This article originally appeared on Marie Claire South Africa (November 2016)
Okay, okay. Technically speaking, black does not crack. Broadly writer Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff went in search of scientific evidence to back up the aphorism ‘Black don’t crack’ and found that ‘it’s due to the amount of collagen and melanin in the skin. Black skin ages so well because we typically have a higher oil content and the sebaceous activity in our skin — meaning we have a natural skin hydration system that makes black skin look hydrated, smoother, and plumper’.
But it was during my first year of my 30s I began reconsidering the dictum that I’ve always believed, without a doubt. I woke up one morning in 2016 to my first grey hair. A shining, silvery coil right there on my right temple. A few weeks later, another popped up just as gravity began to take its toll on my body, and my years of ‘fun’ cosied in the corners of my eyes. And I’m reminded of it every time I see myself smile.
Before 30, the thought of ageing was foreign. I thought it came wrapped up in a box on your 45th birthday, for you to put on like a well-fitting party dress. Like so many black people, I grew with the phrase ‘Black Don’t Crack’, so I was certain ageing in your 30s was only reserved for people with very low doses of melanin (ie: caucasian skin). I took it as fact that after all the years of being out in the sun without extra protection, living my life (euphemism for putting toxic substances in my body) and carrying my emotions ranging from joy to sadness, I’d come out looking like a newborn baby, with skin supple and tight.
she looks so good!! 56 years old! wow black really does not crack! pic.twitter.com/l7IgoRG1b0
— olivia 🍒 (@tyyyllliiinnn) October 4, 2016
I was wrong. I realise that ageing is different for all black people. Some of us may age like Winnie Mandela and Iman, and some of us don’t, and that is okay and beautiful too. So now that I have a few wrinkles, does it mean my black has cracked? Do I become an exception to the rule by ‘prematurely’ cracking?
For Washington Post op-ed writer Jonathan Capehart’s article, Michelle Obama knows ‘Black don’t crack, but…’, a conversation with his age-defying 72-year-old mother who advocates cosmetic procedures revealed her version of the adage, which goes: ‘There are a very few blacks that don’t crack. Maybe not as soon as our white sisters, but we do.’
So like Margaret ‘Miss Lady’ Capehart, I thought I’d come up with some of my own possibilities of ‘Black don’t crack’, annotated with a list of footnotes to open the saying up to different interpretations. Like such:
Black don’t crack*****:
*Black don’t crack but each case is unique. Use it, don’t use it.
**Black don’t crack in comparison to other ethnic group’s skin.
***’Black don’t crack, but it sags!’ – Margaret ‘Miss Lady’ Capehart.
****Black don’t crack for some on the surface, but you might be cracking inside. Your health or stress levels might be affecting you adversely, even thought it’s not showing on the outside, writes Carolyn Edgar.
*****Black don’t crack, as the popular saying goes, but sometimes it just does. And if that happens and you embrace it, it might be a beautiful and liberating experience.
I’m working on *****, and as I start to ‘crack’ there is comfort in knowing that growing old is beautiful, a sign of life and of living. To reiterate Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter, ‘We carry accumulation of years in our bodies, and on our faces’, and it might manifest in a few folds and creases.
In an age where we celebrate agelessness and strive for perfection, cracking and fraying at the seam doesn’t equate ugliness, and you certainly won’t be letting your race down if you do. As black people, we already exist in a world where our appearance (from our hair textures to our nostrils and more) and our very presence is policed, but to be expected to not grow old is still asking from us too much.
In her article, I Think I Might Be Done with People Saying ‘Black Don’t Crack!’ Like It’s a Compliment, Pian Glenn expounds on a pressure she feels when hearing the phrase. ‘Some would say that my black don’t crack, and I’m someone who hears that not as a compliment, but as pressure. Pressure to look a certain way and to continue to look a certain way, even as the pages of the calendar fly by in rapid succession.
‘So insidious is this ageing thing that I feel we’re all in it together.’
So as I write this on my bed, stare up from my laptop and catch the reflections of my face and the parallel lines that run across my forehead, I see my heritage (my father and his father, who also had the same kind of ridges), and an ever-changing story with intricate lines that I can trace, each holding a piece of my own beautiful story.