Obsessing About Black Beauty Never Goes Out of Fashion

by Mark Reynolds

14 January 2010

Photo from the cover of Posing Beauty 

About the Hair

About the Hair

Even in the first year of the first black presidency, black folk couldn’t stop talking about how they looked in public.

Also laden with power is black women’s hair – cultural, emotional and economic power to be exact. That’s the message from the documentary Good Hair, executive-produced and narrated by Chris Rock. What started out as a father’s random musings about the world his daughters would inhabit spun into a globe-circling (oh, so that’s where fake hair comes from) examination of the black female hair culture and industry.  Rock’s choice to center the film on an Iron Chef-like stylist competition at a hair products convention might have been an entertaining choice for the art-house audience, but it’s not reflective of the daily reality black women live with when it comes to their hair. 

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Good Hair

Director: Jeff Stilson
Cast: Chris Rock
Review [7.Mar.2010]

The doc is at its most powerful when it dissects that reality, showing us the extent to which sistas go to create and maintain a hairstyle that expresses both who they are and how they choose to walk through the world. The fact that black women’s hair is laden with cultural, emotional and economic power isn’t really news in the ‘hood, but Good Hair presents numerous perspectives on that power, and prompts us to sit down and consider what all that power might mean, instead of just offering a compliment about how fine that new ‘do is looking.

The brothas weren’t left out of any turns in the cultural mirror. Barnard College professor Monica L. Miller waxed scholarly on a subject heretofore hardly considered: the trans-Atlantic roots of black male style. Specifically, she bore in on the concept and practice of black dandyism, not so much as a sartorial contest but as a practice of self-definition and commentary within a broader culture, simultaneously cracking wise about that culture and forging some breathing room within it.

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Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity

Monica L. Miller

(Duke University Press)
US: Dec 2008

Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press) reads much more like an academic discourse than a copy of Vogue.  In it, Miller traces black dandyism – the choice to dress in finery that echoes, lovingly or not, the trappings of the aristocracy – from Andre 3000 and other finely turned-out hip-hoppers to the European slave trade, in which young male slaves were often adorned in the finest clothes as an indication of their owners’ financial wherewithal. 

One of the first popular black characters of the English stage was a black dandy; Miller follows the trail into American fiction from authors as disparate as Louisa May Alcott and W.E.B. DuBois. She concludes with an overview of black dandyism as a device used by contemporary artists (filmmaker Isaac Julien, conceptual artists Ike Udé and Yinka Shonibare) to explore issues of black male identity. Miller’s eye-opening research presents the notion that while in some eyes clothes make the man, with black dandies it’s more about the man than the clothes.

Miller curiously jumps over the mid-20th century, a period marked by the exuberant zoot suiters and hepcats of the ‘40s and the somber, leather-clad radials of the ‘60s. That choice left out of her discussion a man not remembered primarily for his attire, but known in his heyday as “The Harlem Dandy”. Walker Smith Jr., aka Sugar Ray Robinson, is still often regarded as the best boxer at any weight level (“pound for pound,” as they say in the ring) who ever strapped on gloves. But a new biography argues that he was just as passionately consumed by matters of style and elegance.

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Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson

Wil Haygood

(Knopf Doubleday)
US: Oct 2009

Wil Haygood’s Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Knopf) is much more than a meat-and-potatoes sports bio (there are already a couple of those on Robinson).  It’s a treatise on black male personal style, from a gifted writer who’s gone down this road before in his considerations of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr.  Sweet Thunder opens up two windows on Robinson’s career: his hunger and accomplishment as a boxer; and his keen attention to how he was seen when out and about. 

He admired jazz musicians (who admired him back), and matched their natty grooming stitch for stitch. It’s not much of a leap to suppose that Robinson wanted to leave the poverty of his childhood in Detroit and New York City as far behind as he could, but even as he parked his one-of-a-kind pink Cadillac in front of his eponymous Harlem nightclub, there’s never any sense of empty vanity in Haygood’s telling of the story, just a man determined to live the good life, and live it well.

Pursuing that good life led to an ill-fated departure from the ring to chase down the dream of being a song-and-dance man. It’s fair to say that in that capacity, Robinson was a great boxer. His return to the ring had some successes (he regained his middleweight crown), but eventually petered out into the end-of-the-line trajectory familiar to many fight fans. But boxing is not the turf Haygood’s most interested in here, although he evokes the emotions and sensations of matches great and small. 

Where the previous Robinson bios place him against his legendary ring foes Jake LaMotta and Gene Fullmer, Haygood’s impressionistic take locates him within a black cultural pantheon including Langston Hughes, Lena Horne and Miles Davis. It’s clear whose company Robinson greatly preferred.

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Posing Beauty: African-American Images from the 1980’s to the Present

Deborah Willis

(W. W. Norton)
US: Oct 2009

All the aforementioned themes and notions —black style and image as personal choice, socio-political statement and cultural barometer – play out in Posing Beauty: African-American Images from the 1980’s to the Present (W. W.  Norton), a black photography overview deftly curated by Deborah Willis, our leading expert on the subject.  Her previous works were broad in scope: a history of black photographers; an essay in photographs on black life.  Here, she trains her eye on something seemingly more focused but just as far-reaching: how black people, both as photographers and the people being photographed, have defined black beauty over the years.

Across more than 200 photographs, we see numerous ways in which black people have presented themselves to the world. They range from composed studio portraits to candids on the street, from beauty contests to dance halls and nightclubs. Some famous faces are included—Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, the Obamas (the same 1900 picture of DuBois in a top hat and waistcoat  appears both here and in Slaves to Fashion)—not because they’re famous, but because of how their pictures echo themes and techniques employed in the far more plentiful shots of everyday people.

Posing Beauty exists on one level as a coffee-table book to flip through idly, and on another level as a course meriting careful study. Readers looking for the answer to the question “what is black beauty?” will not find it spelled out neatly (as if, indeed, it could be). Black beauty, Willis suggests, has always been a work-in-progress, as likely to be captured in a park or apartment as in a studio. It reflects the cultural, aesthetic and political values the photographer and the subject bring to the shoot, and as we all know, no two black people look alike. The book’s very title proposes that black beauty is not necessarily in the eyes of the beholder, but rather in the hands of the beholdee.

That doesn’t mean the beholder has no voice in the conversation. Witness the dustup over an image from Posing Beauty when it was selected to illustrate a magazine story about black books. Publishers Weekly raised hackles all over the place when it chose Lauren Kelly’s “Pickin’” (1999), a portrayal of a woman whose Afro was composed of Afro picks with black-power fists for handles, to grace the cover of its 14 December issue, with its annual state-of-black-publishing roundup (with the tagline – wait for it – “Afro Picks!”). 

Bloggers near and far were upset by that image, forcing the magazine to explain itself more fully.  Senior news editor Calvin Reid, who oversees the annual black books feature, wrote that he selected the image, only to be surprised that “quite a few people were offended by it and outraged by what some perceive as a disparaging or degrading image of a black woman.” And here he was, thinking that “Pickin’” was merely “a sweet, tongue-in-cheek, funny and striking image of quirky black hair power.” 

No doubt, Reid underestimated the tripwire-thin sensitivities involved in commenting on black female hair; perhaps he hadn’t seen Good Hair before making that choice. And it’s probably fair to say that many of those who complained about the image’s use in this context had no idea that it came from a weighty, serious collection exploring how black beauty has been represented in the age of photography. One wonders if those folks would have been as bothered by “Pickin’” had they first encountered it in Willis’ book.

But throughout all this tumult and back-and-forth on the black visage, one departure reminded us of how far we’ve truly come. We bade adieu to Naomi Sims in August, lost to breast cancer at age 61. Sims wasone of the first black models to become a household name, landing the covers of a New York Times Magazine fashion supplement in 1967 and Ladies Home Journal the next year. She would go on to launch a line of cosmetics and wigs under her name, and publish books on modeling and empowerment for black women. Sims emerged during an era when black folk felt compelled to tell the world (and ourselves) “black is beautiful;” her presence struck blows both for that concept in general and the deployment of that concept by the fashion industry. 

That industry hasn’t gotten all that much more diverse in the years since Sims’ breakthrough; just two years ago, Italian Vogue made international headlines by devoting a whole issue to using black models . But at least no one questions whether black can be beautiful anymore. We black folk know that, we black folk believe that, and none of that will ever change. It’s hashing out all the ancillary issues surrounding that premise that continues to keep us busy. And it would appear, if 2009 was a reliable measure, that not even the most picturesque White House holiday tableau in almost 50 years can stop that.


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