In a recent interview, Nobel winner Toni Morrison talked about growing up as an African American and what color and beauty meant within the black community. At Howard University, which she attended, she said there was a test for beauty. The ideal was to have skin no darker than the color of a paper bag. (“The New Black,” by Maddie Oatman, Mother Jones, May 2015 pg. 60.)
I was surprised by her remark because when I lived in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in the 1960s, the opposite was true. Light skin meant tainted blood. Cape Coloreds, in South Africa, were the light skinned children of black slaves and their white masters and because they weren’t pure, they were obliged to live outside either community.
Growing up, I gave little thought to standards of beauty beyond that dictated by the ancient Greeks and later, Hollywood. If I’d seen beautiful black actresses on the screen – Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and Ruby Dee—these were woman beautiful by western standards. Not until I had lived and traveled on the African continent did I come to appreciate African beauty by its own measurement.
My eyes were first opened in Uganda. The day was hot and my driver had left me sitting in the car while he transacted business at a little trading post by the side of the road. Except for the store and a few huts clustered nearby, the area was a vast plane. A few Jacaranda trees offered shade so I left the car to stand beneath one of them while I waited. From there, I observed the daily activities of this small village. Some women were seated close by, smiling and chatting as they braided each other’s hair. A few men sat under a different tree not far away. They leaned into one another, possibly sharing a joke or two, as laughter occasionally rose from the circle.
The day was like any other. I waved my hand before my face in a futile effort to keep cool. That’s when I saw her, out of the corner of my eye. A woman swathed in bright colors, drapery of many dazzling patterns, each shouting for attention. As she came into full view, I could see she was tall and carried herself in a way that heighted the effect: straight, as if she were a shaft of light drifting across the red dust. By western standards, she was rubenesque but the curves were sinuous like those of a cat. I could say “panther” for her skin was onyx black, blacker than the shadow she cast, black enough to absorb the sunlight and cast it back as a reflection. Her features were Bantu — the large, dark eyes, the lips full, the nose a little spread — and though there wasn’t a trace of Greek aspect about her, she was beautiful, undulating across my field of vision as if she knew her feet clung to a rotating planet, her rhythms in concert with its motion.
I noticed that the men fell silent as she passed and the women also. Favoring no one with her glance, she kept her eyes peering into the distance, sure of her destination and having no wish to be delayed. Looking at her, the words from Lord Byron’s poems came to mind: “She walks in beauty, like the night.”
(Originally posted 6/11/15)