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.’

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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By what almost felt like divine intervention, while reading Thick, I discovered an exhibit at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, up through February 10: “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today.” The website and promotional materials for the show incorporate a photo of Frédéric Bazille’s 1870 painting La Négresse aux pivoines (Black woman with peonies). Unlike his predecessor, Bazille does not capture a black woman as a servant to a naked, white prostitute as Manet does in his famous Olympia painting, but rather as a human being who exists outside of deference to a white woman. Peonies, symbols of riches, honor, and prosperity, surround her. She extends one flower out toward the frame as if a potential patron has approached her station. Like Manet’s black model Laure, she wears a headscarf and white outfit, but this peony-possessing woman’s features are much more defined. One cannot lose the connection of her curved lips from top to bottom, or the shape of her eyebrows. In contrast, Olympia, which many art historians call a modernist update to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534), has inspired much study of Victorine Meurent, the naked white model who is staring directly at the spectator, instead of her servant Laure, whose history is sparsely documented. Her last name is not on record. It is another example of how a black model’s humanity is not given the same recognition as that of her white female counterpart. What we do know is that she was a member of the working class who settled in the north end of the city like many other freed blacks. The rent was affordable, a fact that brought artists to the ninth arrondissement as well.

Predominant standards of beauty center the white female body, and as a dark-skinned black woman, MacMillan Cottom exists outside that kind of beauty.

One of the signs at the exhibit states, “The figure of the black maid underscores the racially fraught economic opportunities for black Parisian women in Manet’s time.” One can see Laure’s pink dress, coral drop earrings, and agape mouth as if she’s about to speak. Historically however, reproductions of this painting made Laure look almost invisible. I cannot help but think that this was less a case of mishandling and more evidence of the times. The main subject’s whiteness is vivified by the presence of a black servant, for whiteness cannot exist without the need to dominate what McMillan Cottom calls a “steady pole” that is blackness, standing in contrast to the opposite pole of whiteness. Laure is not looking straight at you, but at Victorine. She is there to provide a service. She is there holding a bouquet of flowers for the mademoiselle. Gazing at this painting, I could not help but think of McMillan Cottom’s article on Miley Cyrus, as well as a chorus of other black women’s voices. Miley was front and center, attempting to twerk, while using black women, in the role of backup dancers, as props. They served to amplify her whiteness.


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There were other black women in paintings from the mid-19th century that were said to have ushered in a new era but with the same tropes. I can run a list of them: Jacques-Eugène Feyen’s Le Baiser Enfantin (Childlike Kiss) (1865), Manet’s Children in the Tuileries Gardens (1861-2), or even earlier, François-Léon Benouville’s Odalisque or Esther (1844). While Manet did paint a separate portrait of Laure, as writer Beth Gersh-Nesic points out, he “consistently confined women of color to situations this artist deemed appropriate for their race, class, and gender.” As I walked around the exhibit, I felt like I could hear McMillan Cottom’s words. In an essay titled “In The Name of Beauty,” she writes:

If beauty matters at all to how people perceive you, how institutions treat you, which rules are applied to you, and what choices you can make, then beauty must also be a structure of patterns, institutions, and exchanges that eat your preferences for lunch.

The patterns I observed in this exhibit — at least for the first half of it — were that black women’s presences in art were linked to their being at an economic disadvantage in comparison to white women. Their access to capital and power is thin. If I had not read Thick, I would have easily concluded that this was due to systemic racism and sexism without taking into account that beauty was a subcategory of those ills. The patterns were not coincidental. They existed to maintain social order.

McMillan Cottom asserts that we have yet to fully expound on the theory of desirability in black feminist theory or politics. When it came to Leslie Jones’s skit, the comedian was reckoning with the uselessness of seeking beauty as a black woman because she has the invisible weight of hundreds of years of subjugation on her person. She emphatically repeats how strong she is and ties that in to desire, but that desire is rooted in manual labor and reproduction to sustain a plantation. That desire is fueled by a white man’s capitalistic greed. Her image became specter-like when I gazed upon Edgar Degas’s painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879). A dark brown-skinned woman acrobat is hanging by a rope from the ceiling that she’s gripping with her teeth. Her face is obscured, thus so is her individuality. The underlying value of Miss La La is her strength. The angle at which Degas chose to immortalize her arguably had been informed by race science at the time, which promoted the measurements of body parts to “prove” that those of certain races were less intelligent and more savage than others.

Less than 70 years prior, Sara Baartman, also known as “Hottentot Venus,” was a circus performer just like Miss La La, but as a freak show attraction because of her extraordinarily large buttocks. The term “Hottentot” was initially used to identify the Khoikhoi, or non-Bantu nomadic and indigenous group of southwestern Africa. Eventually the term became synonymous with the savage and primitive, and today is recognized as racist and offensive. After she died, Baartman’s enormous body parts were placed in a municipal museum in Angers, France. In 1867, one of Degas’s friends, the novelist and art critic Edmond Duranty, tied race to physiognomy: “There are such differences among human races, the blacks, the yellows, the whites. … The enormous jaw of certain blacks has left their tribes in the social state of ferocious beasts.” It’s Miss La La’s enormous jaw that has made her an elite performer, that inspires bourgeois spectatorship and desire. If she were to open her mouth, to perhaps speak or voice agency, she would have fallen from that rope. Although Degas may have found Miss La La attractive, he very likely may have been influenced by the race science of his time, those ideas that posited black faces as ugly in comparison to “white classical beauty.”

In those days, there were women of African descent whose access to capital and power is evident in their portrait poses, but they were light-skinned. Jeanne Duval, the longtime mistress of the poet Charles Baudelaire, was also painted by Manet. She is wearing a long gown, and is in a semi-reclining pose that was common in portraiture of those in the innermost bourgeois circles. Duval was a part of the demimonde, the section of French society the attractive yet marginalized mistresses of wealthy and connected men were relegated to. One cannot divorce Duval’s light-skinned complexion from her semi-reclining pose, a sign of her relative wealth. That proximity to whiteness, due in part to both her mixed-race parentage and her love affair with a white Frenchman, has made her, for all intents and purposes, “beautiful.” This is another part of a cultural legacy about which McMillan Cottom does not mince words:

White people, as a collective system of cultural and economic production that has colonized nonwhite people across the globe through military and ideological warfare, have said that black people are animalistic. … There is no ideological exception to anti-blackness for black women but through colorism. Mulatto, ‘mixed,’ high yellow light — all euphemisms for black people whose phenotype signals that they may have some genetic proximity to whiteness. But, by definition, black women are not beautiful except for any whiteness that may be in them.

Thankfully, there have been more efforts since the late 19th century to depict black women with more complexity. Elizabeth Colomba’s Laure (Portrait of a negress) (2018) is a reimagination of Manet’s Laure. Although this time, Laure is walking through the streets of perhaps some Paris arrondissement. She’s carrying a large umbrella and lifting the side of her pale pink dress so that it will not get stained by the rain on the cobblestones. Every other passerby is in the background so that she can take center stage. Other artists and photographers, such as Miguel Covarrubias, James A. Porter, Henri Matisse, and Carl Van Vechten during the Harlem Renaissance, and most recently, Mickalene Thomas (all included in the exhibit), have taken great strides to either subvert old tropes or create new prototypes altogether of black women of all shades, whose faces are fully fleshed out, and whose poses do not always have to be limited by their social status.

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The frustrating thing about beauty that Thick nails is that the desire to achieve it is insatiable. Despite all that we know about the hundreds of years of both visual art and written work that forces the assumed sublimeness of white female beauty upon us, we still feel that we have to keep buying one product, then another on top of it to either maintain or heighten our allure. When McMillan Cottom published her critique of Miley Cyrus, white women were quick to come to her aid. Her argument in the book is that white women needed her to believe that beauty is something that is both achievable and individual: “White women, especially white feminists, need me to lean in to pseudo religious consumerist teachings that beauty is democratic and achievable. Beauty must be democratic. If it is not, then beauty becomes a commodity, distributed unequally and even worse, at random.” But that’s how one shames the devil: by plainly identifying it. Beauty is distributed unequally, and to encourage a black woman to believe that beauty can be a shared experience through a certain amount of concerted effort is humiliating. One black woman cannot overturn the former anonymity of Laure, whose body and positioning is set in the Western art canon. One black woman cannot overturn how white womanhood has been the nexus of femininity and beauty for hundreds of years. To ask a black woman to lean into a democratic beauty is to indubitably expect her to become an amnesiac. As McMillan Cottom writes,

It is actually blackness, as it is refracted through the history of colonization, imperialism, and domination, that excludes me from the forces of beauty. … Big Beauty — the structure of who can be beautiful, the stories we tell about beauty, the value we assign beauty, the power given to those with beauty, the disciplining fear of losing beauty might possess — definitionally excludes the kind of blackness I carry in my history and my bones.

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The words in McMillan Cottom’s Thick are pugilistic. She is a scholar of sociology, well-versed in globalization and cultural production. She knows the ins and outs of the academy as well as the twists and turns of social media and discourse. There was no one more apt to take on this particular project. I have long admired McMillan Cottom for her hard stances and her refusal to back down when faced with criticism, especially over the internet. It’s inspiring to witness. The ground she treads with regards to beauty, blackness, and ugliness is boundless. The journey is dangerous because it’s easier to comfort an audience with a nice lie than to confront it with an uncomfortable truth. The dominant white culture does not enjoy when those most oppressed openly identify a dominant regime and how its force has impacted the ways in which one navigates the world.

The main subject’s whiteness is vivified by the presence of a black servant, for whiteness cannot exist without the need to dominate what McMillan Cottom calls a ‘steady pole’ that is blackness, standing in contrast to the opposite pole of whiteness.

When McMillan Cottom identified herself as unattractive, she was not fishing for compliments. Her self-described unattractiveness was not a signal that she expected to be mistreated in her personal life. The unattractiveness she cites comes from being mistreated already, by virtue of being a black woman in white-dominated culture. At the end of “In the Name of Beauty,” she writes, “They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that ugly is as ugly does. Both are lies. Ugly is everything done to you in the name of beauty. Knowing the difference is part of getting free.”

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Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America. She is based in New York.

Editor: Sari Botton
Copy editor: Jacob Gross