Black History Month: Light and Dark: a positive way to look at skin color in the Black community

When I first read this poem I knew that I had to memorize it. I just knew I did. It spoke to me. I can see you reading this now, “It spoke to you? What are you talking about?!” Well, it did.

This poem “spoke” to me. Of course, I did not know then what I know now. I did not think and fully understand the complexities of the skin color in the black community. How lighter skinned equated to something positive and how darker skinned something negative. I did not know that somehow this poem would relate to the game that friends and I played in the seventh grade where we would roll up our arm sleeves and see who was lighter and who was darker. All I knew was that I really liked this poem that some guy named Langston Hughes wrote.

What I know now is that skin color has always stirred much talk in the black community. Comparing how “light” or “dark” we are to each other has been a method used to define beauty. Often times a lighter skin complexion has equaled beauty and something to be desired while darker skin has been seen as something to be looked down upon. Not only that, but skin color has been the topic of many debates stemming from historical practices of being lighter than a brown paper bag for college acceptance to how attractive or unattractive someone is. It has also been the debate of complexes that we still deal with today.

Langston Hughes, a renowned writer and poet of the Harlem Renaissance, understood this debate. I am sure that during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of time during spanning the 1920s where African-American art exploded in New York City, he saw the need to address this issue. Being the talented poet that he was, he used his art to do so. He wrote a poem that, in my opinion, took this debate of skin color and showed that all shades of black are beautiful. He did this in his own way by comparing the various shades of African-Americans and using sweets, candies and other pleasant things to define his view of skin tones. It is this poem that I would like to share now.

Harlem Sweeties

Have you dug the spill

Of Sugar Hill?

Cast your gems

ON this sepia Thrill:

Brown sugar lassie,

Caramel treat,

Honey-gold baby

Sweet enough to eat.

Peach skinned girlie,

Coffee and cream,

Chocolate darling

Out of a dream.

Walnut tinted

Or cocoa brown,

Pomegranate lipped

Pride of the town

Rich cream colored

To plum-tinted black

Feminine sweetness

In Harlem’s no lack.

Glow of the quince

To blush of the rose.

Persimmon bronze

To cinnamon toes.

Blackberry cordial,

Virginia Dare wine-

All those sweet colors

Flavor Harlem of mine!

Walnut or cocoa,

Let me repeat:

Caramel, brown sugar,

A chocolate treat.

Molasses taffy,

Coffee and cream,

Licorice, clove, cinnamon

To a honey-brown dream.

Ginger, wine-gold,

Persimmon, blackberry,

All through the spectrum

Harlem girls vary-

So if you want to know beauty’s

Rainbow-sweet thrill,

Stroll down luscious,

Delicious, fine sugar hill.

— By Langston Hughes