Dark Girls: OWN Documentary Spotlights Skin Color

A new documentary on skin color airs this weekend. TV and film star Tika Sumpter on the film, her own dark skin, and breaking the color barrier, shade by shade. Plus, Allison Samuels on Dark Girls’ journey to OWN.

Alicia Gbur/TriStar Pictures,via AP

Tika Sumpter doesn’t consider herself a rarity in Hollywood, even if many of her fans do. Sumpter has spent the last 10 years building an impressive résumé that includes roles on popular television shows such as Gossip Girl, The Game, and The Haves and the Have Nots, which airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. This winter she’ll also star in Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas.

But while it’s undoubtedly Sumpter’s acting chops that keep her regularly employed, some would argue that her mile-high cheekbones, alluring smile, and striking ebony complexion also have something to do with it. In an industry that often fails to celebrate or recognize women who don’t fit the traditional ideal of beauty, Sumpter has managed to rise above the stereotypes and preconceived notions of just who is considered attractive and why. Sumpter shared with The Daily Beast her thoughts on the new documentary Dark Girls, set to air this Sunday at 10 p.m. on OWN, and her hopes for a new generation of young brown women struggling just to feel “good enough.”

One of my favorite childhood memories is of listening to my mother describe the look on my father’s face the day I was born. Whenever my mother shares this story, she somehow manages to re-create it with images so vivid, I can simply close my eyes and feel as if I were still there cuddled in her arms.

It’s important to understand that I was born into a family with seven children, each of us equipped with varying personalities, dispositions, and, yes, skin tones as well. My mom has the most beautiful café au lait complexion, which she shares with my two older sisters and older brother. My three younger siblings have skin tones that range from caramel to a golden bronze.

And then there’s me.

My mother says that when my father, a striking man with kind eyes, broad shoulders, and deep ebony-brown skin, first saw me in the hospital that day, his eyes lit up brightly as he promptly proclaimed, “She has my color. She looks like me!”

Though I obviously have no recollection of that day at all, I’m quite certain that hearing that story heavily influenced the ways in which I’ve been able to navigate my journey as a woman, an African-American woman, and a woman of a darker hue.

Both of my parents, and particularly my mother, worked very hard every day to make sure all their children had exactly what we needed to grow up with minds of our own, confidence to spare, and strength to endure. Even after my parents separated and later divorced, I always felt worthy, supported, and loved.

I was recently reminded of my childhood as I watched the amazing documentary Dark Girls. My heart broke just listening to the stories of so many young girls with brown skin traumatized by the cruel and hurtful views of those around them. I experienced that same emotion when I began my role as Raina Thorpe on the popular CW show Gossip Girl a few years back. I was truly unprepared for the tremendous impact I’d have while on that show. Each week I’d get the tons of letters from mothers, grandmothers, and young girls literally thanking me for simply existing. They wrote me saying they’d never seen a woman that looked like me on television before. Which really meant they’d never seen anyone that looked like them before. And it got much deeper than that. Some fans even remarked that they’d never witnessed any woman with my skin color speak the way I spoke, have a successful career the way I had on that show, or carry themselves in such a ladylike manner. Translation: in the very make-believe land of television and movies, women with darker skin aren’t smart enough to speak proper English or capable enough to be employed with a six-figure salary. And we most certainly can’t be ladylike. What complete nonsense!

Legends such as Cicely Tyson and Beah Richards were well before my time, so I didn’t see women like me on television as a kid, either. Still, I never felt discouraged by that reality, and I certainly never believed I couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to follow my dreams as a result. Following my dreams allowed me to become the first African-American cheerleader at Longwood Senior High School in Middle Island, New York, and president of my class three years in a row.

Of course I did experienced my share of hurtful reactions to my skin color, but thankfully only after I was an adult. Who hasn’t heard the obligatory, “You’re pretty for a dark-skin girl”? Or my personal favorite, “I usually don’t date dark-skin women, but you’re so beautiful.” That one really warms the heart. But in reality, the most disturbing aspect of all of this is that those comments were most often made by men with exactly the same skin tone as my own.

Still, I always knew there were far too many other people who saw my beauty and embraced every part of me with open arms to think twice about what was said. It hurts me to know that so many young girls today are growing up without that same realization and reassurance. I also regret that so many are forced to seek their self-worth between the pages of mainstream magazines or in the background of a rap music video. I’d like to think that seeing someone like me on their televisions every week gives them some hope that things are changing slowly but surely. Finally, every day I’m thankful that I didn’t have to endure the pain that I know so many women do on a regular basis as a result of the color of their skin. My heart goes out to them all. And every day I’m even more thankful for a mother who was always there for me and a father (now deceased) whose first reaction to me on the day I was born paved my path to real self-love.