The Power of Beauty
In her first semi-autobiographical novel Je suis Martiniquaise, published in 1948 and written under the pseudonym of Mayotte Capécia, Lucette Céranus Combette describes the vicissitudes of a young black woman who glides through the complex passage from childhood to adult life in a place and era which, in turn, are undergoing profound transformations: Martinique, a Creole island under French rule, in the mid-twentieth century.
The book is an incisive and unsparing snapshot of the stereotypes of race and gender that, back then, regulated the social structures in the West Indies colonies, in transition towards independence but still strongly influenced by the hallmark of European imperialism. A red thread – or shall we call it “white” – runs throughout a large part of the plot and unfolds around the protagonist’s aversion towards the color of her own skin and her burning desire to get as close as possible to the white race, which she considers superior because economically more stable, intellectually more evolved and aesthetically more refined and attractive.
This last quality is crucial and it is no coincidence that the “process of lactification” (1) put in place by Capécia on herself is realized through the sphere of feelings, corporeity and sexuality: «I made up my mind that I could never love anyone but a white man, a blue-eyed blonde, a Frenchman» (2).
In Capécia’s psychology, the idealization of the white race and the total overlap of the aesthetic sphere with the ethical one goes hand in hand with the belief that her value, as a woman of color, is always questionable: «But a woman of color is never altogether respectable in a white man’s eyes. Even when he loves her. I knew that» (3). And when her husband André – a French naval officer – abandons her with an infant, Capécia accepts the situation as an obvious consequence of the unequal nature of their relationship.
Although the book has been at the center of strong criticism and conflicting readings (4), Je suis Martiniquaise remains a fundamental document that offers an insight into the extent and complexity of a constellation of phenomena that, in later years, would take the name of “colorism”: a term coined in 1982 by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker and by her defined as the «prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color» (5).
One of the first manifestations of colorism in the United States was the division of slaves according to their appearance: only light-skinned slaves were allowed to serve at home, while the darker ones were subject to the field labor’s strenuous conditions. Colorism continued to exert its effects also following the abolition of slavery in 1865. In particular, it insinuated itself into the black community, where it was used as a psychological tool of internal division, founded on the belief that being closer to the white tone corresponded to a greater extent to the ideal (however unreachable) image of beauty and gave access to better living conditions (6).
In 1942 – meaning in the same decade when Lucette Céranus Combette published her first work – the African-American businessman John H. Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago: a company destined to become a giant of the sector and whose history is emblematic of the evolution of the black image from the post-war period to today. In 1945, JPC launched the monthly magazine Ebony, followed a few years later by the weekly Jet. Both publications were dedicated to the promotion of African-American culture through success stories of people of color in politics, sports, art, fashion and entertainment. With colorism still in full swing and episodes of racism being daily occurrence, the advent of the two publications represented the reference point so far missing for black Americans and was thus immediately welcomed.
Photography played a crucial role in JPC’s strategy, which followed the models of magazines such as Life and Look and aimed to reach the public in a direct and captivating way. The message was presented to the reader through images, which at the same time inform and entertain: «To see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed…» (7).
The persuasive power, the transforming force and the narrative capacity are intrinsic characteristics of the photographic image, which, in the twentieth- century United States, the mass media transformed into collective imaginary. And these characteristics assumed even more importance in the black community, where the imaginary was then still to be built.
In this sense, Ebony and Jet are excellent observation tools that allow us to retrace the birth and development of an identity built on afrocentric values, especially in relation to the transformation of female beauty standards communicated through fashion photoshoots and cosmetic products advertisements.
In the first two decades of Ebony’s life, in fact, the majority of cosmetic ads aimed at African-American women were dedicated to products such as wigs and creams to straighten and manage nappy hair, or to lighten the skin tone.
The message was clearly oriented towards the affirmation of a one-sided kind of beauty, of Caucasian origin, to which the African-American characteristics had to adapt at any cost (8).
In recent years, Ellen Gallagher used this type of advertising as the basis of her DeLuxe series (2004-5). Here, the New York-based artist modified the starting photos through a series of manual and digital interventions in order to parody the “improvements” promoted by the ads and to highlight the role of hair as a signifier of difference and therefore of African-American identity.
We witness a significant change of course in the conveyance of beauty standards within the black female community from the 1960s onwards. A new wave of photoshoots and advertisements appeared, where attributes such as frizzy hair, dark skin and facial features stopped being communicated as intrinsically ugly and were instead charged with “black pride”. This happened in particular on Jet, which assiduously covered the chronicles related to the onset of the Civil Rights movement and promoted the many declensions of black beauty through the full-page feature Beauty of the Week.
It was the dawn of the movement Black is Beautiful, symbolically represented by Angela Davis’s afro: a black and unisex, proudly flaunted hairstyle; an aesthetic manifestation of the radical hymn to gender, race and class equality that she fought for during her political militancy in the Black Panthers (9). Minority in the minority, as in a game of concentric circles, the African-American woman radiated outward the contagious vitality of a new, authentic, independent and proud image.
And it is precisely on the centrality of the female figure and on beauty as a tool for social transformation that the exhibition The Black Image Corporation, curated by artist Theaster Gates at the Fondazione Prada Osservatorio in Milan, focuses on. Through a “core drill” operation, Gates decided to focus on the work executed for the Johnson Publishing Company by photographers Moneta Sleet and Isaac Sutton, and in particular on those images depicting the African-American woman in a variety of contexts such as those of fashion, work, family and social life. Given the long and prolific collaboration between the two photographers and the publishing company, this choice is on one hand broad enough to follow the aesthetic-political evolution of the African-American community along almost half a century, and on the other it responds to Gates’ necessity to orient himself within John H. Johnson’s monumental vision based on the substantial power of the image.
As a matter of fact, the company’s physical legacy is a photographic archive composed of hundreds of thousands of photographs covering seventy years of African-American history: an immense, priceless and today paradoxically cumbersome heritage, given the crisis in the publishing field and the digital revolution of communications and the spread of information.
The fact that the entire archive was put up for sale in 2014 (preceded by the sale of the company’s historic headquarters in 2010 and followed by the sale of Ebony and Jet in 2016) caused quite a stir (10), but does not constitute an isolated case. As stated by Gates himself, «the collection’s over four million images needs decades of committed researchers, institutional support with dedicated staff and considerable investment in order to fully realize a future life» (11).
The JPC collection’s recovery and conservation put in place by Gates, although partial, represent an alternative to the decline that inevitably affects many editorial hyper-archives belonging to the decades of pre-digitization. It is undoubtedly well and good that part of the company’s legacy – including the original furniture and elements designed by Arthur Elrod for the former historic headquarters – have found a new home in the Stony Island Arts Bank founded by Gates himself in Chicago, where he recently concluded A Johnson Publishing Story, an exhibition “sister” to the Milanese show.
But the most interesting aspect of the whole operation is positioned on a more abstract level. Thanks to the exhibitions, the archival material acquires an expanded sense that goes beyond its geographical and cultural boundaries, and the collection’s artistic revitalization, seen under this light, constitutes a proposal for the future rather than a revival of the past.
The exhibitions A Johnson Publishing Story in Chicago and The Black Image Corporation in Milan are chapters of a process that is still quite open. Although the role of JPC in the definition and dissemination of black aesthetics and culture in the United States and internationally has been fundamental, it is necessary to avoid the “nostalgia effect” that the review of an archive of such importance could induce in the viewer as well as in those working in the sector. The colossus put up by John H. Johnson with “creativity and persistence” (12) was the fruit of its time and represented a cultural anchor in a period of redefinition of global identities and an economic pillar in years of exponential growth of the market, including the African-American one.
Today, the representation of black identity is inserted into a complex, postmodernist and post-capitalistic figuration, and must be able to describe the pluralistic ways of being black and looking at the future of multicultural societies. The compass to navigate in this new condition is the “right to opacity” claimed by the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant in 1990 in his Poetics of Relation: a radical deviation from closed identities rooted in genealogy towards a disposition favorable to the notion of identity as something we arrive at, something we become through our relation with the other. And it is precisely the harmonious coexistence of the differences that Glissant praises as “the greatest beauty of the world”:
«Beauty, it is not the beautiful. There is in beauty a less obvious dimension. I would say that it is the point where differences agree and not the point where similarities harmonize. Beauty is always unpredictable. It is not in the reproduction of the same» (13).
(1) The term “lactification” was introduced in 1952 by the Martinican psychiatrist and author Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Masks in relation to the desire of Mayotte Capécia to mate with a white partner in order to redeem the black race. “It is always essential to avoid falling back into the pit of niggerhood, and every woman in the Antilles, whether in a casual flirtation or in a serious affair, is determined to select the least black of the men.” Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, New York, 1967 (revised edition 2008).
(2) Mayotte Capécia, Je suis Martiniquaise, Corréa, Paris, 1948.
(4) Je suis Martiniquaise was sharply criticized by Frantz Fanon, who called it “cut-rate merchandise, a sermon in praise of corruption”. Fanon assimilates the choice of Mayotte Capécia of the “other” as a partner to the attempt to become “other” herself. Through the description of this process, Capécia incorporates colonial ideology and reproduces it in her text. In more recent years, Capécia’s work has been reevaluated by various scholars, especially in the feminist field. Gwen Berger argues that Black Skin, White Masks only considers women in terms of their sexual relationships with men, while accordingly to Maryse Condé, Capécia’s work provides “a precious written testimony, the only one that we possess, of the mentality of a West Indian girl in those days.” Maryse Condé, “Order, Disorder, Freedom, and the West Indian Writer”, in Yale French Studies no. 50, Yale University Press, Yale, 2000. Gwen Berger, “Who is that Masked Woman? Or the Role of Gender in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks”. PMLA 110.1. Special Topic: Colonialism and the Postcolonial Condition, Modern Language Association, New York, 1995.
(5) Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1983
(6) The Brown Paper Bag Test was a form of racial discrimination practiced in the 20th century within African-American communities such as associations, churches, confraternities and nightclubs. The test consisted of comparing the skin tone of an individual with the color of a brown paper bag: only those whose skin was lighter than the bag were admitted to the community and could enjoy its services and privileges. Cf. Audrey Elisa Kerr, The Paper Bag Principle. Class, Colorism and Rumor and the Case of Black Washington, D.C., University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2006.
(7) From LIFE’s mission written by its founder and publisher Henry Luce in 1936.
(8) By way of example, the following data can be cited: out of a total of 197 advertisements appeared on Ebony issues from 1957 to 1959, 89% were dedicated to hair straightening products, while only 8% promoted products for natural hair care. Michael Leslie, “Slow to Fade: Advertising in Ebony Magazine, 1957-1989”, in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 2, Summer 1995.
(9) In her article Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia from 1994, Angela Davis critically reflects on the role that photography and the media played in the ‘70s in the diffusion of a stereotypical and superficial image of the black militant woman. Davis also cites a fashion photoshoot from 1994 where pictures of her arrest in 1972 were reenacted for commercial purposes. According to Davis, we must find ways to incorporate historical images into community memory rather than use them as a substitute for the understanding the social and political contexts. Angela Yvonne Davis, “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia”, in Critical Inquiry, vol. 21, no. 1, Autumn 1994.
(10) The Johnson Publishing Company eventually decided to retain its archive of photographs. Cf. Erick Johnson, “End of an Era. How Ebony and Jet fell into the hands of a little known firm in a deal shrouded in mystery”, in Chicago Crusader, 16 June 2016. Available at the link: https://chicagocrusader.com/end-of-an-era//
(11) Theaster Gates (editor), The Black Image Corporation, Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2018
(12) “To succeed, one must be creative and persistent”, John H. Johnson.
(13) Georgia Makhlouf, “Entretien avec Edouard Glissant et Patrick Chamoiseau: De la nécessité du poétique en temps de crise” in L’Orient Littéraire, July 2009. Available at the link: http://www.lorientlitteraire.com/article_details.php?cid=6&nid=3092
This text was published in Archivio Magazine #3 – The Americana Issue