Aesthetics, Race, and The Faces of Oppression & Resistance!
I have taken the opportunity before on here to address negative racial and sexual stereotypes against black women in the past, for example, see the first of my series from last year on William Paul Young’s The Shack and the story of Mammy, the asexual submissive black female house servant. Today, I would like to address the other major racist stereotype against black women, the Venus Hottentot/Jezebel.
There has been a general debate in culture and online whether or not Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl XLVII was empowering for women or degrading. Was Beyonce’s (and the rest of Destiny’s Child’s) performance A Prophetic Dance Of Power? Or was the concert a mere repeating of when sexism and racism meet at the intersection of U.S. history. Regardless, this seems like an awkward conversation for the Other to Destiny’s Child: The Silent White Guy who wants to comment on Invisible Black Women.
Whenever we look at the history of music and dance, we always seem to go back to folks telling a story. What story are we telling when we look at a musician or actor for that matter? Last year, I commented on an appalling trend in black Celebrity culture, that of bleaching their skin to make them pass as whiter. The notion of passing has a long history in the United States in terms of African Americans. In the early 20th century, sociologist W.E.B.DuBois advanced his idea of the Talented Tenth, the idea that there would be an educated elite of African Americans to lift the black race out of Jim and Jane Crow fascist rule. The faces of resistance for DuBois were mulatto and light skinned blacks; the closer to white skin a person was, the closer they were to divinity. Frantz Fanon, in Black Skins and White Masks, he argued in his introduction that blacks strive to be white, and white strive to be human. In other words, whiteness and universality is the definition of what it means to be human in a racist society.
A concrete example of this is the racism of Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and Voltaire. Voltaire argued in his Essay “The People Of America” that blacks were not human, that like the species of dogs, blacks were cocker spaniels, whites were more like greyhounds. David Hume and Thomas Jefferson firmly believed blacks were born inferior(for more analysis on this, read chapter 2 of Cornel West’s Prophesy Deliverance! as well as David Theo Goldberg’s Racist Culture). The foundation for the normative gaze that sides time and time against black people is classical Greek aesthetics. As West puts it, “The principal aim of natural history is to observe, compare, measure, and order animal and human bodies ( or classes of animals and human bodies) based on visible, especially physical, characteristics. These characteristics permit one to discern identity and difference, equality and inequality, beauty and ugliness among animals and human bodies” (page 55). The Classification of human bodies, whether we start with Francois Bernier (humanity divided into four: Africans, Orientals, Europeans,and Lapps)or Linneaus’ Homo Europaeus, Homo Asiaticus, Homo Afer, and Homo Americanus, these lists were predicated on the idea that black skinned people were of “little genius,” and that white skin was the natural skin of humanity (the DEFAULT).
Galileo and Descartes brought back classical Greek aesthetics to the center of European culture. This white supremacist gaze held that the beautiful body was inseparable from the beautiful soul. West puts it this way: “Lavater [the father of physiognomy] believed that the Greek statues were the models of beauty. […] blue eyes, horizontal forehead, bent back, round chin, and short brown hair” (page 58).
Over the centuries the classical Greek turned European ideal evolved from brown hair to blonde hair, but as for being essential to the Western identity,the Western Gaze remained relatively the same. Any monstrosities who were deemed out of the norm were put through scientific research. Case in point: Khoi-Khoi, known by her slave name as Sarah Baartman. “She was the black African who was put on public display because of the “immediacy” of her sex to European audiences–male and female–who had never seen such an ass as hers.” (Emilie Townes, “The Womanist Dancing Mind” in Deeper Shades Of Purple). After being exploited for years, Khoi Khoi died at age 25 years of age. It was then that Napoleon’s surgeon general was able to use her corpse as a museum display. The power over Khoi Khoi’s body that Napolean had is the same power that Pepsi Incorporated offers young black girls who look up to Beyonce.
As Townes puts it,
“Oppressions are rude because they do not simply give a damn about people or the rest of creation, they are only concerned with the acquisition of power that dominates and bullies. Those who participate in it will sell their souls and anything else they can get their hands on or snatch out of someone else’s hand to possess power because oppressions work to make all of us commodities that can be bought and sold, discarded and annihilated.”
Womanist ethicist Kelly Brown Douglas noted that it is the experience of Khoi Khoi that remains the quintessential definition of the Black Jezebel: black females were bought and sold according to their reproductive capacity; ” By distorting black women’s sexuality, the Jezebel image protected the White Slavocracy and fostered the exercise of tyrannical White power” (Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church, p 40). White male masters could play the victim, since they were seduced by their enslaved black Jezebels.
The bodies of black women then historically have been used for entertainment, with just a few body parts being singled out.First Lady Michelle Obama is being ridiculous for her backside, leave it to Rush Limbaugh to relish in the Jezebel stereotype. The body image of women which racist thinkers such as Limbaugh are attached too are ironically not like his lovers in the Dominican Republic, but rather at the ones from Greco-Roman antiquity. Black beauty is seen as a form of lack, rather than anything that should be affirmed.
So, what story does this performance of Beyonce at the Super Bowl embody? I would argue the story of Sarah Baartman. The mythos behind the music and dance which I could enjoy while at the same time, stand at a distance and be just as leery. Of course, I grew up in a home where mom disapproved of the term “bootylicious.” After reading the story of Khoi Khoi, I am just a tad suspicious too, of what it means to use one’s sexuality for power. The power that Beyonce embraced was the power to appeal to the men of PepsiCo. It is the Napoleonic power of Corporate domination in the public and private sphere. I contend that gender power is not found in exploitation, nor is it found in the puritanical mores of conservative Christian male hierarchy that guilts people for being sensual creatures.
Rather, gender power, from a Christian perspective, should be found in the imago Dei, something that is at once ineffable as well as disclosed in the life of our Lord Christ Jesus. The definition of beauty which finds as its source the Trinity, Unity in Diversity, cannot accept limitations from white supremacist culture. Yet, we can recognize what is beautiful and true by experiencing the presence of Jesus, the joys of worship as well as in the midst of suffering. To the wise, famous, and beautiful, the Cross is foolishness, grotesque, heinous; but to the marginalized, the Cross is a wonderful delight.
I present a face of resistance: