Too Black? Bleach your skin! Hair too kinky or curly? Straighten it then!
The quest for the acceptance of the naturalness and beauty of blackness is now firmly rooted in Black popular culture. For African peoples the adornment and beautification of the hair and body is an essential cultural component. In traditional African societies cosmetic modification has been ritualized with context and reason.
That is, it is defined by the social occasion and may denote a stage of development from childhood to maturity, or indicate marital status or the group to which you belong. The difficulty in accepting this cultural legacy arises in a racially conscious society where Black women and Black men are still struggling with how to present their physical image and still be accepted in the society. It was, and is inevitably complex trying to negotiate your self-acceptance through two opposing cultures.
Using some of the advertising that ran in the AFRO during the 1930s we will explore some of the messages they carried, and how these messages had an impact on the self-definitions of Africans, particularly African women.
Throughout the analysis it will become clear that over 80 years later similar dynamics persist. Advertisers have successfully exploited the cultural psyche of Black women and Black men and have given us a peculiar insight into Black life.
To be Black, especially if you were particularly dark, was loaded with negative stereotypes. Several products, promising miraculous transformations, were manufactured and marketed specifically to the Black community. Their sales pitch implied that using the right product would eliminate the social conditions that defined Black life.
Throughout the 1930s bleach not only whitened clothes, it was marketed as means of lightening and whitening black skin. Advertisers swamped AFRO readers with a sales pitch that may now seem implausible and insulting, but much of these products, or products making similarly claims, are still readily available.
Then as much of 20% of the AFROAmerican’s ad revenue came from cosmetic companies hawking skin bleaching and hair straightening products. The advertisers were merciless in reinforcing the insecurities of Black women. While some ads were directed at Black men, women were the primary targets of skin care products while men were encouraged to “improve” the appearance of their hair.
The implication was that natural physical traits of blackness were defective; whiteness was now the norm for Blacks to emulate. Blackness could be corrected by purchasing and using the proper chemicals on the hair and skin.
The standard of beauty was undeniably White, “the whiter the righter.” Through their products and marketing strategy they produced and reproduced whiteness.
Ads were carefully worded to play on stereotypes and promoted a negative association with natural blackness.
Consequently many Black women and Black men have mutilated their bodies and have even died because they used products, containing harsh chemicals that promised peace of mind in a bottle.
It must be clearly stated that much of the fascination with straightening hair and lightening skin became such a part of the culture that some Black men and Black women were simply unconsciously responding to the social norms and expectations. As such this critique is not a wholesale indictment of people learning to survive by any means necessary.
Inevitably the situation was futile for those who believed the elaborate claims of authenticity of products promising “whiteness”. Even Blacks who were light enough to pass as white could only gain greater success and acceptance by denying their true identity, living in self-imposed isolation and with the constant fear of discovery.
While American popular culture reserves its most positive stereotype of blackness to light-skinned Blacks, they have never gained complete acceptance in White society, merely marginal tolerance.
However the ads supported the prevailing attitude and the historical circumstance that black of mixed race have received educational and economic advantages.
The legacy of all this conditioning is so ingrained in the Black psyche, that exploring the natural beauty of blackness is still not an option for many. While hair and skin colour is not the totality of the African American definition today it remains a preoccupation.
This article originally appeared in Turning Point.
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