Mike Kueber's Blog

June 3, 2012

Black is beautiful?

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 3:53 pm

Back when I was a kid, there was a rallying cry for blacks who were no longer willing to take a backseat in American life – the cry was “Black is Beautiful.”  According to Wikipedia:

  • “Black is beautiful is a cultural movement that began in the United States of America in the 1960s by African Americans. It later spread to much of the black world, most prominently in the writings of the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko in South Africa. It aims to dispel the notion in many world cultures that black people’s natural features such as skin color, facial features and hair are inherently ugly….  The movement also encouraged men and women to stop trying to eliminate African-identified traits by straightening their hair and attempting to lighten or bleach their skin.”

Well, based on an article (and video) in the NY Times earlier this week, the Black is Beautiful movement remains only a work in progress.  According to the article, there is currently a revolutionary movement in America, as documented in a documentary by reporter-cum-filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwi, for black women to transition from chemically straightening their hair to returning to their naturally kinky afro texture – “Of the 50 or so women I struck up conversations with randomly on the street, the vast majority had gone natural within the last three years.” 

Saro-Wiwi quotes a fellow Brooklynite, Anu Prestonia, as saying, “There’s been an evolutionary process that has turned into a revolution.”  Although Prestonia has been in the hair business since 1978, she seems to be giving short shrift to the 60s.  Calling the 60s an evolution and today a revolution reveals either ignorance or hubris, or what some Brooklynites call chutzpah.         

The video (“Transition”) that accompanied the article is interesting and well done.  Saro-Wiwi appears to give a nod to the 60s by noting that the current “transitioning” is not an angry movement combatting “Eurocentric ideals of beauty,” but rather is “a movement characterized by self-discovery and health.”

Nice try, but that sounds like a politically-correct rationalization.  As a child of the 60s, I personally recall the cultural movement described by Wikipedia:

  • This movement began in an effort to counteract the prevailing idea in American culture that features typical of “Blacks” were less attractive or desirable than those of “Whites”. Research indicates that the idea of “blackness” being ugly is highly damaging to the psyche of African Americans, manifesting itself as internalized racism.  This idea made its way into Black communities themselves and led to practices such as paper bag parties: social events which discriminated against dark-skinned African-Americans by only admitting lighter-skinned individuals.

When I moved to Texas in the late 80s, I noticed the same discrimination against dark-skinned Mexican-Americans. It was not unusual for light-skinned Mexican-Americans to boast of their Spanish (European) blood.  Then in the 2000s, I got to know Indian-Americans and they too had a strong preference for and pride in the light skin that predominates in northern India over the dark skin that predominates in southern India.

Saro-Wiwi concluded her op-ed piece in the NY Times with the following political pitch:

  • But black hair and the black body generally have long been a site of political contest in American history and in the American imagination. Against this backdrop, the transition movement has a political dimension — whether transitioners themselves believe it or not. Demonstrating this level of self-acceptance represents a powerful evolution in black political expression. If racial politics has led to an internalization of self-loathing, then true transformation will come internally, too. It will not be a performative act. Saying it loud: “I’m black and I’m proud” is one thing. Believing it quietly is another. So the transition movement is much more profound and much more powerful — and I believe it offers lessons in self-acceptance for people of all hues and all genders.

Nice try, but there is an old saying that no army has the power of an idea whose time has come.  Although Saro-Wiwi’s idea is a good one, I am not convinced that its time has come.



  1. a history piece i read said that the obsession with light skin came about in the west in the late 1800’s when one of the ways you could tell a rich person from a commoner was by the lightness of their skin. commoners worked outside and got sun, the rich stayed indoors and had light skin. they also attributed the current obsession with tans to color movies and hollywood in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

    eating a 75g+ of protein (especially beef) was also attributed to the rich of circa 1900 when some cattle barons used their influence on the health industry to advocate a lot of daily protein. the rationale, people that eat a lot of protein live signifianctly longer. seems that the rich could afford to eat a lot of beef. the same historian claimed that the beef was not the key to longevity of the rich but instead their generally eaiser and less risky lifestyles…

    Comment by q — June 3, 2012 @ 5:23 pm | Reply

  2. im surprised you dont get more comments. your posts are somewhat controversial, certainly germane, and you set them up well for comment. enough background…

    Comment by Q — June 4, 2012 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

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