The Erasure of Color: Should Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone?
by Shirley Kali Johnson, www.soulisticwellness.com
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.”
-ntozake shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf
I prefer to use the term Black to describe my race because the irony is that despite Black being one color, that is inclusive of all people of the African Diaspora no matter where they landed, what languages they speak, whom they pray to, and what color they’re skin color is. Yet within this diversity, I respect that not all Black experiences are created equally. My skin color lends to my experience, and it is NOT the same as some of my darker brothers and sisters. My American citizenship lends privilege that is not experienced by all people who look like me. That is why when I read that Zoe Saldana was playing Nina Simone in an upcoming Hollywood biopic, I had to take a deep breath. I knew this was going to be a complex issue. I tweeted a link to a story about it and was met with some responses of disagreement as well as affirmation of the choice to cast her. I could feel an underlying question of, “Is Zoe Black enough to play Nina Simone?” beginning to emerge.
I like Zoe Saldana. I think she is an interesting actress, and I appreciate her public statements about being both Latina and Black, and bringing to the conversation that those two identities are not mutually exclusive. Why do I like this about her? Quite frankly because her being a Dominican-American woman who has chosen to associate and form alliance to being Black, rather than opting to only use the label of Latina.
Last year, I taught at a middle school in Los Angeles where most of the students were African-American and Latino. I remember one beautiful 7th grade student exclaiming to me, “I HATE my skin color.” I felt my body cringe. I was horrified. This young woman’s dark brown skin color was one of the many qualities, in my opinion, that added to her budding beauty. I recalled a young Latino student asking me why I sat in the bright sun, “You have a good skin color” he told me in a way that showed his discomfort with someone who was light brown being comfortable with getting browner. Yet the truth is that there is only so brown that my skin color will get, and that I will personally understand about being a dark brown-skinned person in America and throughout the globe.
I was discussing my trip to India with another Black American woman who had also traveled in India. As we compared experiences, I told her I was met with a very pleasant experience and felt no discrimination. In fact, I felt I stood out much less than some of my white companions. Her experience was quite different, and felt that people perceived her with hesitancy and lack of regard, and that she felt her white travel companions were welcomed more so than her. All Black experiences are not created equally.
Nina Simone is quoted as saying, “I do not believe in mixing of the races. You can quote me. I don’t believe in it, and I never have. I’ve never changed. I’ve never changed my hair. I’ve never changed my color, I have always been proud of myself, and my fans are proud of me for remaining the way I’ve always been.” Part of Simone’s legacy is not only what she looked like and stood for as a Black woman, but also as an undeniably dark brown skinned Black woman who was refusing to give into the societal pressures of appearing less Black. Today there is still the pressure for Black folks to tonedown their Black appearance.
So my question is when will this story be told? When can a story about a Black woman with dark skin who celebrates her skin color and features be told? When can a brown skinned Black woman be on the cover of a magazine or the spokesperson for a cosmetics company and not be airbrushed in order to make her nose look more narrow and her skin look whiter?
There is a systematic way in which Hollywood and mainstream media is erasing the color and features that connect us to our African ancestors from mainstream visibility. There has already been an erasure of Black folks from history books and from many school curriculums, and now I feel as though I am watching an erasure of the dark brown skin color as well. When people look back at this 100 years from now, will they think that Simone looked like Saldana? Will they think that the part of what informed Simone as an artist and activist was the looks of Saldana? Will they think that when she, Nina Simone, said, “I’ve never changed my color, I have always been proud of myself” that the skin color she speaks of is Saldana’s lighter skin color? Perhaps. And if that is the case, then it is not fair to Nina Simone’s legacy and her work around race, civil rights and her artistry.
Where is the place in history for a dark Black woman to look at history and see a place for herself that is gentle, intelligent, beautiful and brown?
Well definitely NOT in Hollywood. I guess we will need to make that film ourselves.