I understand what Sojourner Truth meant when she posed the question in her 1851 speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” She highlights the hypocrisy of chivalry-
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me!”
Somehow, because of her skin color, she was relegated to a lesser status, one below that of her European- American counterparts. Somehow, her skin color marked her as less than a woman. Yes, she had endured and survived the harsh labor and punishment of slavery, but in no way that negated her womanhood. In this same way, women of color are still secondary to the dominant understanding of femininity. We do not conform to the prescribed image- and thus we are pressured to conform or risk being judged as not beautiful.
Back to what I was saying… Ida B. Wells addressed the same issue in her 1895 book, The Red Record:
“True chivalry respects all women… Virtue knows no color line, and chivalry which depends upon complexion of skin and texture of hair can command no honest respect.”
-Ida B Wells, Chapter 1 of The Red Record
Chivalry was meant for white women- not black women, whose darker skin marked them as less than human. The tragic mulatto was no good outside of bearing children out of wedlock while standing at the edge with white privilege in sight and out of reach. The asexual Mammy was not a threat to the Mistress- as she was pitch- dark and ugly as sin- but she could dispense wise words and serve her master and mistress loyally. The amoral black Jezebel was hardly fallow ground- her wide child- bearing hips and impertinence made her the foil to her virtuous white counterpart. Such were the female players in the Antebellum mythology.
The fair white woman’s virtue was to be protected, while the black woman’s virtue was assumed not to exist. Her marriage was not considered legitimate and her children could be ripped away from her on the auction block. If she was free, it was because her mother was free, or because a loved one purchased her freedom. Even after Emancipation and Reconstruction, Redemption was based upon the same myth. Black Codes prevented a black barber from cutting the hair of white women and girls in the state of Louisiana, and the Klan rose as a paragon of Southern manhood, protecting all that was good and virtuous- their women- by extension, this was an effort to reclaim and protect what they perceived as their property.
But was she ever really free? Emancipation was nominal- on paper. Internalizing freedom was quite a different story. Black women fought on two fronts- the first was a fight for equal footing with mainstream, white- dominated society through avenues of economic empowerment and nationalism, while simultaneously normalizing the nuclear family unit. The second was a negotiation of patriarchy- tropes of self- sufficiency did not jive well with notions of patriarchy, especially in light of Black men’s need to exert control over their households in light of the feckless manhood Jim Crow afforded them.
Some 20 or 30 years before Sojourner Truth’s speech Saartjie Baartman was labeled the “Hottentot Venus.” Her distinctive body (due to her steatopygia) marked her as a spectacle, and as a performer- or an object, her European audience (men) were permitted to touch her. She traveled to England, from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, under the promise of great wealth in return for her participation in exhibitions. I imagine that participation involved a certain soul- numbing moment. To add insult, after her death in 1815, her genitals and brain were preserved in a jar and placed on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme. It was years before her remains were buried in her homeland- not until after Nelson Mandela was instated as South Africa’s president following the dismantling of Apartheid.
No doubt, Saartjie Baartman was beautiful in God’s sight.
In 1939, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous Doll Experiment highlighted the race prejudices that children were exposed to. Black children, when asked to color a human figure with a shade that matched theirs often chose shades much lighter than their skin. And when asked to select the most desirable doll, they chose the white one. In 2006, Kiri Davis, filmmaker, conducted the same experiment, to achieve the same results. In 67 years, so much had changed, but so much remained the same.
Toni Morrison’s 1970 book, The Bluest Eye, was controversial, not only because of the themes of incest and child molestation, but because it depicted and challenged the cultural colonization of black women’s bodies. The protagonist, Pecola Breedlove believed that she was ugly because she did not fit the mold of whiteness. Her nose was broad and flat, her hair was nappy, and her skin was far too dark to be beautiful. This was reinforced by the words of her classmates, family, and her neighbors. In a reverie, Pecola wishes for blue eyes, because she believes it would make her desirable and lovable.
Was Pecola not beautiful?
In the press, and in popular entertainment, one is hard- pressed to find positive depictions of black women. We are either video- hos, baby- mamas or welfare queens. (Remember Fox News’ calling First Lady Michelle Obama Barack’s “baby mama?”) Nameless, faceless entities, bodies. A black woman’s image is often truncated- no longer whole, she is a body. Interspersed between gratituous shots of her posterior and chest, we might catch a glimpse of the black woman’s face. Ontologically, she has been colonized by a racial discourse that dictates that she is inferior to her straight- haired, slender, European counterparts. Here, the black woman’s image serves to titillate, entertain and make us shake our heads, “what a shame.” She is a subject, voiceless- or else, a subject whose voice is unheard.
Today, it struck me as funny when Marlene Wallach, president of Wilhelmina Kids & Teens, a modeling agency, made this statement.
“(T)he First Daughters are tough subjects to match. “It’s a very specific age and a very specific ethnicity, so there aren’t that many girls that would necessarily fit the bill.”
So, African- Americans are now “a very specific ethnicity?” HAHA. Oh, and I suppose there aren’t many cute black girls out there?
It bothered me for some reason. I couldn’t place my fingers on it until today when I walked past the bathroom mirror. It sounds silly, but I often do forget what I look like when I am not in front of a mirror. I imagine my face to be slimmer, and my ears to protrude less. My idea of beauty differs from what I see in the mirror- yet I am struck every time I see myself. I am beautiful. God made me this way. My big eyes, protruding lips and ears, and broad, flat nose all match me. This skin, it fits me. I should never look outwardly for that beauty which God has given me. No matter how pervasive those discursive powers are, I should not internalize them. And if I have, I should remember this:
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well. ”