Skin Deep — What We See or Don’t

I’ve been thinking about color, no doubt influenced by books and articles read recently, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker by Eric Liu, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and the NY Times editorial, “Why Do You Say You’re Black?” by Morgan Jerkins. I hope my musings make sense.

Camp Trywoodie, 1966
From my photo album. Camp Trywoodie, 1966

Growing up, I spent summers at interracial camps where my counselors were white and black, from the U.S. and around the world. It took me, a white woman, longer than a black friend to understand his mother’s words, “The world isn’t Trywoodie.” At camp, we were equal, but in the real world, I was the one to stop the taxi. Later in life, browsing at a tony craft shop with my black boyfriend, the sales clerk followed us around as if we were criminals. The commonplace for my boyfriend was new to me.

Pastel drawing, 2017. Lily white isn’t lily white.

Drawing with pastels, I avoid using pure white or black. It’s far more interesting visually to build up light and dark areas with an assortment of colors. In physics, white and black aren’t even considered colors — white being all wavelengths of visible light and black is its absence. While our flesh may appear more white or black, it is never pure.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Two Moors, 1661
Rembrandt, Two Moors, 1661

Some flesh tones have more red, others more yellow or blue. And as the color of daylight changes throughout the day, we appear more blue or yellow. Under the florescent lights of a fitting room, I suspect we all look half dead!

Friends have paid to find out which colors look best next to their skin. “Are you spring, summer, autumn, or winter?” they ask. Trial and error has shown me that I look sick wearing a bright yellow or green sweater, yet when I see the same colors next to dark brown skin, I want to run and get my camera.

The color of flesh doesn’t tell me anything about the person within other than adversity faced or unspoken privilege. I assume cultural differences, but there isn’t a single black or white culture or experience. Even the artist, who looks closely at eyes, facial expression, and stance, using clothes and scenic placement as clues, can only attempt to show the viewer how smart or kind the subject is.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, Vienna c. 1655
Rembrandt, Self-portrait, c. 1655

It seems to me that diverse flesh tones make the world a more beautiful place. I’m not an art appraiser, but suspect the value of a Rembrandt painting isn’t assessed by the flesh tone of his model.
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We reflect light in different ways. Calling people on one end of the spectrum, “white,” and on the other end, “black,” makes no sense. A system that places greater value on one over the other makes even less sense. That said, until the world is Trywoodie, I’m going to look for all the colors, keeping in mind the world is rife with prejudice and discrimination. It’s on me, and all of us, to repair what’s broken.

From the 1965 Camp Trywoodie yearbook:

“Our 1965 summer’s themes: The Great Society, and Futurama, are based on these words of President Lyndon B. Johnson.”

Dancing at Camp Trywoodie,1965
Dancing at Camp Trywoodie, 1965

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

Camp Trywoodie, 1965
Camp Trywoodie, 1965

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. —President Lyndon B. Johnson