Beauty As an Oral Tradition

An interview with Sade African Skincare & Cosmetics founder Sade Tyler.

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In the eyes of Sade Tyler, beauty is an inheritance that has been withheld from women of color — and black women in particular — for too long. Sade is the creator of Sade African Skincare & Cosmetics, and she has been selling her products in New York City for the past 30 years — in pushcarts and crowded Brooklyn malls, and in the sliver of a storefront she now runs in Harlem. Her business has three distinct lines: makeup, skin care, and service. All of Sade's makeup is tailored to women of color, with foundations that perfectly match any skin tone and lipsticks and eye shadows that will pop against it. Sade believes that no one can ever be too dark and no color can be too rich, and that much is evident in the deep, lush hues scattered around her store.

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Everything in Sade's African skin-care line — the sugar scrubs, the oils, the shea butter — comes straight from Ado Ekiti, her family's village in Nigeria, and is made by an elderly woman who has been extracting oil from plants longer than Sade has been alive. Sade is keeping the power of her past in the present. Beauty, like stories and recipes, is a kind of heritage that must be passed on.

Sade's services — makeovers, facials, eyebrow brush-ups — are an integral component of her business. Her "sisters," as she calls her clients, run the gamut of shape and size, and Sade knows how best to highlight their features. She knows where to brush gingerbread-brown powder to mask hooded eyes, and why Cinderella-blue lipstick isn't the disaster one would assume. No matter what anyone comes in for, Sade pulls out her tools and deftly gets to work.

For women of color, believing in one's own beauty can sometimes feel like a political act. Sade's customers speak about the "paper bag test" (if you're darker than a paper bag, the expression goes, you might as well wear it) and the difficulty in finding makeup that matches their skin tone. They — we — live in a world where beauty is cast in ivory, occasionally in ebony, and rarely in anything in between. I spoke to Sade about the business of beauty: what it has taught her, and what it has allowed her to pass on.

Teresa Mathew: How did you first get interested in skin care?

Sade Tyler: I started to think, There is so much natural ethnomedicine that people have been using forever. Why isn't that selling more in the West? And then I started thinking about thousands of years of culture and tradition from around the world [and thought,] I'm going to start selling African skin care! The thing is, what we want is to be more Europeanized. If you come from a country that's been colonized by the English or any other colony, you think what they do is best.

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TM: What value do you think makeup holds?

ST: Makeup infuses you with pride in your beauty. Makeup is a very powerful vehicle. I realized, very quickly, the light that it brought into women's eyes. It makes you own your beauty, and if you feel you're beautiful, everyone else will believe it.

TM: Why is it so important for women of color to have access to products made for them?

ST: If you look, [white women] have much more of a support system. Society acknowledges them. Tells them they're real, they're soft, they're lovable. But try and do the same thing with the black woman. We are not seen as soft, approachable. All of these subliminal messages are telling us, No matter how long you're here, you will not be accepted. Voices like ours put the dent in.

TM: What does it take to run and maintain a black-owned beauty business?

ST: I have to say, it's super difficult. It's very hard to do it on your own — you need collaboration. When I was starting, I did have a lot of that; my ex-husband and I ran the business. We don't see that black dollar and how powerful it is. I remember in Africa reading about Montgomery and how they basically screeched [the city] to a halt — that was because there was solidarity, there was a purpose. There's still a purpose; it's still important to support black business.

TM: How does your business tie into your philosophy about makeup?

ST: My whole idea from the beginning was that knowledge is very powerful. As long as the awareness of our beauty and the knowledge of it is packaged by other people and then sold to us as something that isn't us, we'll always look to them for our ideas and our concept of what our beauty is. So when you look in the mirror you don't see yourself; you see yourself in respect to maybe Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj. It should be powerful enough for you to look in the mirror and see yourself as you are. I think I'm beautiful, so I use a little makeup to embellish that beauty. It's not the makeup that makes me beautiful.

TM: How do you see yourself in the greater community?

ST: You have to put your heart out there and people will respond. In my culture, if you're a queen or a princess, it's because you're in service to your community. A queen serves her people. You don't sit there eating bonbons, you're on the ground, you're helping. I want to be of service in my life. And that's what keeps me getting dressed and coming to work. I want to be a part of this community for as long as I have strength. And I want to serve my community, and obviously make a profit at it, because I gots the rent to pay.

TM: What aspects of your story do you think are the most powerful?

ST: I go around the obstacle and reinvent myself. That's one thing I want people to take from me. If you're a black woman or a woman in general, there are so many people against you. We — black women — they've tried so hard to put us down and subjugate us. They don't know how come we keep rising up. Like dandelions, we keep popping up. I just want black girls to understand, you don't need to listen to anybody's notion of you — just pop right back up.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Teresa Mathew is a freelance writer, illustrator, and photojournalist.

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