GIVE ME BACK MY BLACK: The Two-Faced, Pale Side of Painting and Wearing Black FaceMar 18, 2013. Written by Deborah Collage Grison
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.