The issue is really one of standpoint. From what political perspective do we dream, look, create, and take action? For those of us who dare to desire differently, who seek to look away from the conventional ways of seeing blackness and ourselves, the issue of race and representation is not just a question of critiquing the status quo. It is also about transforming the image, creating alternatives, asking ourselves questions about what types of images subvert, pose critical alternatives, transform our world views and move us away from dualistic thinking about good and bad. Making a space for the transgressive image, the outlaw rebel vision, is essential to any effort to create a context for transformation. And even then little progress is made if we transform images without shifting paradigms, changing perspectives, and ways of looking.” – from Black Looks: Race and Representation
Throughout the critical reflection Moving Beyond Pain, my take on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, I celebrate the use of diverse images of black women in all forms. There is no moment in the piece where I act as though the aestheticization of black female beauty—whether ordinary or glamorous—is a cause for concern. Oftentimes if I make critical comments it is assumed I am playa hatin. Readers forget that one can critique yet still admire. I can be critical of Beyoncé and yet also appreciate aspects of her power and representation. I can especially critique the way white supremacist aesthetics more often than not informs her presentation of self and yet still acknowledge her beauty.
Throughout my career, I have insisted that we decolonize the black female body and celebrate its diverse manifestations. When anyone suggests I am anti-forms of feminine beauty, they are misguided. Highly critical of sexist defined notions of beauty, I can openly declare that I am against all forms of beauty that uphold systems of domination (race, sex, class, sexuality). Those who judge my appearance as existing outside a norm world of femininity must believe that femme glamour is only present in those who don traditional markers (makeup, big hair, stilettos, dresses). Attempting to silence or bash critique is a harmful form of censorship. Just as black females must stand on our right to express our beauty in myriad ways, we must stand always on the side of critical thinking and free speech.
Just to remind people of my take on black female beauty, here are excerpts from an essay I wrote years ago celebrating Iman:
Anyone with an eye for beauty clearly sees that black women are among the most beautiful females in the world. Globally, wherever black females reside, no matter how small or large the community, such an incredible diversity of looks abound, of height, weight, shape, color, hair texture that no one standard description could do justice to the array of loveliness one might find there. No doubt it is because there is so much undisputed natural loveliness among black females everywhere, it necessitated the creation and institutionalization in predominately white countries of a beauty aesthetic rooted in white supremacist thinking to serve as propaganda denying this reality. An aesthetic that would perpetuate and uphold the notion that no black female ranked among the beautiful, that the apex of beauty is always fair, blonde, and preferably blue eyed, with long straight hair.
Remarkably all over the western world this aesthetic, linked as it was with the desire on the part of white skinned despots to exercise dominion everywhere, had its impact. It even led translations of the Bible to be falsified so that the lyrical words celebrating the loveliness of black females in the Song of Songs would be changed. In the original language of the Bible, boastful testimony declares: “How right they are to adore you! I am dark and comely. O ye daughters of Jerusalem.” That simple “and” was changed to a “but.” This important shift happened at a time when civil rights and women’s liberation were creating profound changes in the culture, changes that had global impact. Regimes of imperialism and white supremacy were challenged globally. A resurgence of black nationalism linked the fate of Africans and African-Americans. Cultural revolutions were taking place that proclaimed anew “I am dark and comely.” Or as it became known in the vernacular language of the people: “black is beautiful.”
No one white can really know how utterly liberating this phrase was to black people all over the world who had suffered the colonizing effects of a white supremacist aesthetic. It was as though the truth of black beauty suppressed in the interests of white dominion was a language no one had been allowed to speak, a language silenced for so long that many had forgotten how it sounded, then suddenly it was heard again. Everybody who had been forced to lower their eyes, to deny the vision of black beauty, could open them see clearly and proclaim with sustained joy: “How right they are to adore you! I am black and comely. Do not look down upon me.”
Raised in a family with five sisters in the apartheid south and a brother who adored us I accepted black female beauty as an ordinary fact of life. White folks might not have known our beauty but who cared about white folks. In our own segregated space, we are the world and it was beautiful and good—cause it was ours.
One can critique modes of glamour and still appreciate glamour. It’s not a binary either or world. That is why we have a feminist politics that works to liberate the female gaze, so we need never choose who is more committed to being beautiful. Truly, it is more essential and relevant to ask ourselves in what ways do how we live and work manifest commitment to justice and feminist politics.