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A week ago, I was writing -hopefully – about the peaceful transition of power. I was thinking to myself that even if Georgia’s run-off election didn’t release the American senate from the hooves and cleaves of the CONservative right, that somehow, the world would be in a better state now that dialogue-oriented ‘liberals’ were leading the administrative cabinet. This week, however, I am writing about a failed coup d’etat in the United States.
Much of American history is steeped in the struggle for freedom. To be clear: WE have never, ever been free in America. None of us. Sure, relative to where I sit right now in S.E. Asia, the fact that I am talking openly about politics, and speaking ill of other people’s nasty votes, attests to this relative freedom I enjoy just by having that bald eagle on my passport. The fact that it’s a national pass-time to be critical of power, all the while coveting it for myself, points to the hypocrisy with which each and every American struggles internally. It’s not that people of other nations don’t share this struggle, but it’s just that we Americans do this in the world’s richest, most ethnically diverse nation. And ‘the problem we all live with’ persists.
By signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln didn’t defeat white supremacy any more than the Declaration of Independence defeated tyranny and injustice. “With great power comes great responsibility,” goes the Spiderman mantra. Yet, here I am on my knees, in tears, crying for the death a of a democracy that’s been in decay ever since my people were brought to those shores in shackles, owned by those mentally enslaved by white-washed Jesus.
Unfortunately, it would be facile and naïve to pretend that this American moment isn’t painful. It hurt me, personally, to see the siege of our Capitol, live and in technicolor, more vivid than any dream I’ve dreamt or nightmare about this very scenario. And I have had both dreams and nightmares about the siege. My mother’s parents grew up southern, Black, poor and politically disenfranchised as a matter of everyday practice under Jim and Jane Crow. It’d would have been nothing for a lynch mob to tackle any negro attempting to vote. That was business as usual, even as they conscripted my grandfather into the army to go to Europe and fight Hitler. The irony has never, ever been lost on any of us.
Many days, in my daydreams, I’ve often wondered what it’d be like if a bunch of freedom-loving folks just stormed the Capitol and occupied the seats of power until the elected leaders conceded to formally grant our freedom. Yet, I would never want to see the mass graves they’d have to dig should any negro or negro-loving white person even gather to talk about storming the Capitol – let alone share plans and munitions. Besides, I am an earnest follower of non-violence and genuinely believe liberation is found therein. Instead, we’ve spent years – decades, nearly a century of recorded history – warning the world where white supremacy would lead us, if left unchecked. I’d be as rich as Jeff Bezos if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that racism was dead, and that I was dredging up hate by insisting we speak about it. Yet, here we are. Whatcha gonna do now?
I love you.
You are beautiful.
I know you can do anything.**
- Record this on your phone.
- Listen regularly especially when in doubt, love or trouble.
- Encourage others.
This is just one of the ways we can build the “strength to love,” as Dr Martin Luther King urges in his eponymously titled book. I use this affirmation with my students in order to encourage them to build confidence, self-esteem and become aware of any self-loathing they many carry. It takes confidence to listen to others before speaking one’s own mind and embrace change. It’s easy to be toxic, especially online. It takes guts, however, to resist insulting others who have differing perspectives. It takes tenacity to think twice and NOT respond with greed, anger or stupidity (i.e. to lead a life freer of GAS).
Certainly, those who labour in the classroom have often come to realize that in addition to teaching our subject matter, we’re often teaching people how to become more confident. Nowhere is this more visible than in urban Asia, filled with youth, sandwiched between cultures online, wedged between generations that have steep distinctions. Youth in Asia are regularly assaulted with all the wonders of the world right in their pockets, but confronted with the reality of ‘development’. They’re often to young/inexperienced to recognize that no nation is ‘there’ yet, so they falsely hold up the west as a beacon of hope. I say hold up a mirror to one’s self, with the fierce determination to see nothing but love and acceptance. THAT, my friends, is development.
**Adapted from Lizzo, live at Glastonbury 2019. See here move the crowd here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnIbJi_jWII
Then she has the crowd say: “I love you Lizzo. You are beautiful, girl. And you can do anything, b*tch. Do it on your good days, but especially do it on your bad days ’cause that sh*t is like medicine, man!”
Standing under the stars with you.
This is the moment I’ve waited for for so long.
For so long I’ve longed to be with YOU.
To be with you, to just be here, standing underneath the stars is like heaven and earth in one.
It feels like heaven on earth, so softly touching your skin.
Touching your skin, feeling your breath against my face, there is nobody like you.
I LIKE you… a lot.
This is the moment I’ve waited for for so long.
You and I underneath the stars.
Our lives must be as big as the universe for us to have crossed paths.
I can’t believe that I crossed paths with the YOU.
I want to cross your path every single day from now on.
From now on, I want to be with you.
This is the moment I’ve waited for for so long.
I have waited an eternity to see the stars with you.
To see the stars with you feels like the Earth, the Sun, the moon AND all the planets aligning.
The planets must be aligned to night as good as I’m feeling.
I’m feeling good, with every twinkle our lives become more crisscrossed and intertwined.
Crisscrossed and intertwined so much a mobile phone can’t capture this moment.
Please, be here, now, I beg you.
Shahrukh Khan (SRK) is arguably the Indian film industry’s biggest global star and commercial brand ambassador. In one early advertisement, he strikes a match from a dark-skinned kid’s face to show just how abhorrent it is as a trait. In another ad, ostensibly more humorous, SRK disses a group of traditional Northern Indian wrestlers for wearing skirts and make-up. The star chides them for using the feminine product instead of (converting to) the newly available male version (i.e. re-packaged in gray rather than pink). The product? The skin bleach Fair and Handsome. In both ads, the transformed, ‘fairer’ skinned consumer is pummeled with young girls virtually appearing from nowhere.
This follows the typical consumerist trope: The product makes users more popular and sexually appealing. Yet, things got worse. Clean and Dry’s ‘intimate’ bleaching shower gel for women (C&D). Yes, you read right: A bleaching shower gel aimed at lightening brown women’s crotches. There’s no male equivalent, save for a well-circulated spoof called Gore Gote: India’s #1 Testicular Fairness Cream (Mukherjee). In the initial shot of the C&D advertisement, a pouty-mouthed (fair-skinned) woman is ignored by her (fair-skinned) husband in their (upper-middle-class) apartment. Naturally, it seems, she bleaches her labia with C&D. After displaying the product’s virtues, the husband literally chases the wife around the fancy flat as she playfully dangles (his) keys. Her secret to happiness: A newly bleached intimate area. Is this a proxy for a white woman’s vagina?
What’s wrong with consumerism? The marketplace will not save you. As a Black person interested in self-love, it is clear that the market is murderous. There, the fetish of blackness is made widely available, as if one could bottle stereotypical ‘coolness’ and sell it to the youth in Asia, one of the largest consumer groups in the world. Fashion shops targeting youth regularly plaster posters of Bob Marley or Hip-Hop thugs to peddle goods to youth. Yet, standing in the rotunda of this mall, one could see shops of every major western cosmetics brand, including Clinique, Mac, Estée Lauder. Here in Asia, the flagship product in each shop is skin bleach! Black is cool, but white is power. Ironically, at the time I was modeling for a campaign in Vogue and Elle Décor in India, yet none of the make-up artists carried my mocha shade (shady, right).
The skin bleach industry is by far the most virulent of all consumer products – even fast food. The bulk of this industry is meted out on the bodies of women…and girls who learn early that fate of darkness (just check out any Indian Matrimonials page). According to an August 2019 article in Vogue: “Per a recent World Health Organization report (WHO), half of the population in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines uses some kind of skin lightening treatment. And it’s even higher in India (60%) and African countries, such as Nigeria (77%).” After a 7 minutes instrumental intro to his 1976 hit, Yellow Fever, Fela Kuti chants: “Who steal your bleaching?/Your precious bleaching?…/Your face go yellow/Your yansh go show/Your mustache go show/Your skin go scatter/You go die o.”
It’s lethal, often a mercurous poison used to kill the soul. It is a fetishization of whiteness, that reveals the “internalization of the coloniser’s inferiorisation of dark skin as native and Other” (Thapan: 73). It’s euthanasia. Skin bleachers are painlessly killing themselves, willingly participating in their own annihilation. Not only does it quite literally murder the melanin in one’s skin, it symbolically kills one’s ‘dark and native’ self, giving birth to a new and improved modern identity. It requires constant application and reflects a consumerist’s self-regulation. Bleach is expensive, despite the industry’s ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach to the marketing 4P’s – bleach sold in cheap tiny packages for the poor. Skin bleach is a form of mimesis, to actually embody modernity through crafting the ‘cultivated, developed and perfected’ self (Thapan: 70).
When I began teaching at UoN, I was asked to propose topics for business ethics modules, which were then optional. Hesitantly, I suggested skin bleach and hair weaves. Looking at the composition of the student body, this would be as familiar to them, as the products were locally available (see picture below taken in an ‘ethnic’ hair shop on Northampton’s high street). Several students have subsequently pursed these subjects in their dissertations. I was sad to learn that in colloquial Somali, ‘fair skin’ is a moniker for pretty, just as we western Blacks use ‘light skin and long hair’. Colourism makes dark-skinned people unsafe in our own homes.
I was pleasantly surprised at the support from the module leader, an older, straight white man. He said he knew little about the politics of black and brown skin and hair, yet listened with great interest and did his own research into the matter. What’s more, he stood by me both literally and figuratively. He was there when I was called to account for some negative student feedback such as “I’m a guy, I don’t wear make-up,” when asked to consider the differential impact of beauty standards on the psyches and earnings of women in business. He stood by me when I’d dropped the F-word (feminism) into the curriculum. This was before the Gender Pay Gap became more widely known or theBritish government required audits from large organisations. He is an ally. He stood by me in ways that may have been riskier for individuals outside the circles of normative power of gender, race and class. Talk about a way to use one’s privilege!
Kuti, F. (1976). Yellow Fever. [LP] Decca 8 Track Studios. Available at: https://genius.com/Fela-kuti-and-africa-70-yellow-fever-annotated [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].
Mukherjee, R., Banet-Weiser, S. and Gray, H. (2019). Racism Postrace. Durham, N.C.
Thapan, M. (2009). Living the Body: Embodiment, Womanhood and Identity in Contemporary India. New Delhi: SAGE.
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.