Friday, July 28, 2017

Why are people trying to throw shade on my tan? #imtryingtogetdarkAF

 March, 2017


“Not you, red-boned,” yelled one of the four or five guys leaning against the bathroom wall at Ho Chi Minh Park.  He laughed and sucked his teeth as he looked at my friend Dana.  I had only turned around because his teeth sucking sounded like air hissing out of a tire, “ssssssssssssss.”

Red-boned? Is he talking to me?

Turning scarlet, I kept my eyes forward and continued walking.   I stopped once I rounded the corner, letting Dana walk ahead.  Dana was mocha brown with small breasts and a round butt that filled out her Levi’s 501’s (nicely).  Guys always tried to catch her eye when she and I walked down the street.   I looked away from Dana (who was now being hemmed up against the wall by the teeth-sucker) and inspected my arms.  True, they were skinny and my wrists looked they belonged on a five-year-old, but it wasn’t like my bones were actually VISIBLE. 

Did he call me red-boned because I’m so bony? But why RED?

* * *

Three months later, while visiting my dad in Ft. Lauderdale, his girlfriend, Dale took me to a daytime party in a park.  I thought I looked pretty in my new, yellow terry cloth romper that we had bought earlier that week at this amazing indoor mall/market called a "Swap Meet." While Dale said hello to people she knew, I walked around in complete awe.  There was a small, makeshift stage with a DJ, a boom box and speakers blasting Soul Sonic Force’s, Planet Rock.  I could feel the base in my chest and in the bottoms of my feet.

I had never before seen so many Black people in one place.  All around me were 200 or so stunning faces and taut, muscular bodies in beautiful shades of plum, molasses, butterscotch, brown sugar and dark caramel.  I turned around in circles, watching them all do the Electric Slide and the Cabbage Patch with an energy that I’d never before witnessed or felt.  I was just about to tentatively join in on the tail-end of an electric slide line when I heard that familiar moniker again.

“What up Red?”

Red? I'm wearing yellow! Is he color blind?

“Is he talking to me?” I whispered to Dale who had mysteriously reappeared by my side.

Dale laughed and pushed my shoulder, causing me to fall back into the ample bosom of a “Cabbage-Patcher”.  “Do you see any other red-bones around here?”

Red-bone! There’s that word again!

“Red-boned? Me?”

“Yes, girl, of course.”

She didn’t seem to understand why this confusing to me.

“But, why?” I said, side-stepping an over-zealous dancer in a see through Dolphin’s jersey and speedos.

“Why, what?”

“What does it mean?  Red-boned?”

After another peal of laughter, Dale placed her face closer to mine.  Her brown eyes were so clear that I could see the shapes of the people behind me in them.  Her deep, cocoa-with a-touch-of-milk skin glistened from dancing in the 90-degree sun.  I marveled at how smooth and soft her skin looked.

“Are you serious?” she said, her voice scaling up.  “YOU, girl.  YOU are light-skinned – RED BONED.”

She said RED-BONED like I was hard of hearing — or slow-witted.

My mind felt like it was frozen.  I tried to make sense of what she was saying.

Light-skinned means red-boned? Why?  What does red have to do with anything? And why is it important to identify me as light-skinned?

“So, my skin color — uh, I mean because I’m light-skinned (I tasted those words on my tongue for the first time) that means I’m red-boned?”

She turned and faced me.  “You really don’t know?”

I shook my head, holding her eyes with mine.

“Okay," she said, looking as though she were summoning some patience.

“Yellow or yellow-boned, that’s those really light-skinned girls that almost look white, but they might still have nappy hair, though."

“Okay,” I nodded, wishing I had something to write with.

“You’re red-boned, because you’re light-skinned, but you’ve got more a little more brown or red in your skin, like you got some Indian in you or something.”

Okay that makes more sense (even if it is a little racist).  Red for Indian blood.

“Got it,” I said.  “And us ‘red-bones,' we can have any kind of hair?”

“Yeah, but it’s usually some grade of nappy.”

I patted my little curly Afro, stretching a small lock until it was straight and then letting it snap back into place.

Some grade of nappy…

“And those, really white-looking Black girls,” she continued.    "With pale, pale skin and long, stringy White-girl hair.  They call those high-yellow.  Like those Creole girls over in New Orleans.”

“High-yellow,” I said in a voice that showed her that I was paying attention.  “Pale skin, White-girl hair.”

Dale nodded and turned to say hello to someone who had grabbed her hand as they were dancing by.  I waited until she turned back toward me.



“Is it only girls or can boys be high-yellow or red-boned or whatever?”



She sucked her teeth in exasperation. 

“Boys can be high-yellow too.  But I like those chocolate ones, like your dad.  I’m not interested in those high-yella fellas…”

“Um, um, MMMM!” The man next to me interrupted us.  He was drinking in a deep-brown woman in biker shorts and a lime green tube top dancing next to me.  

“Y’all hold the cream,” he said licking his lips.   “I like my coffee BL--AACK!”

I found myself staring at the woman too.  Her ebony skin shimmered like velvet in the hot sun.  It was maybe the most beautiful skin that I had ever seen.  I had to clasp my hands together to keep from touching her arm.

“Black Coffee” glanced over at me, thinking I was staring at him.  He tilted his head with an impatient nod, like I was somehow messing up his chances with the chocolate woman.  He said something inaudible to me as he chased her down, shouting more complimentary words at her.  It wasn’t until they had both disappeared from sight that I realized what he’d said as he sped passed.

“What up, Red?”


*  *  *

When I deplaned in San Francisco at the end of the summer, my Mom was waiting for me.  After hugging me for a long time, she straight-armed me away to get a better look at my face.

 “You are SOOOO tan!” she screamed.    “It’s absolutely gorgeous!”

“I was in the sun all the time,” I beamed, conscious of how white my teeth looked against my “new and improved” skin color.  “Dad took me to the beach every day!”

“THIS is your color!” she exclaimed in a serious voice, still holding me at arm's length so that she could admire my skin.  “You are EBONY.”

Later, when we grabbed my hard, gray suitcase from baggage claim, I caught a glance of a beautiful, dark-skinned girl in the mirrored wall behind the conveyor belt.  I startled when I saw that she was wearing the same shirt as me. 

Oh my God! That beautiful brown girl is you! 


“What the fu%@ are you Nigg$#’s doing on the beach?!!!”

Kelly and I startled, raising our heads to look at each other.  I could see my own fear/confusion reflected back in her eyes. My heartbeat was visible under my Wonder Woman bikini.

“What the fu@# was that?!?” Said Kelly.

Kelly was my best friend but she could have been my sister.  Our skin and hair color are almost identical, we have similar shaped eyes and mouth.  Kelly had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ft Lauderdale with me earlier that year.  I had wanted to go live with my dad (who was raising my 6-year-old brother, Kofi by himself) and she was just ready to be somewhere new.   

Coming from the Bay Area, neither of us was prepared for how little racial “integration” there was in south Florida at that time.  All Black people were dark brown and White people were pale or had “Barbie and Ken” tans.  We NEVER saw any mixed couples.  And we almost never saw any Black people like us  — light-skinned, American Blacks.

And even though we didn’t look typically “Black” (at least by South Florida standards at the at time) we certainly didn’t look White either.  If we went shopping in the mall, we usually caused quite a stir.   Confused store managers, would send over a Spanish-speaking salesperson to help us because they assumed that our lighter skin meant that we were either Cuban or Puerto Rican. 

More often than not, wherever people met us for the first time, White and Black people alike would usually interrupt us mid-sentence to ask, “Excuse me, what are you?”

“GO HOME!!!!”

The source of the angry, husky, male voice was hidden from view, but we had raised our heads quickly enough to see a yellow pick-up truck speeding by with a confederate flag in its rear window and a Davie license plate holder.  

Kelly got up off her towel, sand sticking to her stomach and the top of her emerald-green bikini.

“FU#$ YOU!” she yelled after them at the top of her lungs, bouncing up and down on her toes.

“Uh, Kell…” I said looking around. 

Our section of the beach was practically deserted. 

“There’s no one else here.  What if they turn around?”

Kelly looked down the street after them and brushed the sand casually off her arms.  

“Fu#$ them,” she muttered. 

“Maybe we should we go,” I said getting up onto my knees and gaging the running distance between my car and us.  It was only 11:00am.   Kelly and I had gotten there early so that we could lay out for at least a couple of hours before it got really hot.  This had become our weekend routine.

“Naw,” she said.  “I’m not black yet.”

I laughed nervously and looked back at the almost-empty road.  Out of nowhere, a police cruiser pulled up across the street and parked in a loading zone.    

Thank God

I looked back toward the sand and saw an older man with a metal detector coming down the beach.  There were no other sounds except for seagulls crying and the gentle lapping of the Atlantic Ocean on the shore.

Okay, even if they came back, the police are right there.  And the sun is really good now.

I flipped the waistband of my bikini bottom down so I could see if my tan line was darker.  It was, but I wasn’t as brown as I’d hoped.  I tapped Kelly’s shoulder and pointed at the police car.

“I think we’re okay now,” I said.

“Hmm, maybe,” she said dismissively, turning over onto her stomach.

I grabbed the oil and then started giggling uncontrollably.

“Hm?” Kelly looked annoyed.

“You know what?” I said.

She let out a deep sigh and opened her left eye. “What?”

“We must really be getting black,” I turned on my side so that I could look at her.

“What?” Kelly opened both of her eyes now, her eyebrows were knit in consternation.

“They saw us from way over there on the road and they called us Nigg#$’s.”

“What are you babbling about, Laurda?”

“They knew we were Black!  From wayyyy over there!”  I pointed up toward A1A.

Kelly propped herself up on one elbow and smiled at me.

“I mean, yeah, it’s really fuc&%d up, but that’s something, right?”

Kelly laughed with me, laying her head back down on the towel.

“Yeah, you’re right," she mumbled sleepily.  "Those Davie crackers called us Nigg@#’s.  I guess that does mean that we’re finally black.”

“Who’s red-boned?” I smiled.  “No red-bones here!”

I held out my hand for her to give me “five”.  She lifted her arm reluctantly and tapped my open palm with a limp index finger.

“You crazy, you know that?”


“You look different,” he said.  “Are you TAN?”

“Yes,” I beamed.  “Scottie and I just got back from Kona, Hawaii.”

I was a shade of Black that was reminiscent of that 1978 tan.  I was over the moon.

“But wait, you TRIED to get that tan?  You – laid out in the sun!?”

Ewwwwww! Shade!!

He wasn’t the first person who had greeted me this way.  It wasn’t all, “Oh you look great, what’s different?” Like I said, it was definitely shade.  

But when I have a tan, that's how it goes.  Black people say to me over and over again, “Why would you want to get darker?” And White people usually say something like:  “Wow! I didn’t even know that Black people GOT tan, at least not on purpose.”

Some people look away from me when I’m tan, as if they’re avoiding having to talk about it, because it makes them uncomfortable.  Other people actually seem to be personally offended that I covet a particular shade of richness that only occurs after browning in the sun for a few hours (well, okay -- days).

And yes, I totally get that some people are genuinely CONCERNED, because of the things that today’s sun can do one’s skin.  I am too.  I wear sunscreen -- lots of it every day, not only when I'm  tanning.  And I go to my dermatologist regularly to get a head-to-toe check.

But CONCERN isn’t what I’m getting from most people.  Most people seem to genuinely be confused by my ambition for the darker shade of brown that I hope to coat myself with during every vacation. 

"What does Scottie think?” someone once asked with a horrified expression.

The truth is that Scottie loves my skin tan (and my hair in wild curls).  He loves the buttery, burnished color that I take on after a few days in the sun and so do I.  Scottie and I BOTH come back from every vacation with a tan, but no one ever questions his “motivation” for getting one. 

Why is that?

Do they question my motivation because they are truly perplexed about my tanning-ambitions?  Or is it because of the not-so-subtle messaging that Black people receive in this country from the day that we are born – That BLACK (skin, hair, culture, mannerisms) is NOT really beautiful.  


In fact, Black is something to bleach, “correct" surgically, weave and/or straighten.  It’s always felt to me like Black is something for people to try to erase, not something for people to celebrate. 

Thank God for that girl in the mirror at the SFO airport that day in 1978.  Thank God for my mother’s words when I stepped off of the plane from Florida.  I saw myself dark and I saw beauty.  That has made all of the difference in my life.  Like it or not, not only does race matter, but skin color and shade matter too.  There are over 50 different derogatory words and terms online that BLACK PEOPLE use to describe OUR different skin-colors (yellow, red-boned, black, burnt, high-yellow, dusty, ace of spades, etc.).


Why is it necessary for us to classify ourselves according to who has more European blood or who has more African blood?   And why is one more valued than the other? And really, why have we allowed this to continue into 2017?  2017 people!!

I know that I am fortunate because I happen to love both the color that I was born with AND the color that I’m able to become in the sun.  And if you're a person "of color" too.  I hope you don't let the limited, petty, dated, slave-mentality view points of some people deter you from feeling good about the skin you're in.  I think you're beautiful.


  1. Beautifully written. I just love you.

  2. Great piece, very relevant! How amazing to have beautiful skin in all seasons, beautiful when tanned and beautiful when it's not! ❤️

    1. Dani!! Thank you so much for this. I couldn't agree more (obviously). But I so appreciate your comment! Lots of love ❤️