Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown for BuzzFeed
On Saturday, April 19, dozens of people gather in front of the Faith Community United Methodist Church in Baltimore. Some mingle outside, hugging friends, relatives, and acquaintances from present and past, while others make their way up the steps, passing through the Greco-Roman columns into the foyer. On a narrow table against the wall, a guestbook fills steadily with signatures. I consider adding mine. I did not know her.
In the preceding days, a grid of photos of a young black woman rippled across the web. The woman, wearing a black tank top, smiled in various poses on a white background. Her hair was piled high atop her head in a mass of braids and everything about her seemed to glow. Her name was Karyn Washington. She was stunning, she was slim, and, at 22, she had just committed suicide.
I hadn’t heard of Karyn before then, but I quickly wished I had. She was the founder of For Brown Girls and, later, the #DarkSkinRedLip Project, online movements for black women that fought against colorism — discrimination based on how dark the particular shade of one’s skin is. For Brown Girls had accompanying social media channels and a Tumblr, continuous scrolls of photographs featuring black women of all ages, shades, and sizes. Here were Jet magazine covers circa the '90s, India Arie, Serena Williams, mothers and daughters pulling wide-tooth combs through one another’s hair, Chimamande Adichie, women holding signs as reminders that “Black Lives Matter,” and so on. "Brown Girls, Receive Love!” read the command on my Chrome tab.
For days, Karyn — always beautiful, almost always smiling in that same grid of photos — flowed in an endless stream on my TweetDeck, her name on outlets as varied as the Washington Post, BET, Madame Noire, Cosmopolitan, The Grio, Bustle, Clutch, the Huffington Post, The Root, Essence, The Frisky, and Salon. She was two years younger than me, but she seemed self-assured in ways that I’ve only grasped for. And yet, the steady beat of coverage on Karyn’s death seemed out of sync with the modest scale of her online presence. For Brown Girls had a few thousand followers on Twitter and Facebook combined and her original posts on FBG’s Tumblr were usually reblogged a few dozen times.
Karyn’s death highlighted a number of social taboos: suicide, mental illness, the way the two intersect with and can be silenced by race, gender, and class. Online, Karyn projected what seemed to many an unwavering air of happiness and security, while her reality was far more complicated. It’s a curious paradox: In an age where tweets, texts, pictures, posts, check-ins, and updates allow us to express ourselves online in more ways than ever before, we are more beholden to — and, in ways, stifled by — what we choose to share. This is even truer if our presentation of ourselves is scrutinized under stereotypes of gender and race. As a young black woman and online activist, Karyn wasn’t an exception to this; she was the rule. And in our minds, she was never meant to be broken.
Twitter / Facebook / forbrowngirls / Via forbrowngirls.tumblr.com
Karyn Leslie Washington was born and raised in Baltimore. The daughter of Rip, a disability support examiner at the Social Security Administration, and Gloria Yancey, who went by Jean, a social worker for Baltimore city, she was one of eight siblings, four full and four half. She grew up in a modest single-family house in Belair-Edison, a blue-collar neighborhood and one of the largest row house communities in the country. Coleman Washington, Karyn’s half-brother, describes it as “50-50.” “You've got the violence out there, but the neighborhood they're in is really good.”
During her elementary years, she attended Greater Grace Christian Academy, an insular private school with approximately 200 students in grades K-12. There, she met Nieshia Watts, a childhood best friend who exudes warmth when we meet in a Baltimore coffee shop. "It was a majority white school, so as young minority girls we kind of found each other and we became best friends,” she explains.
“Karyn and I would talk a lot about boys,” she tells me. “There were a lot of white guys and not a lot of black guys. So, we felt like we were never good enough to get with white guys and we thought that there was a stigma for the black guys, like they wanted us to have this long hair.“
“I remember both of us being very unaware of what it was that was going on at the time, just understanding that we didn't like it.”
Karyn eventually left Greater Grace to attend Western High, a mostly black, all-girls public school that educates more students per grade than the former’s entire population. She had a soft-spoken voice and was a “tiny little thing,” as her ninth-grade health teacher Brian King recalls; yet he still remembers all her “big picture ideas.”
“Study vocabulary? Ehhhhh. But if you wanted to have discussions ... she always was up-to-date on current events and was aware of what was going on,” King says. “She always had this sense we weren't doing enough.”
She enrolled at Morgan State, a historically black university in Baltimore, in fall 2010 to major in strategic communications, a combination of public relations and advertising.
Dr. OluwaTosin Adegbola is the chair of the strategic communications department. A Nigerian native, she cuts a striking figure: Incredibly tall — especially in the black wedge-heeled booties she wears when I meet her — she is thin and fashionable in a light-pink cardigan and fitted dress, with cheekbones that sit high on a face free of any makeup and skin the shade of supermodel Alek Wek.
Adegbola had never met Karyn before they were introduced via another student her freshman year, yet Karyn had admired the professor since she initially arrived on campus. “She said that she had read up about me and that she wanted to compliment me … on being a dark-skinned female who didn't seem to be bothered by her skin complexion,” Adegbola says. She speaks with a British accent, her words measured and deliberate. “I didn’t see it as a compliment.”
The two had their first of what came to be “countless” long discussions that day, on which Karyn spoke of her idea to create an online movement for dark-skinned women. Adegbola, a feminist scholar, was initially skeptical of the plan. "I said, when you focus on celebrating someone because of this, the underlying question becomes 'Was there something wrong with them to start with?'" Yet as the two continued their conversations, which eventually evolved into a close mentor-mentee relationship, she warmed to the idea. “If you happen to be a dark-skinned female in the United States of America, you look around and you don't see too many representations of who you are on a daily basis, you ask questions,” she says.
“I think [Karyn had] enough observations and enough people talking to her about the stereotypes that they have gone through, [that she wanted] to create a healthy space for them not to see themselves as other,” she says.
“She’s black female power all the way.”
Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown for BuzzFeed
Karyn created the For Brown Girls Tumblr in July 2011 and registered forbrowngirls.com as a domain that September. She hit her stride with the site the next year, posting constantly, interviewing young black female entrepreneurs, and sourcing other women’s reflections on their identity. She was contacted for a few interviews, the biggest with Madame Noire, in which she described FBG’s goal “for new generations of darker-skinned girls to not even have one thought of wishing to be lighter, to never doubt their beauty.”
In the summer, she began selling jelly bracelets tagged “For Brown Girls” and T-shirts with the words “I Love My Shade” emblazoned on them, despite a failed Kickstarter campaign for the project that made $586 of its $3,000 goal. In November, she attended Black Girls Rock!, an annual BET event that highlights accomplishments made by women of color, where she cried during India Arie’s performance and was inspired to do more to further her mission.
She seized an opportunity when rapper A$AP Rocky suggested black women shouldn’t wear red lipstick, and started the #DarkSkinRedLip Project, a social media campaign that amassed hundreds of supporters via photo submissions, and once again caught the attention of black media outlets. #DarkSkinRedLip, the official site for which has since expired, quickly became Karyn’s most successful and most publicized project.
“I think beauty shines most bright when you are positive, happy, and genuinely kind to others,” she said in an interview with CollegeLifestyles.org. “It shows through your heart and radiates in your smile.”
Karyn embodied a lifestyle that many didn’t know existed until this year: the Carefree Black Girl. Coined by an eponymous Tumblr launched in May 2013, the Carefree Black Girls movement came to the forefront this January as an expression of joy and celebration for black women, not in spite of their skin color, but because of it. Sites dedicated to Carefree Black Girls often depict black women in natural settings, basking in sunlight, being active, laughing, dancing. They can be 100 pounds or 300. Their skin can be albino or so dark that it seems tinged with blue. Examples include celebrities like Solange Knowles, Lupita Nyong’o, and Janelle Monae.
Karyn was not the first to carve out a niche online celebrating black women. Le Coil, a popular Tumblr created by photographer Jamala Johns in 2009, spotlights black women — and sometimes men — with natural hair, a colorful array of afros, braids, dreads, coils, and twists. Sites like Fuck Yeah Black Beauties and All Things Black Women have been curating diverse representations of black beauty since 2009 and 2010, respectively. Others have for years focused on black women in television and film or in fashion. And, of course, media organizations that cater to black female audiences have existed for decades.
Where Karyn was unique was in her creation of a grassroots effort to combat colorism specifically. For Karyn, who grew up in one of the country’s few majority-black metropolises, the issue wasn’t just representation — at a black university in a black city, she could at least see her reflection all around her — but that within her own group she was made to feel outcast. Often, she’d be told by black men, “Oh, you’re cute...for a dark-skinned girl.” Though awareness of colorism has increased recently via sites like Pretty. Period. and the documentary Dark Girls, For Brown Girls was early in its focus.
Fakaira Gabriel, a sophomore at Florida Atlantic University, is one of the few women I find who followed For Brown Girls from the beginning. She grew up in Haines City, Fla., a small city of about 20,000 that is a third black, and turned to Tumblr to boost her self-esteem around age 16. “I never really had a problem with my skin tone until I got to high school, and it was more of a 'You're pretty, but you would be pretty if you were of lighter skin,' she tells me over Skype. She made a Tumblr and searched for tags such as “dark-skinned girls” as a way to avoid taking more drastic measures, like bleaching her skin. “I actually did kind of start bleaching,” she admits, “but I got over that phase quickly.” When she discovered FBG, she was floored. “Before then, there was nothing really for dark-skinned girls,” she says. "It was just very positive ... It's just a safe zone to get away and just feel good about yourself."
Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown for BuzzFeed