Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a two-part series by Karen Ellis.  Stayed tuned for Part Two, “Women of Color and Discipleship.”

Don’t tell my husband’s mom, but I bought her one of those giant boxed hearts full of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I really can’t think of anyone who enjoys chocolates more than my mother-in-love. She can detect chocolate in the house more accurately than a heat-seeking missile – after all, she’s had some eighty-plus years to refine her detection technology. Between her and my chocolate-loving husband, such treats don’t last long in our house, but I think I’ve successfully hidden the chocolate heart out of the range of her highly-refined cocoa-radar … so far.

Since the purchase, I’ve found myself reflecting on a poem from Langston Hughes that my mother-in-love would remember, having lived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance.  It echoes in my head every time I think about that chocolate heart, knowing that it contains a diverse selection of candies that will be received by a woman who’s learned to appreciate each one for what it may have to offer. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

“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.”

Hughes has spelled out something that could take a lifetime for many of us “of color” to embrace – that everything about us can reflect God’s deliberate artistry and handiwork, down to the DNA that determines the way each of us is made.

Hughes so easily lauded the great range of beauty in the women around him as he captured Black life in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.  Yet in contrast to Hughes’s celebration of color, I am always at a loss when I hear well-intentioned comments that we in the kingdom should ‘look past’ race to pursue reconciliation. Denying the personal characteristics of entire segments of people discounts a large part of the different races’ ability (or inability) to function in this fallen world.

Consider: if the Psalmist had said “I choose not to see the sun, the stars, the sky or the heavens … it’s all just universe”, there would be no Psalm 19 proclaiming the handiwork of God that evidences Him to all who have eyes to see. Perhaps what these well-meaning folk really intend to say is that they don’t wish to judge people on the basis of their physical appearance – I can get with that. But to have one’s breath taken away by the colors of the sunset, or enjoy the dramatic red of a cardinal, or the odd wonder of a pink-sanded beach hemming in the vastness of the ocean (none of which bears the image of God), while ignoring racial diversity in people seems inconsistent. Denying the variations of God’s handiwork in people as they walk, speak and breathe before one’s eyes must certainly be odd to the Creator who offered such variety in the first place.

Much has been written by and for the Church that (rightly) focuses our attention the non-physical attributes that God says make us beautiful. I’m always greatly helped by discussion about being conformed to the image of Christ, and of transformation by the renewing of my mind; our nature can’t rightly be discussed independent of its internal transformation by the One who loves us.

Yet I also know that we women of color can struggle with a constant barrage of media  messages that tell us we are physically too much of one thing, and yet not enough of another. Skin, ‘too light’ for one thing, or perhaps ‘too dark’ for another. Hair, too ‘natural’ for Corporate America, or too ‘relaxed’ to be ‘down with the cause’, and on and on. How should I answer my daughters about their appearance when this fallen world constantly says that there is something inherently flawed in the way we look?

Black By Design

My husband remembers the beginning of the Black Consciousness movement in the 1960’s. It was a positive movement in many respects, because it moved our attention away from the accepted Eurocentric beauty standard and gave us a greater appreciation for the variation in our culture. However, the movement left some empty, in that there was no transcendent understanding (that is, an understanding outside of ourselves) as to why Black was beautiful. Over the years since, we’ve tried to reconcile our cultural norms with our image in the mirror. Who hasn’t sung along with Whitney’s catchy delusion, “Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all?”

Yet only looking inward to understand our world and appreciate ourselves leaves us with the first lie in the garden – that we can know and understand our dignity, identity and significance apart from God’s revelation of Himself. With our own reasoning as a starting point, we’re left with an idolatrous image of ourselves, and we will always tend to think of ourselves with either greater or lesser intent than is appropriate. We are all prone to set up our own physical ideals of perfection reflected either in what we are, or in what we are not. Self-reasoning always individuates in a destructive way, not in a way that unifies. When we only focus inward, someone must be the ideal and someone must be less than that ideal – no one is exempt from this tendency.

The secular fallacy of “self-esteem” has simply led us in a circle back to the cultural shackle that binds us. We must love the One in whose image we are made first, then too, we aren’t merely “loving ourselves”, but are free to appreciate God’s handiwork.  We learn to respect our features – and the features of others – as the intentional design of a transcendent Creator God who has made us for his kingdom purpose.  We realize that no nose can ever be too broad or too keen, no eye too gray or brown, or as Hughes wrote, no skin too ‘merlot’ or ‘too peach’. When our identity is properly seated in the Creator and His intentions, even on a purely physical level all people can be appreciated as intentionally designed by the Creator, with equal worth and significance.  For this reason, we are free to value anew what we see both of ourselves in the mirror, and in others – we see beauty all around.