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Black Is Finally Beautiful




There are thirteen million women in the United States between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight. All of them were eligible to compete for the title of Miss America in the annual contest staged in Atlantic City last month if they were high-school graduates, were not and had never been married, and were not Negroes.
Ross makes no further comment on the exclusion of more than a million young black women from the pageant, although her allusion to them was provocative for its time. Until 1948, their fathers and brothers had been serving in a segregated military. It was five years before the Supreme Court, in deciding Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ended legal segregation in American schools. And while the Miss America Pageant abolished the ban on black contestants in 1950, none would compete until 1970, and none would win until Vanessa Williams took the crown, in 1984.

Six years later, People magazine launched an annual issue devoted to “The World’s Fifty Most Beautiful People.” The most beautiful of the beautiful gets the cover. (There are currently about seven billion lovely and unlovely humans on the planet; People’s short list, however, is restricted to celebrities.) Last week, the honors for 2014 went to Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar, this year, for her supporting role in “12 Years a Slave.” Nyong’o, thirty-one, was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents while her father, a college professor, was teaching there. They returned to Kenya when she was three, where they lived, she has said, a comfortable “suburban” life. She was educated in the United States at Hampshire College and at the Yale School of Drama. Her poise, like her chic, is striking, and her beauty is classically African. Two “most beautiful” stars of mixed African ethnicity, Halle Berry and Beyoncé, preceded Nyong’o, in 2003 and 2012, respectively. They are both notably lighter-skinned.

There is nothing critical to say about Nyong’o’s new title except, perhaps, that it should seem so radically newsworthy. It is nearly fifty years since Malcolm X published his autobiography, in which he describes the mortifications that black people endured “to look pretty by white standards.” For African-American soldiers, those standards still have the power to oppress. They are currently contesting the Pentagon’s new rules for “appropriate” grooming, rules, they object, that would force them to straighten their naturally wooly locks, and which limit braiding—a tradition with deep cultural symbolism in Africa and its diaspora. (Braids, ironically, are emblems of valor.) In an article for this magazine on the black hairdressing industry, I wrote about Malcolm’s efforts, as a young man, to “dekink” his hair with homemade “congolene”: half a can of Red Devil lye mixed with two sliced white potatoes and two well-beaten raw eggs, then worked through the scalp. This excruciating procedure gave him a head of “shining red hair… as straight as any white man’s.” And here, perhaps, it is worth noting that, since 1985, only one black man, Denzel Washington, has won another of People’s celebrity beauty contests—for “The Sexiest Man Alive.”

Unlike Beyoncé’s hair, which was blond on her People cover, or Halle Berry’s hair, worn in a feather cut, Nyong’o’s short do looks unprocessed. But a hairstyle is hardly the issue. Women with strong African features and jet-black skin are, even today, with a black family in the White House, scarce in the pages of mainstream fashion magazines, or as sponsors of upscale beauty products. (Nyong’o has recently been signed as the “face” of Lancôme cosmetics.) The supermodel Alek Wek, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, who was born in what is now South Sudan and fled to England as a refugee from her country’s civil wars, was one of the first, and is still an exception.

Nyong’o has cited Wek as an inspiration. Growing up, she said, she “dreamed” of having light skin; Wek, who has skin the color of polished obsidian, was the first mirror in which she could see her own beauty. Oprah Winfrey has noted that if Wek had appeared on the cover of a magazine when she was a girl, “I would have had a different concept of who I was.” But, around the world, Nyong’o’s selection has generated an outpouring of praise and gratitude, especially from younger women of color, for the “validation” it represents—a validation tainted by its rarity.


Agunda Okeyo, writing on, raised another objection to Nyong’o’s apotheosis. She writes, “Media outlets from the Daily Mail to Forbes to the Hollywood Reporter have described Nyong’o with one particular word: ‘exotic.’ This is basically a coded way of saying she is beautiful despite being black and dark-skinned.” Nyong’o, she argues, is no more exotic than Meryl Streep, a Yale alumna who had a similarly middle-class upbringing.

But the epithet “exotic beauty” has been used for centuries to characterize almost any colonial woman whose allure is heightened by her otherness. She has taken the form, real or fictional, of Salome, Cleopatra, a geisha, a Creole, a Jewess, an odalisque, an Arab dancing girl. She wears a sari or an ao bai. She refills her Western lover’s opium pipe and inspires his art. The phrase is redolent of an alien hypersexuality, and it doubly objectifies the woman it describes: as a fetish and as a primitive. (Patsey, Nyong’o’s character in “12 Years a Slave,” is raped repeatedly by a brutal master who fancies himself in love with her.)

Unlike most Miss Americas, Nyong’o has shown exemplary dignity and a certain reticence in interviews about the People hoopla: she refuses to gush. She has also not mentioned a recent image of her role model Alek Wek, now thirty-seven, and a human-rights activist, who has lived in the West since she was fourteen. Last October, Wek was featured on the cover of Forbes Life Africa magazine wearing nothing (visible) but a thick golden collar that resembles the rigid neck-stretching rings of tribes in Burma and South Africa. The tribes would seem to have little in common, except, perhaps, that their maidens and matrons, like billions of women everywhere, suffer to be thought beautiful.

Photograph by Jana Cruder/Corbis Outline.

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