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Of Blackness and “Beauty”

Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | January 16, 2019 | 2,731 words
Posted inArts & Culture, Books, Essays & Criticism, Feature, Nonfiction, Story

Of Blackness and ‘Beauty’

At an art exhibit exploring black models through Western art, Morgan Jerkins finds historical evidence of the white supremacist definitions of beauty Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom identifies in ‘Thick: and Other Essays.’
Young Woman with Peonies by Frédéric Bazille, 1870 / The New Press

Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | January 2019 | 12 minutes (2,731 words)

Back in 2013, Miley Cyrus was in the hip-hop phase of her career, during which she consorted with rappers and attempted to twerk for more notoriety. The hit pieces calling out her cultural appropriation were ubiquitous. Everyone had an opinion on her new gimmick, including sociologist Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, who wrote an essay for Slate on the dangers of Miley’s now infamous MTV performance and inserted herself into the narrative by calling herself unattractive. The comments, some of which she included in her collection Thick: And Other Essays were “brutal.” White women were upset with her for believing that she was unattractive when in their eyes, she was the opposite, and black women were upset with her for what they assumed was self-hatred on display. Both groups, as far as McMillan Cottom was concerned, were wrong. Both were aghast that she would call the devil by its name in broad daylight. What she explains in one of the most compelling sections of Thick is that beauty is about capital and power. Predominant standards of beauty center the white female body, and as a dark-skinned black woman, she exists outside that kind of beauty. That’s not to say that she did not find herself beautiful by black standards, in the circles in which she travels — at the historically black institution of which she is an alumna, or Rudean’s, a legendary joint for black North Carolinians. However, beauty as we know it in Western civilization is exclusionary. It is not meant for everyone.

As a culture we have a tremendously difficult time with black women who are overwhelmingly honest about what the world has done to them. One of the first examples McMillan Cottom refers to is the SNL Weekend Update bit where Leslie Jones speaks of her desirability on a plantation vis-à-vis in the modern age:

“The way we view black beauty has changed,” Jones said. “See, I’m single right now, but back in the slave days, I would have never been single. I’m six feet tall and I’m strong, Colin. Strong! I mean, look at me, I’m a mandingo … I’m just saying that back in the slave days, my love life would have been way better. Massah would have hooked me up with the best brotha on the plantation. … I would be the No. 1 slave draft pick. Now, I can’t even get a brotha to take me out for a cheap dinner. I mean, damn. Can a b—– get a beef bowl?”

As McMillan Cottom points out, “It is full of personal pain that results from a structural reality that a woman like Jones — almost six feet tall, dark-complexioned, short-haired, black American — embodies.” Like McMillan Cottom, Jones was vilified by the public. People missed the point entirely. No one in white American culture enjoys it when a black woman lays bare her injuries. This entire section of the book gave me new language for a terrible, old feeling. While I am not dark-skinned, I have felt the pressure, like many other black girls and women, to adhere to a white female standard of beauty. Sure, I can look at my mother’s brown skin, or watch the black film canon for solace, but white female beauty is all-encompassing and terroristic. No one can walk can peruse the magazine aisle at a grocery store or flip through the options on a TV subscription service without being reminded that white women are at the center. Macmillan Cottom writes, “Beauty has an aesthetic, but it is not the same as aesthetics, not when it can be embodied, controlled by powerful interests, and when it can be commodified.” What better way to set the standard than through visual art?

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