We, as Africans, were quite amused yet sympathetic to the fervour and serious antics of the Black Power movement on the campuses of American universities; as Black student leaders openly proclaimed at rallies on campus that their flat noses, thick lips, nappy kinky hair and black skin, were all collectively beautiful!
These gestures were well-calculated protests signalling their desire to break away from the strangulating oppressive racist philosophy; still very prominent in America from the mid-sixties to the early eighties, that only white, white skin colour, white physical features and long hair, were ever considered as beautiful. The yardsticks for human beauty were exclusively based on white values and natural physical characteristics.
What this brainwashing has done to the psyche of millions of Black Americans or Negroes as they were then known and categorised, was that it became a burning lifetime ambition of many Black Americans to be white; look white, talk white and most importantly to feel white. Being ‘white’ was the passport for upward social mobility in America then.
America being the land of dreams and commerce; a whole range of cosmetics and accessories was developed by white and black corporations to satisfy this need by Black Americans to become white. These cosmetics were primarily meant for straightening the hair and bleaching or toning the skin. Some Black Americans, mostly with the help of these cosmetic beauty-aids, ironically, now developed their own standards for adjudging beauty. These standards included having straight hair and high-yellow skin.
It is worth noting that the first flush of American cosmetics companies that introduced their products and eventually set up manufacturing bases in Nigeria were offering these products that were drastically changing the definition of Black Beauty in America. All manner of bleaching creams and ‘bleaching bath’-therapy were also introduced into Nigeria to satisfy the new craze of Nigerian women to look white like their Black sisters in America. The Nigerian health authorities, to their credit then, waged war against these skin-lightening creams and soaps; warning of their danger and damage to skin as well the possibility of skin cancer!
With the highly successful black entertainers and sportsmen marrying white or near-white black women; these black role models helped reinforce these newly-imposed characteristics of black beauty. Michael Jackson didn’t help much later with his nose surgeries and skin-toning. That the first wave of black actors and actresses mostly; who broke into mainstream American television and Hollywood exploitation Black movies were lighter skinned, was all part of the scheme to create the cultural mindset that black and its hues were still many shades less beautiful than white.
The godfather of Soul, James Brown with his soul-stirring proclamation that he was Black and Proud dramatically changed perceptions. In what could be regarded as the lower classes leading the elite; the force generated by James Brown swept through the working class of Black America and the militant student movement in dire search for a true identity; to rubbish the old order that Black could not be beautiful in America!
Beauty and pride produced the clenched-fist Black Power salute as the symbol of cultural liberation from white America. In many ways Black America was now in tune with the lyrics of an old traditional blues; which bragged that, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Afro hairstyles with accompanying accessories like combs and non-chemical creams and plaited hair came into fashion with Black America. Black Beauty was born!
As music and fashion have remained our cultural links with America; especially Black America, Nigeria and the rest of Africa caught on to the black-power-and-beauty bug.
Could it be a question of opposite poles attracting one another? Out here in Nigeria the perceived preference for ‘omo pupa/yellow sisis’ led to an upsurge of bleaching by Nigerian women. Fela’s caustic dig at this cultural trait, ‘Yellow Fever’ set our women thinking. The influence of millions of hair dressing salons in Nigeria, has ensured that our women have lost out to imported relaxers, long hair attachment (animal and synthetic) and wigs in place of braiding and low-cuts.
The propagators of white-beauty characteristics had to hit back! The idea of losing their cultural and financial grip on Black people in the entire Diaspora was too painful to take without fighting back. The first theatre of this fight-back was in America itself; where all the inroads made by the black-beauty movement are being lost at an alarming rate.
The threat has come from what can be best described as half-breed/hybrid culture! Quite a few Black superstars in sports in America, Africa and the Diaspora plait their hair. But the stars and musicians projected on television, billboards and other advertisements are rarely ever black-skinned.
Half-breed/hybrid culture hit Nigeria with a bang on Nigerian network television in the early eighties with the importation of series and serials from America on the premise that they featured Black Americans; no matter their roles and cultural bent. Twenty years on, it would seem that Nigeria has been consumed by half-breed/hybrid culture!
It has been interesting and slightly painful watching this concept of half-breed/hybrid culture envelope and threaten our current cultural landscape. All the few Nollywood movies I watch have as their leading stars light-skinned actresses. Millions of adverts; selling soaps, GSM services, cars, household items, consumables and many other products use near-white and light-skinned women and models. The children in these adverts are of the same hue.
The message being sent out is that black people are not marketable! I suppose it is a matter of choice; their free choice and money, for the advertising agencies and their clients. The Asians and Chinese now flood our markets with body and hair products to make millions of our women near-white and worshippers of ‘white-beauty.’ How I wish there were statistics to jolt us on how much foreign exchange we spend not to be black.
The case has been proven that FESTAC ’77 was just a waste of huge time and money.
It’s really not about attacking personal freedoms and choices on beauty and fashion trends and sense. It’s about observing our cyclic cultural turmoil in our search for identity. I hope we don’t get to the point where skin and hair transplants become the in-thing for our so-called fashion trend-setters. Worse still, I pray that children will not in future hate and curse their Nigerian parents for being born black?
In mid-June 2020, a decade after the above observations were first made and, more than five decades after the Black Power Movement on American University campuses, a new movement Black Lives Matter; which started a few years ago in America, is now literarily sweeping across the entire world.
Black Lives Matter is a very determined and unyielding opposition and protest against the deliberate and systematic police brutality and killing of Black Americans by white policemen all over America for decades. It is a confrontation and challenge to the long-held perception by racist and white-supremacy obsessed white law enforcement agencies in America, that Black is the colour of crime and sin in America!
On the 31st May 2020, a 17-year-old Black teenage girl bravely used her cell phone camera to film for well over ten minutes, the brutal sadistic murder of a handcuffed Black man George Floyd by four white cops in Minneapolis; as he pleaded with them, “I can’t breathe!”
This video went viral and appropriately in the spirit of enough is enough, sparked angry massive protests by Black Lives Matter sympathisers in 75 American cities and in numerous countries across the world including Nigeria.
Spike Lee the great filmmaker, released a new short film using footage of Floyd’s murder and, footage of the murder of Radio Raheem by white cops from his seminal film Do The Right Thing made twenty years earlier, to show and prove that things hadn’t changed in America with regards white cops killing unarmed Black men with impunity.
In subsequent interviews, Spike Lee expressed his happiness that many young white men and women as well as Asian and Latin Americans were out in their numbers to join the Black Lives Matter protesters. Their welcome gesture he believed, further elevated the cause as an important human rights issue!
Colour it would seem is not the yardstick for judging injustice in the world anymore. Nonetheless, Haile Sellasie’s timeless words of wisdom, that, “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned everywhere is war;” appropriated in Bob Marley’s iconic song, is still very true. Massive Black Lives Matter protests will relentlessly continue to attest to this worldwide.
However, a recent heart-wrenching post by a bespectacled dark-skinned Northern Nigerian young lady, reactivated the question, “Is Black Still Beautiful?” In the video clip she calmly observes, “You the employers of labour you only select the yellow ones. You want to marry you select only the yellow ones. You need a girlfriend you select only the yellow ones. Later, all of you will be shouting Black Lives Matter Black Lives Matter. If Black Lives Matter Black Girls Also Matter. We Matter. Help Us. Help Us. Please!”
As they say, “A’int that the truth!”
She’s damn right.
ALL HUMAN BEINGS MATTER AND ARE BEAUTIFUL!
-TAM FIOFORI c tam fiofori June 17, 2020