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Blackface

Writer and artist Utibe Gautt Ate. Photo credit: Samantha Annis.

By Utibe Gautt Ate

She approaches the bathroom mirror. Takes the Clarisonic brush and washes her face. The washing is part of the process. The initial step in building the face. She watches in the mirror as the electrical brush swivels around the contours of her Black face. Not black, but brown, but black, she thinks to herself. African, Nigerian, even Native American or American Native as she likes to think of herself—someone from America. America first, somehow feeling a sense of pride in that. And sees in the mirror a red face too—the Cherokee. Red. A makeup artist once told her that she had red undertones in her skin. And she decided to believe it. To see it. In seeing it, she’d see Docky. Her great-grandfather, the one she’d never known—only the small stories of the big man (who she’d made big in her mind). That stereotype of Native American men. And the other one too: that they are red. In truth many have this apple color under their skin, this cinnamon spice tone—she sees it.

After rinsing, she pats dry her face with a towel. Just pats. Gently, not rough. Be gentle. Remember, the face’s skin is the most delicate. The voice of her mother inside her head. Now dry, she takes the L’Occitane toner from France, purchased in California and squirts a small portion into a cotton swab. Slowly massages it into her face, moves down to her neck and ends at her chest. Looks at the swab and sees dirt. Wonders how God could make her the color of dirt. Dirt on a cotton swab. This distracts her for a moment as it makes her sad. Confused. She forgets the sad thought. Packs it down in her chest. Looks in the mirror and tries to think.

I’m pretty. I’m, pretty.

Thank God I’m pretty.

Moves on to spread the toner along the outer parts of each upper arm. Vulnerable to acne. Cotton. Cotton picker. There was a time when you may have been just a cotton picker. A slave cotton picker. Then she remembers sunscreen. As a child she believed sunscreen’s life purpose was to protect Black people from the sun’s curse. Cast on all dark-skinned people from birth.

She knows better now.

Now, she believes—she knows, that sunscreen keeps her younger. Vibrant. Healthy skin. Healthy looking. A good thing, right? Vanity? No.

She ignores that question, shoves it deep somewhere inside. Her skin. She looks at it. Deep brown. The color of a father barely known and a Native American man, she wished she’d known. Docky. Their bloodlines run through her face and pump her heart too. She feels them as she continues the process of building herself.

The Divine Cream, a very expensive moisturizer also from L’Occitane is spread throughout her face. A brightener, not whitener, she reminds herself. How very important, it brightens, not whitens. Her hands reach for the chocolate liquid foundation, bought half off from Mary Kay. After becoming a Mary Kay consultant, in order to buy products wholesale. But doesn’t bother to sell them and laughs as she remembers her mother saying, “Well you know, you could make money if you actually sold them.” She never did. And now she places a dot of Mary Kay foundation on each corner of her face. With two middle fingers from each hand she becomes Gandalf the Great, magically painting over dark spots in a hue that is almost the same color as her own skin. Magic. In seconds, her skin appears even. An even tone. More than before.

Skin, an even skin tone.

How many times will a woman hear those words in her life? Will she feel them? Those words. Pushed on her. And into her. The mandate. You must have even skin tone. Is this why she wonders, so many women, even young, pursue Botox, pursue skin peels and often schedule dermatology more than prayer.

God. I love my face.

I’ll love my face.

Then she thinks of Janet Jackson. Of Michael. Who when young allowed a knife to slim their nose. So many others too. Perhaps even Halle Berry, or Beyonce. She wonders, did they?

She looks in the mirror and can see the pressure they may have felt. To Anglo-Saxon their nose. To Anglo-Saxon perhaps the Black person’s most negroid feature. His nose. And hers. Africa’s proof.

Unspoilt by the diaspora.

The scattering of her children.

Then God. Why God? She looks at her own nose and asks Him. Would he allow her? To Anglo-Saxon my nose? She wondered. But knew she couldn’t. She prayed she wouldn’t. In her nose she saw them, Mama, Papa and Docky, too. And she felt a need to keep them close. To keep what she knew.

What she knew of them.

After the liquid foundation she uses a second. A brown powder, then applies a blush to her cheeks. Rust colored. And laughs. Half-wondering where Black women ever got the idea to wear blush. White women, maybe. Or Asia. China, I bet… Rosy women. She likes the color it brings to her cheeks and decides she appreciates those women. Whomever they were.

Smiles and moves up to assess her eyebrows.

One time, age eight, her older sister said, “You’re lucky, you’ll never have to get your eyebrows done. Their shape is perfect.” At the time she had no idea what it meant, yet felt pride in her sister’s recognition. Her eyebrows. Just waxed last week. Colors them in now with a soft black pencil. Takes eyebrow gel, runs it through the small hairs and wonders at how she doesn’t know if her eyebrow shape is from her mother or her father?—Maybe neither, she thinks. Must be someone else.

Mascara, the final step, is not simple. She applies mascara primer. And paves the way for mascara to be more effective. She thinks this is a good thing and her excitement rises. She knows she’s reached the home stretch. These days she doesn’t change up the routine much, maybe some shadow here and eyeliner there. The final appearance is her favorite. Once on, the black mascara opens the eyes. Which are brown. Like her. Her skin. Not who she is.

She quickly looks in the mirror and says, Girl did good. Admires her work. Her mother and father’s. And God’s creativity. Smirks. And thinks she looks more loved when she looks well built.

Sprays across her face the Urban Decay finish spray, the one with the purple lid, reaches for the fuchsia lipstick, slides it over her lips and remembers a Black boy she knew before she wore lipstick. His plump brown lips examining her had said:

“Hm, your lips are pink. Very pink for a Black girl.”

It was then I knew I was much more than anyone assumed of me, including myself.

Utibe Gautt Ate is a writer and artist. Born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised in Los Angeles, California, she is Black American, Native American, and African. Her background is in postcolonialism and race, as well as photography. Utibe’s writing and artwork about race have been exhibited in Paris and Los Angeles. To learn more about her work, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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