Visual Representations of Feminine Beauty in the Black Press: 1915-1950

By Gooden, Amoaba | Journal of Pan African Studies, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Visual Representations of Feminine Beauty in the Black Press: 1915-1950


Gooden, Amoaba, Journal of Pan African Studies


Introduction

Systems of domination, imperialism, colonialism and racism have manifested themselves in the racialization of African Diasporic communities. Within these systems, racial ideology, central to the justification of slavery in the New World, defined Black and White as binary opposites. Black people (and Blackness) were negatively defined as ugly, savage and barbaric; in contrast, White folks (and therefore whiteness) were positively defined as beautiful, Christian and civilized. (1) These hierarchies of skin color, which systematically privileged lightness over darkness, perpetuated white supremacist beliefs about Blackness. Globally, these hierarchies assaulted the black self-concept and encoded people of African descent with this value-laden colonial principle, evident as blacks worldwide began to use chemicals to bleach their skin in an effort to achieve light skin as a symbol of beauty.

According to Joyce Ladner, it is "inescapable for Blacks who are born into a society that makes such a strong distinction between White and Black to grow up without, at some point, entertaining feelings of inferiority because they are not members of the majority." (2) In order to acknowledge this ongoing legacy of European domination over African people, we must broaden our understanding of white supremacy and African subjugation in order to grasp the full impact of imperialism on African people. bell hooks' suggestion that "white supremacy, is a useful terms for understanding the complicity of people of color in upholding and maintaining racial hierarchies that do not involve force" is valuable in this discussion on skin-bleaching among African Americans in that it allows one to recognizes the continuous and tragic impact of slavery and racism on Blacks. (3) In addition, it "enables us to recognize not only that Black people are socialized to embody the values and attitudes of white supremacy, but that [Blacks] also can exercise white-supremacist control over other Black people." (4)

Colorism

In the United States and elsewhere in the Black world, communities mirrored white supremacist patterns of behavior. This was most evident in examples of Black social relations where lighter-skinned Blacks were given preferential treatment over darker-skinned Blacks. (5) A direct outcome of the various systems of oppression, colorism is a crisis of consciousness created by whites during the enslavement period. It is prudent for the Black community to grasp that valuing light skin over dark skin is indeed a symptom of White supremacist thought. Mark Hill's suggestion "that the African American community had internalized bias again dark skin and African features" supports the claim by numerous scholars who document colorism's historical impact on the life chances of both black males and females in the United States. (6) Others have further demonstrated that skin color has a more significant impact on the lives of Black women than on African American men. (7) Thus, when Black women are perceived as physically approximating white standards of beauty, there are continued and persistent advantages for them in the Black community in terms of success, education, income and spousal status. (8)

As an outcome of white hegemony, colorism was reinforced in Black New World communities and Black post-colonial states as Africans were "powerless to contest the influence of domination." (9) Racialized notions of physical beauty were internalized and became normalized in the discourse of the day. Beauty and desirability, particularly as it related to feminine beauty, was perceived to be light-skinned, often coupled with long hair. There is a direct connection between the maintenance of this tenet and the institutionalization of specific images via the mass media that support and maintain these racialized notions of feminine beauty. (10) Although Europeans created the rupture in which these visual representations (11) of Blacks were structured, the ideal was continually reinforced in various Black institutions. …

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