Last Saturday’s dreary grayness did not stop me and about 100 women from attending NY Open Center’s panel, “From Hottentot Venus To The White House: Black Women On Beauty & Bodies.” The panelists were Veronica Webb (Super+Role Model), Tricia Rose (Chair, Africana Studies @Brown U.), Susan Akkad (SVP Corporate Marketing/Diversity for Estee Lauder) with Michaela angela Davis (Cultural Critic) moderating.
I settled in with style maven Sharon Pendana sitting on my left and Ngozi Odita, founder of Society HAE, on my right. I had seen the flyer for this event weeks before and noticed a glaring theme with the featured panelists, but had hoped the lineup would “diversify” some by the day of event. As I looked up on stage I realized it was as the flyer had suggested. I immediately took out my Blackberry and tweeted: “It looks like u had to pass the brown paper bag test in order to be on this panel. (Panelists) r all very light skinned & ‘good-haired.’” From my discussions with other attendees, I clearly wasn’t the only one disappointed with the very high-yella panel. Afterwards I spoke to Michaela and here’s what she had to say:
Tricia, a former professor of mine, opened up the discussion stating, “I’m very critical of the industrialization of the world of beauty.” Not one to mix words or hold her tongue, Tricia continued by sharing, “I have to selectively reengage with my history or I’ll be like one of those angry 80’s rappers.” She was humorous, insightful and delivered the academic goods– including a detailed history of the life of Saartjie Baartman p.k.a. Hottentot Venus.
After hearing how Saartjie was taken from her home in Africa to England where she was publicly exhibited naked in a cage and then later sold to a French animal trainer who exploited her body and abused her further in Paris, it was ironic and displeasing to then hear Susan Akkad describe her introduction to cosmetics. “I never bought Fashion Fair. My mother told me to go to the French counter for make-up because their men love us.” She is now a SVP at Esteé Lauder. I’m sure Hottentot Venus would be proud.
Veronica, who shared that she was the first Black model to secure a major cosmetics contract, talked about her love of fashion, fashion mags and style. “I like putting together things I love, to attract what I want.” This was a cute sentiment that got a few pleasing ah-ha’s from the audience although it was soon overshadowed by the advice she said she gave her two young daughters who said they’d like to be in the White House like Sasha and Malia: “Maybe you’ll grow up to be President,” which was great. The gaffe was when she followed up with “or maybe if mommy gets married again she’ll marry a President.” Huh?
Tricia, who really was the centrifugal force of the panel talked a bit about women in hip-hop, the subject of her latest book. Even though hiphop has become increasingly less relevant in my life, I was amped by some of the questions Prof. Rose posed: How do we make ourselves beautiful within hip hop– an industry complicit in creating a demand for things and ideals that are damaging to Black women? Another question: “How do we know about Hottentot Venus and not live like that is all we know and can be? To this I would’ve answered Michelle Obama. Crazy thing though, Michelle Obama was never mentioned in the three hour discussion on images of Black women in major media. Suddenly Susan’s joie de vivre for French make-up counters seemed inconsequential. Not talking about the mass mediated image of the 1st Lady, a Black woman with her bare arms standing in front of a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, in a context about Black bodies and resistance was, as we hashtag on Twitter, a #FAIL.
Instead the Q&A centered on the hot topic of the hour– Good Hair. One audience member believed that “Chris Rock served up Black women as a deviant scientific experiment.” Yeah it was like that! Women had strong opinions about the subject and ladies in the house were excited to talk about the movie. Susan responded with what I thought was a damn near profound realization when she said: “Hair is to Black women what weight is to White women.” Then Michaela testified, “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” and encouraged conversation about our painful issues. Many women shouted in agreement. Not only had we gathered in a church, but at that moment we were having church. I think it was a good conversation that unfortunately lasted too long. Considering all of the panelists, except for maybe Susan, had what Black folks deem good hair and therefore could not fully understand or articulate the pain, shame, and anxiety many women internalize and young girls feel who have “kinky” hair, and considering that half the panel had not even seen the flick, we should have moved on to other subjects (i.e. Michelle Obama). When Tricia half jokingly suggested we petition Oprah to charter a plane from Bed-Stuy to Mumbai so all the sisters buying weaves can do so directly straight off the heads of impoverished Desi women who ritually sacrifice it for nada except a blessing, I think it was a good laugh that signaled the end of any further critical thinking of Chris Rock and his documedy. Personally, I’ve been to so many panels like this and even wrote my college thesis (“From Hottentot to Hip Hop”) on the subject more than 10 years ago so I was definitely looking forward to and in need of a more timely conversation to get my wig blown back. One that went beyond Chris Rock, hip-hop and Azzedine Alaia to involve a discussion of Michelle Obama, Caster Semanya and even Gabourey Sidibe, the star of the much talked about film, Precious. The space that these three women, these three Black bodies take up and hold in pop culture is groundbreaking and how they resist and revise racism, sexism, and patriarchy is crazy interesting. I definitely was disappointed, but so grateful for the community of sisters that I connected with that day. I left meditating on two quotes that resonated with me and my desire to engage women in work that is socially transformative and empowering. The first: “Many of us look for love, but will settle for attention,” said by Michaela. And Tricia shut it down when she stated, “It’s not just about accepting love, but we have to be willing to give each other transformational love. And then we have to be prepared to be ignored.”
For those that attended this panel, I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Hollaback and post a comment. Everyone else please tell me what you think about the post and how we can have more transformative dialogues about our beauty, our booty and ourselves.