Black No More: Skin Bleaching and the Emergence of New Negro Womanhood Beauty Culture

Article excerpt

Introduction

   Understand, we do not advertise this bleach to make one white. God
   alone can accomplish this, and it would be miraculous. (1)

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, skin bleaching products and procedures became increasingly popular in African American communities across the United States. Many African American newspapers and periodicals carried numerous advertisements for these products and procedures in their consumer sections. Although skin bleaching/lightening had a long history in African American communities in the U.S., the formalization of a racially-specific consumer marketplace during the Progressive and New Negro eras created opportunities for manufacturers and sellers to target new, potential customers. The rhetoric extant in these advertisements trumpeted whiteness and or lightness as preferential and aesthetically desirable. Advertisers marketed their skin bleaching products and processes to African American communities throughout the United States. African American women in urban centers became central to advertising discourses. African American men participated in various arenas of beauty culture, however, beauty culture existed as a feminized space. Through purchasing a skin bleach cream or a bar of complexion soap, New Negro women in the U.S. embraced their fledgling status as consumer citizens and contributed to broader discussions about the interplay of race, class, color, gender, aesthetics, urbanity and modernity.

At the core of the New Negro Movement was a desire for a re-creation of self, both individually and collectively. New Negroes acted upon this desire for re-creation through reconfiguring aesthetic and cultural traditions. African Americans engaged in new practices and aesthetic discourses with an unprecedented sense of possibility for self-determination and autonomy. Through the altering, adorning, and maintenance of physical appearance, African Americans could literally reconstruct and refashion themselves and create new models of black aesthetic identity. (2) Aesthetic practices were integral to African Americans in shedding the vestiges of enslavement and for asserting their place within the modern world.

African American women, in particular participated in urban consumer culture as a means to recover and to restyle themselves as claimants of modernity. I conceive of New Negro Womanhood as a space in which black women struggled against interracial and intra-racial political and cultural currents to claim a distinct voice and place within the modern world. (3) New Negro cultural productions, as Erin Chapman argues, were "disseminated through the powerful arbiter of white supremacist understandings and capitalist exploitation." (4) Among the culture industries that achieved prominence in black urban communities, the beauty industry emerged as a site, arbitrated by white cultural hegemony. This industry could not escape the racism and sexism that pervaded the New Negro era. White beauty ideals and trends within U.S. beauty culture played integral roles in the formation and growth of a nationalized, black beauty culture.

The privileging of white/light skin predominated African American beauty culture throughout the New Negro era. In this article, I will examine the usage of skin bleaching products and processes among African American women in Washington, D.C. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By exploring the history of skin lightening in this particular community, I uncover a politics of appearance that intersected with white cultural hegemony as well as gendered discourses about urban black modernity and social mobility. Moving from a brief history of skin bleaching and lightening in African American communities in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to an analysis of a localized advertising discourse that emerged during the New Negro era, I explore the relationship between New Negro womanhood, skin bleaching, and white cultural hegemony. …