Beyoncé Knowles Carter had editorial power over the cover and content of her own story on a major mainstream magazine. Serena Williams did the same on the cover and content of another one. The names of the magazines are not important because they didn’t even respond to my inquiry. Brown became beautiful in 2018 when major fashion magazines showcased it on their covers. Where were brown skinned people on the beauty spectrum before then? I mean I had heard the statement “Black is Beautiful” but was it really? This sent me on a journey which led to libraries and internet searches, but also contacting industry professionals to talk about their experiences with this. For this project I interviewed four men to talk about the beauty found in African American women along with researching different moments in history that stood out as defining. All four men worked in the fashion and design industry on projects that featured beautiful women by their industry standards. Three, I chatted with on the phone and transcribed the conversations, while with the fourth I exchanged emails. I learned that men are very dominant in this field and the way they see beauty determines how we see beauty.
When I was about 7-years-old and my sister was 5, I remember leading her down our dirt streets to the pave cement of Rosedale in Fort Worth, Texas during the mid-1970s, which seemed to me like a big highway. We would watch for oncoming cars and when it was clear would run across as fast as we could. Then we went down the hill past old shack houses, empty rundown buildings and Reverend Ranger’s large church building. Then we went up another hill pass more rundown houses to Miss Ofelia’s beauty shop, which was an old smoke-filled shack cluttered with all kinds of things.
Miss Ofelia, a thin little black woman, had one chair in the room, but you couldn’t see anything from the smoke of the cigarette hanging from her lip and smoke coming from the hot comb in her hand. Sometimes there would be other ladies there so we would play outside until she was ready to do our hair. Sometimes we would have to sit in there and talk to her which was almost as painful as getting our hair done.
Most of the time all she had to do was press it, because Mom would wash our hair and send us to get a good firm pressing for Easter or Christmas or some occasion. Live flames would heat the comb that would straighten young heads with a sizzle with an occasional ear or neck getting burned.
“Are you tender headed?” Miss Ofelia would ask my sister.
Her painfilled face was a yes as the older woman pulled the hot comb sizzling and crackling through my sister’s hair.
So we learned very young that beauty was associated with pain. This story will examine the beauty and pain surrounding African American images in the media.
Many young African American girls learned this process in the name of beauty, respectability and uplifting the race. Over and over history tells the story of African Americans believing that how they look to others will determine how they are treated. And to some extent it is true.
Traditionally, beauty is the qualities of something, shape, color or form that pleases the senses, especially sight. Africans brought to the new world had to define and redefine their view of what was beautiful because of the restrictions they constantly had to endure. They couldn’t wear the clothes that were beautiful, they couldn’t wear their hair in a beautiful manner, they couldn’t even clean themselves. So this idea was something that developed over time using what was available.
Blain Roberts wrote that blackness was more than just the opposite of whiteness. It represented the negative qualities associated with civilization, morality, and beauty. (page 3-4, Pageants, Parlors and Pretty Women, Blain Roberts) African slaves were behind the eight ball, so to speak, as they were the opposite of beautiful.
This theory persisted for centuries. In Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, she describes a standard for beauty for African Americans in the 1950s that was quantifiable. Even though women could not control things like their skin color or the grade of their hair, how you looked determined everything about your life. If a woman had a skin tone between beige and honey with “decent to good hair” they would find themselves attractive. “Dark skin often suggests aggressive, indiscriminate sexual readiness. At the very least it calls attention to your race and can incite demeaning associations.”
Jefferson goes on to explain that nappy hair, curly kinky hair that is tightly coiled, required heavy cream and a hot comb to manage. Because of this strenuous process the hair seldom grew passed the neck or shoulders.
This hot comb and skin lightning cream helped African American women take on some of the aesthetics of Anglo women. Was this enough to help others see the beauty in them and appreciate what they really brought to the table?
IS IT ART?
Historically my people’s work is called artifacts, while their people’s work is considered classical works of art. Can brown be beautiful? I describe three works of art, then look at what went into making them. I examine the history of beauty in African American culture.
After being petitioned by the local women, French American Governor Don Miro created the Tignon Law in 1786 that handle the situation. The law required all Africans to dress like a slave class of people which meant no wearing fancy dresses or jewelry on the streets. They would also have to wrap their hair in a handkerchief.
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He thought it would be lucky if his work got into the magazine at all, but he was determined not to compromise himself. He wanted to prove himself as a maker, artist and designer.
This type of design work started off as a way to make money, but Phil John Perry soon found a new way of creative expression. He worked day jobs to help finance his art, so that he didn’t compromise his artwork.
Born in Manchester England the 32-year old designer found the work was useful to the companies he worked for because they got normal floral and event expertise, and someone who could deliver a concept and create in a different way.
OUR OTHER CROWN
When the Civil War ended African Americans were set on a journey to heal and learn to see good and beauty in themselves. They would learn what they could accomplish, but the heart to uplift others would be the key.
At end of the Nineteenth Century, African American women like Sarah Breedlove had a difficult time managing their hair. She found that she like many women in her position, had a scalp disease and her hair was falling out leaving patches of bald spots. They had a poor diet which lacked protein, and limited ability to wash their hair often. With no running water in their homes, they had to carry water from a well or creek which made regular care impossible. They may have washed their bodies once a week, and their hair once a month if that often.
If these women saw images of women in newspapers or books, the women were probably white with flowing straight hair, something they could not have. Being considered beautiful was probably a dream because Caucasian society told them often they were ugly because of the color of their skin.
PUSHING THE LIMITS
Hattie McDaniel said she would rather play a maid than be one. She created a beautiful example of how to work with the limits given her. As she played servants, no one thought she was beautiful enough to put her on the cover of a magazine. Historically African American female faces were not represented in movies, magazines or anywhere else as attractive.
Portrayed in the media as something to be loathed, African Americans had an uphill battle when it came to being seen as beautiful or even bringing something good to a situation. The racial climate in the United States did not help.
Until 1915 most motion pictures were two to three-reelers lasting about 10 minutes. With Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, the experience was a three-hour film filled with hatred and fear toward Africans. This created an environment that fostered Jim Crow Laws and segregation which was designed to keep African Americans in sub servant positions.
BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL
When the African Jazz-Art Society went to see Mr. Cook’s show Miss Natural Standard of Beauty, it gave them an idea.
AJAS was formed in 1956 by Elombe Brath, Kwame Brathwaite, Frank Adu, Ernest Baxter, Chris Hall, David Ward, Jimmy Abu and Robert Gumbs as a collective of artists and creatives around jazz and uplifting the race. They produced jazz concerts, art exhibitions and cultural events. These men formed a group that would change the way the community thought about being beautiful.
“The president of AJASS one day after going to one of these beauty contests called me and said, ‘Robert I’ve got an idea. We should produce a series of fashion shows with women wearing their hair in its natural state. I said Wow that is a great idea.”
Robert Gumbs said because at that time there were very few women wearing their hair not pressed. The New York City native, was born in Harlem in 1939, but raised in the Bronx and went to school with other members of the group.
The concept of brown skinned people being beautiful or even pleasing to look at was something difficult for European artists. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby examined work by Edouard Manet that included a woman of African descent in his work, Olympia’s Maid (1863). Manet’s prejudice affected his work leaving the image of the dark maid less defined and put together as Olympia, the Caucasian focus of the painting. Grigsby pointed out that the history of artists in France at the time referred to Africans as ugly and unfit for paintings.
Trapped with the predominant image of people of color being those of unkempt slaves, African Americans had to create their own standards of beauty and acceptability. Several women did the same as Madam CJ Walker when it came to creating hair and beauty products, but the thing that created Walker’s legacy was the idea of uplifting the race. Even Margo Jefferson mentioned the need to uplift the race being one of the main purposes of African Americans.
Even with the wrapped head, Aunt Jemima was a dominant force in mainstream America. Women of color went from slavery to a generation or two later setting the hairstyles that most Americans wanted. Abena Lewis-Mhoon wrote that in the early 1920s hairstyles started in Harlem, spread across New York City, then to the rest of American. “Marcel waves started with black people in Harlem.”
This project examines how African American beauty has been marginalized, and how things are changing. It talks to four individuals who work with beauty, but also looks at the history of how African American women have been seen.