On “Beauty” not Beauty

(The title is an homage to Zadie Smith’s masterful novel On Beauty.)

A month ago I was holding a plastic beer stein and standing around Beale Street with fellow bloggers Brandon Byrd and Christopher Cameron after the day’s ASALH sessions. We shouted over the twisted steel guitar refrain zooming into the air. I mentioned how much I’d struggled to find writings about African American’s attitudes toward beauty. They responded with polite looks of incredulity, before asking, “How about our fellow blogger Janell HobsonTiffany Gill?” The list went on. I attempted to explain my kind of beauty over the music, but will take the opportunity of a bit more quiet and a few more hyperlinks to further explain what I mean by these two kinds of beauty.

Let me begin by first identifying what most people hear when I say “beauty,” something often synonymous with what Blain Roberts calls “the pursuit of female beauty” (pg 6).

Most, if not all, historians of African American life write about beauty in the context of the negotiation between the way “whitestream” culture has represented the physical form of black women (and sometimes black men) and how black people have responded. Some of these historians concentrate on how African American reclaim their own beauty through the slogan “black is beautiful” and its antecedents. Others study black business women, like Madame C. J. Walker, who created an industry around helping black women feel beautiful through products specially designed for their hair and skin.[1] The publisher’s synopsis of Blain Roberts’ March 2014 book Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South captures this idea of the political nature of what she calls “the pursuit of female beauty” quite nicely:

Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women

Roberts examines a range of beauty products, practices, and rituals–cosmetics, hairdressing, clothing, and beauty contests–in settings that range from tobacco farms of the Great Depression to 1950s and 1960s college campuses. In so doing, she uncovers the role of female beauty in the economic and cultural modernization of the South. By showing how battles over beauty came to a head during the civil rights movement, Roberts sheds new light on the tactics southerners used to resist and achieve desegregation.


This kind of “pursuit of female beauty” is intensely important for politics as well as for the sense of self of individual black children and adults. But it’s not the kind of beauty I am researching and writing about.[Continue Reading...]

‘Yes means Yes’ and the Problem of Consent in the Law

Just about a month ago, California became first state in the country to adopt an “affirmative consent” policy for its publicly funded universities and colleges. This bill, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on September 28th, requires that “in order to receive state funds,” colleges and universities must adopt policies concerning sexual violence that make the standard for determining the non-violence of a sexual act the “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” on the part of “both parties to sexual activity.” The passage of this law is part of a story of anti-violence activity that begins with the grassroots efforts of college students across the country and reaches all the way to the White House, bringing attention to the violence of American sexual culture that is being played out on college campuses.

Feminists who imagine affirmative consent as a “game-changer” gateway to a less violent, healthier, even sexier sexual culture have lauded this law. It has also been critiqued by other feminists who worry that this legislation is a symptom of carceral feminism that makes feminism the strange bedfellow of the state. We can ventilate this conversation, and the politics of consent more broadly, by thinking about this category historically. Where did consent come from? How did consent become the emblem of anti-sexual violence work? And is consent really a panacea of protection for women? (And if so, which women?) Is the legal affirmation of consent a guarantee of non-violence?

[Continue Reading...]

Beyond Slavery and the Civil Rights Movement: Freedom Schools and Transformative Education


As a former 8th grade English teacher in Atlanta, I was literally dumfounded to find that my students (mind you – who were in middle school) thought Martin Luther King, Jr. was a slave! Sadly, I later realized that my students’ wrong answers were … [Continue reading]


Myers Protest

A friend recently struck up a conversation about the “New Black.” Having just transitioned from the Age of Washington to the interwar years in my Modern Civil Rights Class, I was eager for a stimulating discussion of William Pickens or perhaps Alain … [Continue reading]

What do Black public spheres do?

Freedoms Jrnl 1st pg 1st ed

Noted political scientist Michael C. Dawson argued that if the most salient feature of the Black public sphere is defined relative to its ability to critique and transform significant problems of injustice and inequality, then the efficacy of the … [Continue reading]

America the exceptional?


If the recent discussion of Ed Baptist's new book on capitalism and slavery has not been enough for you, check out another recent piece authored by the brilliant James Oakes. This time, Oakes deftly teases apart critical strands of the decades-old … [Continue reading]

Conference Recap: Intellectual History Panels at ASALH 2014

Last weekend I presented the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History for the first time. I definitely had a blast. It was nice meeting readers of this blog and people I’ve been following on Twitter for … [Continue reading]

September Links and News

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History just had their annual conference featuring lots of great panels on black thought and culture, including sessions on Black Power and print culture, gender and Pan-Africanism, rhetoric … [Continue reading]

Capitalism’s slavery


One of the hoariest questions in black history is finding new life these days. There has been much discussion lately of the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism in the United States, and it has bled out into the popular media and … [Continue reading]

Black Politics in a New World

  Perhaps Henry Highland Garnet was accustomed to having his life threatened. In early August 1865, the black activist and orator, who had spent most of his life in New York, sat as an honorary delegate at a State Convention of the Colored … [Continue reading]