Praying for Brown 20

One of the first questions I asked when my daughter was born was, “Is she brown?”  I had been praying for this unknown child’s health and color.  I wanted her to be a definite, stick-around brown.  That way, I figured, there’d be no ambivalence about her place in the race.

As a light-skinded* Black woman who came of consciousness in the late 1960s, I’d hated being pegged/ostracized/challenged because of my skin color.  Young, wanna-be revolutionary loud-mouths, loved talking trash about and coming up with ways to make those of us who were light-skinned pay penance.  We were the slave-master’s heirs, the house Negroes, and we were going to have to pay for our “light-skinned privilege” – if only by listening to venomous words spewed at every gathering.

My lovely, brown daughter was reared with brown-dolls, hundreds of books with Black children’s images (a favorite being Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield), and a home filled with art showing brown-skinned people by African-American artists.  I schooled all the relatives to only send greeting cards with brown children on them.  In addition to violin lessons, Amber took African dance classes.  Our outings included trips to the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and the annual Black Nativity performances.  In adolescence, I made sure she met the legendary dancer, Judith Jamison, and saw the incredible film Daughters of the Dust, which featured a garden of beautiful Black women.

I did due diligence to build her positive self-esteem about being a brown-skinned Black child in the world.  I kept her hair natural and in cornrows; no straightened hair for her.  Yet color problems seeped in despite my best efforts.  This wasn’t just because the white female ideal of beauty was the one most prevalent in the society…that’s the way it was and I was prepared to work against that notion.  It was that some family (!), some friends (!), and strangers of the Black persuasion brought their own insecurities and opinions about color when they saw her.

What happened was that my daughter and I didn’t match and this caused confusion for some and consternation for others.  “I wonder if she was adopted.”  My daughter and I heard a teacher says this while doubling back to retrieve a forgotten sweater from a school-entrance screening.  “No, she was not,” I said.  “This is my beautiful daughter.” A flicker of something swept across Amber’s face.  Turns out this incident began her doubts about her beauty and her belonging and that she heard that statement and similar ones more than once while growing up.

My late mother-in-law added another piece of doubt when she would assert that I loved my son more than I loved my daughter because he looked just like me – light skin and all.  There was no evidence to support her assertion but she said it enough that I did something unimaginable to me – I cursed an older Black woman out.  This got her attention and finally got her not to speak this lie in front of me, my daughter, or my son.

The biggest pieces of doubt came in the form of a dark-brown skinned friend and her three light skinned daughters.  (Let me stop right here to say that it is frustrating to write these words.  How silly is this skin-color stuff!  I have seen it wreak havoc within my family where one aunt’s obsessions with being barely brown with shortish hair in a family of definite pale-skinned and long-haired women made her do such things as put extensions on her children’s hair when they were “knee-high to grass-hoppers.”  This was in the pre-braiding extensions days.  It is something our family jokes about now but it caused lingering damage.)

For four mostly wonderful years, this friend and I shared a large Victorian house.  Our children were buddies in a child-centered home.  There were excursions, laughter, pranks, sharing, and love.  There was also damage.  People who didn’t know us, often assumed the roommate’s daughters were mine because they had light-skin even though they looked as though their mother had spit them out (except for their color and hair). 

“My, how pretty your daughters are,” people would say to me.  Once corrected, they would add as an after-thought that often sounded forced, “and you’re lovely, too, dear,” to my daughter.  A child can tell a compliment that’s genuine versus one that’s phony.  It turns out that for some children, the pronouncements of others carry more weight than the assertions or assurances of their parents.  (“You were supposed to tell me I was beautiful,” Amber said.)

One of the friend’s daughters, echoing what she heard others say around her, teased my daughter about being dark.  I scolded her and talked to her about all the various shades of beauty.  When her mother came home, I asked her to talk to her children and set them straight.  She made a half-assed attempt to do so.  It became apparent in her stumbling and bumbling around the topic of skin-color and hair differences among Black people and why they shouldn’t tease someone about being brown-skinned, that she, herself was color-struck.  Like me, she was glad that her children didn’t match her.  She was delighted that her children were light-skinned and that two of them had long hair.  Despite looking like a poster model for Afro-Sheen with her short afro, Nubian features, and flawless dark-brown skin, she didn’t hold this standard of beauty none-too-close.  I was stunned.  I always thought she was beautiful and I thought she felt that way about herself, too.  This was the first fissure that ultimately eroded our friendship.

I have struggled agains the culture of light is right and long hair is preferred all of my life.  I have come firmly to accept that we are all, in our various permutations, reflections of God’s face.  God loves variety.  There is incredible variety in animals, in plants, in terrain, in temperature, and in us.  We humans are supposed to be different within our similar humanness.  I truly see the beauty in all the various colors, features and skin-tones of the human race, yet I frequently notice that many people do not.  They judge themselves and others less because of a narrow set of surface characteristics.

Recently my daughter had her first child, my lovely granddaughter.  During labor I prayed that my granddaughter would be brown and she is – a definite brown who looks just like her Mom.  They match. I am happy for them both, because it means one less battle they’ll have to overcome in the sometimes perilous mother/daughter dance. 

Amber has filled her home with books with brown children (including our beloved, Honey, I Love with the fabulous line “and, honey, I love me, too.”), art by Black artists, and lots of brown-skinned dolls among those from other cultures.  We hope that this will ensure that Saige never doubts her beauty or her belonging.

*written the way it is sometimes pronounced in Black culture

About Candelaria Silva

Candelaria Silva-Collins is a marketing, community outreach and programming consultant; writer; and trainer/facilitator who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She has designed and facilitated workshops on a wide variety of topics including communication, facilitation, job search skills, team building, and parenting issues. She currently coordinates the Community Membership Program of the Huntington Theatre Company. Her work as Director of ACT Roxbury was profiled in several publications, including The Creative Communities Builders Handbook. Candelaria’s children’s stories, short stories, essays and reviews have been published in local and national publications and she is an active blogger. Her publications include the booklets, Handling Rejection; Pushing through Shyness: Networking Tips when You’re Shy, Slow to Warm Up or Just don’t Feel you Belong; and Real Questions about Sex & Relationships for Teens: A Discussion Guide for Parents. She has served on the boards of Goddard College, Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston Foundation for Architecture, and Discover Roxbury. She is currently Chair, Designators of the Henderson Foundation.

20 thoughts on “Praying for Brown

  • Anonymous

    I am thankful to you for writing down this very personal tale of woe. I am hurt by this internal anxiety, ashamed of my fellows, depressed about the possibilities. Is there hope for a day when skin tone is less fraught? Would it even matter if we were all one color, or we would simply find other ways to be mean to each other?

    There was an episode once on Star Trek featuring alien beings who had faces that were half white and half black.  Their rift came based on what side of the face was white or black…  Thanks for reading and commenting.  CS

  • Photographer

    Well said.

    Not matching your parents or other family members can be painful. I am glad to hear the way you handled this. I too am “praying for brown” but we will have to see what happens!

  • SF

    I have been pondering the issue of color. These are a few of my thoughts:

    One day when I was home from college many years ago, I was having a conversation with my brother. Somehow we got on the subject of color. Mind you, he is the same color as me. However, he was adamant that he was lighter than me. It was so important to him to be lighter, I let just did not pursue the conversation any further. Afterward, I thought how did that happen? How did color become so important? For me, character matters. Kindness matters.

    I had the great fortune to travel to the motherland, Africa. I visited Senegal and the Gambia for two glorious weeks back in the 1980s. One of the things I was most shocked and saddened by was how much color mattered. I had a romantic notion that there would be no color lines because I had come “home”. I was wrong. The African males that I came in contact with had a clear preference for light-skinned African-Americans women. Also, bleaching creams were a very hot commodity for trade.

    In one of my former lives, I had four stepchildren. Three of them were light-skinned and the other was brown-skinned just like my daughter. I cared for them all, and would never speak or show any color preferences. However, my brown-skinned children held a special place in my heart. Seeing their brownness made my heart sing. They were my pretty, pretty brown babies.

  • Debbie

    This really hit home for me. Well written and very telling. As a people, we are our own worst critics. Whether dark or light, we need to just get along and advance as a people.

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