Beyoncé: White Face, Black Face? Whose Face?
Super songstress Beyoncé Knowles has been getting a lot of press–and criticism–for how she has been looking recently, either modeling for a European fashion magazine or going around town with celebrity friends. And the controversy is not only about what she does, but who she is.
This March, the singer and actress agreed to grace the cover and pages in an “African Queen” theme photo shoot for the French fashion magazine’s celebratory 90th issue. The magazine says that Beyonce was painted darker in an effort to celebrate a return to the singer’s roots. She was dressed in costumes to celebrate African musician and activist Fela Kuti. Interestingly, Bey’s husband Jay-Z is a producer of “Fela!,” a traveling musical about Kuti’s life. “Fela!” is rife with anti-colonial sentiment and pro-Africa politics. We wonder what the James Brown of Nigeria would have thought if he could see Beyonce’s photographs.
The Afrobeat founder was pretty much a race man, an African man who was influenced by the Black Panthers, his own quirky brand of Nigerian nationalism, and by Yoruba religion. Despite having twelve (12) official wives, his appetite for women remained unabated until just before he died of AIDS in 1994. How this blacking up is giving praise to his shade is beyond my comprehension. (And it makes me wonder too why this French magazine had to get Beyoncé? Couldn’t they have gotten a Nigerian model? But some reports say that Beyoncé volunteered to be a part of this shoot. This girl, however, didn’t seem to realize that blacking up for blacks is comparable to selling out, to demeaning the skin you are in for the pleasure and condescension of whites. Didn’t Beyoncé ever see Bamboozled?
When you consider the images as a whole in L’Officiel, Beyonce, like in the L’Oreal ad, is nearly unrecognizable. Is one’s skin color interchangeable? Is it like a costume? Or a pair of sneakers?
In a word, no. At least, for me and not in this lifetime. I am also not an entertainer, therefore the additional pressures that Beyoncé Knowles may face–to stay popular, to keep her fan base, to be willing to break conventions–are not the same for me. However, there are some things that for me that not only skirt the fine line, but go too far beyond it. And that is not necessarily a good thing. Like this latest photo of Beyoncé, for example, at right. As far as I am concerned, I truly think Beyoncé has been taking skin-lightening treatments. I’m willing to be corrected on this issue, just like I was about Michael Jackson (who truly did have vitiligo, but that didn’t explain everything about his cosmetic metamorphosis). However, I don’t believe that Bey got that pallor by simply staying indoors for long periods of time, as some have suggested at other sites.
Furthermore, Beyoncé is a black Creole woman, whose antecedents come from Louisiana. (My ancestors came from Louisiana and Mississippi.) Many Creoles come in all colors, from dark to light skin. Black Creoleness is always gauged with several determinants: born from Creole-descended parents, resident in certain areas where black Creoles have always lived, possessed of the language (Louisiana Creole), of the religion (Catholic), of matriculating at certain schools or taking up certain professions.
Light skin, though, has always been the sine qua non of some black Creoles’ existence. Some have influenced children and grandchildren not to marry darker-skinned blacks or black Creoles so as not to create what we call throwback, that is a darker-skinned generation with frizzier hair and wider noses and lips. An African-looking generation. Blacks have called this kind of thinking self-hatred; that you would deliberately try to genetically engineer the same kinds of people–not in the service of love–but in the service of a rather dubious ideal: to continue to look as light as possible.
Now, I am not a fan of Beyoncé, although I did love her song, “Crazy in Love“; I did not like her trying to do Etta James (who, by the way, has been ailing for sometime, and has been the subject of a fight among her family members for conservatorship of her assets. That’s why James herself wasn’t able to sing, “At Last” for the Obamas). Until the L’Oreal ad, I did not think that Beyoncé was being anything but herself. Michael Jackson, however, when he began to alter himself cosmetically, became the subject of all sorts of cultural studies essays, as well as gossip, ridicule, and anger, as to the meaning of his actions. Those essays suggested that blackness would become more and more a state of mind–to be discarded or retained at will–if blacks with the money could access cosmetic devices and procedures that could alter their facial features and bodies. The result was that they would become more acceptable to themselves–or to larger, read white, audiences.
However, I think that Michael Jackson went too far. It was said that Michael submitted to the knife because he did not like to be reminded of his father. I think that he also lightened his skin because the vitiligo had also whitened his body. (What isn’t indicated is that Michael also blurred the line between male and female by revising his facial features.) If Beyoncé has lightened her skin cosmetically, it is not because of a disease, and she is already world-renowned. I think that she may be experimenting with herself, trying to revise the image of herself a la Madonna, and seeing what attention, positive or negative, she can garner about this. If so, I don’t like it. It’s her choice, but I don’t like it. This is no game. It also makes me think of how Sammy Sosa has whitened himself; Dominican hatred of their African origins is a documented phenomenon. I also believe that she’s reached the point that she doesn’t care anymore; she’s going to be anybody she wants. And it may or may not be permanent.
For those who allege that this is her true color, I beg to differ. At the very least, she’s a dark beige girl; deeply tanned, she’s a bit darker, but not much more. It’s possible that she has darkened her looks for photo shoots, videos or films, but not in black face. Photos like the one above, though, show her as achieving that white pink color.
And I remember that Madonna, as troublesome a cultural icon as I find her, didn’t have to utilize blackface to enhance her image.
I don’t think that Beyoncé is betraying African- and Asian-featured women as Yasmin Alibhai Brown asserts in the Daily Mail. As the Brits are sometimes a couple of years behind where we are culturally, I refuse to go that far. I think that it has always been hard for black, Latina and Asian women not to give in to self-hatred because they do not conform to an advertising, television, video and film standard. This cultural standard is a fantasy. Real women–real people–do not look like these made-up, artificial paragons. It’s up to black, Latino and Asian parents–American and British–to continue to teach their girl children and reinforce the image of themselves as lovely and as attractive and as lovable just as they are. What looks like an ideal is not always white and shining and superior.
One more thing. There was a time when Keanu Reeves was thought to conflate all racial definitions. True, he is part-Asian, but most of his roles have been as young white men. There have been times when to me, he also looks Latino or Italian as well as Asian. Reeves hasn’t been on the scene lately, having moved into music, but I would like to see him make a comeback. The only time, to my knowledge, that Reeves has played an Asian man is when he portrayed Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan, who is commonly known as The Buddha, in the Bernardo Bertolucci film, Little Buddha. Reeves had to lose a lot of weight, and he had to darken his skin with make-up to achieve how Siddartha must have looked as a young man. However, I never thought that Reeves dissed himself or his antecedents in playing this role (although I have not seen any Asian American commentary, but I am sure there was some). He shed the make-up, bulked up again, and became himself once more. Whoever Keanu is.
How Keanu Reeves identifies himself is essentially his business. At face value, he’s a white guy. But he’s the living embodiment of blurring racial lines. Perhaps this is what Beyoncé Knowles is attempting as well. (I find it interesting that the “blacker” her husband, Jay Z, has become, the lighter she has become, it seems.) However, we already knew that she was Creole, and that this was and is a source of pride for her and her family. Nothing wrong with that. Black Creoles have their own flag, conventions, etc. Some have been able to pass. Why couldn’t she have examined her own Creole/Louisiana/mixed roots as a cultural icon, for example, instead of retreading the same old, same old Marilyn/Brigitte Bardot/Breck Girl/Material Girl thing. I mean, this is tired. It would have been too problematic, I guess, to get into something she already knows in her own blood. I’m just wondering, though, whether she’s able to see her blue veins, and if so, whether it finally reassures her.
Beyoncé Knowles will be playing the lead role in the fourth remake of the film, A Star Is Born, directed this time by Clint Eastwood.
- Beyonce Knowles Ruffles Feathers With Her African-Inspired L’Officiel Cover (popsugar.com)
- Why Are We Hung Up on Our Mixed Roots? (theroot.com)
- The Skin They’re In (thedailybeast.com)
- Celebrity Style Deconstructed – Beyonce Knowles (thebudgetfashionista.com)
- Whether or not Beyonce herself is to blame, she sure seems to be… (darkerme.com)