GIVE ME BACK MY BLACK: The Two-Faced, Pale Side of Painting and Wearing Black Face

We encounter many people who think it is okay to mock, parody, imitate, mimic, jeer and caricaturize us as a people, as women — specifically, the color of our skin.

As a matter of fact, in the last week of February (Black History Month), a French fashion magazine showcased an “African Queen” photo shoot featuring a 16 year old white model. I am leaving names out of this blog post as to not advance the promotion of such racist foolery. What I find so frustratingly insulting is that the photographer who curated and shot the session arrogantly “ASSumed” that it was fine for him to do so as long as he disguised it as “artistic expression”. He found it in no way racist or offensive to cast a white model in a photo shoot that clearly by name and default denotes that race would and should be considered in the very planning of such an artistic endeavor; if for nothing more than the respect and authenticity of the matter. Is there no such thing as artistic integrity anymore?

In a greater effort for this shoot to come across as “authentic” (their words) they painted the model “bronze”. NO! She is painted in “black face.” I am sure he along with the agency, the model herself, her team and even her European parents had to have a moment of “inner-rattle” that would have made them pause and consider what the heck was about to be done and how this could or would be perceived. Additionally, they used multi-colored fabrics to wrap her head and applied gaudy jewelry to achieve further “authentication” toward the “African Queen” aesthetic. News flash! They still got it wrong! The only truth here is that she is by gender female. By her young age she would be classified more so as a “princess” rather than as a queen. But, I digress. What is further puzzling about this is that there are so many black models who could use the work, and who should have been considered for this modeling opportunity and for so many others. However, the white models seem to always book the jobs; even those for which they are not NATURALLY qualified to do. This kind of behavior is indicative of the ever present racism in the fashion world and in the world period.

My points here are many. “Blackface” by historic definition was and is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later, vaudeville in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darkie” on the plantation or the “dandified coon.” In 1848, the blackface minstrel show was a national art form of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire. I submit that however it is used, it is offensive by its very nature, intent and presence.

African-American scholar Patricia Hills-Collins, makes a clear distinction between White and Black American women by stating, “that the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blue-eyed, blond, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other — Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair.” She emphasizes how ingrained this mentality has become within the African-American community by quoting a common African-American children’s rhyme: “now, if you’re white you’re all right, if you’re brown, stick around, but if you’re black, git back! git back! git back!”

This thinking has in some way trickled over into the mentality of white women as well; even if only via osmosis.

In the end, it is comical to me that in this day and age, when race and gender play such a monstrous role in who we are and how we navigate this human experience, that the criticism of such acts regarding beauty and fashion remains a diehard, touchy subject. Just barely 50 years ago, the Civil Rights Movement and the color of OUR skin was, and dare I say still is a hotbed. More so now that the WHITE House is occupied by a beautiful, strong BLACK presence. At one point in time, we were and (still are in some cases) seen as ugly and unworthy of magazine covers, unworthy to walk runways, to be CEO’s, OWN our own networks or even be allowed to realize our worth. We were deemed unworthy to be crowned victorious as beauty queens to represent city, state, or country. However, now it seems that black skin is in, “others” falsely attempt to obtain the illusion of such. They want to look like us, but do not what to BE us or carry the struggle and even honor of what being in and bearing this skin truly means.

Our “color”, the beautiful hues and even the shapes and sizes of varied beauty that we are majestically cloaked in and adorned are not costumes to don for dress-up and play make believe on special occasions like photo shoots, fashion spreads, Christmas or Halloween. Nor can the struggles and honors that come with being an authentic “African Queen” be so recklessly and carelessly adapted and simulated to advance career, movement or agenda. Not even fashion. In fact, doing so is tacky and lacks style and elegance.

Being black and born with such a face is not a game; nor should it be played with or made fun of especially by those who think they have the right or privilege; no matter how they try to artistically cast it. It is a responsibility for those of us who are rightfully and righteously dressed and bathed in it. Being born with a black face is the best birthmark that for sure makes being so, genuinely in style, for all seasons and for every occasion. This very fact will never pale in comparison to “those” or “others” who wish they themselves naturally were so.

13 thoughts on “GIVE ME BACK MY BLACK: The Two-Faced, Pale Side of Painting and Wearing Black Face

  1. The Author makes a very compelling case of how the History, Culture and the contributions of African Americans continue to be “Marginalized” by others…by default the author is reminding us to stay vigilant in “Telling” our own story as encouraged by Carter G. Woodson, Langston Hughes and others. Recently a colleague and I were speaking about the millions of dollars that leave our community each year just for hair care products and yet there are NO Madame CJ Walker franchises moreover, you seldom find anyone who looks like Madame CJ Walker owning the store that our $$ keep in business. Finally, more to the author’s point I can already imagine how many White Actors are being considered to play the role of America’s first African American President—Don’t laugh just yet for I believe at the time of casting some will conveniently remember—his Mother’s Heritage…Translation!!!
    We must tell our story !!!
    In the Village and every outlet we can–Our History should enrich American History without being “White Washed”

    1. Pastor Keith:

      We are so desensitized to what the world does to us regarding us and in return we cower in response with very little or NO response at all. We have lost focused and even self-value in many instances and be default because we do not respond, we help perpetuate further racist foolery.

      Additionally, not every battle should be fought and not every act committed by others needs or requires a response. Otherwise, we would be fighting endlessly. Our job in the end is to RESIST such nonsense and mockery as best we can while maintaining integrity and self-respect. Thank you for your response.

  2. Excellent article! We’re living in a lost generation pacified by the achievements of our ancestor not considering the civil rights movement was just a short time ago. Staying ignorant to our surroundings should not be option but some how in this generation ignorance has become the only option. We as a people need to continue to be vigilant.

    1. Teak:

      I agree regarding our need for further vigilance regarding such acts of ignorance. It is a trying task for us to come back or steer clear of and from this when many of today’s parents are kids themselves and have very little direction, guidance, or respect for what is being peddled to our kids. They themselves are caught up in what is “popular” and trendy and have very little if any regard for such things that are offensive and that need to be checked and challenged. In the end, those of us who know better, must teach those who can be reached and because we know better, we must indeed DO better! Thank you for your post.

  3. Great post! I remembered reading about this African Queen “photoshoot” recently and shaking my head. From where I sit, I see this as one of many flagrant acts of passive-aggressive “pushback” by (some) Whites (i.e., “Being White in Philly,” an article published by Philadelphia magazine this month that has caused quite the stir) that stems back to President Obama’s first term in office along with the tough economic climate in which we all are continuing to navigate.

    These acts are framed as the need for (some) Whites to “freely express themselves” or “to speak honestly about race” in tasteless, rude and snarky ways without being censured for being the very thing they say they’re not. And it seems that these acts are becoming increasingly commonplace…as if (some) Whites are thumbing their collective noses at the reality of having an African American president and all of the other advances African Americans have made since the Civil Rights struggle.

    I say this: If you as an unenlightened white person (I freely concur that there are plenty of whites who are just as outraged as we are) want to reserve the right to be able to be snarky, rude, tasteless and bigoted (under the guise of freedom of expression, like the “African Queen” photographer, and speaking “honestly” about race like Robert Huber, who wrote “Being White in Philly”), be careful what you wish for… and you better be ready to take it just as much as you dish it out. Not only are blacks more hip to the game, but we’re prepared to take the battle to the very corners of the Internet where they are trying to keep their most flagrant and disgusting conversations hidden. It’s a new day and the battle for civil rights and respect and dignity for all people is being fought on new ground.

    1. Tieshka:

      You are correct. We are living in a day and age where fighting back goes well beyond marches and sit-ins. We will write about it and talk about it and BE about it until we cant any further. I am sure there are those white people who are outraged about this or these matters in general. Perhaps for the same reasons they we are, but I am sure for reasons that only their private thoughts would give them pause and many of us, we probably would not share. I am just a skeptic when it comes to this and I am biased. However, the possibility of mutual upset could be there, but it will never mirror ours and what we feel, sense, live and experience as black faces.

  4. Dr.Grison rings true in not accepting the new founded subtile ways of continuing racial profiling In the name of creative freedom. Her observation are worth noting, heeding and repeat for those who didn’t catch it the first Time.

  5. I firmly think that we should not succumb to being “White Washed” or “Brain Washed” into thinking that our Black isn’t beautiful enough for mainstream. I think that we can hold the publications and public accountable by openly rebuking or opposing the offensive actions. I am certain that the editor will make the needed notation from the outrage. We should not financially support mediums that do not celebrate Black culture positively. We can always entertain the insults by protesting publicly and privately.

    To this date, the French fashion magazine, Numéro recently showcased a African Queen photo shoot featuring White model, Ondria Hardin has apologized “to anyone who may have been offended.” Nonetheless, if the mindset and the behavior don’t change, the apology then becomes an ApoloLIE.

    Anna Klassen posted in the Daily Beast, “. . . Unfortunately, increased racial diversity within the fashion industry is still an issue. Based upon recent reporting, New York Fashion Week 2013 has surprising 82% of models were white, 18% other, and only 6% were black, my 22 year old cousin Jasmine Ellis is included the 6%. Even though I am proud of her at the same time this is sad. It’s 2013.

    1. Russey:

      That is the very publication and photo shoot I am referring too. I just opted not to give digital ink to the name of the mag or the model. However, your point are very well noted and stated. I agree 100% that we should not support such acts of racism, exclusion or segregated acts of indifference. WE matter by far more than any other race can ever celebrate us. WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE THEY KNOW THAT WE CELEBRATE US IN MANY AND ALL WAYS.

      1. I celebrate and embrace “The Blackness” with its vast diversity. I read the article and participated with Bro. Jeff Johnson Live Radio and Tweet Commentary about this very issue. It was very engaging as well. I am thankful that we push this in the forefront so that we can address and fix this embedded problem.

        1. The problem is merely a smidge of what is overwhelmingly wrong with our world. Yet, while they do not wish to be us or live while being black, they perpetuate this consistent desire to look like us. They can nor, will ever have the cability,to be us…inside or outside.

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