Beauty, Power and Struggle

Juliette Harris

Beauty is a power. And the struggle to have the entire range of Black beauty recognized and respected is a series one.  

— Barbara Summers, Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models (1998) and quoted in Deborah Willis, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (2009)

This fourth article in IRAAA's coverage of the Black Portraiture(s) II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories conference (May 28-May 31, 2015, Florence, Italy) links the photographs taken by the conference photographer to a thesis of Deborah Willis' Posing Beauty book and exhibition. 

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Deborah Willis, an organizer of the Black Portraiture(s) II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories conference, is also organizer of the Posing Beauty exhibition which opened in 2009 at the Tisch School of the Arts Department of Photography & Imaging gallery and travelled to several museums.  Accompanying the exhibition was the Posing Beauty book published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2009.

 Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Covering Black Portraitures 11, Italian photographer Riccardo Cavallari probably was not aware of Barbara Summers’ statement and Willis’ Posing Beauty project but he seemed to be fascinated by wide array of beauty spontaneously being "posed" by his subjects.  He repeatedly focused on that aspect and his photographs are a magnificent contribution to the “struggle" that Barbara Summers describes.  

The conference participants — artists and scholars who explore questions about imaging and imagery in their work — are themselves exponents of a personal engagement in the struggle.  As they gathered in Florence, their collective presence seemed to exclaim. “We affirm and express the 1,682 varieties (or more) of black beauty.”  

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University 

The Posing Beauty project was the culmination of Deborah Willis’ years of research and exploration into the nature and perception of beauty that included teaching a course titled “Beauty Matters” at New York University and Harvard University, conferring with numerous art and museum professionals, family members and friends about the project, and reviewing photographs and other print media in the the archives of numerous collections.

Opening the Posing Beauty book with Barbara Summers' statement about beauty, power and struggle, Willis, also in the introduction, lists the questions upon which the project was based. And she says she knew that each question might have more than one meaning.  The questions include:    

 Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

What is beauty?

How is the notion idealized and exploited in the media, in hip hop culture, in art?

Is black beauty a matter of conditioning?

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

London-based journalist and graphic designer Ben Arogundale not only believes that beauty matters but that it’s been ignored.  In his book, Black Beauty: A History and Celebration, Arogundale says that he understands that people may think that beauty talk is folly when black people have pressing problems and campaigns to wage on behalf of them.

“But beauty is also a battle,” insists Arogundale in a passage from the book quoted by Deborah Willis. “And the right to be beautiful and to be acknowledged as such whoever you are, wherever you are from is not so much as folly as a human rights issue.”

Beauty, A Very Vexed Topic

In the 1970s when the politics of beauty entered black feminist and womanist conversations, it was easy to articulate the basic premise: that black women were measured by Caucasian “standards of beauty.” But going deeper into the “standards of beauty” question was harder. First of all, what exactly were the standards that white people measured themselves by? Fair skin?  Not necessarily. White women were using lots of Coppertone to get that tone.  Straight hair?  Somewhat, but not necessarily — body, bounce and volume were also admired. Keen features and thin lips?  Somewhat Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University but not necessarily and increasingly, not necessarily so.  The admiration of Sophia Loren’s look — her strong features — in the popular culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s were a precursor to admiration of women who do not fit the classic WASP standard — women who look like Angelina Jolie.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Probing the “standards of beauty” question as applied to black women and articulating insights based on that inquiry was difficult too. Beauty was a very vexed topic in general African American discourse because probing it called attention to the differences in black people’s physical attributes and, for too long, such distinction-making had been painfully contentious:

If you light, you all right.

If you brown, stick around.

If you black, jump back.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Broaching conversation about the indoctrination of African Americans to dislike our African features easily could get dicey even if the goal was to show the distinctive beauty of those African aspects of our physical attributes.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Beauty also has been a complicated topic to grapple with, and develop consensus around, because, as Deborah Willis points out, each question might have more than one meaning, and therefore, more than one valid answer. For example:

Older black women who were directly shaped as young women by the black consciousness movement view habitual hair weave-wearing by black women with much more concern than do many younger black women who view it as a beauty practice no more freighted with social and political meaning than putting on earrings.  

Moreover, some contemporary weave styles are created from synthetic kinky hair — what are the politics and other implications of that? And, some women who wear straight, woven-in hair avoid what they perceive as "wannabe" longer styles; they want the added hair to resemble their own pressed tresses while they are giving their own hair a rest.  

Some black women gravitate towards straighter hair styles which reflect their personalities — their desire for order, their aspirations and what are generally deemed more business-like appearances. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University A further consideration is that the whole question about what is "natural" and what is not within black women's construction of personas should be considered within the context of understanding that the beauty practices of all women involve forms of artifice.

And in the guerrilla warfare that is dating in the contemporary U.S., some women are driven by the biological mating imperative to achieve beauty by any means possible, particularly in circumstances where eligible men are scarce — by any means possible that will help them stand out.  The vast context in which the beauty struggle occurs, and must be understood, ranges from the primal to the political, from the pragmatic to the transcendent. 

A Debate In Which Many Positions Are Valid

In “Beauty Rites: Towards an Anatomy of Culture in African American Women’s Art,” a paper presented at a 1993 “Image and Identity: The African American Experience in 20th Century American Art” symposium and published in the print IRAAA, art historian Judith Wilson claimed the “natural” position in the natural vs. straight ideological divide was based on an incomplete understanding of African aesthetics which values exaggeration artifice and “anti-naturalism" (e.g., hair elongation by coating it with mud or adding fibers to it). And in analyzing depictions in African American art, Wilson cited artists such as Lorna Simpson who “(r)efusing the politics of ‘straight’ vs. ‘nappy’…celebrates the beauty of hot combed, braided, cornrowed, and untreated, short black hair with a leveling eye for their shared associations with African American tradition."

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University 

In an introduction to the issue with Judith Wilson’s essay, the IRAAA editor noted the various positions that were being taken in the discussions of hair politics. These include writer and activist Alice Walker’s contention that “oppressed (hot combed and chemically straightened) hair puts a ceiling on the brain,” thwarting potential for some types of personal expression and evolution.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

Hold up, Alice!, implied cultural historian Kobena Mercer when he proposed that the hair straightening convention is an affirmative ‘creolization’ of black and non-black styles and behaviors among multicultural peoples of the African Diasporas.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Anthropologist Johnetta Cole’s view was a mediating one: “To say that every African American woman who, for example…straightens her hair is denying herself is simply not true. But if such is accompanied by other symbols of self denial, then one has to stop and question it.”  

The questions raised in the long-held black hair debate continue to defy simple explanation. For example, women who say their long hair extensions are “a natural hairstyle” because they don’t involve chemicals or hot combs and are based on African women’s braiding traditions have a valid point as do people who say that extensions mimic straight hair in their length and straightness and are concerned that these qualities are valued over those of coily hair.  A third perspective would be offered by black women who view long hair extensions as an artistic medium which they creatively mold into sculptures. 

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Today's most vocal evangelists about beauty are the young black women in self-made videos who proudly insist that they have type 4 B or 4 C hair (the mostly tightly curled type) and can still get it to form bouncy twists (rather than draw up). Generally, hair politics seem to be in civil reconciliation among African American women. Black women with hair cut so close that lots of scalp shows through and Wendy Williams with her hair on permanent flow generally can slap five and say: I support you in your personal exploration of beauty.  

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University In the public dialogue, it has been easier to stick with superficial observations about black beauty and simple statements about aesthetic standards and biases, rather than to attempt to thoroughly unpack contentious ideas and complicated issues related to beauty and, in so doing, risk opening up a whole Pandora’s box of hurtful associations and hard-to-answer enigmas.  

Perhaps precisely because they are men and do not have the sensitivities that undergird black women’s feelings of solidarity, Chris Rock and Bill Duke, with their respective "Good Hair" and "Dark Girls" video documentaries, pushed the beauty struggle topic further out into the public domain in efforts to capture the attention of the general public.  The documentaries made a slight ripple — particularly among people already engaged in the struggle — but it's doubtful they had much of an impact on people in Africa and in other parts of the Diaspora.

Seizing The Moment To Advance The Struggle 

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University At the Black Portraitures II conference, presenter Michaela Angela Davis seized an unexpected opportunity to direct the audience’s attention to the beauty struggle. 

The opportunity occurred May 30, 2015 during the "Sister Outsider: Black American Women, Identity and Global Travel" panel, when Asia Leeds, a Spelman College professor, was making the presentation, “Privilege, Mis-recognition, and the Body Politics of Traveling as a Black American Woman."

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University 

In discussing her travels in Senegal and Zimbabwe, Asia Leeds noted the skin bleaching phenomenon in Africa with the example of an African woman who told her that she bleaches her skin so that she can get a husband. Leeds also said she wore a hair weave in her African travels in order “to fit in.” 

To focus the attention of all present to the implications of these remarks by Leeds, her fellow presenter, Michaela Angela Davis, briefly interrupted the talk at this point. (I tuned into the live stream of the panel during Leeds' talk and did not hear Michaela Angela Davis' talk which may have a relation to the concerns Davis expressed during Leeds' talk. - J.H.) 

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University The implications of Leeds' remarks about African women's attitudes about hair and color are disturbing.  Do many African women want to look like African American women who they mostly see through media? If so, it’s a concern that, for several years, African American beauty only has been represented on the world stage by Beyonce and Rihanna. The old Lena Horne syndrome in a new day. In other words, the vaunted celebration of more diluted, less Africanesque forms of black beauty. The impact of Serena Williams’ early, international visibility on African girls and women was complicated by her penchant for long, blonde weaves and extensions and the continuing message of her persona, despite her amazing prowess and great, inherent, physical beauty, seemed to be “I am not enough without all this hair.”

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University The moment of reflection called by Michaela Angela Davis in Asia Leeds’s revealing talk passed without further comment and is revisited here to continue the consideration of Leeds’ troubling remarks.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Bey and RiRi are fabulously lovely in ways that everyone can understand and now, at least in the U.S., they’ve been joined by Kerry Washington as a much-touted exponent of African American feminine loveliness that also has a general appeal. The struggle for a broader recognition of black women's Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University beauty requires the cultivation of a more sophisticated aesthetic sensibility at the mass level in the African Diaspora. 

Posing The Hard Questions

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University So what about the concerns that Michaela Angela Davis asked the presenters and audience to consider during Asia Leeds' presentation at the Black Portraitures 11 conference?  

In her conference bio, Michaela Angela Davis says that she cares about culture, style and equality (emphasis, added). As an African American woman of conspicuous non-African ancestry, Davis knows how dicey the shade and "grade" (skin and hair) distinctions can be in African and African Diaspora communities.  Possibly because Davis knows "light skin skin privilege" first hand, and also the "blacker than thou" disdain it can attract, she's very outspoken on black beauty matters and describes herself, among other things, as "an image activist" and "community servant." Davis is the creator of the MADFREE: Liberating Conversations About Image Beauty and Power project and her conference presentation was "Indigenous Style & Unmolested Beauty: A MAD Conversation."

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

The implications of Leeds' talk and the call for beauty equity by Barbara Summers and others prompt a continuing posing of hard questions.

One of these questions is:

What about the little black girls who miss the few black beauty affirmative action moments in mass media such as 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o’s presence in the world spotlight? Black girls who dislike the African character of their physical appearance and who are fed a constant media stream of images that have an overall effect of encouraging this dislike? Black girls who lack role models like Nyong’o who openly speak out about these misguided notions? What to do about their situation?

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Fashion designers and journalists helped propel Lupita Nyong'o’s rise to a large media spotlight in late 2013 and early 2014. But the Kenyan beauty is not getting much help to remain there. Part of a large ensemble cast, Nyong'o plays a pirate in Star Wars: The Force Awakenswhich opens in December 2015. Nyong'o's voice will heard but she will not seen in the 2016 Jungle Book film. Her upcoming starring role is in a 2016 biopic about African chess prodigy. 

Nyong’o, herself, plans to co-produce and star in a film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah about the struggle of Nigerian immigrants.  Brad Pitt whose daughter, like Lupita Nyong’o, is East African, is set to co-produce Americanah.  Production has not started.  Brad Pitt works form a much more politicized agenda than do most Hollywood producers. Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry apparently do not have an interest in grappling with with complexities of the black women's beauty struggle.  For these kinds of reasons and others, the course of Nyong’o's star rise is uncertain. 

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University En masse success in the beauty struggle will require that we collectively formulate a pluralistic aesthetic based on the broad diversity our appearance, project it on a massive scale, and provide direct support for women and girls to incorporate the philosophy into their lives.

How to do that?

The beauty struggle is a “black lives matter” issue too!  

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University In this context, complications also abound. On the street level, young black men are being felled by overly aggressive policing but on the mass level, look at all of those the black supermen.  Guys who look like a regular cross-section African American men rise to portray leading man roles in films. So do the black athletes who are cast as Adonis figures in mass media as they make a fortune in product endorsement. And of course there's the broad sweep of black male entertainers who become pop icons — men who, without the $500 hair cuts, expert stylists, and accouterments of wealth look like a sampling of the around-the-way brothers in any local barber shop: Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Chris Rock, Danny Glover, Don Cheadle, Cuba Gooding, Courtney B. Vance, Morris Chesnut, Taye Diggs, Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shaquille O’Neal, Lebron, Jay-Z and more athletes and rappers than I can name.  All kinds of fine. Fully representing black male beauty big time on the world stage. 

The struggle for a comparable situation for black women — beauty equity for them in public life — is critical for numerous reasons relating to the well-being of the individual, family, the community and the world.  The struggle involves a cultivation of a visual and intellectual sophistication that's like the cultivation of a child's palate from the love of mac n' cheese and sweets to the appreciation of the nuanced flavors and textures of a wide array of nourishing foods. And it also involves understanding that the attributes of beauty include both physical qualities and non-physical qualities that are reflected in sensory ways.

We can see possibilities for such change by looking at two exemplary women. Like Beyonce and exuberant-haired Blue Ivy, Jada Pinkett Smith and her daughter Willow exemplify the broad range of beauty that Summers and Willis urge us to see. Outrageously smart, talented and winsome Willow, in a few years, very conceivably could take control of that lopsided main stage occupied by conventional (i.e., narrowly limited) black women’s beauty to project a kind of alternative look that Blue Ivy can grow into, along with many women in the African Diaspora. The cyclical swing from the narrow and often sexist portrayals of black women in hip hop and other popular media to whatever young women like Willow want to represent should be inevitable. 

In a multi-ethnic society that supports beauty equity for black women, individuals of varying appearances inevitably will be attracted to one another and the "marrying lighter" tradition among upwardly mobile African American men will become a random occurrence, not continue as a strongly pronounced pattern. Committed unions will be stronger, per capita African American family income will rise, children will have more support and better educational opportunities, and the consequences of these advances will reverberate further out into society.

 Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

For everyone's sake, this swing must begin to manifest broadly and soon, and a basketball analogy demonstrates why.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University In the 2015 NBA finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephen Curry made 98 three-point shots. Ninety eight, in the final games of the playoff alone! Curry was even making blind three-pointers from downtown. One does not have to be very old — only about 30 years old — to have personally witnessed the spectacular evolution of possibility in the game of basketball. Curry's scoring record would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake's "morphic resonance" principle posits that the abilities of humans and other animals collectively increase through repetitive action.  A quickening in the morphic resonance of the appreciation of the full spectrum of black women's beauty will spur the evolution of the embodiment and projection of this beauty in quantum leaps, strengthening the African Diaspora as a whole and preventing male, as well as female, lives from being stunted.

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari. Courtesy New York UniversityShonda Rhimes stepped up in the beauty struggle, when she cast Viola Davis in the ABC series, "How To Get Away With Murder."  One night, in a much-discussed incident, Davis’ character, Annalise, removed her heavy makeup and pulled off her her wig.  The momentous symbolism of that moment was not lost on everyone engaged in the beauty struggle. The “unmasking” scene was not written into the script; Davis suggested it.

When her (white) husband enters and embraces the unadorned Annalise, another profound statement was made. But those two riveting moments were eclipsed by the scene’s melodramatic, jaw-dropping final line. Her (holding up the photo displayed on a cell phone) to him: "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?" 

Born in 1965, Viola Davis, herself, undoubtedly will continue to play powerful roles in her 50s and take opportunities provided by her high visibility to advance the beauty struggle as she carries her own beauty into later life.  

Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

Riccardo Cavallari's photograph of Chirlane McCray, age 60, with Deborah Willis and Mary Schmidt Campbell, both over 60, on the opening day of the Black Portraitures 11 conference is a portrait of diverse beauty composed not only of well-fitting personas but also beauty composed of the projection of qualities developed over long lives of exploration, courage and doing good for others. A beauty that is also a grace.

— Juliette Harris

This is one of a series of articles on the Black Portraitures conference.  The other articles are:

A Blackamoor Is Not A Jigaboo

Behind the Scenes at the Black Portraitures Conference

Post Cards From Firenze

Portraitures (11) Portraits