copper and ivory

Literal Skin Tones: An Experiment

An earlier post got me to thinking about the various difficulties we face when describing the color of skin. The main issue seems to be the lack of accurate and non-offensive words to choose from. Words that compare the color of skin to food (like coffee, chocolate, and molasses) are offensive to many, especially when you consider the close relationship between slavery and the historical trade of many of these items. But then, other words such as copper, honey, and ivory are also not very accurate when viewed literally.

The trouble with non-literal colors is that what you consider to be “peach” and I consider to be “peach” might be too different things. If the subtlety between your view of peach and mine is so unimportant, is peach important enough to mention at all?

The alternative–simply saying skin is brown or dark, or white or light–is just too broad to do justice to the rich and beautiful array of skin tones we humans possess. Dark brown, light brown, tan (in lieu of dark white), and pale white might be a bit better, but what about using those words as a base and using other color words (preferably not food-related) to modify them? Then we get descriptions like: brown with a hint of copper, light russet, or dark bronze, and peachy white or white with a rosy tint. It brings something a bit more literal (I say “a bit” because “white” is non-literal, but its definition is understood) to words which, taken alone (peach, rose, honey, and so on), are inaccurate.

What are your thoughts?


ehetere answered: I always face this problem, especially since a lot of my characters have mixed heritage. I use the tone + undertone method as best I can.

my-friends-live-in-a-notebook said: I’ve always struggle with this. I usually say dark or light just to have a basic idea but I don’t ever know what to put. I hope someone has hidden wisdom in this subject.

hello095 answered: I like broad. I don’t mind the ambiguity because it gives my imagination a place to roam. As a POC, I don’t mind

There were eggs everywhere now, enough that she would likely never find them all. Already today, she had gathered a full basket, and was contemplating omelettes, when she noticed the colors.

She wasn’t a stranger to caring for chickens and gathering eggs, and she knew they came in several colors, but she hadn’t expected these poor, inbred and mass-produced birds to be able to make them. Yet here they were in her basket, chocolaty brown, copper, pink, olive, ivory, beige, speckled, and pastel greens and blues.

She was pretty sure Madeline had seen them too, but just in case, she thought she would show her anyway, just to let her know that eggs could be a varied and beautiful lot.

Then again, Maddie had seen Medea when she was still in her egg, so she knew how beautiful they could be.


The Might of the Mali Imperial Army,

One of the great empires of history, Mali is seldom known by many outside of Africa.  However from the 13th century up to the late 16th century Mali rules a very wealthy and powerful empire which dominated the Northwestern portion of Sub Saharan Africa.  Mali’s wealth and power came from four important trade goods; salt, gold, copper, and ivory.  Among it’s most popular cities was Timbuktu, a rich city that was home to the University of Timbuktu, one of the oldest universities in history and a hotspot of science and learning.

The Mali Empire came to power around the mid 13th century when the Mali kingdoms united, then conquered the other tribes and kingdoms around it.  By its height in 1350, the Mali Empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean and followed along the Niger River all the way to modern day Niger.  To conquer, rule, and police such an empire, Mali needed an especially strong and powerful army, and a strong and powerful army it did have.  Throughout most of the empire’s history, the Mali Imperial Army numbered around 100,000 infantry and 10,000 heavy cavalry.  For the Middle Ages, this was a truly massive military force.  As a comparison, the French Army at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 numbered only 30,000 while the English Army numbered a mere 10,000.  In addition, the Mali Empire was supported by numerous militia forces supported by the many tribes that made up the empire.

The backbone of the Mali Imperial Army were the infantry.  Typically the average footsoldier was armed with an iron tipped spear, a bow with poisoned arrows, a leather helmet, and a leather covered shield made from reeds. Light infantry usually only carried a small light shield and a saber. Most infantry were conscripts with each tribe required to supply a quota of soldiers, although a number of soldiers were experienced professionals.  Every tribe within the Mali Empire were required to produce of regiment of soldiers for the army, while the soldiers themselves were required to supply their own weapons and equipment.  

The elite of the Mali Imperial Army were the 10,000 strong heavy cavalry, which were recruited from upper class nobility, much like the knights of Europe.  Also like European knights, Mali cavalry were heavily armed and armored.  Typically Mali cavalrymen wore steel helmets and chain mail armor imported from North Africa and Europe.  Armaments included lances, sabers, and longswords also made of steel.  Essentially the Mali cavalry were the elite shocktroops of the Empire.  Typically, they were positioned at the head of the army, where they would charge the enemy, riding them down and breaking up their formations while the Mali infantry mopped up what was left.  

With its massive army and control over trade routes, the Mali Empire thrived in the 14th and 15th centuries.  However in the early 16th century international trade shifted away from the Middle East and Africa to the newly discovered America’s.  This resulted in Mali’s economy stagnating a trade routes through Africa dried up due to competition from the Far East and the America’s.  As the empire weakened, many of the kingdoms and tribes that made up the empire revolted and declared their independence.  Then Mali faced a series of invasions from the Moroccans, Taureg, and Portuguese.  Finally in 1599 the empire collapsed entirely, forming a dozen or more successor states and kingdoms.  The last remnants of the Mali were conquered by a people called the Bambara in the 17th century.