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Evelyn C. Fortson

African American Author of Women's Fiction


I was at lunch with a friend when she made a statement unexpectedly. “You’re comfortable in your skin.”

The statement was a bit jarring when I first heard it, but later after thinking about it I took it as a complement. Initially I took the statement to mean, how can you be happy being fat. I immediately went to body type because she was someone that prided herself on fitness. If her complexion had been light, I’m sure I would have gone into the light skin, dark skin thing with her and ended a friendship. But after I meditated on what she said I could see there was a lot to unpack with that statement.

Black women have been struggling to fit into someone else’s standard of beauty for too long. As little girls we were given white dolls to play with. We saw White women on TV and was told that she was the face of beauty. Some of us identified so much with those dolls and the images on TV that we spent the rest of our lives trying to look like them. I was a child in the sixties, so my white dolls were replaced by black dolls fairly early in my childhood. But the black dolls were just darker versions of the white dolls. The hair was the same and the body type was the same. So, how was a chubby, dark kid with short hair, suppose to think she was beautiful? She didn’t. I wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to see myself as pretty, beautiful was still too big a label for me. It took years of rejecting the dominant culture definition of beauty.

Every time media showed an image of what beauty looked like to them, I would tell myself that beauty comes in different forms. It took me standing in the mirror, looking at myself, and affirming that I was beautiful. It took me looking at other black woman and seeing the beauty in them.

Yes, I’m comfortable in my own skin but it was a long road that I travelled to get there.

Today White women are plumping their lips, buttocks and enlarging their breasts. Black women are following suit, and once again trying to imitate the dominant culture's definition of what beauty looks like.

The truth is we were always beautiful. We didn’t need to over sexualize ourselves we were always desirable. Beauty comes in different packages, and we don’t have to look the same to be beautiful. We have to stop letting society bastardize our images with exaggerated body parts and hair. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you are beautiful so that you can become comfortable in your own skin.

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I wished I had asked my parents more questions about their lives before they were my parents when I had the chance. I would have loved to know exactly why my father left Louisiana and came to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Was there an incident that caused him to sneak off in the night like a runaway slave. Or did he plan for the move?

My parents were a part of the great migration of Negroes that left the South to start over in the North. The North was the promised land where Southern boys could become men. My father was a young man with three children when he left his mother, his siblings, the woman that would become his wife and his children in search of the American Dream. After my father got a job, and his own apartment he sent for my mother and his children. My uncle drove his sister, his nieces and nephew to Los Angeles to be reunited with their father.

I never knew if my father came alone to Los Angeles or if someone from his hometown came with him. Perhaps when he got to Los Angeles there was someone from his small town that took him in until he was able to get his own place. But I do know that my parent’s opened their home to friends and family that left the South for a chance of a better life in the North. People stayed with us until they got a job and their own place.

There was a time in our African American experience that we were our brother’s keeper. We looked out for each other. There was a time when we were not afraid of each other.

I know it’s a different time. We are not as united as we once were, and people will take advantage of your kindness. But we need to find new and creative ways to be our brother’s keeper.

We can at least smile at each other on the streets. We can encourage each other at the workplace. We can stop competing against each other. If your job is hiring tell your brother or sister.

There are many ways that you can be your brother’s keeper without carrying him on your back. If you extend your hand, he may be able to stand up with a little help from his brother.

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I’m the sort of person that love to have discussions about various topics with friends and family. So, when my book club met yesterday the topic of how you identify yourself was brought up. Usually when someone is asked that question it is in relation to sexual identification, but not so when the topic was discussed yesterday. The youngest woman at the table was speaking in regard to race and sex. She saw herself as a woman first and Black second.

I found her perspective to be fascinating to say the least. I told myself it must be a generational thing because I have always identified myself as a Black Woman, specifically an African American Woman.

I came home from the discussion with the subject matter lingering in the back of my mind as I greeted my husband and grandkids. I thought about menial things such as whether to cook dinner or get take-out all while the question of identify floated within the walls of my consciousness.

I asked myself why Black first and not female? And this is why. The hue of my skin bear witness to the fact that I am Black. I share physical and social qualities which are distinct within the Black experience in America. There is a shared experience in my Blackness that I have not shared with females of other races in America.

For me Black is how I see myself because of the strength and beauty that it means to me. The danger that I find in identifying as female first is a forgetting of the contributions of the Black woman and a melding into the collective female culture. I remember a period in our recent history where people were walking around saying, “I don’t see color. I see people.” That was always offensive to me. Every time I heard that phrase, I thought that people’s culture, tradition, history, and religion were being diminished even though it was not the speakers intend.

I don’t know if it is generation gap or something more profound happening when young Black female see themselves as women first and Black second. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, all I know it is interesting topic and a question you might want to ask yourself.

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