Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Skin Bleach and Civilization: The Racial Formation of Blackness in 1920s Harlem

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Skin Bleach and Civilization: The Racial Formation of Blackness in 1920s Harlem

Article excerpt

Introduction: Neither Simple Nor Sanguine

"To absorb a handful of Negroes in America and leave the unbleached millions of Africa in their savage blackness would be to deepen the gulf of racial cleavage as a world problem." (1) These were the words of Kelly Miller, Dean of Howard University, in a 1926 newspaper column entitled: "Is the American Negro to Remain Black or Become Bleached?" No outraged letters to the editor followed, nor were Miller's views out of step with public opinion in the early decades of the twentieth century. Miller's comment illustrates that the practice of skin bleaching was part of a much larger discourse of civilization, a discourse that incorporated the uplift of Africa's "unbleached millions" and that allowed one of the most prominent African American commentators of the day to seemingly offensively entwine the words "unbleached," "Africa," "savage," and "blackness." "Bleaching" was a potent double entendre, referring either to lightening the skin through bleach or through racial "amalgamation." In all senses, bleaching was complicated and far more than merely cosmetic.

Skin bleaching can't be understood in simple or sanguine terms, and it repels efforts to pigeonhole it as either callow self-hatred or bold racial resistance. (2) Rather, the argument of this article is that bleaching was part of seemingly contradictory ideas of progress, racial advancement, and civilization. African American skin bleaching practices in the 1920s constituted a profoundly micro-political form of self-masking and identity shifting mediated by both ideology and consumerism. The mask of face bleach exposes some of the other masks that Black folk assumed and fought over in that turbulent decade, as they struggled among themselves to define the boundaries and definitions of "the race." Skin bleaching was thus a part of an embodied and everyday Black mass discourse of civilization that illuminates disagreements between titans such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey as well as the alchemy of racial transformations performed as everyday, private ablutions. If the formation of African American identity and the racial formation of Blackness proceeded not as a seamless natural evolution but through a series of incremental, politicized discourses, then skin bleaching helps to stain and delineate one chapter in the racial formation of African Americans. (3)

Skin Bleaching as a Contested Social Text

The larger context of the cosmetics, hair straighteners, bleaches, and beauty regimens of the 1920's was a mass market that targeted the new generation of young African American women working in wage labor in cities of the North in the wake of the Great Migration. Oftentimes created and marketed by African American women themselves, skin bleaches and hair straighteners created fortunes worth millions and accounted for a massive thirty to fifty percent of all advertisements in the Black press of the decade. (4) Containing caustic chemicals such as hydroquinone, which suppressed the production of melanin in the skin, skin bleaches could cause severe dermatitis and even death in high dosages. The power of skin bleaching as a social text resides partly in the fact that it was part of an intimate, quotidian, private, and largely un-remarkable ritual, something hundreds of thousands of people did between washing their faces and brushing their teeth. Bleaching was a form of self-fashioning, an autobiographical revision of race performed on the surface of one's own body.

While lightened skin could enhance social mobility inside and outside of the Black community, the practice was also quite literally a form of disfigurement. James Baldwin wrote of his own twenties Harlem childhood that popular discourse frequently connected Africa's Blackness with her lack of civilization, and attempts to alter appearance were characterized by shame, rage, pain, and a lack of positive images of Africa and African Americans:

   At the time I was growing up, Negroes in this country were taught
   to be ashamed of Africa. … 
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