Friday, October 8, 2010

The Skin We’re In: On Appearing in Lauren Cross's Film "The Skin Quilt Project"

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living soul.”

The Holy Bible, Genesis 2: 7

“And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from
Man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”

The Holy Bible, Genesis 2:22

“Should be immoral or a sin
If it is according to
The skin I’m in”

Cameo, “Skin I’m In”

The creation story describing God's creation of the world that begins the Bible, along with God's sculpting of male and female bodies in all their uniqueness, is also fundamentally about art, positioning Him as the ultimate and foundational artist. And within this narrative, God judged all that He created to be “good.” For me, the Bible story of humankind’s creation reminds me of the beauty of the body; it helps us to recognize the body as God's unique sculpture. As an artist, this story reminds me that the body at one level is art, and helps me to envision it as a canvas. That art is so much affirmed in this spiritual story inspires me as an artist, and as a human being.

I am honored to have been one of the quilt artists featured in Lauren Cross’s new documentary entitled “The Skin Quilt Project,” which is a 2010 selection of the International Black Women’s Film Festival. Congratulations to Lauren Cross! The film draws on black quilters, male and female, to discuss color politics in black communities, hypothesizing that quilting presents an alternative and more inclusive and empowering vision of black identity and has provided black quilters with a unique sense of self esteem, as well as valuable perspective on black culture. By interviewing members of quilting guilds as well as individual quilters in a range of contexts, including art studios, Cross explores the continuing impact of colorism in black communities, which allows this film to make a valuable political statement, including the powerful message that it sends on black bodies and their beauty. The publicity for the film says it all. The quilt is the primary metaphor in Cross's film's iconography for representing the range and diversity of shades of black people's skin and binding them all together. The film is scheduled for screening, along with nine other films, at the International Black Women's Film Festival in Berkeley, California on October 9, 2010. In general, the topic of colorism is a vital site for critical dialogue among black women.

This film suggests that denial persists about the continuing impact of skin color in black communities, whether people experience discrimination for being thought of as "too light" or not light enough. I think it shows very little intelligence and lots of immaturity for people, including black people, to make judgments about the worth and desirability of others purely on the basis of superficial factors such as the skin's shade and its proximity to whiteness. If even now, the logic is that what is closest to white is only “right”-in the sense of that old rhyme-then how far have we come, and how far can we ever go? There continues to be too much schizophrenia in black communities regarding issues of color. Harboring such self-hatred is the equivalent of walking everywhere backward when the natural thing to do would be to walk forward. Whether politics that devalue blackness come from within or without, they are a problem. As the group Cameo reminds us in the lyrics to their powerful song, "Skin I'm In," which are quoted above, there’s something fundamentally wrong, and even sinful, about judging another person on a quality such as their skin color. And I would add that there's something a little insane, too, about obsessing so much over skin complexion. The song by Cameo, which mainly addresses racism, is a reminder that skin does not define us. The bottom line is that all people, from white to black, are beautiful and perfect in the eyes of God, and He loves all of us.

I’m not sure whether it made the cut, but one of the points that I made in the film as I was interviewed was how important it is for people, including and perhaps especially people of African descent, to remember that we are indeed a people who are “kissed by heaven.” No one with this perspective ever feels a sense of inferiority or inadequacy in the sense described in the film. If anything, one feels special and can embrace and admire the beauty of the human spectrum and wherever one fits in on it. One is more likely to love and value oneself and feel beautiful with this perspective. I’ve never in my life, even as a child, used terms such as “good hair,” never worshipped or had a preference for light skin, and never have felt that light skin is more preferable or more desirable. My art quilts, with human forms classically drawn and sculpted in my foundational felt medium, are meant to show and celebrate a rainbow of faces across the color spectrum in all of their beauty and glory.

The most important thing is how one feels about and thinks of oneself, and how one treats oneself. Because I do in a sense see the body as a canvas, I use my own body as a way to express my creativity. On the surface, I do this through clothes and accessories, as well as through makeup.

I find that investing in the best cosmetics is one of the best things that one can do for one’s skin if one opts to wear makeup, so I always wear Mac cosmetics. My makeup collection, including concealer, powder, mascara, lipsticks, lip and eye liner pencils, blushes, and eye shadows, along with all the Mac makeup brushes on my vanity, contains the basic tools in my personal studio for self-creation and self-invention on a day-to-day basis. I attended poise-charm classes growing up at ages 11 and 14 and have also read many books on makeup, including some of the classics by authors from Beverly Johnson to Cindy Crawford, so knowing the basic principles and tricks of the trade makes putting it on a snap.

One way that I invest time and energy in taking care of myself is by taking good care of my skin. Since I was 25, I have rarely stepped outside without wearing sunscreen, a must for everyone, though it seemed that no amount ever could keep my feet from burning and turning solid bronze in California during the hot summer months! I have also used eye cream nightly since my mid-twenties. Moisturizing, too, is mandatory.

I can’t believe the remarkable transformation that has come about in recent years as a result of giving up the use of all body creams that contain chemicals. Coconut oil is the lotion that I use day to day, and otherwise, whipped shea butter. In addition, I use only natural soaps made of coconut oil and shea butter, and non-aluminum deodorant. My hair shampoos also include these ingredients, and it is important to me that my hair be chemical free. These days, I'm also into good exfoliation. I keep all of these tools under a cream antique wash pitcher and basin on a French wash stand that I call my “Skin Station,” which Cross also photographed when she visited my art studio. A benefit is that natural products such as coconut oil are very cheap (it doubles as an intensive hair conditioner for me), supplies last a long time, and it is a healthier lotion than any I've ever bought at regular grocery stores and drug stores.

To supplement this personal at-home skin care routine, I schedule regular appointments for professional skin treatments. They include a Sothys-based facial from a European esthetician. This facial, which includes a rigorous exfoliation by hand, achieves amazing results and takes two hours. (I used the Decleor system in California as a complement to monthly micro-dermabrasion facials, which led the esthetician to exclaim to me once that “You’re going to have the cleanest skin in Davis!” However, these days, I enjoy getting this old-fashioned hand exfoliation, which works wonders). Most recently, I’ve added a seasonal full-body shea butter exfoliation to my professional skin care routine. I also find regular pedicures to be nurturing to the skin.

Another professional routine I use to care for my skin is an organic soy body wax every few weeks, including eyebrows, underarms, full leg, and a Brazilian. This is a purifying process that I savor. No longer using harsh depilatories or razors has changed my life and is another crucial way in which I’ve gotten away from chemicals and respected the body’s normal rhythms and cycles. Waxing has the added benefit of being another vehicle for body exfoliation and adds to its softness and smoothness. And even when I have a little leg stubble, I feel beautiful and never sweat it or feel self conscious, because I can accept, love, and appreciate myself as a total woman. This organic soy waxing ritual is refreshing and especially makes me feel pampered when I step into the salon during the cold winter months in Ithaca. Books such as Molly Aldrich's "How to Get the Perfect Brazilian Wax" and "Brazilian Sexy: Secrets to Living a Gorgeous and Confident Life" by Janea Padilha of the J. Sisters (who invented this art) are excellent and indispensable resources on the art of Brazilian waxing. And like Brazilian women, I savor spending time on some Saturdays for my processes of self-care, which I enjoy and to which I am deeply committed. My body waxing process also takes two hours. My regular appointments to care for my skin-professional facials, seasonal body exfoliations, organic soy body waxing-are so worth it.

I haven't felt like this since 2000, when I had an excellent massage therapist who made house calls. Once a month, for over a year, until I left California for Baltimore, she'd bring a massage table, oils, music and candles up to my high rise apartment at Capitol Towers in downtown Sacramento and spend an hour giving me a full-body massage. It was a time for me to wind down and shut down. I found the process to be thoroughly relaxing. I first met her and got her card at a "Pamper Party" coordinated by a couple of black women in the city, where six or seven black beauty professionals in the area who specialized in diverse areas were invited to the home of one of them to showcase their techniques for all of the guests, who were mainly newer Sacramento residents. This party helped to build their clientele and to help settle newcomers. Techniques included Sisterlocks (we also screened and discussed a related video), manicures, body massage, makeup artistry, etc. At that point, I was an assistant professor in the third year on my job and invested in home-based massage as a result of attending this party. In addition, hiring housekeeping and having a standing weekly hair appointment were other primary investments for me during that period. In California, I visited some great spas over my ten years living there, including some of the best for black skin care, and still order products from one of them.

Different geographies can literally create different versions of us. I loved the version that emerged from my first 18 years in Alabama, and feel that it is the "truest" so far. (This is not surprising. Very few places can compete with the South in fashioning femininity/womanhood). The ones in Atlanta, Georgia and Durham, North Carolina I liked, well, not so much. In California, I went through many phases, good and bad, but think I became the best version of myself there around age 29. I like the version of myself emerging here in Ithaca and feel that is very true to form. Now I look more like I did originally, before I ever left Alabama, like the adult version of the self I was at 18. I've said that "California made me a better Southerner." I think New York has made me an even better and more perfect one, in part by reminding me of all the things that are unique and exceptional about being a woman raised in the South and whose values were shaped there.

At 39, I feel fine. I don't know what the fuss and fear of turning 40 are about. I certainly do not feel that way. I feel more beautiful and radiant than I've felt in years, feel I am my best and most beautiful woman yet, inside and out, and feel twice as good and confident about myself as I have ever felt in my life.

Really, the soul and the spirit, and not even the body, are the ultimate canvases of life, and they are the elements that mainly matter to God. We often use expressions such as "feeling comfortable in our own skin.“ Yet, this is one feature that does not need to be overly emphasized, and certainly, not romanticized. I will never forget, for example, how uncomfortable I felt when I had a hives outbreak that came from an allergic reaction to a meal I’d eaten at a restaurant in summer 2008, which only intensified with the allergic reaction I had to over-the-counter medication I had tried to use to treat it. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life. I ended up in the emergency room where I was treated with antibiotics.

The truth is that God’s people are made in all shapes and sizes and live amazing, courageous and beautiful lives under a range of circumstances. I prefer to remember the power of heaven’s kiss and to keep the focus on the things that matter and make the difference in a life lived well.

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