An unintentional social experiment I ran for years (before COVID): I was at the store. My hand feels undistorted, as if the skin on it is absorbing moisture from the cartilage upwards. I looked in my bag. I didn’t fully prepare my day with any emollient containers: No lotion, no shea butter, nothing. I frantically, frantically scanned around me for another Black woman. Seeing one, I approached her.
“Hello ladies? Do you have any lotion?”
Those two questions signal that first, I mean no harm, and second, I’m not ashamed to ask for care.
Rarely without fail, the other Black woman got into her purse/backpack/tote bag and pulled out a tube, a bottle, a vial of the requested emollient. I squeeze or scoop up a cotton pad and rub my hands together quickly and effectively — palms, backs of hands, especially between the fingers — because I thank her for the rescue. protect me from certain social errors.
“It’s nothing, ma’am.” We smile at each other in a moment of intersection between understanding of women and racial sublimation: another girl redeemed from nothingness.
At its core, black skin means dry skin – which, along with red blood, is a trait that many people share at some point in our lives. On skin tones that are darker than phenotypically pale whites, the higher contrast of the grayish-white patches and surrounding area makes the condition more obvious.
Yet in that alchemy of black social struggle, black personal grooming, and black linguistic coolness, it has metastasized from dermatology to culture. and politics. Ashy manifests not only a dry cuticle, but also a lack of care in self-care and neglect of the community.
“I don’t know if I can pinpoint its origin or its specific trajectory,” says culture critic and author Yaba Blay, whose award-winning self-published book, speak, One drop: Changing lenses in the race, has been republished by Beacon Press. “I come from the perspective of someone who was raised by Ghanaian parents. Ashiness was never an option. And it’s not something that someone has to sit down and talk to me about. These are the things that are cultural norms for us [Black people].
“Speaking as a Black woman, I know that, in the history of white supremacy, there is an investment in the specific level of presentation and performance of our values. Ash reflects that you don’t care about your appearance and/or you may not care about your appearance”.
Blay tells a story of her own childhood in New Orleans that pretty much every black person across the African diaspora will nod off with nostalgia. “I have so many memories of being raised, sent to school by a West African mother and people saying to me, ‘Oh! You are so shiny! ‘ My mother doesn’t play that game. You won’t leave her house and look un-moisturized. ”
The fight against nothingness also reflects Black ingenuity under the withering dehumanization of white supremacy. In her research into black hair care prior to the time of famed hair entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker, Blay says that historical documents about the materials black women used to moisturize their hair — including including grease and tallow — suggesting that Blacks used similar inventions in our skin care.
However, Blay added, while resisting decay is about taking care of oneself under the multitude of cruelty of white supremacy, “the level of care and anxiety about caring [under that system of oppression]… it’s not about white people. It’s about how we communicate our values to each other, [white supremacy] will not disappoint us. “So, Blay continued, treating dry skin became the cornerstone of the aesthetic in the group.