Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Black Beauty Standard

I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves; and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes. These methods have worked on my modest plantation in the West Indies and it will work throughout the South. Take this simple little list of differences and think about them. On top of my list is “AGE,” but it’s there only because it starts with an a. The second is “COLOR” or shade. There is intelligence, size, sex, sizes of plantations, status on plantations, attitude of owners, whether the slaves live in the valley, on a hill, East, West, North, South, have fine hair, course hair, or is tall or short. Now that you have a list of differences, I shall give you an outline of action, but before that, I shall assure you that distrust is stronger than trust and envy is stronger than adulation, respect or admiration.

- from The Willie Lynch letter: The making of a slave

After attending predominately white schools from Kindergarten through eighth grade, I remember being more than jovial when I got accepted into a magnet school in a Black area for high school. I was delighted to think that there would be more than one other Black person in my class that I could talk to. I was delighted to think that for once I would be in the majority; I found comfort in this.

My first day at the school proved to be the complete opposite of what I had expected. There was an immediate division between those who were of Caribbean ancestry and those who weren’t. Rather, those who weren’t were African American, or white American there was a disdain for us. Furthermore, there was even more of a distinction for those who were fair skinned versus those who were dark skinned. There was also an emphasis on “good hair” and “bad hair” than I’d never heard in my life. When I heard terms like “Tar baby” and jokes that started with “You’re so Black..(Insert insult here)” something in my stomach churned. Something made me angry. Then when I got my class schedule because I was in advanced courses, there were maybe three Black persons at the most and I was one of them. I was in the same situation that I had been in all those years before. I was faced with what I was attempting to avoid and shun.

After overcoming the initial shock of this, however, I was able to graduate from high school. A year later, I attended a Historically Black College hoping that because of the higher level of education offered that I would experience what I had been looking for in high school.  However, and to my own astonishment the ignorance was magnified. With my professors attempting to quell ignorance and with the handful of us who actually came to college to learn we were all fighting an uphill battle that was in place before I even thought of being conceived. This battle stemmed back hundreds of years before me. And I realized how engrained in my culture this skewed and European definition of beauty was. Then, in my Africana Philosophy course I read the “Willie Lynch Letter”. This was my second time reading this letter but in retrospect it was my first time because my professor forced us to grasp the concepts addressed by Willie Lynch, and then he forced us to analyze the letter and see its relevance to us in our time. Sadly, not much had changed.

In African American literature this idea of superiority because of light skin and good hair was even more evident in our literature because of the term called “Passing”. You may be wondering what is passing if you are unfamiliar with the term or don’t have family members old enough who want to explain it to them. Considering my parents were almost double the age of most parents of those in my generation, I knew this term before I was even in Kindergarten. To "pass" is to live your life as something that you aren’t and in reference to African Americans or those of those of the African Diaspora it is to pass as something other than Black. There were societies (“Blue Vain Societies”) set up to keep what was considered “beautiful”, “beautiful”. That is to say that certain persons were not allowed to marry persons who were darker than them, in order that their children wouldn’t be dark or even brown skinned. And then there were Blacks who rejected or shunned their ancestry all together and attempted to assimilate into the dominant culture. This was the epitome of passing and self hate all in attempts to have a “better life”. Passing still occurs today.

So what does this entire spiel mean? Where are we as a people today? We are Willie Lynch’s puppets. We are an ignorantly (Though there is ignorance in every race) educated people at times. I have heard even from those who have Ph.D.s about good hair and bad hair, about fair skin and dark skin and inferiority and superiority complexes. This gets under my skin. We are such a beautiful people, we are the embodiment of strength and passion personified in humanity and yet we still struggle with defining ourselves, and setting our own standards of beauty. If you haven’t noticed on the cover of almost every Black magazine, most of the women are fair skinned. If you haven’t noticed in every “shake your booty till it falls off” hip-hop music video, the women in there are melanin-lacking or completely melanin deficient.

If all of that escapes you, then step into a Black hair care store (Which I visit frequently) and examine all the products in place to lighten skin. I’d personally like to thank Mr. Lynch and all of his cronies, as well as my own people for not paying attention. I really would like to think that whenever we as a people decide to wake up from this distorted dream of “freedom” of choice and freedom to be beautifully Black, that when we wake up we will be able to embrace ourselves. It is my hope that we will be able to embrace every skin hue that is evident in our race from hues ranging from the color of the coming of night to creamy beige. It is my hope that we will be able to embrace cornrows, braids, fros, twist, and even sew ins as an expression of the individual and the hair choices because at the end of the day the beauty of it all is that we have choice. Why then can’t we celebrate every expression of who we are? I’m waiting on this day, hoping it comes in my lifetime.


Lynch, W. (n.d.). Willie Lynch letter: The Making of a Slave. Final Call. Retrieved from


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