The reception to a comment I made on a post last week unveiled a problem in discussing racially ambiguous beauty with regard to black female identity. Namely, my comment praised multi-ethnic or biracial beauties like the late Vanity and another starlet who shall remain nameless due to her contentious comments as of late. As a black woman, I do not feel compelled or even obligated to ignore another woman’s beauty simply because I am very content to what my African lineage has graced me. Singer-songwriter Alice Keys walked past me at an event a few years back and I nearly fainted. Although more physically beautiful than any television show or music video could capture, Keys allure was something that did not meet the eye and it was breathtaking. After some inward examination I realized that what incites my favorable reaction to these racially ambiguous women, is not their singular presence but that these women resemble many of my familial elders, including my own mother.
This piece contains a personal anecdote, and I admit that its inclusion comes with great reluctance, Although I have done so in the past, I do not particularly enjoy sharing personal stories nor do I find it easy. But telling our stories is necessary, in knitting together our shared experience. So, I encourage you to share your own stories on your blogs, and in your own lives, because we are often unaware of those who need them most.
It is commonly said that a mother is a woman’s first figure of beauty. My mother is a petite, butternut skin woman who wore her shoulder length hair straight during much of my childhood. My grandmother shares her complexion but has hazel eyes. While my grandmother does not have long hair, her eyes possess a coveted feature referenced, as my mother’s skin color was, in contrast to my own. If I have not implied this fact already—I do not look like my mother— aside from my petite frame, long fingers and big smile (that we both get from my grandfather). When my mother showed up for parent-teacher conferences or assemblies, students would never cease to declare their shock that this was my mother.
“But, she’s light skinned.”
“How’s that your mother?”
“But, she’s so pretty”
Instead, I received countless affirmations that I looked like my father who was significantly more sun-kissed than my mother, heavier and fuller featured.
Everyone seemed to say, “You look like your dad!!!” to which I hated. For years, I was humiliated by this ever-so consistent comment. When my father would pick me up from school, I knew this comparison would come and I would be reduced to feeling like I resembled a six foot tall man. Garfield, the neighborhood ice cream man, would always tell my dad that he could “see his face in mine,” a fact my dad loved, and still loves to hear. My dad has always relished in my face, and my skin color, reminding me on every sunny day to be proud of my complexion because those lighter than me waited on days like today to get what I was born with. I always thought he said this just to make me feel better, but as I got older I saw that much of this pride was because I looked like his mother.
My paternal grandmother died fourteen years before I was born. So naturally she was not a part of my life. But despite being physically gone, she and I share a similar physical appearance. Unlike my mother and grandmother, my paternal grandmother would not have passed the paper-bag test. Unlike my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother did not have light eyes. Rather, she was sun-kissed, but had a glow that beamed beneath her brown skin. She had deep and mysterious dark eyes that were kind and sensitive, a sweet smile and thick, long wavy hair that reminded me of the journey of our abducted Africans to the western world— a long duration over the wavy sea. She was effortlessly beautiful bearing an inner beauty that reflected in out outer appearance. Somehow in seeing her beauty I was able to slowly uncover my own.
Ironically, growing up my classmates commonly said that I “looked like my dad” but “had hair like my mother” associating what I am sure most regarded as my best feature to my light-skinned mother, an entirely false assumption.
The western world views light skin and long hair as a means to raise black bodies to western standards, marketing skin bleaching creams, hair weaves and wigs to paint black bodies in the white man’s image. However these attributes produce the opposite effect. Light skin, light eyes and long hair fuels white narcissism and fictive beauty, functioning to paint anything aligned with whiteness as superior. In my opinion, hair functions similar to skin color as it is a means to achieve what many falsely attribute to exoticism, a word I fail to see as complimentary because of its relation to the buying and selling of my abducted ancestors. Light skin and long hair do not beautify the black woman as singular attributes. Rather they function to heighten white beauty. But I do not get my hair from my mother, or the white rapists that stealthy reside in my bloodline. Like my paternal grandmother, my coiled tresses are a product of Africa. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it is only beautiful because it connects us to our abducted ancestors.
But, I digress.
I attended a sixtieth birthday party for my father’s childhood friend, and during the ceremony the man of the evening’s sister walked up to me and spoke glowingly about my grandmother. She went on and on about her kindness, beauty, the way she carried herself down to her walk. To hear that after a forty year absence my grandmother was still a resounding presence on earth, was one of the most touching experiences of my life. But that is the power of a black woman- a timeless appeal and beauty that only shines brighter over the years.
My grandmother’s legacy showed me the significance of understanding a shared experience. I learned to love and appreciate my own beauty as a black woman in seeing her face. Despite often being reduced by her sisters to “…having a nice color ‘like an Indian’ and long dark hair” I see my grandmother as a portrait of Africa—gorgeous, eternal and bearing the riches of a stolen crown. She passed that torch to me like all the grandmothers across the diaspora pass on to their granddaughters, allowing us to assume our place in teaching the next generation their greatness as African Queens.
This is not to say that my maternal grandmother and and mother are not beautiful– they are. But my childhood experiences remain didactic in teaching me how light skin and light eyes function to denigrate the darker woman’s self-worth. The biracial or lighter skinned black beauty possesses what Zora Neale Hurston references as an “awful beauty,” existing not in and of itself, but to undermine blackness. This is damning to the fair woman as well, given that many fair skin women are nurtured to reduce their beauty to their skin color, despite possessing an appeal that lies far beyond their complexion.
Now that I have achieved a degree of confidence in my consciousness, I am often reminded of times where I struggled with my color, and wondered why I was not my mother’s complexion. This demonstrates another crucial point. Like the white woman, much of the lighter woman’s esteem is reliant on the insecurities of her darker counterpart. Once the more sun kissed beauty owns her African bloodline and the positive significance it has on her appearance, the light skin aesthetic whose appeal is solely contingent on complexion, dissolves into the wind of western illusion. I’ve experienced this countless times with lighter skinned women in the world be it in passing or in friendship, who reference my color as if it were a disease, hoping to cast me into a pit of blackness. But blackness is not a pit—its a pedestal. So when I respond favorably, I stand too tall for the colorist opportunist to stand upon my back and assume a false superiority.
Yet, with this newfound pride, I do not assume a superiority over lighter skinned or light eyed women, as we are all the stolen children of Africa. While I do not see myself as better than my fairer counterparts, I will say I no longer feel that they are more beautiful than me, or any other sun-kissed black woman within the diaspora.
Learning to love this woman whom I have never met, has also cast away any and all shame I had of my father. I now embrace my father’s face and our similarities. I now see the distance I desired from my father was a distance I desired to place between myself and blackness. To distance myself from my father is to induce my own erasure, and to distance myself from blackness produces the same result on a much higher level. Thus, learning to love my grandmother prompted me to love myself as an individual which proved a gateway for an essential collective appreciation.
The saying, “Those who try to pull you down are already beneath you”truthfully illustrates the hurdles black women continue to jump over to own their beauty as only existing because black is indeed beautiful. Despite not having an ability to see this within myself for years, I owe this conscious gaze to my late grandmother’s face.
Because she is physically gone, I know discussions of her beauty are far more frequent than they would be if she was alive. For it seems far easier to appreciate beauty when its blinding rays no longer steal your spotlight.
Yet every-time I imagine my grandmother, she’s standing with a spotlight beaming on her black face, wearing a black dress, her black hair tickling her back with her hand planted softly across her heart, reminding me of where I must search when seeking her spirit. I could say that my grandmother saved my life, but she’s done far more than that. Seeing my grandmother’s face gave my life a new meaning, and allowed me to see that this battle was never really about me, but a journey all brown girls face throughout the diaspora.
Yes, I may have been separated from my grandmother in life, but we as the descendants of abducted Africans snatched from the womb of our mother continent centuries ago have been separated from Africa for countless lifetimes. This separation nurtures the dissonance black women face in trying to find herself in a white world. It is only in using the faces of our elders and ancestors that we assemble the pieces of our stolen legacy and fractured esteem.
My grandmother’s face gave me the strength to find beauty in what the western world calls ugly, allowing me to not only see the beauty in myself-but to truly conceptualize what beauty is—and the beauty is in being black.