BROWN BEAUTY: Color, Sex and Race from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II

By Davis-Hayes, Kenya | American Studies, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

BROWN BEAUTY: Color, Sex and Race from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II


Davis-Hayes, Kenya, American Studies


BROWN BEAUTY: Color, Sex and Race from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II. By Laila Haidarali. New York: New York University Press. 2018.

In an age in which cosmetic lines such as Fenty and Lancôme are seeking out an expansion of shades catering to black women, modern society seems to be making strides towards the embrace of brown skin. Brown-ness in all its glory has recently crept its way into mainstream America as a viable aspect of the national beauty terrain. This growing acceptance of the broad spectrum of beauty within the black community, specifically of black women, has been a fraught journey throughout American history. From the creation of American slavery to today, black women's appearance has been derided and legislated against; lampooned and constructed as the hideous antipole to white feminine beauty. Historically, all things black reflected the worst of humanity and the human experience. It is this historical reality that makes Laila Haidarali's text-Brown Beauty: Color, Sex and Race from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II very compelling.

Nestled between America's post-Reconstruction racial nadir and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Haidarali outlines the efforts and complexities of the black community's quest towards aesthetic legitimacy and value. Not yet having entered into the mainstream rhetoric of "Black is Beautiful," academics, authors and advertisers espoused the concept of "Brownness." In Haidarali's words, the text explores "brown beauty as a consumerist discourse that held powerful sway over the public imagining of African American women" (18). Between the 1920s and the end of World War II, the rising black middle class both utilized and was wooed by the more acceptable coding of dark skin through the use of the word "brown" to sell products, find interest in products and to promote themselves as respectable members of society. Haidarali interestingly maps the full scope of the utilization of "brownness" for the furtherance of the black community. Advocates for the betterment of the black community like Elise Johnson McDougald capitalized upon their own fair-skinned brown complexion to promote the skills and employability of black New Yorkers. She also became the first black principal in the New York Public School District thus leading to extensive coverage of her achievement in the New York City press. Stories regarding the rise of McDougald commented as much upon her complexion as her achievement thus leading her to reflect a changing expectation of "New Negro Womanhood. …

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