Black No More: Skin Bleaching and the Emergence of New Negro Womanhood Beauty Culture

Black No More: Skin Bleaching and the Emergence of New Negro Womanhood Beauty Culture

The Journal of Pan African Studies
Voume 4, Number 4 (June 2011)
pages 97-116

Treva B. Lindsey, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies
University of Missouri, Columbia

This article examines the usage of skin bleaching products and processes among some African American women in the urban upper south in the United States during the early twentieth century. Numerous African American women invested in these products and processes as means to shed vestiges of enslavement and to configure “urbane” and “modern” identities. More specifically, as African American women exercised their ability to function as consumer citizens, manufacturers and advertisers built upon prevailing beauty aesthetics among whites and on a black intra-racial beauty standard that posited dark skin as inferior. By exploring the history of skin lightening in this particular community, I uncover a politics of appearance that intersected with white cultural hegemony as well as gendered discourses about urban black modernity and social mobility. Although pre-Emancipation enslaved and freedwomen struggled against the devaluation of their darker hues, the privileging of white skin imparted lasting effects on African American beauty culture and intra-racial class and color politics. Some African Americans internalized beauty aesthetics that privileged whiteness. Among African American women in the urban upper south, skin bleaching rose in popularity during the early twentieth century. I discuss what factors led to this rise in popularity such as the desires of some African American women to perform urban modernity and to participate in the public sphere as consumer citizens through the purchasing and usage of products associated with fashioning a “New Negro” self. Beauty culture, and in particular, discourse surrounding skin bleaching, served as sites for competing ideals and perspectives regarding the aesthetics of New Negro womanhood.


Understand, we do not advertise this bleach to make one white.
God alone can accomplish this, and it would be miraculous.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, skin bleaching products and procedures became increasingly popular in African American communities across the United States. Many African American newspapers and periodicals carried numerous advertisements for these products and procedures in their consumer sections. Although skin bleaching/lightening had a long history in African American communities in the U.S., the formalization of a raciallyspecific consumer marketplace during the Progressive and New Negro eras created opportunities for manufacturers and sellers to target new, potential customers. The rhetoric extant in these advertisements trumpeted whiteness and or lightness as preferential and aesthetically desirable. Advertisers marketed their skin bleaching products and processes to African American communities throughout the United States. African American women in urban centers became central to advertising discourses. African American men participated in various arenas of beauty culture, however, beauty culture existed as a feminized space. Through purchasing a skin bleach cream or a bar of complexion soap, New Negro women in the U.S. embraced their fledgling status as consumer citizens and contributed to broader discussions about the interplay of race, class, color, gender, aesthetics, urbanity and modernity.

At the core of the New Negro Movement was a desire for a re-creation of self, both individually and collectively. New Negroes acted upon this desire for re-creation through reconfiguring aesthetic and cultural traditions. African Americans engaged in new practices and aesthetic discourses with an unprecedented sense of possibility for self-determination and autonomy. Through the altering, adorning, and maintenance of physical appearance, African Americans could literally reconstruct and refashion themselves and create new models of black aesthetic identity. Aesthetic practices were integral to African Americans in shedding the vestiges of enslavement and for asserting their place within the modern world…

…Prior to Emancipation, many African Americans associated light skin with greater freedom and opportunity as well as with membership in an elite class of African Americans. Some free African American women were of both European (white) and African (black) descent, and subsequently certain phenotypical features, including lighter skin, represented freedom to enslaved and impoverished African Americans. While not accepted fully by whites, free African American women often attained comparatively more social and economic freedoms than enslaved women. Many of the African American elite in Washington, arguably because of their mixed-race heritage had lighter skin. For many of them, their skin color in its unaltered state was the ideal to which thousands of African Americans strove to achieve. The physical appearance of the “Negro Elite” became integral to an African American politics of appearance that intersected with ideas about African American possibility and the fashioning of a New Negro identity. According to black beauty scholars Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, “by the time slavery was officially abolished in 1865, ‘good’ hair and light skin had become the official keys to membership in the Negro elite,” although exceptions were made based upon educational attainment and occupation. Free African American women were the foremothers of the “Negro Elite” class that continued to grow after Emancipation.

The ideal of light and white skin were foundational to how white manufacturers who dominated the African American beauty industry throughout the nineteenth century created and marketed racially-specific beauty products and how some African Americans consumed beauty products. From the midnineteenth century onward, white-owned companies manufactured and sold skin care products that claimed to lighten and whiten black skin. These advertisements appeared in African American periodicals and reified lighter skin as both “American” and modern beauty ideals. Freedwomen were the prime consumers of these products. A small market for skin care products for the African American elite in D.C. emerged in the 1840s and 1850s. Among black Washington women of all classes, skin-lightening continued to flourish after emancipation and well into the twentieth century. These beauty practices often reflected the aspirations of some Washington women to adhere to prevailing beauty norms and to escape the vestiges of “physical blackness,” which located them at the bottom of the U.S. beauty hierarchy and connected them to their past as slaves or poor workers. Attempting to escape their cultural past and their labor identities, some African American women migrating to Washington in the late nineteenth century mimicked styling choices and practices of D.C.’s African black and white women. Dark skin was not viewed as attractive or modern within certain elite circles in Washington and within the U.S. more broadly. Consequently, the racially-specific enterprise of African American skincare that emerged post-Emancipation honed in on a racial-social-class-color-gender hierarchy that devalued dark skin and that further solidified the primacy of physical whiteness…

…The advertisement for Black Skin Remover champions the product’s ability to make black skin several shades whiter and mulatto skin “perfectly white.” The “before” and “after” images used in the advertisement display a stark transformation of dark skin to white skin. While boasting other “positive” effects such as the removal of wrinkles and pimples, the most significant selling point of the face bleach was its ability to achieve whiteness for its purchaser. Toward the end of the advertisement, the manufacturer notes that the product will be sent to the consumer in a way in which, the contents of the package would be known only to the consumer. Despite the popularity of skin-lightening processes among some African Americans, this small section of the advertisement suggests a potential backlash from African Americans who viewed skin lightening/whitening as an anti-black cultural practice. It also suggests that consumers of skin lightening products desired a transformation that appeared “natural” and not achieved through usage of products.

On the same page of the advertisement for Black Skin Remover is an advertisement for another skin bleaching product, Hartona Face Bleach. Similar to the advertisement for Black Skin Remover, the Hartona Remedy Company claims that its face bleach “will gradually turn the skin of a black or dark person five or six shades lighter, and will turn the skin of a mulatto person almost white.” The advertisement also promises that the face bleach will be “sent securely sealed from observation.” Both advertisements capture the effects of white cultural hegemony on African American beauty culture as well as the existence of African Americans opposing the consumption and usage of skin bleaching products and processes. Through the advertising culture that emerged in Washington’s African American press, physical whiteness was constructed as the ideal to which African American women should strive. Notably, the advertisements focus on African American and “mulatta” women as consumers. African American men also consumed these products, however, throughout the New Negro era, advertisers primarily targeted African American women and identified African American beauty culture as a feminized space. At the expense of the devaluation of their skin colors, African American women became the central figures of a racially-specific aesthetic-based enterprise that responded to perceived and real desires for social mobility and aesthetic valuation within a cultural hierarchy premised upon white cultural hegemony…

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