Visual representations of feminine beauty in the Black press: 1915-1950.

Author:Gooden, Amoaba


Systems of domination, imperialism, colonialism and racism have manifested themselves in the racialization of African Diasporic communities. Within these systems, racial ideology, central to the justification of slavery in the New World, defined Black and White as binary opposites. Black people (and Blackness) were negatively defined as ugly, savage and barbaric; in contrast, White folks (and therefore whiteness) were positively defined as beautiful, Christian and civilized. (1) These hierarchies of skin color, which systematically privileged lightness over darkness, perpetuated white supremacist beliefs about Blackness. Globally, these hierarchies assaulted the black self-concept and encoded people of African descent with this value-laden colonial principle, evident as blacks worldwide began to use chemicals to bleach their skin in an effort to achieve light skin as a symbol of beauty.

According to Joyce Ladner, it is "inescapable for Blacks who are born into a society that makes such a strong distinction between White and Black to grow up without, at some point, entertaining feelings of inferiority because they are not members of the majority." (2) In order to acknowledge this ongoing legacy of European domination over African people, we must broaden our understanding of white supremacy and African subjugation in order to grasp the full impact of imperialism on African people. bell hooks' suggestion that "white supremacy, is a useful terms for understanding the complicity of people of color in upholding and maintaining racial hierarchies that do not involve force" is valuable in this discussion on skin-bleaching among African Americans in that it allows one to recognizes the continuous and tragic impact of slavery and racism on Blacks. (3) In addition, it "enables us to recognize not only that Black people are socialized to embody the values and attitudes of white supremacy, but that [Blacks] also can exercise white-supremacist control over other Black people." (4)


In the United States and elsewhere in the Black world, communities mirrored white supremacist patterns of behavior. This was most evident in examples of Black social relations where lighter-skinned Blacks were given preferential treatment over darker-skinned Blacks. (5) A direct outcome of the various systems of oppression, colorism is a crisis of consciousness created by whites during the enslavement period. It is prudent for the Black community to grasp that valuing light skin over dark skin is indeed a symptom of White supremacist thought. Mark Hill's suggestion "that the African American community had internalized bias again dark skin and African features" supports the claim by numerous scholars who document colorism's historical impact on the life chances of both black males and females in the United States. (6) Others have further demonstrated that skin color has a more significant impact on the lives of Black women than on African American men. (7) Thus, when Black women are perceived as physically approximating white standards of beauty, there are continued and persistent advantages for them in the Black community in terms of success, education, income and spousal status. (8)

As an outcome of white hegemony, colorism was reinforced in Black New World communities and Black post-colonial states as Africans were "powerless to contest the influence of domination." (9) Racialized notions of physical beauty were internalized and became normalized in the discourse of the day. Beauty and desirability, particularly as it related to feminine beauty, was perceived to be light-skinned, often coupled with long hair. There is a direct connection between the maintenance of this tenet and the institutionalization of specific images via the mass media that support and maintain these racialized notions of feminine beauty. (10) Although Europeans created the rupture in which these visual representations (11) of Blacks were structured, the ideal was continually reinforced in various Black institutions. (12)

For the above reasons, this researcher is interested in the extent to which the Black community in the United States 1) validated white supremacist notions of feminine beauty by encouraging the use of skin beach and 2) up held particular visual representations of Black women. One fundamental feature of exploring skin bleaching and visual representations of Black women within the African American community involves tapping sources of everyday, vocalized and unarticulated consciousness that has traditionally been owned, managed, and accessed by African Americans. Gunnar Myrdal asserted in his 1944 study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, that the Black press was the strongest and the most influential institution amongst African Americans; it revealed how Blacks struggled against external limits in all aspects of their lives as it set the stage for historic changes such as school desegregation and various other civil rights legislation. (13) For these reasons, the Black press is a rich source in testing notions of feminine beauty, skin bleaching and visual images of Black women.

Using several primary sources, this paper explores the images of Black women as they emerged in the Black press between 1915 and 1950. Data from the papers and records of the Associated Negro Press, The Chicago Defender, The Crusader, The Crisis, The New York Amsterdam and Ebony reveal that there was a noticeable value system (evidenced by the frequency of advertisements that support the use of skin bleach) during this time period that suggests that African American culture gave light skin and other features associated with whiteness a higher value than dark complexions and features associated with Blackness. (14) Primarily using photographs and advertisements from the above sources, this paper explores the extent to which the Black press validated white supremacist notions of feminine beauty during this time frame. Specifically, the researcher wanted to see if and how the Black press expressed and or supported white supremacist ideals about feminine beauty in articles, advertisements and photographs, and if in the expression of such beauty standards, it directly or indirectly supported the bleaching of skin by Black women during the first half of the 20th century. The early 1900's were chosen for this study because it represented a period of great transition for African Americans and institutions such as the press.

The Black Press

Historically, the Black press can be viewed not only as a Black institutional enterprise, but also as an instrument of social change and a form of Black artistic expression. Its emergence signified racial solidarity as it came into existence to reflect the attitudes of the Black community because those attitudes were not being expressed elsewhere. (15) In addition, contents of the Black media were designed to instruct and educate since the political and educational process of Blacks generated a need for a public voice. At the turn of the century, as Blacks became more literate and articulate, they turned to journals written by African Americans for news of value. According to F. G. Detweiler it was "difficult to find a Negro who can read, who does not read one or more of these race papers." (16) During the early to mid 1900s, the Black press reported on the major concerns of African-Americans, which focused on the economic and political restructuring...

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