.. acy arises in a racially conscious society where Black women and Black men are still struggling with how to present their physical image and still be accepted in the society. It is very complex trying to negotiate your self-acceptance through two opposing cultures. Advertising in the 1930s had an impact on how African Americans defined themselves, particularly African American women. It is still the same more than 60 years later (Brown & Lieberson, 2000). Advertisers have successfully exploited the self-image of Black men and women. To be Black, especially if you were particularly dark, was loaded with negative stereotypes.
Several products, promising miraculous transformations, were manufactured and marketed specifically to the Black community. Their sales pitch implied that using the right product would eliminate the social conditions that defined Black life, helping them in the assimilation process. Throughout the 1930s, bleach not only whitened clothes, it was marketed as a means of lightening and whitening black skin. Advertisers swamped readers with a sales pitch that may now seem implausible and insulting, but much of these products, or products making similar claims, are still readily available. In the 1930s, as much as 20% of a popular African American magazine’s ad revenue, AFRO-American, came from cosmetic companies hawking skin bleaching and hair straightening products. The advertisers were merciless in reinforcing the insecurities of Black women.
While some ads were directed at Black men, women were the primary targets of skin care products while men were encouraged to “improve” the appearance of their hair (Brown & Lieberson, 2000). The implication was that natural physical traits of blackness were defective; whiteness was now the norm for Blacks to emulate. Blackness could be corrected by purchasing and using the proper chemicals on the hair and skin. The standard of beauty was undeniably White, “the whiter the righter” (Brown & Lieberson, 2000). Through their products and marketing strategy they produced and reproduced whiteness. Ads were carefully worded to play on stereotypes and promoted a negative association with natural blackness.
Consequently many Black women and Black men have mutilated their bodies and have even died because they used products, containing harsh chemicals, that promised peace of mind in a bottle (Brown & Lieberson, 2000). (See figures 1 through 7) It must be clearly stated that much of the fascination with straightening hair and lightening skin became such a part of the culture that some Black men and Black women were simply unconsciously responding to the social norms and expectations. This is not a criticism, only an observation of people trying to survive by any means necessary. Inevitably, the situation was futile for those who believed the elaborate claims of products promising “whiteness.” Even Blacks who were light enough to pass as white could only gain greater success and acceptance by denying their true identity, living in self-imposed isolation and with the constant fear of discovery. While American popular culture reserves its most positive stereotype of blackness to light-skinned Blacks, they have never gained complete acceptance in White society, merely marginal tolerance. However, the ads supported and reinforced the prevailing attitude and the historical circumstance that Blacks of mixed race have received educational and economic advantages.
The legacy of all this conditioning is so ingrained in the Black psyche, that exploring the natural beauty of blackness is still not an option for many. While hair and skin color is not the totality of the African American definition today it remains a preoccupation. Darkness is loaded in negative stereotype. To be dark is to be ugly. “You can’t HIDE skin ugliness forever. Start right today to BLEACH skin to new beauty” (Brown & Lieberson, 2000).
This very negative language is used to define what is a natural consequence. Black women like all women in the society were and are concerned about “beautifying” themselves but advertisers took the focus away from enhancing her natural qualities to transforming blackness to whiteness or ugliness to beauty. Today’s multicultural schoolchildren are fortunate to grow up in classrooms where they are taught to appreciate all of the many heroes of American history, no matter what color their skin was. While previous generations read textbooks that told only part of our Nation’s story, textbooks have been developed in recent years that give students a more accurate picture. Telephone interview with Mrs. Louise Mitchell The following is part of a telephone interview with Mrs. Louise Mitchell of Paris, Tennessee.
I was introduced to Mrs. Mitchell through my mother, Mrs. Alice Lee Hurt, who is her friend and neighbor. Mrs. Mitchell is African American, 83 years old, a widow, and a former resident of New York City and Mississippi. “Mrs.
Mitchell, could you tell me what life was like around World War II for African American women?” “In 1937, I was a colored woman, a wife, and a mother. Every morning, rain or shine, I was part of a group of women with brown paper bags and cheap suitcases who stood on street corners in the Bronx and in Brooklyn waiting for a chance to get some work. Sometimes there were 15 of us, sometimes 30, some were old, many were young, and most of us were Negro women waiting for employers to come and bargain for our labor (Mitchell, 2000).” “We would come as early as 7 in the morning, wait as late as four in the afternoon with the hope that we would make enough to buy supper when we went home. Some had spent their last nickel to get to the corner and were in desperate need. When the hour grew late, we sat on boxes if any were around.
In the afternoon, our labor was worth only half as much as in the morning. If we were lucky, we would get about 30 cents an hour scrubbing, cleaning, laundering, washing windows, waxing floors and woodwork all day long. In the afternoon, when most had already been employed, we were only worth the degrading sum of 20 cents an hour (Mitchell, 2000).” “Once hired on the ‘slave market,’ we would find after a day’s backbreaking toil, that we had worked longer than was arranged, got less than was promised, or were forced to accept clothing instead of cash. We were exploited beyond human endurance. Only the urgent need for money made us submit to this daily routine (Mitchell, 2000).” “When I was young, there were more than two million women engaged in domestic work in the United States.
At the time, this was the largest occupational group for women and about half of them were Negro women (Mitchell, 2000).” “And though many Negro women worked for as little as two dollars a week and as long as 80 hours a week – we had no social security, no workmen’s compensation, and no old age security (Mitchell, 2000).” “But as bad as life was in New York in 1937, it was worse in the South. In Mississippi, the White southerners all said that we Negroes were a happy, laughing set of people, with no thought of tomorrow. How sadly mistaken they were. We had such a feeling of unrest, insecurity, almost panic. In our homes, in our churches, wherever two or three of us would gather, there was a discussion of ‘What do we do? Should we remain in the South or go elsewhere? Where can we go to feel secure like other people feel? Do we go in great numbers or only in several families?’ These and many other things we discussed over and over (Mitchell, 2000).” “And yet sometimes it’s easy to forget just how hard life was back then.
Southern railway stations had three waiting rooms, with very conspicuous signs that told the ignorant that this room is for ‘ladies,’ this one is for ‘gents’ and that one is for ‘colored’ people. We were neither ‘ladies’ nor ‘gents,’ but ‘colored’ (Mitchell, 2000).” “Many, many times I have thought of a neighbor of mine in Mississippi, a Negro woman. She was killed because she was accused of using ‘abusive language.’ Her provocation was great. Her brother had been almost killed by a mob because he had been suspected of taking a pocketbook that had been dropped in the public road (Mitchell, 2000).” Summary Until relatively very recently, African Americans were denied their history. The rediscovery of this history arouses pride in a legitimate past, enhances self-respect, and provides heroes and leaders with whom we all, and especially African Americans, can identify.
African American women have been doubly penalized. Their history, as written by white, male historians, fails miserably in documenting the female contribution to society’s growth and survival. My hope in this paper is that we look anew at those vital contributions and start to give credit to the millions of women who have shown the pride and strength of people who have endured and survived great oppression. Barbara Jordan once wrote, “‘We the people’; it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the seventeenth of September, 1787, I was not included in that ‘We the people’ (Editorial, 2000).” We should honor her memory by continuing to work toward equality and inclusion for all.
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