Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics

Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics

March 2009
188 pages
234 x 156 mm
188 pages
Hardback ISBN: 978-0-7546-7145-9
eBook ISBN: ISBN 978-0-7546-9140-2

Shirley Anne Tate, Professor of Sociology
Leeds Beckett University, Leeds, United Kingdom

Previous work discussing Black beauty has tended to concentrate on Black women’s search for white beauty as a consequence of racialization. Without denying either the continuation of such aesthetics or their enduring power, this book uncovers the cracks in this hegemonic Black beauty.

Drawing on detailed ethnographic research amongst British women of Caribbean heritage, this volume pursues a broad discussion of beauty within the Black diaspora contexts of the Caribbean, the UK, the United States and Latin America through different historical periods to the present day. With a unique exploration of beauty, race and identity politics, the author reveals how Black women themselves speak about, negotiate, inhabit, work on and perform Black beauty. As such, it will appeal not only to sociologists, but anyone working in the fields of race, ethnicity and post-colonial thought, feminism and the sociology of the body.

Table of Contents

‘Beauty comes from within’: or does it?
Anti-racist aesthetics in the 21st century: the matter of hair
‘Race’, beauty and melancholia: shade
The shame of beauty is its transformative potential
The ‘browning’, straighteners, and fake tan
Hybrid black beauty?
Conclusion: is it all stylization and is there a need for black beauty citizenship?

Read the introduction here.

What is beauty?
Writing a book on Black beauty has made me face many challenges. One of these has been unease about knowing just where to start when looking at beauty itself. Should I start with Rastafarianism as a Jamaican or should I start with Ivan Van Sertima’s (1989) Black Women in Antiquity or should I start with the words of Black British women who participated in my research? As you would expect, I suppose, knowing that I am an ethnographer, women’s words are my first port of call. When I asked Ray, a twenty-three-year-old Black ‘mixed race’ British student what Black beauty meant to her she replied:

Black beauty to me is – it’s a tricky question. But I think a really beautiful Black woman or a ‘mixed race’ woman out of them all is the one that has the potential to be stunning. My ideas of Black and beautiful I would say that they originate from my mother’s side of the family also the media probably influenced it. Being at home in Jamaica, what I call home in Jamaica and also even here which has a high Black population and even just within myself as well. Accepting myself as being beautiful I believe was a big step in knowing more about and having ideas on what Black and beautiful are especially from childhood experiences as an example because I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood. When I was eleven or twelve I met my best friend and I started to chill with her etc. and go over to Hud and I discovered that my hair, my nose, my lips, my skin colour, everything was actually beautiful and normal if anything above normal standards, normal or better than the norms that I was used to. That is, white straight hair, thin lips you know all that kind of thing, even the colour of the eyes, blue eyes.

With these words Ray orients us to the difficulty of defining once and for all what Black beauty is or could be claimed to be. Instead she points out its complexities when she first says that beauty is about having the potential to be stunning as she makes it clear that beauty is about an appeal to the senses and a judgement is made based on that appeal. For her such judgements have a context in her home in Jamaica, her mother’s family, Black community acknowledgement and acceptance of your beauty, your own acceptance of yourself as beautiful and a continuing uneasy interconnectedness with ideals of white beauty. Black beauty then is lodged in diasporic sociality, sensibilities and processes of transculturation. It is also about racialized aesthetics, the link between the psyche and the social mediated by the surface of the skin and a process of self discovery throughout one’s life…

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