Just like most girls, I grew up thinking, and I still believe today, that my mother is gorgeous. I used to watch her shimmy into sequined dresses when she and my dad would go out dancing. Or I’d gaze at her as she prepared herself for church after my sister and I, with our scarf-tied heads, were already dressed. It was amazing to see this woman subtly, artfully and meticulously enhance her genetic beauty with the aid of makeup. My mother’s beauty, which is both external and internal, was all the more alluring because of her coffee bean brown skin.
My father, who is significantly lighter, praised her for it, her lipstick always complemented it and acne was no match for it. People always told me I resembled her. And though, I could see that we didn’t share the exact same complexion, I knew I wasn’t too far off. Apparently, other people didn’t see it that way. I think I was in the third grade, the first time a friend referred to me as “light-skinned.” While there are still some girls and grown women who would have taken such an assertion, as a compliment, I was shocked, and honestly, slightly offended. There is nothing wrong with being lighter complected but that wasn’t me. I was at least brown, not too many shades away from my mother. As the years went on, the light skin references increased and as I learned more and more about the cultural celebration of lighter skin, so did my frustration. How could anyone assert that “light was right” when I was living with a woman who contradicted the notion everyday? Ridiculous. It was poet, Jessica Care Moore, that expressed my sentiments best when she said, “Even the light skin girls are sick of the light skin girls.”
At some point or another I expressed my frustration to my family members. There was no need to discuss the notion that light was somehow better. That was an absurdity we’d dismissed long ago; but they did find it surprisingly comical that I considered myself to be just a couple of shades away from my mother on the color spectrum. From then on my sister, who is truly just a few shades darker than me, my mother and my younger cousin joked, good-naturedly, about my complexion. They joked that since I was determined to call myself brown, I didn’t know myself. They’d find the lightest black person in the room and ask if we were related. They called me “light bright,” just to work my nerves.
It was just jokes for them but the quest for brown skin is real for me. Every year, I yearn for summer so I can get outside and pick up a few more shades. I told a guy I was involved with, that though he was kinda light, if we ever had babies, they could still be brown-skinned because my mother and his father have the coveted complexion. I thought I was one of the few women who wanted “happy brown babies,” until I read Demetria Lucas’ “A Belle in Brooklyn,” in which she wrote about the collective [non-ignorant] light skinned girl’s desire to have brown kids. It’s real out here.
At a recent family gathering, I was explaining to an older cousin, who told me to call her Aunt, that I was wearing East African Fulani earrings, that I live in Harlem and write for a black women’s website. After all that she said, sincerely, “Oh, you’re real black.” I offered her a very satisfied smile and nodded. I have to admit though, that later I questioned myself a little bit. Was I “so black” because I was trying to prove that I was “so black”? Eventually I dismissed that potentially treacherous train of thought. There are plenty of ways to be “so black.”
This past weekend in New Orleans, I interviewed a makeup artist about black women and what we need to know about makeup. He told me what’s tricky about black women is that we have nearly 170 different skin tones, compared to the white woman’s 4. He said it was all about the undertones black women possess. Some of us have red, yellow or gold undertones.
That undertone word, set me off. Here was my chance to ask a professional about the skin I’m in and finally get a real, legit answer. In a self-serving move, I asked him, “So, what type of undertones would you say I have?”
“Look like you have a yellow undertone.”
That’s cool. Even though I’ll probably always
envy admire the mahogany looking sister, my mom’s coffee bean brown and girls named Ebony, I recognize that my black is still real, even if it has a little yellow in it.
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