The Portrayal of Beauty and Self-Esteem

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1.2.3. The Portrayal of Beauty and Self-Esteem

The ways in which Black people view themselves in terms of self-esteem and affirmation of their blackness become closely connected to the concept of beauty, as will be discussed in my thesis. Beauty by its dictionary description signifies “the quality of being pleasing to the senses” of others (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary) and when talking about a person, beauty has become synonymous to “a matter of physical characteristics” (duCille 557). In Peg Zeglin Brand’s essay examining the various approaches to the concept, beauty is defined as “the intersection of aesthetics, ethics, social-political philosophy, and cultural criticism” (1). The first theories that took race into account when speaking about a person’s attractiveness, held that “within the standards of different races, the criteria for what is called beauty are the same as those of the Western tradition” (Brand 4). According to Brand, such erroneous theories were also supported by reputable philosophers of the eighteenth century – Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant (5). With the appearance of feminist writings, the racial, sexual, and cultural aspects of beauty became addressed and “the neutrality of purportedly objective and universal statements about beauty” was challenged (Brand 4). Moreover, black feminists considered the fight against “dualistic thinking about good and bad” (hooks, Black Looks 4) on the field of beauty and representation that taught black people to “cherish hateful images of themselves” (hooks, Black Looks 6) very necessary. bell hooks, for example, sees “loving blackness” as a prerequisite for emancipation of the whole black community (20). Given the existence of innumerable definitions and theories of beauty, I recognize it in my thesis as one of the aspects that concur in the formation of black women’s self-esteem. When we link beauty with the formation of a black woman’ self-understanding, we have to be aware of the “internalized white supremacist values and aesthetics, a way of looking and seeing the world that negates [their values]” (hooks, Black Looks 3).

According to the traditional belief of the Western modern civilization, the idea of beauty, as evidence of worth and self-assertion, matters more to women than men. Among the qualities that were originally elevated in a woman by the European society are delicacy, refinement, moral nobility, and sensitivity. In the process of colonization, these standards and beliefs were introduced together with the ideas of white supremacy and the concept of “white beauty was based on the racist assumption of black ugliness” (Hunter 179), providing an effective explanation for black women’s oppression and uncomplimentary position. These concepts are often confronted in the literature by black female writers and feminists who stress “the realization that a white-dominated culture has racialized beauty, [and] that it has defined beauty per se in terms of white beauty” (Brand 5). Since the first encounter of European and African cultures, women of color have been viewed according to the prevailing white standards that the society appropriated. Together with other factors, this causes the devaluation of black womanhood and creation of unflattering prejudices to be rooted in the society.

Ever since their first confrontation with the ideals of white womanhood, black women have necessarily been influenced by the stereotypical patterns of white beauty. A counterpart to these ideals was created to confirm the hypothetical black inferiority and ugliness. These simplified concepts of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, created severe problems in the subconscious of the black women. Manifested in expressions and feelings of inferiority and lack of confidence, these residues of oppression can be observed in numerous literary works written by African-American and African-Caribbean women. However, a progressive change in the attitude towards black looks has been taking place since the 1960’ Black Power movement when black beauty began to be praised, and blackness has been gradually losing its negative associations to convert itself into the “spice that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks, Black Looks 14). In her book named Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks is concerned with the image of the Other and the commodification of blackness and black lifestyles in the contemporary mass culture. The Ferris State University website dedicated to “Jezebel Stereotypes” explains that while “the Mammy caricature was the dominant popular culture image of Black women from slavery to the 1950s, the depiction of Black women as Jezebels was common in American material culture” (Pilgrim). The site also gives examples of everyday items mocking black women’s physique and nudity. In my thesis, I will describe how these denigrating views on black physique are interconnected with the concepts racism and sexism, are how they qualify the lives and identities of black heroines in the literature written by black women.

In the lives and writing of black women, we can observe a gradual realization of their selves as the assertion of one’s beliefs and dreams. The value of one’s life can be measured by the extent of the self-appreciation and awareness of oneself. By being equilibrated, understanding and knowing oneself, a person forms an autonomous entity in the world. Their self-esteem becomes one of the “pivotal junctures of self-realization for Black women in the process of negotiating their personal and political realities” (Mitchell 15). Numerous motives and constituents converge in black women’s sense of self-esteem, beauty among the most important ones. To disregard and overturn the debilitating stereotypes about their physical as well as moral identity was the task of black emancipation and feminist movements that provide theoretical background for the writing by African-American and African-Caribbean women. In the analysis of African-American and African-Caribbean works of literature I interpret self-esteem as their most obvious contribution to the cause of black women’s emancipation and an effective tool in challenging the devaluation of black womanhood.
1.3. The History of African-American and African-Caribbean

Women’s Struggle on the Field of Equality and Literature

The history of black women in the United States and the Caribbean reflects “the Black women’s legacy of enslavement and dispossession” and in the course of time, the principal objective in the field of history has been “to utilize this knowledge in the reclamation and celebration of their racial and gendered selves and heritage” in order to create an environment that would acknowledge the historical need of assertion of their self-esteem (Mitchell 5). In order to be able to trace black women’s history in both the United States and the Caribbean, it must be said that the most immediate sources of information about the status and conditions of women under slavery are the slave narratives portraying the authentic aspects in the lives and feelings of black women. Other historical sources that comment upon slave women are limited for objective empirical use because of strong racist as well as sexist biases. Black female slaves used to be described as “breeders” or referred to as “female animals” (Stetson 74) and indeed, there were few attempts to interpret black female slaves as “complex entities with complex behavior and motivations” (Stetson 65). Because of the traditional importance of motherhood in the lives of women of African origin, one of the most significant themes in women’s slave narratives is child-rearing. Women of African origin were trying to achieve personal autonomy for themselves and their offspring. When considering the motives of black women’s escape from slavery and their migration to the North, “a desire to retain or claim some control over ownership of their own sexual beings and the children they bore” will occupy one of the most important positions (Hine 343).

The ominous presence of the threat or reality of rape can also be observed as a consciousness-forming element in the lives of African-American and African-Caribbean women. In slavery times, black women were seeking control over their selves in terms of sexuality that had become the basis of daily exploitation by the white masters: “One of the most remarked upon but least analyzed themes in Black women’s history deals with Black women’s sexual vulnerability and powerlessness as victims of rape and domestic violence” (Hine 342). Hine goes on to quote Hazel Carby who aptly emphasizes that “The institutionalized rape of black women has never been as powerful a symbol of black oppression as the spectacle of lynching. Rape has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting a sexual attack” (qtd. in Hine 342). Stereotypical images of black women alluding to the patriarchal racist conception of black womanhood as corrupted were created in order to justify such ill-treatment.

Unable to eradicate the negative social and sexual images of their womanhood, by being marginalized from the larger white society, black women were at least able to preserve a kind of secrecy protecting their inner aspects of life. This invisibility contributed to distancing from the negative images that were the only representations of women of African origin. Keeping their inner lives for themselves could be interpreted as black women’s resistance and struggle for equal opportunities and respect in the larger society (Yarbrough and Bennett). As Hine puts it, “stereotypes, negative images, and debilitating assumptions filled the space left empty due to inadequate and erroneous information about the true contributions, capabilities, and identities of Black women” (344). It became essential to the future development of their situation “that they collectively create alternative self-images and shield from scrutiny these private, empowering definitions of self” (Hine 344). The lack of primary source material for personal aspects of Black female life might come from this veil that black women created around themselves in order to protect themselves.

The act of rape caused, without any doubt, a serious damage to the Black women’s sense of self-esteem. When the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was founded in 1896, its first attacks were upon the derogatory images and negative stereotypes of black women’s sexuality. The preoccupation about enslaved women’s legacies “as chattel, as sexual slaves as well as forced laborers” (Hull and Smith xviii) can be observed in the writings by black women and feminists in the past as well as today, and create the historical background of black women’s existence in the New World. In the Introduction to an anthology of black feminist studies, Gloria T. Hull and Barbara Smith claim that “only a black and feminist analysis can sufficiently comprehend the materials of Black women studies” (Hull and Smith xxi). The work of black feminists fundamentally influenced how black women’s history is grasped, and positively touched the later development in black women’s self-help movements.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the development of Emancipation and Negritude movements became a decisive impulse for the formation of the African consciousness. The collective experience of black people meant a fundamental factor in the growth of African self-awareness. Protest and emancipation groups were formed with a unifying call for improvement, political and social, for the black race. The idea of common cultural heritage that the continent of Africa represented became a global phenomenon, which gave birth to the concept of the Black Diaspora (Thompson, Africans of the Diaspora). Black writers and intellectuals articulated “the confident affirmation of black humanity in the midst of a difficult collective existence” (Irele 765). Such articulation of common history as well as common goals became the necessary starting point for further re-evaluation and betterment of their situation for both black men and women.

In their common quest for a society based on equality, black women formed an important part of the Black movements. However, they shared the “awareness of how their sexual identity combined with their racial identity to make their whole life situation and the focus of their political struggles unique” (The Combahee River Collective 14) and found themselves not only fighting the racist beliefs, but also disadvantaged by the domination of the patriarchal rule. Black women’s fight is unique in their having to fight the double oppression “determined by [the] very biological identity”) of women of color (Hull and Smith xviii).

In the period of gradual progression towards the abolition of slavery in all of the American continent and the broadening possibilities for black people’s liberty and equality, Slave Narratives arose to provide first-hand account of the slave experience. Together with the dispersal of the abolitionist movements’ ideas, numerous slave narratives were created by both men and women in order to point out the conditions of slave captivity and oppression. However, female slave narratives were exceptionally important because they addressed the “particular positioning of slave women as objects of master’s sexual desires and for master’s economic gains” (Lester) and combated both racial and sexist mechanisms of subjugation.

Harriet Jacobs wrote her narrative called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself in 1857 as a “recently freed fugitive slave and an activist in the abolitionist movement” (Yellin, qtd. in Jacobs, xiii) and was able to publish her book in 1861, thus creating a predecessor for women-written slave narratives in the United States of America (Mitchell 23). In the sense of being a predecessor, her book can be compared to Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself that was published in Britain in 1831, becoming the first Caribbean narrative by a woman.

Both Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself and Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself belong to the category of confession-like writings by slaves or former slaves, serving abolitionist purposes while providing informative insight into the slave life in the United States and the Caribbean. In the case of slave narratives, the question of genre arises. It is disputable whether these texts should be studied as “fiction (literary document), as history (anti-slavery documents), as autobiography (the slave’s own history)” (Stetson 68). However, it proves to be true that their value for understanding the historical period is immense because “they capture the very voices of American slavery, revealing the texture of life as it was experienced and remembered” (American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology).

Historically speaking, slave narratives are a historical milestone in the lives of black people, mirroring the nature of slavery. In a chapter dedicated to “The Literature of Slavery and Abolition,” Moira Ferguson observes the historical situation in the United States and claims that “From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, slaves and ex-slaves in the African Diaspora, kidnapped in West Africa, shipped across the notorious Middle Passage, and sold into slavery, wrote unflinchingly about their brutal life experiences” (238). With the rise of the abolitionist movement in the eighteenth century, colored citizens were encouraged to comment on their personal situation and experience during slavery, out of which many important slave narratives resulted. Ferguson acknowledges that “by the 1780s, many northern states had enacted legislation to abolish slavery” (241) and during the 1830s numerous anti-slavery societies in the north worked for the emancipation of slaves. In the Caribbean, the colonial presence of Great Britain must be acknowledged together with the issue of exile that becomes one of the most recurring themes in the Anglophone Caribbean literature. The center for abolitionist societies could be located either in the northern states of the United States of America and in Great Britain’s colonial capital of London.

Women slave narrative writers’ contributions to the abolition principles meant an important landmark in American and Anglo-Caribbean literature as well as the history of black people. In their slave narratives, black women discussed similar topics, and dealt with the same issues across national and ethnic boundaries. According to Ferguson,

Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself marks in an unprecedented fashion a departure for slave narratives, frequently told from female perspective. As never before, her narrative paved the way for gendered reconstruction of slave’s experience. She speaks about the persistence of sexual harassment and the vulnerability of female slaves and white-male manipulation of motherhood in an unprecedentedly open fashion. (242)

The voicelessness of black women during slavery is much more visible in the Caribbean than in the U.S. The reasons for this literary gap could originate from the history of women’s experience of slavery specific to the Caribbean and the later forms of oppression that are not known and have not been recovered as in the case of the U.S.: “Fewer books on slavery by slaves or ex-slaves were published in the Caribbean region in Britain and in the Americas/United States. [...] Several factors account for this scarcity of slave narratives, most of all a society rigidly divided into workers and landowners that discouraged even white writers from discussing slavery” (Ferguson 245-46). Another fact of importance is that even though “Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and declared emancipation in 1833, emancipation in the British Caribbean did not effectively begin until 1839” (Ferguson 246). Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself represents a confirmation of the existence of slave narratives in this region, although much more unusual.

Women slave narratives are a significant source of information on what life was like for black women within a patriarchal slaveholding society: “the narrative is, rather, the constructed discourse of the major concerns and issues that have organized and structured much of the African American woman’s life” (Mitchell 15). My aim is to examine these concerns and issues as they appear in works of both authors, and in relation to contemporary literature.

The role of women in slavery was later often commented upon by black feminists. Jacobs’s assertion that: “Women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock” (49) may remind us of the later “Black is Beautiful” rhetoric. According to Guy-Sheftall, feminism “sees women mainly in terms of their oppression and their struggles to overcome it.” Black women, however, have not had the “so-called benefits of being female [as] they have not been sheltered, protected, or idealized” (Guy-Sheftal) as has been the case of white women. Women of color still face the task of regaining a respectable position in the larger society and claiming the ability to speak for themselves. Mitchell contemplates the origins of sexually colored stereotypes that dwelled on the black women’s representations: “Unable to claim herself, the enslaved Black woman was not allowed agency in expressing sexuality or in the product of its expression, created by choice or by force” (Mitchell 17). Later feminist movements built upon this lack of accordant representation of black women’s lives and the calls of enslaved women for the assertion of their identity and self-esteem.

The two slave narratives, Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself and Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, have the common ground of slavery and specify the conditions of female slaves. Their narratives both function as a precedent of slave narratives written by women in the respective region.

  1. Skin Color and Racial Identity

When talking about women of African origin, issues of skin color and physical attractiveness are closely linked. Since beauty is “highly racialized and informed by ideals of white supremacy established during slavery and colonialism” (Hunter 178), skin tone becomes decisive in the process of association of black women with social status and beauty. In black women’s literature, authors differ in how the idea of skin color is treated, from a rejection of one’s own heritage to various attempts of changing skin color by chemical procedures, all the way to the Harlem Renaissance famous motto ‘Black is Beautiful’ that works as affirmation of black pride and of the need for building up confidence in oneself as a way of rebellion against a society that offers only one kind of beau-ideal, a white one. In her essay treating skin color as social capital, Margaret L. Hunter claims that “hierarchies of skin color that systematically privilege lightness persist in their effects on women of color” (175) and she employs the term colorism to describe “the system that privileges the lighter skinned over the darker-skinned people within a community of color” (176). Such assertion is visible especially in the works of African-Caribbean writers like Mary Prince and Olive Senior. Dark skin is associated with negative traits and lower status in comparison to privileged lightness in terms of phenotype, aesthetics, and culture. In their research, Thompson and Keith proved that “issues of racial identity, skin color, and attractiveness were central concerns of women” (339). All the selected writers in some way address the concept of racial identity.
2.1. Harriet Jacobs: Black is the Color of Oppression

While the institution of slavery was based on the racist assumption that people of African origin are intellectually inferior and need guidance, the color of one’s skin and the phenotypic features became the major determinants of belonging to the African race in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (further referred to as Incidents). The idea of skin color in Jacob’s narrative is closely connected to the chattel status of the slaves. Understood in these terms, African-Americans were treated as property and not allowed any control over their lives and destinies. As Jacobs suggests, slavery especially takes advantage of black women and their reproductive capacities. In Jacob’s Incidents, the enslaved woman’s most urging preoccupation is not with her color or race, but with the vulnerability to be sexually abused without a possibility to claim control over her offspring and her motherhood. However, in regard to skin color, Jacobs contemplates the destinies of the children coming from the interracial intercourse between a white master and a slave woman, who followed the condition of the mother and therefore inherited her slave status:

I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. The fair child grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was blooming with flowers, and overarched by a sunny sky. [Her slave sister] was also very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink. (29)

Given the inborn status of a slave, lighter skin color did not mean any other treatment or preference from the white masters, quite the opposite to what Thompson and Keith assert. Jacobs describes the situation that any slave woman had to deal with, regardless of what the shade of her skin was: “No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men” (Jacobs 27-28). The condition of slavery becomes the most decisive concept in Incidents, far more decisive than the distinction by the color of one’s skin, which indeed becomes secondary in the light of what Jacobs struggles for the most – her liberty. Jacobs’ narrative shows that there is only one possible division between people and that it is not based on the concept of skin color as much as on the rigid split into the enforced categories of free versus slave.

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