There’s a belief in our culture that “black don’t crack.” Since I hit forty several years ago, someone often tells me how good I look for my age. “What they say is true, because you prove that black don’t crack.” Yes, for the most part black women tend to look younger than we actually are. In fact, expecting to age well has served as a platform from which I’ve juxtaposed my life with that of a white woman—from here, I’ve stuck out my tongue, rolled my eyes, and flipped her the bird. Aging gently, to my mind, is the universe’s way of balancing things out. One evening not long ago in Whole Foods I met a middle-aged couple visiting Los Angeles from Memphis. They were kind, and we talked about our lives very intimately for just having met. I shared my struggles of being divorced and co-parenting a child with special needs. She shared about her marriage and how she struggles living in the south being as progressive as she and her family are. Finally the woman asked me how old I was, and I told her forty-five; she shared that she was fifty-two. She then spent the rest of the evening going on and on about how good I looked for my age in comparison to how she felt she looked. I found myself growing annoyed because it felt like she was suggesting that she was surprised consider the challenges I had shared with her just moments earlier. Eventually I said, “If I looked like what I have lived through, I would look like the walking dead. Don’t you think it’s fair that life would be kind to my face, since it has been so cruel to my heart as a black woman in America?” “I guess so,” she responded. I’m willing to admit that she hadn’t meant to be insensitive with her comments, but in the moment I felt that that conversation was ignoring a much bigger truth.
The issue came up again for me recently when I took a trip to the East Coast and reunited with a group of my girlfriends from college. I hadn’t seen any of them in a decade. Yes, there’s Facebook, but that’s nothing like seeing one another in person.
I was eager to see my friends. These were the girls that I had danced in clubs with all night, and had shaken awake the next day to take an exam. Over the years, we had comforted one another through romantic betrayals, dying parents, and pregnancies. There had been weddings, divorces, illnesses, financial distress. And now there was aging. Truthfully, I had believed what people had said to me about my brown skin and genetics. I’d looked in the mirror most days and thought, with the exception of the gray hair (which I colored for years), I was holding up pretty well. Yes there were times when I wondered about the frown wrinkle between my eyes—did other people see it? And unlike most of my peers I had managed to keep off the extra fifteen pounds that sits around the waists of the middle aged. Disciplined exercise and diet had been my path to maintaining a steady one hundred thirty-two pounds.
As my friends sat down at the restaurant with me, I thought, “It’s true. Black don’t crack.” We all looked really good. But we didn’t look the way we did at eighteen, twenty-five, or thirty-five. We looked like women, with bodies that had given birth to babies, nursed them, and held them until they walked. We looked like women who had lived and traveled, been brokenhearted and recovered to love again. We laughed about not being able to lose the weight as quickly as we had in the past. Sitting with the friends that I had known for nearly thirty years was a wake up call for me. I realized as I looked in their faces and listened to their stories I was aging. I have spent my entire life secretly telling myself it doesn’t matter how difficult your life is, you won’t wear it on your face, because black don’t crack. But smooth skin or not, life was having its way with me.