January 13, 2012

"Ain't I A Woman?"

When our brilliant predecessor, Sojourner Truth, wrote those famous words from the above title in the middle of the 19th Century, I'm pretty sure she assumed that in the far future, women of African descent would no longer have to ask such a question. Pivotal strides have been made in women's equality and racial equality since she wrote those words, but any shrewd observer of society nowadays can be pretty certain that we still have a proverbial "long way to go." Now, before the sighs of  "Is this feminism talk?" begin, let me be clear that the purpose of this blog is NOT to castigate men (which is what people usually think when they think of feminism...let me tell you, it is SOOOO not that, but that's another blog for another time). It is to simply observe and examine the notion of beauty and image as it pertains to being a woman of African descent.

To be a 21st century "African-American" (I'll get to why I put that in quotes in a later post...hang with me, here) woman comes complete with all of it's beautiful complexity; inherent with milestone triumphs, soul-quaking trials, and somewhere in between the two, a series of annoying frustrations that--more often than not--have a lot to do with our image. How that image is constantly twisted, shaken together, stirred and turned into a cocktail that is usually pretty distasteful to us is something I deal with on a daily basis in my industry of entertainment. As an actor, I have never been more aware of how my image as a Black American woman affects my psyche. Don't get me wrong, having self-esteem/self-image issues is something every young girl deals with, and I was no exception, but as a full-grown adult, those issues have evolved into something much more complex...so much so, that it makes me hyper-aware of how we're perceived in the greater scheme of society. Especially here in the good ole' US of A. And if you are a black woman reading this, then I'm sure you know exactly what I mean.

Everything from our skin, to our hair, to our bodies, to our facial features seems to serve as either the basis to disregard us or to shine a white-hot, unflattering light on us. A prime example of the latter was the completely ridiculous "article" published last year (which you may have heard about) in Psychology Today by so-called evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa, originally entitled "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” After justified hellfire swept across the Internet in a matter of hours, the publication changed the title to "Why are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" As if that somehow lent the article more credibility as an "objective study." As if that made it any less wildly insulting. They eventually took it down altogether in less than 24 hours, but before they did, I was able to read it (and you can too--a couple of websites obtained it before it was taken down--if you click here) and I couldn't help but laugh at the sheer, unabashed ignorance of it. However, even though I--like most thinking individuals--possess the cognitive ability to know that attractiveness is not a scientifically measurable quality, there will be someone out there who will use nonsense like that to justify their own racism and bigotry, and someone else, as hard as it may be to believe, will actually wonder if there's truth to it.

While people rarely admit it, there has been a constant, systematic, almost subconscious "measuring" of black women's beauty. I see it when I scour breakdowns and they VERY frequently say they're looking for an "ethnically ambiguous" woman (I loathe that term with my whole soul...I'll go into depth on this in a later post) or it says something to the effect of this: "Casting women for this role who are Caucasian/Latina/Indian/Native American/Asian/Biracial." Yeah...that would be just about everybody BUT black women who actually look black. I see it all the time. Or it'll say, "Casting for light-skinned African-American women with curly hair." I know you see it when you just watch commercials or television: the quintessential black woman is showcased as a light-skinned, mixed-race looking black woman with a head full of carefree curls. Also let's not forget the ubiquitous "long hair, don't care" light-skinned or mixed race black woman. You see it when you go to the movies and actors who are gainfully employed are the Halle Berry's, Paula Patton's, and Zoe Saldanas of the world. You see it when you watch a series of music videos and the women who are crooning and sashaying on the screen are the Beyonce's, Alicia Keys', and Rihannas' of the world. No disrespect to all of these artists who are making their money (do your thing, Ladies), it just seems that if an alien were visiting from outer space, after watching television and movies, if it saw a dark-skinned woman with locks or a medium-brown skinned woman with a fro walking down the street, it would point and say "Okay...now who are they? I don't see them on your rectangle screens of moving light!"

Which leads me back to Ms. Truth's timeless question: "Ain't I A Woman?" I sure am, but I'm waiting on society to catch up and realize that I--and all black women--are as well. And we deserve to be seen and acknowledged in our beautiful entirety. Even if society never catches up, we owe it to our daughters, nieces, and little cousins to have these conversations and affirm to them that they are--indeed--beautiful. Because while we love her, Princess Tiana is just not enough. We must go further. Way further.

Now I don't profess to be someone with a Women's Studies degree or an authority on this topic...I only seek to offer some observation from my perspective as an actor and artist navigating these issues within my field and how they relate to the larger discourse about this subject. Why this? It's a topic I feel passionate about, because if all of our girls can see themselves as beautiful, perhaps they will make better life choices and not ones based on insecurity or low self-esteem. EVERY girl wants to feel beautiful...inside and out. I've always felt a deep responsibility to my fellow sisters on this matter, and this is my small way of trying to obey that responsibility (believe me, God...or whatever it is you call him/her, won't leave me alone about it...lol). It's not just about aesthetic itself..it's about how it informs everything underneath.

More to come, Ladies (and Gentleman, if you've been brave enough to drop by...lol). Please feel free to drop me a line at theimagemonster@gmail.com if there are topics concerning this issue you would like to see explored.

Next up: Thoughts on Bill Duke's new documentary, Dark Girls. Stay tuned...


1 comment:

  1. This is such an interesting (and terrible, philosophically speaking) topic. If you pay attention and are analytical, it's very easy to see that darker-skinned women (and men) are not utilized as media images...at least not in a positive way. If you want to find the darker skinned individuals, look to the menial/degrading roles on television - Law & Order uses them quite frequently as prostitutes or rapists. Or if they need a moderately-hood yet inherently "good" character who, through coping mechanisms which ostracize him completely from his peers, rises above his circumstance to teach the White Man something positive, all while still maintaining some piece of his emotionally-disturbed or socially-disabling characteristics (Finding Forrester, Antwone Fisher, Save the Last Dance).

    It's essentially the positioning of darker-skinned individuals as the dangerous or problematic "other." As all things negative. No matter what people say, the stereotype still exists that dark = bad, and it's perpetuated daily. The sad part is that it will be very hard to change; near impossible. Until we get more (positive) images of ALL colors of people, in particular those who are missing (i.e., darker-skinned), we will continue to see this perpetuation of stereotypes and social norms. And they are inescapable. We are subject to them, subconsciously. Our children will be as well. It will take concerted effort to affect positive change.

    Another reason I loved my alma mater so much (shout out to Hampton University) was that it afforded me the opportunity to see beauty in all its shades within Black people. It positively reinforced the images my parents helped to establish of Black folk, and gave me a greater appreciation for my own people. I often have discussions with one of my friends about how much we love Black women - and HU played a major role in that. It's hard for me to describe the love I hold for all that Black women are - and because of this love I too feel a deep responsibility to help other Black people see the beauty and value in themselves. And to the last point made in the blog, I wholeheartedly agree. It's not simply an issue of beauty - it really is self-worth, and self-esteem. When you love yourself, you typically make better decisions. And as someone who one day hopes to be the father of beautiful Black children, I recognize now the importance of these issues.