The Suppression of Dark Beauty and the Rise of Lupita Nyong'o

Are We Becoming A More Visually Sophisticated Nation?

Juliette Harris

Concerned about the bias against African features in the perception of black women’s beauty —  a form of social oppression that is aesthetic — visual artists countered this bias with so many delineations of dark women’s beauty during the second half of the 20th century that such imagery finally became a worn expression in “fine art,” unless executed in a highly original way.

In visual media in general, however, the overall image of black feminine beauty has not been proportionately distributed along the African end of the spectrum.

Graphic designer Darryl Randolph hopes Lupita N'yong'o's star won't fadeNow some cultural observers wonder if 12 Years A Slave co-star Lupita Nyong'o’s dazzling sweep through the 2014 entertainment awards season, capped with her Oscar win, will lead to widespread recognition of the beauty she exudes? Will the aesthetic oppression of black women finally be eradicated in visual media and generally in our lives?

Nyong'o spoke about the psychological ravages of aesthetic oppression during her acceptance speech on Feb. 27 at Essence magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. 

She recalled how the lack of media representation of dark beauty caused her to dislike her complexion, pray for lighter skin and almost succumb to the “seduction of inadequacy." Concluding, she said she hoped her journey would inspire other black 1853 edition of Twelve Years A Slave book.women to not only affirm their physical beauty but also the beauty that comes from a spirit of compassion for themselves and others.   

An examination of the visual imagery and verbal exression of the 12 Years A Slave book and film is helpful in understanding the background of the aesthetic bias that has caused so much psychological, social and economic havoc in the lives of black girls and women. Illustration and text in the book show how entrenched a narrow perception of black women’s beauty had become by 1853 when the book was published.

Solomon Northrup's reunion with wife and daughters. Illustration from Twelve Years A Slave book

Early in the narrative, Northrup’s description of Jane reflects a narrow definition of African American feminine beauty as being the result of racial mixture.  Up to that point, his narrative had proceeded at a rapid clip with no physical description of people. But when he gets to his wife, Jane, he painstakingly describes her “pleasing” appearance by her multi-racial pedigee:  “She (Jane) is not able to determine the exact line of her descent, but the blood of three races mingles in her veins. It is difficult to tell Assemblage by the author of this article includes Twelve Years A Slave bookwhether the red, white, or black predominates. The union of them all, however, in her origin, has given her a singular but pleasing expression, such as is rarely to be seen. Though somewhat resembling, yet she cannot properly be styled a quadroon, a class to which, I have omitted to mention, my mother belonged.”

The illustration portraying Solomon Northrop’s reunion with his wife, Jane, after his release from bondage is a rare image of African American romantic love in the 19th century.  

Northrup’s limited perception of African American feminine beauty is echoed in the visual treatment of the women in the 12 Years film.  A few minutes into the film, Northrup is shown in a sexual encounter with an enslaved woman who is near white (no such scene occurred in the book) which leads to his memory of being in bed with his wife Jane.   In this intimate moment, Jane, a nut-brown woman, is shown with long, straight hair sweeping like a thick horse’s tail towards Solomon. This prominent swath of long hair is of different texture than the hair above Jane’s forehead and looks very strange — like it was photoshopped into the scene!

Title page from 1853 edition of Twelve Years A Slave bookThe drawings in the 12 Years book are by the illustrator T.W. Coffin and the engraving is by N. Orr, an engraver who, according to 19thcentury business directories was well-established. Solomon Northrup’s narrative was transcribed by David Wilson, a white attorney who can be presumed to be an editor or collaborator in the telling of the story.

T.W. Coffin created a sensitive depiction of African American appearance, particularly in his rendering of Northrup. Jane, in Solomon’s embrace, and their two daughters (only one was shown in the film), have the smooth hair of very racially-mixed black women that could easily be molded into the parted, puffy, pulled-back style of long hair worn by white American women of that era.  Most early to mid-century black women wore head coverings because, unless they were of predominant non-African ancestry (and the Northrup daughters were not that "mixed"), they struggled to achieve hair styles resembling those of white women.

In describing the “Patsey” character (played by Nyong'o), Solomon Northrop notes that she was proud of her African (Guinean) identity and was an amazing worker but he also describes her as being an "animal" — a “splendid animal,” presumably because of her unalloyed African appearance and her formidable physical prowess at a time when such prowess was considered un-feminine: 

        Patsey is twenty-three—also from Buford's plantation. She is in no wise connected with the others, but glories in the fact that she is the offspring of a "Guinea nigger," brought over to Cuba in a slave ship, and in the course of trade transferred to Buford, who was her mother's owner.

      Depiction of Patsey's flogging in Twelve Years A Slave book  Patsey was slim and straight. She stood erect as the human form is capable of standing. There was an air of loftiness in her movement, that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy. Truly, Patsey was a splendid animal, and were it not that bondage had enshrouded her intellect in utter and everlasting darkness, would have been chief among ten thousand of her people.

        She could leap the highest fences, and a fleet hound it was indeed, that could outstrip her in a race. No horse could fling her from his back. She was a skillful teamster. She turned as true a furrow as the best, and at splitting rails there were none who could excel her. When the order to halt was heard at night, she would have her mules at the crib, unharnessed, fed and curried before uncle Abram had found his hat. Not, however, for all or any of these, was she chiefly famous. Such lightning-like motion was in her fingers as no other fingers ever possessed, and therefore it was, that in cotton picking time, Patsey was queen of the field.

Illustrator Coffin probably could not image what a proud, young Guinean woman would look like and so Patsey is rendered as a faceless generic figure in the illustration of her flogging.

In describing his two daughters and son in an earlier scene, Solomon revealed the impact of aesthetic oppression on his own perception:  “...I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow.”

The enslaved mother, “Eliza,” who  laments profusely when she is separated from her children, is depicted by Coffin as having long curly hair probably because he wanted to admirably portray her and had no sense of how to favorably render a woman with African features and hair. 

Fathered by Eliza’s master, the child Emily figures prominently in a scene described by Northrop which reveals not only how Emily’s bi-racial appearance was coveted but also how the “thick lipped, bullet headed” African appearance was despised. This scene about the separation of Eliza and Emily in a New Orleans slave pen exemplies the polarized perception of African American beauty that has had searing, divisive consequences to this day:

“Emily, the child, was seven or eight years old, of light complexion, and with a face of admirable beauty. Her hair fell in curls around her neck....” Eliza and Emily in the New Orleans slave pen

The man purchasing Eliza also wants to purchase Emily but the slave pen owner wants to keep Emily because of the high price she will soon fetch as a “fancy piece”:

He would not sell her then on any account whatever. There were heaps and piles of money to be made of her, he said, when she was a few years older. There were men enough in New-Orleans who would give five thousand dollars for such an extra, handsome, fancy piece as Emily would be, rather than not get her. No, no, he would not sell her then. She was a beauty—a picture—a doll—one of the regular bloods—none of your thick-lipped, bullet-headed, cotton-picking niggers—if she was might he be d—d (damned).

 The aesthetic oppression of black women evident in the 12 Years book were visually reinforced in the popular imagination by the tide of posters and other illustrations comically or grotesquely depicting  pick-a-ninnies and mammies throughout the 19th century and continuing into first half of the 20th century.

While not engaging in such blatant stereotypes, modern and contemporary popular media never-the-less has the effect of continuing to limit the projection of black women’s beauty to a narrow range.  

It was visual artists’ “first cousins,” the fashion designers vying to dress Nyong'o that propelled her to super icon status. Like visual artists, designers specialize in the art of seeing beyond conventional perceptions.  However some observers question the designers' ardent embrace of Nyong'o. While praising her beauty, they feel that Nyong'o is the latest black object of fetish and exoticism in the high fashion world. 

And to those hoping that Nyong’o's high-visibility debut augurs much more of the same for other exemplars of dark beauty, The Root columnist Kelli Goff sounded a cautionary note as she detailed the inability of black American male film directors’ to cast women of dark beauty in leading romantic roles.

Fox Searchlight's ad for 12 Years a SlaveBefore Nyong'o's Oscar win, still ads for Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave film showed Solomon Northrop on the run. After Nyong'o's Oscar win, the ad showed Northrup hugging Patsey — a change signaling strong, future roles for Nyong'o that will project her with a full range of attributes including being beautiful and in a wide range of activities including being hugged and loved?  

Responding to Goff’s column, @thatafrikangirl tweeted about what she feels is the biased perception of African American men in general: “… despite how beautiful lupita is, i know most black men in western countries wouldn't dare date her.”

If thatafrikangirl watched the Academy Awards broadcast three days later, she probably noticed 12 Years star Chiwetel Ejiofor attended the awards ceremony with his girlfriend who happens to be white and 12 Years director Steve McQueen attended with the woman who happens to be white and is described as his “partner.”

(The “happens to be white” phrase is used to diminish an appearance of accusation against these black men. It’s not such individual choices that are of concern, at least to this writer, but the overall, collective pattern that seems to imply that black women are perceived as lacking as potential romantic partners both on the screen and in real life.)

Anyone following the intense discussion sparked by Nyong'o's success could easily wonder if the tradition of bias against dark beauty can be quickly overcome by the Hollywood debut, no matter how stunning, of this one, young, gifted, black and lovely woman.

Are We Becoming A More Visually Sophisticated Nation?

Lupita Nyong'o's moment of celebrity could lead to a lasting and active, global recognition of dark beauty with the spread of the kind of visual sophistication that visual artists and designers possess. Artists and designers are able to see beyond binary constructions of beauty to other aesthetic forms. The suppression of dark feminine beauty has occurred over centuries from a polarized pattern way of thinking which assigns opposing values for ideas and things, dividing and classifying them according to perceived differences.  In this way, the prototypical Northern European feminine type was considered pretty or pleasing and its opposite – the prototypical West African feminine type – was considered unappealing or ugly.

During the second half of the 20th century such rigid conceptions of beauty relaxed, allowing more of the mid area between the poles to emerge as beautiful or pleasing. However to completely eradicate oppositions in the popular conception of beauty, there must be broad recognition of type of Africanesque beauty that Nigerian American actress Adepero Oduye,for example, represents as well as recognition for Nyong'o's type of beauty.

Adepero Oduye, who played “Eliza,” the character grieving the loss of her two children in 12 Years a Slave, has made glamorous appearances at film openings and on the Academy Awards stage when 12 Years cast members of joined Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt in accepting the award for best picture. Versatilely talented, fashionable and striking, she remains relatively unknown. Oduye appears on the right in this photo.

A growing, public, visual sophistication would establish a pluralistic aesthetic that could encompass Beyonce, Kerry Washington, Nyong'o and Adepero Oduye and would also further extend to unconventional types of beauty — just as white women’s beauty has extended to unconventional beauty such as that of Barbara Streisand, Shirley McClaine, Angelica Huston, Judy Dench and many distinctive others who’ve been cast in romantic lead roles. 

And finally, as Nyong'o pointed out in her Essence luncheon speech, this pluralistic aesthetic also would have a spiritual dimension. It’s hard to determine where Lupita’s physical beauty ends and her radiant personality and spiritual essence begins.

Divisive, opposing conceptions of black beauty have been established and reinforced by powerful social, cultural and economic interests for so long that, even with the mighty thrust of the “black consciousness” and black arts movements of the late 20th century, failed to permanently break them down.  But there are a number of signs, in addition to Nyong'o’s high visibility, that a turning point in the long history of aesthetic oppression is being overturned in a lasting way.

The “black is beautiful” movement that began in the late 1960s seemed as polarizing as the aesthetic oppression it was challenging when “blacker than thou” attitudes seemed to devalue the appearance of African Americans with straighter hair and lighter complexions.

In contrast, today the embrace of dark beauty is not so pointedly ideological and self-righteous and does not exclude other kinds of beauty.

If a dark beauty trend in popular media is set off by Nyong'o, white producers and directors undoubtedly will be watching. Tyler Perry is a close observer of contemporary culture and would be too smart to miss this one. If he does, we can be sure that his friend Oprah – a long time cheerleader for aesthetic pluralism – will remind him. So let's look for more aesthetic equity in the leading, black female roles that Perry casts.  Ditto for Lee Daniels. And look out for Spike Lee’s remake of School Daze.  

Other auspicious signs include lots of ads for naturalistic hair products in Ebony magazine after many years of cover-to-cover relaxer ads and the October 2013 appointment as Essence editor-in-chief of Vanessa Bush, a women of striking Africanesque appearance, who will help sustain the understanding that our beauty is dazzingly varigated.

And, finally, in the 21st century moment, we may have enough collective, psychological security that black women of heterogenous appearance won’t fear that the prominent projection of more unmixed beauty will diminish the admiration that mixed looks have enjoyed. There will no balance of power to be tipped in just one direction of beauty.  Like we love to say: it’s all good.

But favorable events and signs are not enough to firmly establish aesthetic pluralism. We must be vigilant, work towards, and demand a democracy of appearance just has we have struggled for equality in other areas of our democracy. There are powerful forces that seek to maintain a conventional, status quo aesthetic because they believe that it is to their economic advantage to do so and because divisive, polarized perceptions of beauty are deeply entrenched.


This article is part of the "Seeing Beauty in Difference" series of articles.  Also see:

Seeing Beauty in Difference via the Obama Women's Travel Through Africa

Seeing Beauty in Difference Project is Semi Finalist in National Challenge