White Screens on Black Skin: A study of the Afro-American woman shedding her borrowed white mask to discover and declare that Black is Beautiful

“My mama told me when I was young,
We are all born superstars.
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on
In the glass of her boudoir.
‘There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are’,
She said, ‘’Cause he made you perfect, babe,
So hold your head up girl and you’ll go far,
Listen to me when I say’

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way…

Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set.
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way.”
– “Born This Way”, Lady Gaga

In the chequered journey of her life, the African Woman in America has had to meet many milestones. After life in abject slavery, she tasted freedom. But as Toni Morrison puts it beautifully in Beloved , “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Like her male counterpart, the Black Woman too had to wear a cloak of invisibility, because despite the Civil War, despite the abolition of slavery, there was nearly next to no social acceptance of the coloured people in America. Arguably, the black man could shed this cloak of invisibility, politically and socially, post the landmark law passed in 1964 that prohibited the discrimination, at least on paper, of Blacks in America. The Civil Rights Act, passed on July 2nd 1964, enforced the Black people’s constitutional right to vote and established a sort of social and political equality of the Blacks and the Whites in America. However, this enactment, quite literally, was primarily of benefit to Man. For the Coloured Woman, the picture was still bleak. The Black Woman continued to be, to borrow Zora Neale Hurston’s words, (and words written as early as 1937) “de mule uh de world”. The idea has been brilliantly portrayed in The Secret Life of Bees, the Gina Prince-Bythewood movie, based on the novel of the same name. Rosalie, the coloured helping hand employed by a white family, tells her fourteen year old mistress, Lily, “Lily, there ain’t gonna be a place that’ll take a coloured woman. [The Civil Rights Act] ain’t nothing but a piece of paper.”

When a car is struck over and over again in the same place, it does make a dent. For the Black Woman the dent was psychological; the colour of her skin was something that the world around her made her loathe. Post the actual physical act of colonising the body came the phase of colonising the sense and the psyche. This was the phase of creating appetites in the Black Woman for things that was against their nature and constitution.

The questions of Black racial identity and gender politics have been discussed, debated and deliberated at length. My paper looks at these crises from a specific angle – that of the notion of “Beauty” and Consumerism. The Black Woman increasingly tried to adopt a white mask to be accepted in her surroundings. Mulattos, for instance, if fortunate enough to be blessed with the genes of the white parent, would deliberately try to pass themselves off as whites. The less fortunate would dye their hair blonde or bleach their skin white – practices which we from our objective distance can now criticise. To us these obsessions might appear merely skin deep. My paper argues that we cannot negate the immense psychological trauma that the Black Woman must have been through to fuss over the colour of her skin, at such an elementary level; the trauma brought on by not being embraced as who she was must have been so great that the Black Woman had to resort to giving up her identity – at least externally – so as to find more acceptance in this consumerist society. The image of the blue eyed blonde as perpetuated by the media came to be considered the epitome of beauty of white society and the Black Woman living in this exclusive society was conditioned by this media and this society to worship this Diana. My paper focuses on the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement which finally helped the Black Woman shed her white screen, fight back against such absurdly hierarchical notions of beauty generated by a black-phobic culture and perpetuated through neurotic advertising tendencies, and expose her beautiful black skin; the movement which culminated in the black woman declaring – “I’m beautiful like I am”1 . The primary text that I discuss in this paper is the 2009 movie Precious, alongside which I also allude to certain trends in the world of fashion, to advertisements, and the sale and purchase of cosmetic and skin-care products – industries which rely solely on the woman’s external appearance.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”, was what Martin Luther King Junior had said2. The colour of the skin, however, could not be washed off. It continued to plague the Afro-American Woman for ages. She dreamt another dream – quite different from King’s dream. Says Precious in the eponymous movie,

One day Miz Rain ask us to write about our ideal self…I wrote that I would like to be light skinned and small, wif wavy swing-bob hair.

The three waves of Feminism that hit the shores of the civilized world helped to build the confidence of these Black Women living in a judgemental, sectarian society. It also conditioned the mind of the White Woman in a favourable way towards her coloured counterpart. The first wave of Feminism which emerged in the nineteenth century and continued to be a dominating influence in the early twentieth century focused on issues of gender inequalities and aimed to achieve women’s suffrage. This was followed in the 1960s and the 1970s by the onslaught of the second wave of Feminism. To put it simply, the debate now broadened to include issues of sexuality, workplace woes, reproductive rights and the like. It was, however, the third wave of Feminism that directly affected the Black Woman. African novelists like Buchi Emecheta and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o raised essential questions that had been completely ignored by former feminists. Can the problems of the heterosexual white working woman be the same as those faced by a black woman, sitting in Ghana, and a lesbian, for instance? And therefore, can her rights, duties and demands be the same as those of her cosmopolitan counterpart? It is around this time that the world was made to realise through the efforts of Black Feminists, such as the Combahee Tree Collective, that a woman can be of varied sexualities, colours, sizes, races, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, habits and attributes. And that each woman needs to be celebrated exactly as she is.

This realization was soon followed by a cultural movement in the 1960s – a movement that began in America, spearheaded by the Afro-Americans, the movement that we today hail as the “Black is Beautiful” movement. The movement later spread its tentacles in other black nations of the world. The primary aim of this movement was to dispel the notion that beauty is confined to the whites. Beauty cannot have any compartmentalised definition – beauty cannot be the monopoly of reed thin, straight haired, blue eyed blondes. Blacks had forever been discriminated against, besides all other things, on the basis of their natural features too – their dark complexion, their ‘kinky hair’, their thick lips, their flat nose, their fat bodies. They were cast aside as inherently ugly. The movement not only created a consciousness among the whites to stop all such inhuman, derogatory practices but it also encouraged the black women to nourish and nurture what they have instead of trying to eliminate their “ugly” black traits by straightening their hair or bleaching their skin. Beauty is subjective. Beauty is a matter of conjecture. Beauty always lies in the eyes of the beholder.

“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.”3

Neither can be empirically proven; and therefore neither should be strictly defined. Targeting black women in America because of their unattractive features and rejecting them as undesirable was what this movement tried to counter. The roots of racism go deep. However, victimising a person simply on the basis of the colour of the skin, the size of the buttocks, the thickness of the lips or the texture of the hair was so damaging to the psyche of the Black Woman that it led to, what psychologists will today call, internalised racism – that is, these coloured women developed a bias against their own people, against their own selves. Yes, the white people were prejudiced against the blacks, against those they considered inferior to them in the truest sense of the term; but sometimes, prejudice is also what your own people have against you, what you have against yourself. As wrote Morrison in Beloved , “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” Hence, the Black is Beautiful movement had to redefine not just the Definition but also the equation between the Definer and the Defined.

Arguably, the movement was successful. The Black Woman’s confidence in the colour of her skin was created, anew. The age of Blaxploitation4 in the Hollywood film industry was replaced by a new era of Afro-American movies where we saw a fresh picture of Black women, struggling for their sustenance in America – Black women who were lesbians, prostitutes, single mothers, lovers, wives, fighters, survivors. Queen Latifah pioneered this league of extraordinary Afro-American women who had come of age – who had learnt to accept what they were born with, and not just accept but even appreciate their blessings. Janet Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Paula Paton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Angela Bassett, Sophie Okonedo, and Kimbeley Elise, to name the more popular of the lot, helped to redefine the picture of the Black Woman not only to the white audience but to their own Black sisters as well.

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise.”
– Maya Angelou

The influence of the movement was far-reaching. It altered the psyche not only of a whole generation of Americans but of a vast majority of women, all the world over, who were segregated on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Gili, the first jewellery brand of India, a venture of Gitanjali Jewellers, came up with an entire campaign in 2010, for its night, party-wear ornaments, called “Beautifully Nocturnal, Beautifully You”. The brand ambassador of the campaign was the dark horse of the Indian film industry, the dusky, Bengali supermodel and actor Bipasha Basu. The colour of her skin, dark as the night, was seen as an asset. She was portrayed as exquisitely beautiful, as beautiful as our nocturnal fancies, just the way she was.

[Gili. “Beautifully Nocturnal”. Print Ad. SouthDreamZ. WordPress, n.d. Web. 2 Dec 2012]

As is evident from the above image, there has been no attempt in this campaign to use editing softwares like Picasa or Photoshop to “whiten” the complexion of the model which till date is a prevalent practice in India, in particular, and the fashion industry, the world over, at large. Earlier, in 2008, Procter and Gamble (P&G) too had come up with a truly inspiring initiative – “My Black is Beautiful”. The desire to celebrate the beauty of African American women and enhance black self-esteem was what led this brand to come up with such a venture. The idea of this enterprise was to connect with Afro-American women and laud their strength and abilities. Yes, Procter and Gamble is a profit making Multi-National Corporation which at the end of the day that is concerned about marketing its products but their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) drove them towards this gesture:

The movement encourages black women to define and promote our own beauty standard – one that is an authentic reflection of our indomitable spirit. My Black Is Beautiful is designed to ignite black pride and to support a sustained national conversation by, for and about black women – the way we are reflected in popular culture and how we serve as the catalyst for a movement that effects positive change. Together we can represent the past, present and future of Black women everywhere!5

The campaign is indeed commendable. From its inception in 2008, it has toured many places in America, – Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte and New Orleans – done TV shows, organised model hunts and music competitions and most importantly glorified the Everyday African-American Woman – the woman of flesh and blood, of pretentions and apprehensions, dreams and desires, follies and foibles; an ordinary woman, a human being, a manifestation of you and me. The P&G ‘Manifesto’ is worth being included in this paper, in its entirety:

From the colour of my skin, to the texture of my hair, to the length
of my strands, to the breadth of my smile,
To the stride of my gait, to the span of my arms, to the depth of my
bosom, to the curve of my hips, to the glow of my skin,
My Black is Beautiful.
It cannot be denied. It will not be contained. And only I will define it.
For when I look in my mirror, my very soul cries out,
My Black is Beautiful.
And so today, I speak it out loud, unabashedly; I declare it anew,
My Black is Beautiful.
Whether celebrated, imitated, exploited or denigrated. Whether
natural from inside or skilfully applied,
My Black is Beautiful.
To my daughters, my sisters, my nieces, my cousins, my colleagues
and my friends,
I speak for us all when I say again,
My Black is Beautiful6.

[My Black Is Beautiful. “My Black is Beautiful”. Cover Picture. My Black Is Beautiful. Procter and Gamble, n.d. Web. 3 Dec 2012]

Because of their lack of visibility and acceptance and because of the whitewashing of their history, the Black Woman had forgotten how it felt to celebrate herself. The moment had finally arrived for her to honour herself and her mother, her daughter and her sister. As Audre Lorde put it, “If I didn’t define myself, for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.7

Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, was directed by Lee Daniels in 2009 and was a film of immense critical acclaim. 16 year old, black, morbidly obese, ill-educated Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones , played by debutante Gabourey Sidibe, who lives with her single mother in a ghetto around Harlem, is impregnated by her father; not once, but twice and all that her frustrated, unemployed, cigarette smoking, alcohol guzzling, nail filing, abusive mother, played by Mo’Nique, can initially tell her is, “Just because he gave you more children than he gave me, do you think you’re fucking special?”

There is nothing that Precious can feel special or positive about. The money coming from Welfare is not sufficient to feed the mother and daughter three meals daily. She needs to steal food occasionally. Her first child, Mongo, suffers from the Down’s Syndrome. She is turned out of school after her principal discovers that she is pregnant with her second child. Her mother is violent. And she has been abused by her father since she was three years old: “Nobody loves me – (they) beat me, rape me, call me an animal, make me feel worthless! Make me sick!”

Precious escapes from her traumatic reality through her flights of fantasy – when the father is raping her, when the mother is beating her, when the boys on the streets are kicking her, when passers-by are mocking at her, when she has no food to eat, when she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to, she switches her mind off her immediate present and dreams of a career as a singer, sometimes an actress, celebrated, cherished, cared for, loved, precious. And she fancies herself as what was the established epitome of beauty – “light skinned and small, wif swing-bob hair”.

[Geoffrey S, Fletcher. “Precious”. Poster. IMDb. Amazon, n.d. Web. 3 Dec 2012]

It is when she joins an alternative school that Precious meets Blu Rain, played by Paula Patton, her teacher, friend, philosopher and guide in every respect, the woman who gives her life a new turn. With Miss Rain’s assistance, Precious’s life improves considerably – improves as much as it can improve for a homeless, black, overweight, illiterate, pregnant girl. But just when things had turned a shade of ash from being pitch black for Precious, she discovers that her father had infected her with the HIV and she tested positive for AIDS. Precious had severed all ties with her mother, Mary, but Mary eventually sought reconciliation with the daughter whom she had failed terribly. Mary’s breakdown is perhaps one of the most soul-stirring scenes in the history of cinema. The wasted, delirious mother finally cries, screams, raves, rants and vents:

There was a time when we loved Precious…I did not want him to abuse my daughter! I did not want him to hurt her!…I wanted him to make love to me; that was my man and he wanted my daughter and that’s why I hated her … because my man who was supposed to be making love to me was fucking my baby … who else was going to love me? Who else was going to touch me? Who else was going to make me feel good about myself?

The scene recalls to mind Baby Suggs in her Clearing, with her followers, in Morrison’s Beloved and her fervent plea to her brethren:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs… Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them … stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!

More than the Whites giving the Blacks their due, the Blacks had to learn to love themselves first, to exalt themselves and what they were bestowed with. That was the essence of the Black is Beautiful movement.

The movie ends with Precious resolving, with Miss Blu Rain’s help, to win a better life for her children, better than the one that she had ever lived, or could ever live. Significantly enough, Miss Rain, by the end of the movie, teaches and inspires Precious to write. After all, as Ishmael Reed had asserted, “Writin’ is fightin’.”

The movie ends with Precious’s epiphany – “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine”. No matter how dark the tunnel, there is always light at the end of it; but while one is inside this tunnel, one has to draw up all of one’s own energies to let the light within oneself illuminate the way to the external light.

The road has not been easy for the Afro-American woman. The embodiment of the pariah figure, she has gone through trials and tribulations enough, in her attempt to stand on her own two feet in a world that is doubly hostile to her – firstly because of her gender and then because of her colour. Emancipation is the dream – the walking, talking, dancing dream that she strives to realise every day, daily. A lot has been achieved. For every Kate Moss, Adriana Lima or Laetitia Casta there is a Naomi Campbell today. For every resolute picture of the blue eyed, thin, tall blonde Barbie doll there is the firm answer of an Oprah Winfrey.

[“Oprah Winfrey @ 2011 Oscars”. Photograph. The Fashion Fiend. Kasey Karma, n.d. Web. 3 Dec 2012. Mattel. “Quintessential Barbie”. Barbie Pictures. About.com. Kristen Ryan, n.d. Web. 3 Dec 2012.]

The journey has begun but the destination is far from sight still. In countries like India, even today, an overwhelming majority of men seek, through matrimonial advertisements, and otherwise, women who are ‘beautiful, tall, slim and fair’. Even today, for every Aishwarya Rai refusing to endorse ‘fairness-enhancing’ cosmetic products there will be a Sonam Kapoor grabbing the same lucrative L’Oreal Paris offer immediately. This particular product that I am alluding to – ‘Pearl Perfect’ – promises to “brighten the [woman’s] complexion day after day”8. The smaller brand of this parent luxury company L’Oreal Paris – Garnier – has a similar product, only less expensive, called ‘Garnier Light’ which vows to make one’s skin “upto 2 tones fairer”9 What is even more fascinating than these products themselves, and the challenges that they take up, is the fact that these products are indigenous to India – they are not sold or manufactured for an American consumer, clearly indicating that the Black is Beautiful movement did have a positive effect on the way people perceive beauty in America now. The dusky or ‘wheatish’ Indian woman, however, continues to face the brunt of phallocracy. She continues to remain an outcaste. But there is hope for her, too. As ‘The Drover’s Ballad’ from the 2008 movie, Australia, goes:

“The outcast is a free man, if he sleeps under the stars; makes the
blanket of the southern skies his own.”
– Baz Luhrmann, Elton John

The Black is Beautiful movement had a two-fold purpose. Firstly, it had to help the Black Woman learn to love herself, and if we can believe Claireece Precious Jones and the final realization that she has in the movie, this goal the movement has undeniably been able to attain:

One day Miz Rain ask us to write about our ideal self…I wrote that I would like to be light skinned and small, wif wavy swing-job hair…Miz Rain … say, I am beautiful like I am. I never believes her before, but somehow, today, this moment, can’t say why, I do.

The other aim of this movement was to change the way the Whites perceived beauty – to change the mindset of generations of people, to undo the harm that ideological indoctrination and the blinding haze of consumerism had already done. How far the movement has been able to achieve that is a matter of conjecture, but it clearly has been able to make a statement, a statement loud, bold, black and beautiful.

“It isn’t a matter of black is beautiful as much as it is white is not all that’s beautiful.”
– Bill Cosby10

_____________________________________________________________________

Notes:

1 Said by Precious in the 2009 movie Precious.
2 King’s full speech which goes by the name “I have a Dream” is available on ABC News.
3 John Keats. “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
4 Blaxploitation is a sub genre of the primary genre of Exploitation films. In these films the Blacks were presented as stereotypical characters; these movies explored the racial relationship of the whites and blacks in a very hackneyed, typical fashion.
5 From About the Movement section of My Black Is Beautiful.
6 From the ‘Manifesto’ of My Black is Beautiful.
7 Quoted in the article ‘Time to Define Ourselves” on TransGriot.
8 Product description on the L’Oreal Paris website.
9 Product description on the Garnier website.
10 Quote found on Search Quotes.

Bibliography:

Angelou, Maya. “Still I Rise”. The Poetry Foundation. Poetry Magazine, n.d. Web. 3 December 2012.
Germanotta, Stefani Joanne Angelina, Paul Edward Blair, Jeppe Breum Laursen, and Fernando Garibay. “Born This Way”. Born This Way. Perf. Lady Gaga. Universal Music, 2011. MP3.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900. Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919. Print.
Luhrmann, Baz, Anton Monstead and Schuyler Weiss. “The Drover’s Ballad”. Australia. Perf. Elton John. Elton John, and Baz Luhrmann and Anton Monstead (as BLAM), 2008. MP3.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. USA: Random House, 2007. Print.
Precious. Dir. Geoffrey S. Fletcher. Perf. Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, et al. Lions Gate Entertainment. 2009. Film.
The Secret Life of Bees. Dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood. Perf. Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, et al. Fox Searchlight. 2008. Film.
ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation) News. N.p. Web. September 8, 2013. www.abcnews.go.com.
TransGriot. N.p. Web. September 8, 2013. www.transgriot.blogspot.in

_____________________________________________________________________

Somrita Urni Ganguly is presently a Research Scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University. A national level debator, elocutionist and theatre activist, her interests range from poetry to gender studies, and the occult and the supernatural. She may be contacted at blessed.damsel@gmail.com.

Post a comment


You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>