Over-the-ear headphones plugged into my computer, listening to a White Noise generating program. I used to listen to ambient music (and sometimes, I still do), but I often found that even instrumental music could be distracting. I use Scrivener as a word processor, with the full screen option on. After the session is finished, I turn on the Speak Aloud function to figure out the rhythms of the prose.
I admit-it often takes me a while to absorb certain concepts and critiques.
I was first made aware of the ways of describing skin tone as food (spices and coffee and chocolate) in a writing workshop. A fellow workshopped found an instance of it in my story. I filed the critique away for future examination. (There was a lot wrong with my story, so there was much to take on-board). The idea that describing people of color using food imagery didn’t bother me before. But since I was alerted to it, I began noticing it all the time.
• My niece and nephew are biracial; they are often called “Cafe Au Lait” or cinnamon.
• Personal ads often use various these descriptors. Mocha skin. Chocolate Princess. Honey.
• And Urban Fiction and Blacksplotation Films are full of titles using those conventions: Chocolate Revenge. Coffee. etc.
Because it’s so ingrained, it doesn’t bother me enough to throw me out of the story. For instance, how many white protagonists are described as being rosy-cheeked, or apple-cheeked or with skin as white as cream/milk? Tales of Snow White (and her occasional pal, Rose Red) depend on these surface descriptors.
Years after that critique, I began to see the point. Describing skin tone as food is kind of lazy. It belongs in the purple prose hall of shame, right along with “russet-maned,” and “chestnut tresses.” (Or “man root” and “secret flower” in describing genitalia). And it does bother me now in erotica (or porn).
Since objectification is one of the purposes of erotica/porn, it strips away all the obfuscation in other texts. It is clear that you are meant to (sexually) consume the Chocolate Mandigo; the Onyx Thug is supposed to dominate you, and his very blackness is part of what is supposed to make you feel dominated.
Food as skin-tone serves as a euphemism for othering.
Some texts are “grandfathered” in such uses. (E.G., If an author is being deliberately archaic or in some cases, viewing a character through the lens of another character). But from now on, there will be no more Cocoa-Mocha-Coffee-Tea-Milk-Cinnamon beauties or hunks in my fiction. (Exceptions made for parodies and satires).
My story “Conjuring Shadows” was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent. As a writer, Nugent’s work was strongly influenced by modernism. It was highly elliptical and poetic. His most famous piece, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is a stream of consciousness mediation on art, racial and sexual identity. “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is also a pioneering work of black gay writing. Nugent was also a painter and illustrator. His illustration work has the sinister eroticism of Cocteau’s scribbles, and the wicked decadence of Aubrey Beardsley, while his paintings are influenced by the Romantics. Like Oscar Wilde, Nugent also penned retold Biblical tales and myths. Nugent was also born in Washington, DC, like yours truly.