Leonard Pitts: If we cannot be free within ourselves, then we cannot be free

Lupita Nyong'o arrives at the 50th annual NAACP Image Awards on Saturday, March 30, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

“If you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.”

— African-American folk saying

I was about to give a speech — I can't remember when or even where — when this teacher brought a student up, hoping I could help her.

The teacher was white, and her student was a black girl, perhaps 13 or so, of painfully shy demeanor and very dark skin. The woman told me the child thought she was ugly because of her sable complexion. Could I say something to encourage her? I was stunned. Is this true? I asked the girl. Eyes down, she nodded and whispered that it was.

I have no memory of what I told her. I do remember feeling it wasn't nearly enough. Then the event began and I had to go. We didn't speak again, but I've never forgotten that child. She is brought freshly to mind by "Sulwe," a new children's book by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o.

"Sulwe," the book begins, "was born the color of midnight. She looked nothing like her family. Not even a little, not even at all. Mama was the color of dawn, Baba, the color of dusk and Mich, her sister, was the color of high noon." Sulwe gets teased a lot. Kids call her "Blackie," "Darky" and "Night." At one point, she takes an eraser to her skin.

I read the book to my 4-year-old granddaughter Maya the other night. We saw Sulwe take a trip on a shooting star and hear the fable of two sisters, Night and Day, and come to learn that she is, in fact, "dark and beautiful, bright and strong."

Maya, who is the color of midday, pronounced the book "good," then bounded off my lap in search of new adventures. Someday, too soon, she will come to understand herself as black in America and begin to work out what that means.

But she'll have no firsthand knowledge of this extra denigration we African Americans subject one another to because of a foreign standard of beauty, an internalized thing that turns our very skin against us. Maybe I should be happy for that. But I know too many girls and women, boys and men, who are not as lucky.

Most white people will have no clue about this. They've never heard of skin lightening cream or the "paper bag test," where your fiance can be no darker than a paper sack. They can't define "high yellow," "caramel," "redbone" or other terms from African America's vast vocabulary of color. They won't know how John Sanford became Redd Foxx because of his ruddy skin tone or that fair-skinned William Robinson was tagged "Smokey" — a derisive term for dark-skinned black people — in that ironic way you'd call a fat guy "Tiny."

Glamorous, gorgeous and dark, Nyong'o, with colleagues like Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Viola Davis and Idris Elba, is forcing a welcome and long overdue reconsideration of how beauty is conceived. She has written the book she needed as a child. One hopes no one ever has to write — or need — such a book again.

But then, maybe Langston Hughes had the same hope in 1926, when he wrote a famous essay calling his generation to order. "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. ... If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter, either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

Hughes, you see, had figured out something that still eludes too many black people almost 100 years later.

If we can't be free within ourselves, then we cannot be free.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com .