When Charlotte teacher Alicia Williams was growing up in Detroit, she was often bullied by classmates. A group of middle school girls even gave her a list of 100 reasons why they hated her. Williams, who is African American, thinks the dislike stemmed mainly from her complexion being darker than those who teased her.
As a teacher, she’s observed students going through many of the same things. That inspired Williams to write her first novel "Genesis Begins Again," which was released this year.
Williams is brown-skinned, petite and has a smile that lights up the room as she confidently teaches Providence Day sixth graders. There are no traces of the insecurity she battled growing up about her complexion and size. Williams said her insecurity is under the surface, but it's not so for some of her students.
“I’ve seen our children in kindergarten come in knowing the difference of their skin color,” Williams said. "I had a little girl who cried because her hair was so puffy and the kids were teasing her, [because she] wasn’t the same. It’s unfortunate that at that early age they know the differences.”
Williams said she wrote ‘Genesis Begins Again’ for those students. Genesis is a dark-skinned 13-year-old who gets called derogatory names by classmates at her Detroit school and also by black students at her predominately white school when the family moves to the suburbs after being evicted.
Genesis is feisty but also tries to fit in. She scrapes her skin raw, secretly uses a skin lightener and puts a relaxer in her hair because she longs for light skin and straight curly hair like her mother’s. Some of this reflects Williams’ childhood.
“My mom is light and beautiful with this gorgeous, naturally curly hair and [my] dad is dark-skinned,” Williams said.
“I have a cousin — her friends and her sister [all have a] lighter complexion — and I’m the darkest one and, of course, I have locks in my hair," she continued. "We went out and we were coming out of the restroom and the guys were like ooh to my light-skinned cousins and get to me and say, 'Ooh, you the chocolate one of the bunch.' That’s who Genesis was and how we are alike.”
And also like Williams, a group of girls gives Genesis a long list of reasons why they hate her that she keeps in a drawer.
“They put: Because she was poor, she smiled too much, she thinks she has cute handwriting. She added: Because she was dark skinned,” Williams said.
That hatred of her skin tone stems partly from Genesis’ light-skinned grandmother not accepting her father because he has a dark complexion. Genesis dotes on him and is crushed when he tells her she was supposed to look like her mother.
Colorism — discrimination within the race based on skin tone — is not new. At different times in history, light- and dark-skinned blacks have been subjected to internal racism and assigned privilege accordingly.
Most light-skinned enslaved Africans worked indoors, while most with dark-skin worked in the fields. During the 1960s ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’ movement, dark skin tones were in and light-skinned blacks were, at times, on the receiving end of harsh treatment.
But colorism was rarely talked about outside of the race. During a local book signing, Williams told a packed audience that’s why she was hesitant to write about it.
“I had this feeling of fear that I’d be attacked for airing dirty laundry. We don’t talk about that outside home and community, and I still have that fear. But thank goodness the conversation has been happening more frequently, especially on social media,” Williams said. “We’re ready and I have to be OK saying this is the story I had to get out because I’m in that classroom and seeing our babies coming in and having this feeling of not being good enough and [feeling] inferior. If we don’t talk about it, we’ll never hear about it.”
In the late 1980s, Spike Lee’s movie ‘School Daze’ dealt with colorism and a lot of people criticized him for broaching the topic. But today, most of the comments have been positive about a poignant and emotional episode of ‘Black-ish’ that focused on the skin tone divisions within the Johnson family after their darker daughter could barely be seen in a school photo.
The writers say it took them five years to write that episode because they wanted a script that would not anger viewers. Williams says she took that into account when writing her book.
“The story through a 13-year-old is gentle enough and doesn’t preach to us how awful we are for doing this and it doesn’t have that anger," Williams said. "But the undertone is, we got to deal with it because our kids are being generationally affected."
At the packed signing, where copies of the book sold out, people of all ages and races shared their thoughts on colorism as they waited in line. Sonya Thompson, who is light brown with straight, curly hair, said friends with dark complexions accused her of not understanding the discrimination they faced. But she said she did.
“Although I’m not light, light my daughter is darker than me and she has had such a hard time,” Thompson said. “It was always a problem for her and at 39 now, it still is. So, I’m really relating to the story.
Standing in line with three books, Liz Bridges, who is white and a school literacy coach, said the book was her introduction to colorism.
“I thought it was eye-opening, something I didn’t know about,” Bridges said. “I’ve seen bullies and racism, but haven’t been as tuned into it. Our district media specialists are trying to do a book study on it with all teachers.”
Although colorism is the book’s central theme Annette Alston said she thinks it has other universal lessons for people of all races and ages facing challenges.
“It was my weight instead of the color and I felt like I just wasn’t good enough,” Alston said. “All the skinny girls, not fitting in, low self-esteem; that would be me and my feeling her in the book.”
Seeing so many adults with the book surprised and pleased Williams, who wrote it mainly for a younger audience. A lot of her students turned out for the book signing, anxious to begin reading it like Evelyn Burns.
“I was surprised and really proud,” Burns said. “It’s cool to have a book signed by an awesome author and teacher. My teacher’s a writer!”
A writer who hopes her students and others latch onto the messages about self-esteem in the book and ways to achieve it.
In the book, Genesis eventually realizes that her skin color is beautiful with the help of two true friends and through music — especially that of legendary singer Billie Holiday, whose life struggles and soul-stirring songs gave Genesis a place to retreat and reflect while on the path to finding self-love.