Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Black Is Beautiful: An American History

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Black Is Beautiful: An American History

Article excerpt

In 1962 THE BLACK AMERICAN WRITER AND CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST James Baldwin reflected on the time he spent as a younger man, hanging "with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways" where he grew up. Thinking about how many of his friends' lives would ultimately be lost to drink or drugs or other trouble, Baldwin had wondered, "What will happen to all that beauty?" "For black people," he wrote with a sadness that echoed the melancholy of some black thinkers from a century before, "though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful." (1) How did it come to be that we did not know that in 1962? Where did the idea that black is less than beautiful come from? How far back in time does it reach? How have black people disputed it? What has beauty meant to black writers at different moments in the past? Why does this particular prejudice even matter?

We might answer these questions (and more) by tuning into the cacophony of voices--English, white American, and black American-- who debated them over the five centuries between English contact with Africa in the sixteenth century and the historic election of Barack Obama, the West's first black head of state, in the early twenty-first. This is an American history that germinated well before the United States existed, in the acrid textual soil of publications written by European traders and adventurers who traveled to Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (2) These men were expected to report back from their travels both to their employers (about trade possibilities in different locales) and to a somewhat wider reading audience (about the world beyond Europe's borders). Their reports from Africa about Africans were complex and unsettled, in many regards unlike the discourses that followed.

Though distinct in important ways from what came later, these publications began a conversation about the nature of African bodies and about the aesthetics of those bodies. During the age of European exploration (which preceded modern ideas of race), the sight of humans different from themselves raised questions for Europeans about the nature of human difference from other earthly creatures and from one another. Male travelers described their adventures abroad, offering written accounts, supported with illustrations, of their visual experiences; they explained with words and images what they wanted readers to picture in their mind's eye. These written renditions of visual experiences established some of the major themes that persisted for a long time--in some cases, down to today. The most important theme was steady visual attention to bodies--bodies that would one day be classified into races.

The conversation about the nature of human difference and, particularly, the problem of African and black bodies was carried into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by white American racial observers and scientists, who took it upon themselves to categorize humanity as part of their larger Enlightenment work of making sense of the natural world. Sense and order were made largely (though not exclusively) through visual observation. Sight, in Enlightenment thought, was more than a sense; it was a way of knowing. (3) By the nineteenth century, most Americans believed that they could know a great deal about a person simply by looking. The visual signs of racial identity--skin color, hair texture, facial features--were widely assumed to be linked to character and destiny. Black antislavery and antiracist activists, therefore, did battle with the logics of biological race that so circumscribed black life before and after emancipation in 1865. Nineteenth-century black activist writers and twentieth-century black social scientists, journalists, and antiracist activists were thus concerned not only with slavery, segregation, and discrimination but also with beauty, which they understood to be a taproot of black life, black consciousness, and black politics. …

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