Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Sun Will Surely Make You Black


This is what I did for fun when I was a kid: I read. I cornrowed my doll’s hair. I read some more. I annoyed the crap out of my brother. And I waited anxiously for Fridays, when my Dad would let me ride shotgun while he drove around town, paying his bills. When we got back home, I read. Again.

Going outside to play wasn’t an option. Not that I grew up somewhere nefarious where little black kids had to negotiate dope boys or gang warfare to play in the park; I was raised in Long Island, in a nice house, on a nice street, with a really nice backyard. And I refused to play in it. There were bugs out there. And nobody wanted to play with me, anyway. And I took it really seriously when my parents said that I should avoid playing in the sun because it would only make me blacker. Heaven knows I didn’t want to be any blacker. At least that’s what my parents used to tell me.

Come to think of it, that was the general line of wisdom from the ‘rents whenever there was discussion of doing outside activities. “You don’t want to go to the pool—you’ll get blacker.” “Why on earth would we go to the beach? You just get black there.” “Play kickball? Outside? In the sun? Don’t you know you can get black doing that?”

I got so used to them coming up with excuses for why they didn’t want to accompany me to outside adventures that soon enough, staying inside became the modus operandi—a lifetime one, really. Several decades, three kids, a dog, and a mortgage later, I still don’t do backyards or bikes or parks or beaches too much. I sit out on the deck overlooking our expansive back yard and immediately start swatting at invisible bugs—toss the ball around with the girls and then find at least five reasons why I need to be back in the house. Alas, enjoying nature is not natural to me.

I never really thought about why that is until last week while Nick and I were watching The Today Show and Nick was reminiscing about how he used to see the celebrity who was being featured—Kevin Bacon—out in Central Park a lot, playing with his superstar wife Kyra Sedgewick and their kid. And I remember thinking, really? A celebrity in Central Park? Just playing with his kid and stuff?

I pondered this for quite some time (probably way too much time considering how much work I had on my plate, but I digress), and got to thinking about how many times I saw my parents just, like, playing. And it dawned on me that the last time I saw that was, um, well, never. I’ve never in my * mumbles age to herself * years on this earth felt my father’s hands on the small of my back, pushing me higher and higher on the swing as the air swirled around me, kissing my face. I’ve never seen my parents curl their toes in wet, salty beach sand or splash in the rush of seawater slamming against the shore. I’m quite sure that I’ve never seen my father’s hand in a baseball mitt, or his sneaker booting a soccer ball toward a makeshift goal, or his fingers lining up against the stitches on an oval-shaped piece of pigskin.

It wasn’t natural for them.

Wild stab at it, but I’m going to guess that they didn’t like being outside because they both grew up in the South, on farms, where being outside was all about work, hardly ever play. The two, longtime factory workers when I was growing up, also worked ridiculously long hours and, to be fair, spent their free time trying to rest up for more work on the job, or church. Not much else.

Thank God—and my sporty husband—that the great outdoors is much beloved by my girls, even if their mother is a total lame. They think nothing of tumbling out the garage, tennis rackets, soccer balls, basketballs, bikes, sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, and hoola hoops spilling from their arms, for the great driveway/backyard/front yard adventure. They erect humongous chalk cities—replete with cafes and movie theaters and gas stations and malls—on the concrete, and perform Olympic-worthy somersaults and back flips on the trampoline, and duel to the end in front of the soccer goal, sometimes with their bare feet digging into the dirt and grass while our dog, Teddy, looks on lazily. Sometimes, they hang upside down on their humongous Rainbow swing set, talking about everything and nothing. They dig in the dirt and make seven-course mud dinners and pile rocks and study bugs, even as they scurry across their little fingers. Neither finds any of this gross.

I do. But I don’t try to steal their joy. I just watch them from afar, wondering if I would have been a different, more outdoorsy girl if I had neighbors like them to drag me outside (a few of mine were forbidden by their mothers from playing with “the niggers”—another post, for another day, promise), or parents who just, like, made the time—a few minutes or so to enjoy the backyard they’d worked so hard to have.

My Daddy lives in Virginia now, on the land he tended when he was a young boy helping his father with his burgeoning wood business. My father tends to his grass like a mother does her newborn; the greatest of care is extended to practically every blade. He’s always been a stickler about his lawn, my Daddy. Except now, he encourages his grandbabies to run circles on it and cartwheel across it and dance in the rain of his sprinkler until they are drenched and giggled out and all shriveled up. Occasionally, my girls talk their Papa into taking them to the local park, where the walking trail stretches so far you can walk from Virginia to North Carolina without leaving its bountiful borders. He walks with them slowly, steadily, tossing bread toward the ducks and geese and pointing out the beauty of the great outdoors.

He doesn’t point his face to the sun—you can get blacker that way—but he doesn’t stop my daughters from doing it.

I don’t judge him.

I understand.

And I promise myself to try to do a little better.

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  1. Great post. I too, grew up hearing the talk about too much sun resulting in a much blacker you, lol. This didn't keep me from playing outside with my best friend at the time, however, are adventures only took place in the backyard or the front porch because unfortunate, it was the "dope boys [and] gang warfare" that prevented us from "playing in the park."

    Luckily, Miss J has been growing in a neighborhood were this isn't a concern and she is free to become as black as she wants to be, and yes, the child would love to get blacker, haha.

    Perhaps you will venture out more when you are truly ready... I have a feeling that your girls will end up luring you out into the sun one day and you will forget all about getting your blue black on =)

  2. Oh yeah, you do know that drinking coffee with also make you black, right?? HAHA

  3. Beautiful post Denene. I seldom venture from the confines of the deck. I've always been a loner, I married a loner-where did these children come from? They're the popular children on our street. They've forced me out of my shell, but just for a peek-it feels good every now and then. I too must try to do better. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wow. Hmm, I would say that the whole stay out of the sun for fear of becoming "blacker" idea is a Southern construct but that is not true. As an adult I learned that my mother was taunted by my grandfather for being the "blackest" in the family. I suppose I believed that this type of thinking died with our grandparents generation but obviously I am wrong about that one.

    I think that is great that you don't hold on to that belief because many times when things are ingrained in us at a young age unfortunately we hold on to them. Both the good and the bad.

  5. One day at a time.

    Enjoy the breeze and fresh air.

    Let your feet feel the grass.


    I think you'll see it isn't that bad after all.

  6. As a biracial child living in a completely white area I was also indoors all summer. I also would apply 45 sunblock as to not tan. I am thankful that my children live in a much more ethnicly diverse area and that they are nature lovers. Thank you for posting this. I have lots of thinking to do.

  7. Loved your post. Made me think back to my childhood to see if my parents ever "played". I honestly don't remember. I know I always loved recess, but my mom would have to force me to go play in our yard. Mom wasn't fun like that. Dad was, but he was always working. No, I don't think I ever played with my parents like that. Oh well.
    I'm from Virginia, and I've heard the stuff about playing in the sun. It was something I thought about when I was a little older, but it never weighed that heavily on me.

  8. so funny to me...my parents were always doing the outside thing and you can hardly keep us indoors. it's funny though...people always tell me that jada can get a sunburn and i should put sunscreen on her. REALLY? who knew skin could burn? idiots! oh, sorry...it's a sor spot with me...

  9. 1. Grass IS overated and you can't see exactly what you're stepping in (eeeek!)
    2. Bugs might drink toxic raindrops and become Super-death bugs and kill you at first bite (that's my theory, anyway)
    3. All the best shoe stores roun' here are INdoors
    4. When you go outside, people want to talk to you, AND expect you to talk back

    Just thought I'd share...

  10. Execumama! You ain't NOTHIN' but a fool! ROFL!!!!

    And Ms. Bar: I truly love getting my blue-black on--I really do. I'll go to the beach specifically for this. There aren't any bugs there... tee hee!

    Ms. Tildy: You hit it on the nail... my parents never "played." I don't think it was all that important to their generation. The provided a roof over our heads, food for our stomachs, and the best kind of life they could afford to give us. There was too much work for play. The sun will make you black thing was more of an excuse to stay inside than anything else...

  11. I used to hear the stories about the sun making you blacker all the time. But I'm from the Virgin Islands so going to the beach was just what we did, no matter how much blacker it made it. And trust me when I tell you that it did. You would change by at least of couple of shades after a few hours at the beach in the Caribbean sun, and I had the bathing suit tan lines to prove it.

    Even now when I see someone I haven't seen in a long time who's from back home, they'll comment on how much lighter I look. That because 1. it's cold outside, so I'm not heading out there for any reason, and 2. there's no beach, so I don't really have a big reason to be outside even when its warm.

    Well, at least I didn't until I had my daughter. She would go outside even when its 20 degrees if I let her. Right now, as the ice freezes over on the ground and she's shivering indoors, she's still begging to go to the park.

    So I feel you Denene :)

  12. Wow, what an amazing post. Thank you for sharing part of your childhood with us. I can't believe the message your parents raised you with, that being blacker was bad.

    I'm glad your girls are growing up differently. It's so hard to change what we're used to. And, like you said, your parents are bad people, they just had the wrong message, in my opinion. :o)

  13. This was a good post. It's hard to challenge the messages we grow up with, but we do it helps us grow.

  14. Wow! What a fantastic post! I cant completely relate to this because as a kid, I was outside all the time and I loved watching my skin get darker and darker in the summer. It was like a mission so I could prolong the paling process in winter. However, there are browner members of my family that subscribe to the same notion as your parents. I agree that I do not think it is a regional thing. At least with my family, I think it was a self-loathing thing passed down...they were taught to not like...love their dark skin...maybe even in a subconscious way not to love being black. It's funny...my lighter relatives seem to have more black pride than the browner ones...go figure!

  15. It was fascinating to read a little bit more about your childhood Denene and I love that you can understand why your parents were the way that they were.

    I have vivid memories of my own teen/young adulthood of me laying out in the sun with baby oil slathered all over me, frying my skin trying to get darker. Can you even imagine the damage I did to my skin just because I wasn't happy with the color that I was? Stupid, stupid, stupid is what I was.

    I really loved the insight into your childhood and how that relates back to you as a parent. Really beautiful post today!

  16. Angie,

    Thank you, my love, for your kind words. Frying your skin wasn't stupid; it's just what we did when we didn't know any better, right?

    It's all about learning, this parenting thing. And using your experiences to push it forward.

  17. It's sort of like why no one in my family knows how to swim. We didn't/couldn't go in the pool/ocean/lake whatever because my mom didn't want to spend the rest of the day doing our hair.

    My boss invited us to go out on her boat and I was the only one who had never been on a yacht. I don't even own a bathing suit!

    I have no need for sunscreen, 'cause I rarely go outside. I'm a nerd. If it's not on the computer or in a book, I don't know about it.

    I have to remember to take my daughter and son outside sometime. No need in making them suffer because their mama doesn't know anything about the sun.



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