee is dark and homely. Prince is light and baby-faced. He’s got lots of acceptability.”

In Florida several years ago, Anita happened to see a young interracial couple at the grocery store and commented on it to me when she got home. What struck her was that the woman was relatively well-dressed and the man looked rough. I told her, “That young man may never achieve anything else in life, but he’s gotten one thing – a white woman.”

Our Love Story

My husband’s stories and perspective fascinated and saddened me at the same time because they informed me about a community I’d never know as an Ohio farm girl.  I wrote our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief to carry on his work.

Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis