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(1)NE DROP: Redefining Blackness

The (1)ne Drop project attempts to redefine the parameters of Blackness around the world.

Words: Zoy M. Britton
Images: Courtesy of Noelle Théard

The “One Drop Rule”, instituted in the early 20th century, denoted that an individual is Black if they have even one drop of Black blood in them. These days, however, that notion has been challenged by the likes of individuals whose “Blackness” is not as apparent, such as our esteemed president Barack Obama, who personally identifies as “Black” yet is seen by majority of the Black population as “mixed.” Due to the lack of dialogue surrounding such a context, Yaba A. Blay, Ph.D, visiting Assistant Prof. of Africana Studies at Lafayette University, and freelance photographer and professor Noelle Théard decided to identify the many different ideas revolving around the idea of Blackness through a unique multimedia project called (1)ne Drop.

“With this project, I wanted to look at the other side, or at least another side. When we talk about skin color politics, for the most part we only discuss the disadvantages associated with being dark-skinned,” Blay states. “We know about the lived experience of being dark skinned in a society where lighter skin and White skin are privileged… we also need to start having more balanced and holistic conversations about skin color.”

While throughout their project—A coffee table book and video-based website— imagery remains an anchor to what they are trying to accomplish. As a common thread, each contributor’s portrait was taken against a textured backdrop of their choosing (from a pool of different patterns made available by Blay and Théard) to reflect the various conceptualizations around Blackness as well as their own personal, inner “textures”. They use imagery to parallel the medley in which Blackness can and is most often least represented, Blackness, as Blay and Théard are attempting to clarify, cannot solely be defined by a few skin hues. “This project gives voice to a group of people often overlooked in conversations about skin color politics because most people assume that they lived privileged lives and therefore have nothing to say,” Blay says. “When we add the dynamic of racial identity to the mix, however, we discover many of the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis living in a racialized and racist society.”

This visual presentation is further enhanced by one-on-one interviews with contributors, who offer their opinions, as Blay explains, surrounding their own Blackness. “Through their narratives, contributors provide us insight into their own imagining of Black identity answering questions that many of us of darker hues have never had to think about, let alone answer. So it’s from their voices that we come to see multiple possibilities for Blackness above and beyond the one-drop rule.”

What some may find most interesting about the (1)ne Drop project is how varied the responses are from its contributors. While some experiences may be familiar, others call for a reconfiguration of our perception of Blackness. “Everyone’s story brings something different to the conversation. There are 40 contributors representing nearly 20 countries—so many speak about their own specific cultural contexts as well. One woman, whom I would describe as very light-skinned, grew up in an all white rural community, where it was painfully clear that she was Black to the extent that she was ostracized. That really made me check myself and the assumptions that I make about light-skinned women and what their lives must be like. [We] Automatically assume that they’ve always been revered and/or privileged and that simply is not the case.”

Though Dr. Blay and Théard’s inspiration for this project was due in part to their desires to spark conversation and resolution of the issues concerning those who are identified as being less “Black”, it was their own personal experiences that played true muses to this project. Dr. Blay is of Ghanaian descent, and was raised in New Orleans, where the concept of light vs. dark skin politics is still very inherent in the political, social and economic processes of everyday life. As a dark-skinned woman living in a city where being a “high-yellow” woman is and has been praised as true beauty for nearly two centuries, Blay says, she’s always felt the divide between light-skinned and dark- skinned women which pushed her to further explore the troublesome and unnecessary rivalry.

She found that the prevalent similarity amongst light-skinned women is that they automatically feel tension when amongst dark-skinned women, even when a word is not uttered by either, a fault even Blay has admitted to contributing to. She also discovered the hurdles that light-skinned women who more readily identify with their Blackness face, and how they must deal with constant questioning as to what race or ethnicity they belong, an unfathomable concept for darker-skinned Black people. Théard, especially, identified with this phenomenon as she “looks” Latino, and yet wholly identifies with being Haitian and Black.

“The goal is to put us in a position to question that which we know about Blackness and that which we think we know,” Blay explains about (1)ne Drop‘s aims. “Critical reflection is a primary goal. So while the project answers many questions, it leaves readers with many more. We also think that by taking the time to hear someone’s perspective instead of making assumptions about their experiences that we’ll be in a better position to relate to one another.”

Within the project, a contributor suffers from Vitiligo, like Michael Jackson, who many accused of skin bleaching. The disease has caused her to transform from a brown-skinned Black woman to a less-pigmented woman. By societal standards she could now be perceived as a White woman, and to really showcase her dramatic transformation, the contributor holds a picture of what she used to look like next to how she looks today. The stark visual renders the viewer speechless. It is humbling to recognize that someone who once identified with Blackness in every way must suddenly shift gears to accommodate society’s changed perception, even though she has not changed internally, only externally.

Subjects like her and others truly challenge the definition of Blackness and really gives (1)ne Drop‘s core mission shape: how and why is skin color used as a lynchpin, and most importantly and regardless of the varying degrees of Black skin, one common thread links all: the desire to be who we are without question and judgment.

Help this project come to life by donating to their Kickstarter campaign, here.

Images courtesy of Noelle Théard.

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