(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 Hobson? Tiffany 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. 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:
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...]