4.4. Jamaica Kincaid: Is Yellow the Color of Beauty?
Lucy’s astonishment over Mariah’s appearance in terms of otherness represents a theme that alludes to Lucy’s internalization of standards of Eurocentric of beauty: “She looked so beautiful standing there in the middle of the kitchen. The yellow light from the sun came in [...] and Mariah, with her pale yellow skin and yellow hair, stood still in this almost celestial light, and she looked blessed, no blemish or mark of any kind on her cheek or anywhere else” (Kincaid ). This is the imagery of an impeccable euro-idealized look that is associated with beautiful nature, social success, economic prosperity and moral faultlessness. Lucy observes Mariah’s phenotypic features and declares that she would find her blue eyes “beautiful even if [she] hadn’t read millions of books in which blue eyes were always accompanied by the word ‘beautiful’” (Kincaid 39). The sharpness of the contrast between Afro-Caribbean and white American women’s appearance is stressed when Lucy affirms that the women in the Caribbean all bear some blemish on their face, such as her mother’s scar, that marks them ugly, and calmly notes she herself must “end up with a mark somewhere” (Kincaid 25). Lucy does not accept beauty as a necessary characteristic trait in a woman: “I did not like the kind of woman Dinah reminded me of. She was very beautiful and it mattered a great deal to her. Among the beliefs I held about the world was that being beautiful should not matter to a woman, because it was one of those things that would go away” (Kincaid 57). She shows her own superiority to the presumptuous character of Dinah: “I viewed her as a cliché, as something not to be” (Kincaid 58). In the novel, the idea of beauty is understood as a foreign quality, not one that would appeal to the main character’s values and perception of the world. When Lucy entertains the thought that “for the first time ever [...] [she] might actually be beautiful,” she decides she “would not make too big a thing of it” (Kincaid 133). Indeed, the novel proves true to Kincaid’s philosophy that not the outside but the inside beauty of a person is worth appreciating.
From the day Lucy arrives to New York, and finds herself helping as an au-pair, she is determined to be an agent rather than a passive receiver. Even though she realizes “that heavy and hard was the beginning of living, real living” (Kincaid 25) and that she is “all alone in the world, and [she] shall be this way” (Kincaid 93), Lucy does everything in her power not to become restricted by her race, gender and class identity. She perceives colonialism as a mechanism that still governs the relationships in the American society. Coping up with colonialism in her own manner, Lucy wants to kill the daffodils that are attributed in Lucy’s mind to “a scene of conquered and conquests” (30). Privileged by birth, Mariah’s perception of these flowers varies from Lucy’s and she believes that “nothing could change the fact that there where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness” (Kincaid 30). Lucy reflects on colonialism and the distribution of power in the world. She considers unjust that while some people might suffer in their impoverished life situations, others - “wealthy, comfortable, beautiful, with the best the world had to offer at their fingertips – [are] safe and secure and never suffer so much as a broken fingernail” (Kincaid 85). Lucy opposed this concept and wants to be herself regardless this distribution of the world.
Freedom becomes the purpose of life for Lucy and directly affects her self-esteem. She wants to be the owner of her self and entertain the right to decide for herself. And she is determined to surmount anything that might stand in her way towards independence: “I would never accept the harsh judgments made against me by people whose only power to do so was that they had known me from the moment I was born” (Kincaid 51). Her familial heritage and the relationship to her mother represents a burden she intends to escape. Lucy perceives freedom to be her heritage, one that she did not suppose would concern her: “Paul spoke of the great explorers who had crossed the great seas, not only to find riches, he said, but to feel free, and this search for freedom was part of the whole human situation” (Kincaid 129).
4.5. Alice Walker: Strong African-American Women are Beautiful
The ideal of beauty in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is related to skin color and racial identity, as these were discussed in the first chapter. In this story, Mama is portrayed as a “large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands, able to “kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 46). It is visible from the story that Mama is self-sufficient in her role as the head of the family, and unpretending in the way she cherishes life and her background. However, in her relationship to Dee, she feels that her older daughter scorns her for being uneducated and raw. In the light of her older daughter Mama feels inferior and in a dream Mama has about the two of them meeting in a TV show, she expresses this feeling clearly: “on television I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights” (Everyday Use 49). The idea of beauty for Mama is connected to being refined and delicate, the way her daughter Dee is. She compares herself and Maggie to Dee, who was sent to school and always thought of herself as something more, in terms of lack of culture and education.
Maggie does not consider herself beautiful either because she became stigmatized by a childhood experience, when their house caught on fire, which left scars on her body. These became an obstacle in her everyday interactions with other people and caused that Maggie lacks self-esteem: “Have you ever seen a lame animal [...] sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walk. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 47). Life has been tough for her and that is why she turns to her family and inheritance for security and affirmation of her existence. Like Mama, Maggie is aware of her predecessors and their work, and praises them. Maggie is depicted as not expecting much from life and knowing “she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 48), in contrast to her sister. Their relationship is created by what Maggie thinks about her sister when she says that Dee “has held life always in the palm of one hand, that ‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her” (Everyday Use 45). Disadvantaged and less successful in her life, Maggie is jealous of her sister’s easy living. Contrasted with Maggie’s low self-esteem, Dee, on the contrary, has an excess of it.
Dee is so obsessed with making “something of [herself]” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 55) and having “a style,” that she does not realize that “the lack of knowledge concerning her family is symbolic of the Black Power movement’s disregard for its American heritage” (White, Defining 3). In her blind adoption of the Black Power movement, Dee renounced her name Dee Johnson to accept an African name Wangero Lee-wanika Kemanjo. The tendency toward renaming is explained by means of the reversal of “the enslavement process and [confirmation of] the free (black’s) newly won liberty” (Eyerman 189). However, in Dee’s ignorance that the her name is passed in her family from one generation to the other, and in her blind adoption of Black Power’s fashion to elevate the African heritage over the American one, she wrongly states the reason for this to be: “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppressed me” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 50). Her frivolous attitude toward the newly assumed African culture is contradicted by the fact that her nature bears the characteristics of American consumer culture. Mama’s opinion that: “Dee always wanted nice things” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 48) confirms Dee’s superficiality and the untrustworthiness of her views. She pretends to appreciate the objects manufactured by her ancestors and wants to possess the quilts her Grandmother Dee and her Aunt Big Dee made. Not because she is appreciating that these quilts represent the history of her family, with pieces of the clothes of its members used, but in order to turn them into some kind of cultural artifact showing her heritage in the most hypocritical way. Even though Dee does not seem so at the beginning of the story, she is the weakest one of the three female characters as far as self-esteem and the understanding of what her real heritage is, as opposed to her mother and her sister. Also, it is not till the end of the story that Mama and Maggie can finally be at peace with their style of life and sit in the yard of their house “just enjoying, until it [is] time to go in the house and go to bed” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 55), suggesting their peace of mind and satisfaction with themselves.
This story challenges the Black Power movement in the same way it combats the hypocrisy with which Dee repudiates her family and her real heritage, for considering herself higher on the intelligence and social scale. It mocks African Americans who, in their “misguided black pride” (White, Defining 2), do not acknowledge and properly respect their predecessors and the hardships they endured. The heritage of an African American person is both African and American and a person needs to reconcile with the two in order to achieve self-esteem.
“Coming Apart” was written in order to become the introduction to the Third World Women’s chapter of a book about pornography called Take Back the Night, and was published before the book’s publication in Ms. Magazine under the title “A Fable” (Walker, “Coming Apart” 168). The fictitious story of a married couple sheds light on the problematic standing of black women in the American society while the essayistic use of quotations by three feminist writers provides the background for the discussion about their position. The theoretical ground of the story is the “almost always pornographic treatment of black women, who, from the moment they entered slavery, [...], were subjected to rape as the ‘logical’ convergence of sex and violence. Conquest, in short” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 169). The controversy of the topic comes into connection with black women’s more intimate themes of beauty and self-esteem.
In “Coming Apart”, the female character’s idea of beauty and self-esteem is mainly influenced by the relationship with her husband, which determines how she feels about herself in terms of self-worth, beauty and sexual desirability. Their problems have their root in the historical experience of black people in general. It is the fact of black woman’s abuse and black man’s inability to protect her and to provide for his family that brings along the black man’s frustration, leading to the adoption of white values about economic success and attitudes toward black women that seem to be imitating those of the white man. To prove this hypothesis, Walker quotes Tracy A. Gardner who claims that “Some Black men, full of the white man’s perspective and values, see the white woman or Blond Goddess as part of the American winning image. Sometimes when he is with the Black woman, he is ashamed of how she has been treated and how he has been powerless [...]” (qtd. in Walker, “Everyday Use” 178-79). This provides the background for the story’s discussion about the effects that pornography and black women’s stereotypical images have upon black women relationships with their male counterparts as well as themselves.
The main characters idea of beauty is mentioned in relation to her racial identity because of the story’s contribution to the necessity to “stand against white supremacy by choosing to value, indeed to love, blackness” (hooks, Black Looks 11). “Coming Apart” reveals a message to black women who find themselves in a similar position as the main character: one need to use all accessible means to fight for the justice. The final lines of the story provide a positive resolution: “he is reading her books and thinking of her – and of her struggles alone and his fear of sharing them [...] her own black skin affirmed in the brightness of his eyes” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 180). Alice Walker stresses the necessity for the black men and women to realize the damaging representations and remainders of the past that are still at work within the American society.
4.6. Olive Senior: Is Lighter Any Better?
The short story “Bright Thursdays” is governed by the principles of colorism: the lighter one’s skin color, the more beautiful the person is considered. In this way, the skin color is also connected to the concept of beauty. Beauty is often judged according to the scheme in which African features are considered of a lower status than white looks. It is believed that light-brown skin, straight hair and small straight nose are the ideal features in a person (Thompson and Keith). The family of Laura’s father can all be assigned to the category of beautiful: “All were bland and sweet. In none of these faces were there lines, or frowns, or blemishes, or marks of ugliness such as squint eye, or a broken nose, or kinky hair, or big ears, or broken teeth which afflicted all the other people she had known” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 203). Until this moment, there is no mention of Laura thinking about herself in terms of beauty but the time she reflects about the impossibility to compare her own image to the people from her father’s side. The knowledge of not being as worthy in terms of beauty strengthens Laura’s lack of belief in herself and contributes to her alienation from the world that surrounds her: “Faced with such perfection, she ceased to look at herself in the mirror” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 203). Her mother’s persuasion that “a child with such a long curly hair, with such a straight nose, with such soft skin (too bad it was so dark) was surely destined for the life of ease and comfort” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 198) puts Laura in a complicated life situation. Different from other children and not able to do what other children do, Laura’s physical appearance and her mother’s up-bringing make her “extremely conscious of being different [...] and she soon [becomes] withdrawn and lacking spontaneity” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 200). However, it is thanks to her new life experience, that she recognizes where she really belongs, and her self is formed.
There is a moment when Laura is confronted with her father’s white wife and when she suddenly feels ashamed for who she is. In the encounter with a white woman, Laura is impressed at how “trim and neat she was, at the endless fascination of her clothes, her jewelry, her laughter, her accent, her perfume, her assurance” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 210). Laura must compare this image of a beautiful white lady to “her mother’s hands, [with] the nails cracked and broken,” “her mother’s dark face,” and “her coarse shrill voice” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 210). This experience, together with what she learned during the stay with her grandparents, makes Laura’s personality grow stronger. The huge disappointment she has to go through when her father calls her a “bloody little bastard” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 211) helps Laura understand herself better. When in the beginning of the story the main character says she “cannot stand the clouds” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 211), clouds represent the uncertain in her life, something that makes her an incomplete person, something she is constantly looking or hoping for. It is her father and the possibility that he will come and claim her as his child. Through the story, the main character matures enough to be able to understand the illusion her mother made her live in and she decides to “make herself an orphan” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 211). This liberating decision causes that “there [are] no more clouds” (Senior, “Bright Thursdays” 211) in Laura’s life. Relieved of the burden, there is nothing else that would leave her uncertain about who she is.
Together with the idea of color, there is development and gradual change in the main character’s ideas about beauty as these two phenomena are very much interconnected in the story “The Two Grandmothers.” When the girl stays in the country with Grandma Del we can observe the influence her positive Black is Beautiful rhetoric has when the girl claims: “I feel so beautiful in my dresses she made [...] I feel so special.” However, as she grows older and loses her initial innocence, the main character finds out that beauty is often associated with lighter skin color and straight hair in the society where she belongs to, quite the opposite to what her rural grandmother made her believe. She is influenced by the majority ideas about white supremacy, lacking the explanation that black does not necessarily mean bad and shameful: “Mummy, how can I be beautiful? My skin is so dark, darker than yours and Maureen’s [...] and my hair is so coarse not like yours or Maureen’s. [...] I’m so ashamed of my hair.” The story can be compared to “Bright Thursdays” in the girl’s understanding of beauty and being ashamed of her blackness.
In “Bright Thursdays,” it seems to be precedence that everybody agrees that lighter skin color is more desirable and appraised. There is no questioning of this concept. Meanwhile in “The Two Grandmothers,” we are comparing two opposing views, one of them being positive as far as self-evaluation of the African-Caribbean community is concerned, and the other is ashamed of the African facial features and heritage and attempts to adopt white culture. In this story the main character encounters people that are proud to be black, such as grandmother Del. In both “Bright Thursdays” and “The Two Grandmothers” we can observe how people from higher classes identify lighter skin color with a type of privilege according to the principles of colorism, light color also being interpreted as beautiful. The approach of the main characters to their own image is different. Laura does not seem to care about her beauty until she is confronted with the picture of her father’s family. This experience makes her feel inferior and stop looking at herself. However, the main character of “The Two Grandmothers” is much more concerned about being beautiful as the result of the environment and Grandmother Towser’s influence. As soon as she is confronted with the white supremacist ideas of beauty, she decides she wants to alter the way she looks by means of cosmetics and hair-strengtheners. The above mentioned topic contributes to the sense of self-esteem in the two main characters of the stories. Olive Senior depicts the two girls in the moment of growing up and forming their self, a topic that is she is familiar with and that reoccurs in her work.
Self-esteem in African-American and African-Caribbean women’s literature becomes the basis of my thesis. In eight works of literature by six different authors I observe how the topics of skin color and racial identity, the role of sexuality and motherhood, and the portrayal of beauty create the black woman’s self-esteem. My thesis explores the respective reactions of authors from each region -- United States of America and the Caribbean -- to the discriminative mechanisms of racial subjugation based on stereotypical assumptions as well as to the imposition of white beau-ideal, which both influence African-American and African-Caribbean women’s self-esteem. Considering the imbalanced relationship between the African-American and African-Caribbean women and the rest of the society, it is natural that African-American and African-Caribbean women’s literature is saturated with racist and sexist ideologies that diminish the role of black women in the society and undermine their self-esteem. My objective is to trace the differences and similarities in their approach.
The role of women has still not reached the same level of autonomy but the tendency toward equality between the two sexes is increasing. Present day’s situation gives way to possibilities of black women’s assertion in many areas. The major merit might be ascribed to African-American and African-Caribbean women writers, like those that are analyzed in my thesis, who fought the battle of equality on the field of literature and succeeded in asserting themselves as writers, depicting the situation of women and claiming their equivalent place in the society.
In my thesis, I include slave narratives, texts that are considered one of the first texts by American and Caribbean women of African descend, as well as examples of contemporary fiction, in order to be able to track the development. Harriet Jacobs’ 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, where black women are treated as a chattel and their reproduction capacities are abused, can not be compared to contemporary writers whose freedom is taken for granted. When about one and a half centuries ago, women of American and Caribbean women of African origin were oppressed by the slaveholding white society, their position as independent human beings was disabled. Subject to another people’s will, African-American and African-Caribbean women were not allowed to much decisions-making for themselves and their children, a point of evidence that no longer appears in contemporary African-American and African-Caribbean women’s literature. However, what is similar to the contemporary writers like Alice Walker and Jamaica Kincaid is the agency with which the female characters seize the right to be in charge of their destinies. Through various obstacles, African-American and African-Caribbean women writers stress the need for gaining control over their representations and lives. As Alexander-Floyd claims, “In African culture, self-definition serves as the basis for collective action and individual identity. It is the means by which people of African descend can assert their own vision of their reality in opposition to that of the dominant culture.”
The idea of black girl’s growing up and searching for her identity is a theme that reappears in Senior’s short stories and Morrison’s novel. The young female characters are all faced with the negative images regarding black skin color and perceive lightness and white looks as desirable and privileged. While in the United States, the girl characters deny their appearance in the light of white beauty models, in the Caribbean they are confronted with the higher-class opinion stating that the lighter the better, a means to become distinguished from the black majority. Being the most vulnerable to others’ evaluations, the girls represent a triple oppression of being female, being of African descend and a child. The authors promote self-consciousness and black beauty as the ideology to grow up with. Exalting black beauty becomes also important when speaking about adult women, such as Walker’s main character from her short story “Coming Apart” whose wish is to eliminate erroneous representations of black women in pornography. Her self-esteem is pending on her ability to understand herself as a beautiful strong woman capable of creating her own life and reality on her own.
The themes that the authors touch upon can not be rigorously distinguished in two areas because of the interconnectedness of the two regions. On the contrary, similarity is accentuated as some of the theorists explain African-American and African-Caribbean writing in terms of African Diaspora. Carole Boyce Davies, for example, holds that “Because we were/are products of separations and dis-locations and dis-memberings, people of African descend in the America historically have sought reconnections” (qtd. in Donnell 132), contributing to the common goal of promotion of the black race and equality for its women.
Black feminist approached that see the advancement in overcoming the “specific images, representations of race, of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all black people” (hooks, 1992: 2) assert that the notion of self-esteem in the black women’s fiction is formed on the basis of principle of self-esteem. I would like to conclude with a quote by Alexander-Floyd that the “lack of ‘self-love’ can lead to Black women allowing others to treat them with disrespect. Internalizing white beauty standards can diminish Black women’s self-esteem.”
1 The short story “The Two Grandmothers” was taken from a course reader Caribbean Literature: An Anthology of 20th Centuty Caribbean Writings, U. of Murcia 1999. The pages of the story are not numbered.