light touches dark skin, too
facing the deep beauty of blackness
I hope you are finding ways to rest these days, whether it’s in a full recline towards a nap without a time limit or a deep breath on your busiest of days.
Today I have decided to share a piece I wrote for a class. If I haven’t mentioned it before, poetry—specifically Lucille Clifton’s poems—met me in a tough time during my studies. Her words are full of an authority that empowers, and I have been empowered through her words to honor the beauty of Blackness. Before I share this piece, let’s start with a few quotes from these books right here:
Above Ground by Clint Smith
I am halfway through Above Ground, a collection of poems by Clint Smith. In this book, there are poems about his family and recollections of personal and national histories. One historical moment, Hurricane Katrina, for him was both. The reality that the overwhelming majority of those who were stranded during Hurricane Katrina were Black is haunting. In the poem “At the Superdome After the Storm Has Passed,” he writes
“…There were children inside though there were some who
gave them a more callous name. There were people inside
though there were some who only saw shadows.”
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is someone I could see myself having a Lucille Clifton-level interest in. She is, after all, a Lucille Clifton scholar, and studied Clifton during her doctoral studies. I am new to her work, but not new to her name as I have heard many friends rave about this book. I put it on my list of “when you finish school” reads, and this weekend, got a bit excited and took it along as my commute read, even though I am only one assignment away from being done. I loved this part of the intro where she describes who this book is for and explains why “Black” is capitalized:
“Black is capitalized when it refers to Black people and lowercase when it refers to Black as a color or adjective. But Blackness is more expansive than the human. And there is no symbolic or descriptive reference to the term Black in this society that does not also impact Black lives. So Black is Black.”
Hold these two quotes in mind as you read these Lucille Clifton poems (which for this assignment, I used as sacred text) that are so special to me and their accompanying reflection.
the light that came to lucille clifton came in a shift of knowing when even her fondest sureties faded away. it was the summer. she understood that she had not understood and was not mistress even of her own off eye. then the man escaped throwing away his tie and the children grew legs and started walking and she could see the peril of an unexamined life. she closed her eyes, afraid to look for her authenticity. but the light insisted on itself in the world; a voice from the nondead past started talking, she closed her ears, and it's spelled out in her hand “you might as well answer the door, my child, the truth is furiously knocking.”
in the beginning,
was the word.
the year of our lord,
that in that room
there was a light
and in that light
there was a voice
and in that voice
there was a sigh
and in that sigh,
there was a world.
a world a sigh a voice a light and
in a room.
light touches dark skin, too
This semester, as I have tried to navigate this year of ever-unfolding moments of chaos and confusion, I have reached for the poetry of Lucille Clifton, an African-American poet whose words speak into my fog with clarity and light. The poems I have read today come from a collection called How to Carry Water, edited by Aracelis Grimay, who says this of the poet: “No one writes like Lucille Clifton, and yet if it were possible to open a voice like a suitcase and see what it carries inside, I believe, that inside the voices of many contemporary US poets, are the poems of Lucille Clifton.”
I am one such poet, who carries the poems of Lucille Clifton.
Who recites the poetry of Lucille Clifton.
Who hopes to experience a light, maybe the same light, that came to Lucille Clifton.
Lucille’s name means light, and I imagine to be Black with a name that means light is to live in the affirmation that light touches dark skin.
Light touches dark skin.
Light touches dark skin, too.
In reading these two poems, I cannot help but think of the scriptures Clifton is playing with. Do you hear them, too?
I hear Genesis 1, which begins with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. And then God said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.’ I also hear the Gospel of John Chapter 1: “In the beginning, was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
I wonder what relationship Lucille wants us to imagine. What can she tell us about the darkness we seek to understand? And the darkness we seek to erase?
Are you familiar with the hymn, “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus?” If so, then you know where I am going. How is it that we can sing? “Oh, precious is the flow that makes us white as snow?”
Snow, whiteness, purity, cleanliness, good, holy.
It reinforces the idea that the cleansing of sin entails the erasure of darkness. I grew up in a Haitian-American church, and I didn’t understand French so I just sang songs just to sing them. I’ve sung this song more times in French than I have ever in English before I knew the word neige was “snow” in French.
I used to take communion, in the Haitian Church, to a song that said: Blanc, plus blanc que neige, Blanc plus blanc que neige, Lavé dans le sang de l'agneau, Je serai plus blanc que la neige! I held the elements of communion in a room of Black people singing “White, whiter than snow, washed in the blood of the lamb, I’ll be whiter than snow!”
I can’t help but think of what’s tied to the realities that made these songs a cornerstone of the faith I grew up with. Such as the missionaries who came in the 1960s and 70s—those who continue to come and see “darkness” in Haiti that they wish to expel. I think of my parents who grew up in a society where a lighter more acceptable grimelle complexion—was one of status and wealth. I think of my own journey, which sometimes feels like a daily defense, not just to affirm that light touches dark skin, too, but that light shines on Haitians too: we can be remembered in moments other than the tragedies that typically bring us to mind for the rest of the world.
So, no… I do not desire to be white as snow or plus blanc que la neige…I want to believe instead that the Gospel affirms the presence of something good well before the words “Let there be lights were uttered.”
This semester in my postmodern theology and spirituality class we are reading Catherine Keller's Face of the Deep. Keller challenges this theological understanding that creation happened out of nothing, or ex nihilo. This idea has been carried over from early theologians even though Genesis 1 tells the story of creation in this watery primordial chaos. Some theologians did not know what to do with this watery primordial possibility or chaos—so they erased it. But Keller confronts the violence of this understanding and forces us to ask ourselves: What happened to the chaos, this “face of the deep” that some theologians were content to leave behind? Did it all together disappear in our desire to lock away the uncertainty, did we embrace creation ex nihilo to erase what disturbed us about a reality that it might continue to live, with all its mysteries, in the world?
Light touches dark skin too—and dark skin continues to exist, persist, and insist on itself in the world as Clifton reminds us. I encourage you to do a deeper dive into Keller’s book, but I’ll share a bit more of what she writes. Keller looks at Jewish readings of Genesis 1 that read “in the beginning created God,” which sets us on a completely different trajectory we do not have time to fully unpack. But let’s sit with this challenge from Keller in the reminder that the Chaos remains. The chaos, which Keller refers to as the womb of creation, remains to refuse us the simple closure.
So many of us are seeking simple closure in the embrace of creation out of nothing. Revealing the violence of this model for our beginning, Keller offers us an alternative, creatio ex profundis, or “creation out of chaos.” A place to wonder, to wait, to “brood a while longer,” she writes. A place where chaos, the dark, and the mystery continue to live.
In this season, I linger on Lucille Clifton and I have a desire to know more about the light that communed with her. The light that came to her, like a call to a prophet—a light she decided to be open the door of her mind to embrace. In her own testament, it seems as if she places herself in the role of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus. (John would say, he was not the light, but the one pointing to it.)
Or perhaps Clifton sees herself as John the beloved disciple. She brings us into a room, where she is the only witness so that we might behold the revelation inside her, as if to share her gospel. Or maybe the voice she hears is hers, forming a power that can only materialize into a sigh, holding the heaviness of the world, its problems, and its mysteries.
Whatever that light is, there is truth and goodness in the questions that come with lingering and wondering about it. It brings me to linger and wonder what that good news could mean for those of us in the world with melanin-rich skin. In my public work through Dear Soft Black Woman, I live where light touches dark skin and I refuse to look away. I invite others to witness our beauty and when necessary, respond to the ethical concerns that limit our ability to flourish. While we live in a world that seeks to banish darkness, the good news for me is this: if the dark continues to exist, so can I. I exist, and have access to the goodness of God, which dwells in the embrace of who I am, and not the erasure of my Blackness.
I hope for a world that acknowledges the perceivable and believable presence of Blackness. A world that does not wish to snuff us out, through colonial and racist violence. A world that wishes to know the goodness of God revealed in Black life persisting. This world is only possible where wonder and mystery thrive, and where revelation is received by opening the door to the “truth that is furiously knocking.”
I think about Black people because we are familiar with the violence that comes with creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. After all, white eyes settled on our dark skin and saw nothing lovely. Their bodies came upon our shores, with the curiosity that lead to conquering, closing off wonder to crush, minimize, and manage.
“The light came to its own and its own did not perceive it,” the Gospel of John says. I think about our Black bodies, collapsed in the limited imagination of white supremacy, to believe nothing good can come from us. I think of the boldness that whiteness seeks to tame, the loudness it seeks to quiet, and the strength it hopes to weaken—
And to it all I say, stay here with this truth: light touches dark skin, too.
But what becomes of that skin, that light knows so gently? Melanin was made to contain and absorb that light so that it does not harm us. The more light we get, the darker we get. And so light can never erase us. It only makes us more prominently and more beautifully Black.
I wish that was what the world saw when it looked upon me, my family, and the Black people of my home country and this country.
I wish that was what police officers saw when we called them to respond to our distress.
I wish that this light that touches dark skin could reveal to the world what could be learned from lingering with what the possible has to teach us.
I wish—just as the light insists on itself in the world, we could see that darkness insists as well. Light and dark insist on existing together. They touch and they ask, only that we be open to examining where our metaphors have failed us so we’d know not to fear their touch as well.
The nondead past, Lucille writes, might continue to haunt us, but do not let it be the thing that forces your mind, heart, and spirit closed…
Do not look away.
Do not be afraid.
Do not close your eyes.
Do not close your ears.
Do, however, let the light write its revelation into your open hands, as it has done for Lucille. Allow a beautiful surrender to guide you through unknowing the world as it has been divided and portioned out for you. And hopefully, it reveals for you what endures in me: light touches dark skin, too.
And this truth is worth beholding.
What does the affirmation that “light touches dark skin, too” mean to you? How do metaphors of lightness or darkness impact your daily life? Can you abandon ways of thinking that place them in opposition and pick up a practice of affirming their relationship with one another?
Consider the concept of creation out of chaos vs. creation out of nothing. How might embracing chaos impact you spiritually? What does it allow you to see without needing complete control or mastery over? What does it allow you to extend grace for within yourself and others?
Imagine a world where your identity is celebrated without any desire to erase or alter it. How would this imagined world contribute to your spiritual growth, and how would it help you foster acceptance within yourself? Are there ways you can walk in these truths without waiting for the world to change?
 Grimay, xiii
 Genesis 1:1-2, New Revised Standard Version.
 John 1:1, New Revised Standard Version.