By Christal Jordan
When I was three, my Aunt Mary told me I had a pretty color. She said I was the color of a brand new copper penny. My face stretched wide into a full grin as I experienced a sense of pride at the fact someone noticed I was positively unique as opposed to unexplainably different than the rest of my family.
My mother was perfection in my eyes; with a almond complexion, wide set dark eyes, complete with beautiful wavy tresses that hung past her waist. I would somberly compare myself to her, deciding that I was a duller, browner, shorter-haired version of imperfection. My father and beloved younger brother were the color of freshly churned butter. My yellows swirled with sienna then settled to produce a warm caramel. During the summer months my arms and legs would bake red at noonday, then as the sun began its lazy farewell, they would cool into a ruddy cinnamon. I was painfully aware of the differences between my skin tones and my family’s almost immediately. My mother recalls me asking her where she got the white baby when my brother first came home from the hospital. I had hoped the baby would look a little more like its brown-skinned big sister. A silent child, I would often observe others observing us, mentally struggling to place me in the familial picture.
For the majority of my primary years, I was the only black child in class, at most one of two. This meant I felt out of place both at home and school, all because of the color of my skin. The very skin that years ago my then-deceased Aunt Mary told me was pretty.
After entering junior high school, I quickly learned of the unspoken color rating system within the small black community of Tulsa, OK. On this scale I ranked a non-impressive five as I wasn’t fair enough to be grouped with the elitist light-skinned, nor was I distinctly dark enough to be thrown in with the darker-skinned blacks. At home however my numbers lowered drastically after being contrasted against my family.
With adolescence came a strong awareness and attraction to the opposite sex. Still a reserved child I studied the boys in my class. They were constantly in search of girls who would develop into examples of the women they saw in music videos and fashion magazines. I couldn’t count on my hands and feet combined the number of times I was asked if I had a friend that was “light-skinned with good hair.” When I hesitantly mentioned this to a friend, she laughed at me, claiming it was all in my head. Christal, I think this is all in your head. Things have changed now days. Guys like all color girls. Black people have moved on. She regurgitated a speech she’d been given by her creole parents. Silently I resented her ambivalence. Her skin was the color of fresh honey and she had never experienced intra-racial discrimination unless it was from one of my envious cocoa sistahs deciding she thought she was better than others because of her elite skin tone.
One of my darker-skinned friends would complain to me about being the darkest female in our class. She would roll her eyes to bemoan the constant comments of “She’s cute to be so dark-skinned.” Familiar words from a far more familiar sentiment we’d heard spoken in hushed whispers, and delivered in apologetic glances from older women with pursed lips and sympathetic eyes. “Stay away from dark colors,” women in her family would advise wisely for fear she would celebrate her dark skin with bright yellows, red or pinks. “You don’t want to marry a dark skinned man; your poor children wouldn’t stand a chance.” These comments were more offensive, more hurtful, but were offered with the same empathy and heartfelt concern as the others. I tried to console my chocolate colored friend but was hardly a comfort as I too was dealing with the same perils of intra-racial prejudice. Dutiful daughter that she was she was careful to follow the rules. Practicing discipline and turning away when spotting a stylish sweater in a forbidden fuschia, or a sunny yellow no matter how stylish or beautiful. We were both told our hair was our best asset and could possibly balance out the fact that our skin tones were less than desirable. We both spent what little allowances we could get, getting our naturally thick kinky hair pressed and curled, ensuring we put our best feature forward to thwart attention from our African American essence.
In the inner sanctum of my room, my ideological fantasies ruled with glossy magazine photos of Lena Horne, blue, gray or hazel-eyed Vanessa Williams, Pam Grier, Lisa Bonet, Pebbles and Jane Kennedy staring down from my bedroom walls at me while defining my boundaries of African American beauty. I faithfully watched Video Soul studying the beautiful Sherri Carter, while Sherri look-alikes were drooled after by my teen-age crushes, New Edition, Ready for the World and Big Daddy Kane. Later, contemporaries including the most beautifullest black woman in the world, never mind the fact that she is half white, Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett, Aaliyah and now this larger than life pecan colored beauty Beyonce’Knowles worked to re-enforce what their predecessors had managed to convince me during my formative years long ago.
Dark-skinned sistahs everywhere beamed with pride when during the 1980’s Naomi Campbell was crowned one of the prestigious Supermodels and became the African American answer to Cindy Crawford, Elle McPherson and Nikki Taylor and Christy Turlington. Our triumph was short-lived as the supermodel reign was eclipsed by Kate Moss and that waif era, and, well African Americans just didn’t have an answer for that drugged out anorexic look no matter how hard we tried. So we returned to the pages of Essence, Jet and Ebony magazine trying to gauge how the average working sistah measured up and compared with the imposed definition of beauty for African Americans. All the while, black entertainment television was busy working with creative video directors and entertainment artists preparing to unleash a whole new crop of cookie cutter beauties sought after by the young African American male. Not only were these new beauties contenders for the infamous brown paper bag test, but if they weren’t blessed with “good” hair, they sported silky Asian and Caucasian extensions further blurring the lines between African American and exotic.
My self-esteem along with that of about half of my friends took an unimagineable nosedive as we struggled, then became familiar with the labels placed on us by whites and members of our race, all dependent on something as small and yet as magnified as skin color. Without genes of choice, it seemed we were cast in the part of wallflower in the unavoidable adolescent stage play entitled, “teen love”.
After school in the safety of home, I would lock myself in the bathroom and stare at my features, trying to imagine what they would look like if set against a brighter backdrop. I had proof my eyes would be much more attractive, as they were exact replicas of my mothers’. My pouty lips and rounded nose, I wasn’t so sure of, but certainly they would appear less offensive in a lighter shade.
It wasn’t until age sixteen that I began to realize the potential of my ever-developing body and appreciate the color of my skin. Raised by a mother who placed self-preservation next to godliness, I took painstaking measures to treat my skin as often as I could. I pampered it after baths with rich lotions and cocoa butter and methodically administered facials and body scrubs on week-ends. After performing this passed down ritual for months, I began to inspect my skin up close in the bathroom mirror. I actually began to fancy the consistency of my skin tone. I would spread thick cocoa butter over my legs and watch as I massaged the cream entirely into the skin atop my arms, legs, thighs, stomach and breasts. After I scrubbed and applied lotion my skin would glow a rich honey, luminous with a hint of yellows and reds veiled under a consistent brown.
I began noticing how my rich skin tone was a complimentary backdrop for just about any color. It inevitably brightened a sunny yellow, defined the crispness of a starch white blouse, deepens the blush of plum and sets off a rich noire. As a young woman I took pride in the fact that diamonds, rubies and emeralds all came to life against the creaminess of my sienna hands, wrists and neck. It was then I began to cherish my unique skin tone. Uniqueness became my focus as I realized that all the skin tones of which I’d previously envied were in fact unique in their own right. Jane Kennedy’s caf‚ au lait was not an exact replica of Vanessa Williams’ almond beauty. If their individuality was beautiful why couldn’t my fellow brown skin sistahs be just as beautiful? Why not the beauty of Lela Rochon, Beverly Johnson and Janet Jackson? They were all beautiful brown skinned women with palates close to that of my own but they were all different. Beautifully, uniquely, individually different.
Slowly I began falling in love with all my features noting that they too; from my almond shaped eyes, full shapely lips to my dark brown hair were complimented by the color of my skin tone. I eventually became as confident to assume that my voluptuous curves appeared much more appealing in their caramel coating, very different than they would have been if I’d been able to pass that paper bag test.
Now as a woman of thirty years, my once flawless caramel body has been marked with the birth of two babies, evidence of a particularly bad bout with chicken pox and several bumps and bruises all leftovers in a body with many more years to be lived in. My once girlish frame has taken on a few more pounds here and there. It is no longer the cute little package I waited until I was almost in college to fall in love with. Still I find myself smiling when I recall the beginning of coming into my own, and remember the phrases I created praising the brown skin I struggled to become comfortable living in.
While observing my almond-skinned daughter watching her reflection in the mirror, I can’t help but hope she learns to cherish her unique self much sooner than her mother. I make sure to spend time in our private conversations showing her the beauty of her golden skin and reddish brown hair. She smiles when I show her how her skin is beautiful and although it doesn’t look like mine, it looks much like that of her maternal grandmother. I hope that she can see the beauty in her butterscotch colored dimples and pale pink lips that appear to me just as beautiful as a brand new shiny copper penny.
Christal Jordan-Mims is the president of Enchanted PR, public speaker, a published author (Genesis/Kensington Press) and freelance writer for several entertainment/lifestyle magazines. Christal’s first novel Under the Cherry Moon was released January 2006 with a second novel to follow in 2007. Christal earned a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Communication with an emphasis on Public Relations and Literature. In 2007, Christal would receive a best new author nomination from Cush City, one of the largest African Americanpublishers in the country. The book also received an honorable mention from Black Expressions.
After graduation, Christal convinced the Executive Director of Theatre North, a local theatre company that the theatre group needed a Publicity Director and that she was the perfect fit. The board gave the college graduate a chance to begin coordinating publicity events for the production including artist appearances and media relations. After working on the first production for three months the box office sold out for three consecutive nights, and the Executive board voted unanimously to bring Christal on full-time.
Christal went on to serve as Community Relations Manager for Barnes & Noble Booksellers. She created numerous events in the new store such as Summer Reading Round Up, Shades of Essence an African American reading group along with author appearances and workshops in the store. Christal was later tapped to be a local spokesperson for literacy in her community.
While working in the arts Christal, hosted a local television show entitled, “The Tulsa Connection.” The thirty-minute entertainment based program focused on the arts and non-profits serving the Oklahoma community. Christal also did a brief stint on Fresh Jamz 105.3 as News Director of the early morning show. Today the former television/radio host acts as a media trainer/consultant for manyartists and professionals looking to be in the public eye.
After working for several years in Public/Media relations for a variety of organizations including a historical museum, the largest children’s hospital in the southwest and serving for several years as Community Relations Manager for Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Christal relocated to Atlanta and founded Enchanted PR, an upscale public relations firm specializing in music, literature and entertainment.
Christal is the founder of a t-shirt lined entitled Caramelized that celebrates a legacy of strength, beauty and grace in women of color. Christal is also co-publisher for a trendy new e-zine, entitled The Urban Socialite, which celebrates art, beauty, literature and entertainment.
- ‘Dark Girls’ Sparks Colorism Conversation (theroot.com)
- OWN’S Film About Dark-Skinned Black Women: Is It Still Relevant in 2013? (blackamericaweb.com)
- OWN’S Film About Dark-Skinned Black Women: Is It Still Relevant in 2013? (oldschool1053.com)
- OWN’S Film About Dark-Skinned Black Women: Is It Still Relevant in 2013? (oldschool945.com)
- Brown Like Me (brescullark.wordpress.com)
- ‘Dark Girls’ documentary set to premiere on OWN (thegrio.com)
- The Good The Bad The Tar Baby (geniusscribbleinkblog.wordpress.com)