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Culture and North-South Narratives of Superiority/Inferiority Part 3


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The most painful aspect of the problem is, probably, the introjection of the white man's discriminatory values and the cult of his superiority in the Negro and the mulatto. The white man's obvious efficiency in the economic world, his notorious domination in the social, political, and educational fields confer on him a de facto superiority that, inexorably, comes to be regarded as natural and necessary. Furthermore, it is marked by ideas, beliefs, and values that have impregnated the whole population in the most brutal and subtle ways, making the Negroes in their own eyes as second-class people, a less noble subhumanity not made in the image of the white man or endowed by it with the same resources of ingenuity and experience or the same 'beauty'. Therefore, looking at themselves with a repulsion based on a white aesthetic ideal, speaking a language considered a patois as compared with the mother tongue, worshiping syncretic divinities of a persecuted religion, the Negro mass can move only between rebellion and resignation without finding a dignifying self-definition or a road to emancipation." (Ribeiro, pp.306-307).
Although no longer accurate in the overall picture he painted of Antillean society or even in some of the detailed brushwork, traces of Ribeiro's caustic portrait of Caribbean society are still clearly discernible in contemporary Caribbean society. Traces of it can be seen, for example, in advertisements for commercial products in the Caribbean (and other Black Diaspora communities) which feature a successful black couple. In such advertisements, the woman is, almost without exception, portrayed with a lighter skin colour than the man. The message is crystal clear. The commercial product advertised is the choice of all successful black couples, whose different skin colour is unmistakable evidence of the man's success. A lighter skinned woman is the prize a black man can award himself only if he is successful in life, and a lighter skinned woman would not consider a darker-skinned man as a partner unless he is successful.
The wording of many cosmetics advertisements which are directed towards a Black clientèle is often carefully crafted to convey the idea that a woman's skin would become lighter in colour if she used the product advertised. In a very unsubtle recent advertisement, L'Oréal, the world's largest cosmetics firm, went much further than that, by "demonstrating" that a black woman can actually become white if she used their beauty products. The Sunday Times (London) of 10 August 2008 briefly reported the accusation made against L'Oréal, that it had deliberately whitened the skin tones of Beyoncé Knowles, the famous black American singer, in one of her photographs featured in a recent L'Oréal advertisement. The Sunday Times juxtaposed a photo of Beyoncé, as she really looks, and the digitally whitened one featured in the L'Oréal advertisement, under the caption "Spot the Difference", which it followed up with a short paragragh entitled "A whiter shade of pale". After pointing out that Beyoncé looked like a white woman in the lightened photograph, which she certainly did, the Times continued: "perhaps, as a black girl, she wasn't quite 'worth it'? What an odd thing to do. There are plenty of pretty white girls around; before L'Oréal held auditions it could have made it absolutely clear by putting 'No blacks, please' in the job advert. As it happens, Beyoncé looks as good white as she did when she was black, but this scarcely diminishes the rudeness of L'Oréal's alleged behaviour. It is a racist slur to black people to make black people look white and, paradoxically, a racist slur to black peple in general to make white people look black."
The Sunday Times comment was "right on", except in one important respect. Comparing the two photos of Beyoncé printed in the Times, Beyoncé looked pale, wan, and rather insipid in the digitally whitened photo, whereas, in her natural tones of black, she looked radiant and gorgeous. The former was a pale imitation of the latter. One does not need to have a trained eye to recognize that Beyoncé is, without a doubt, more beautiful with her natural black colour than when whitened to appeal to a European clientèle. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if one has been conditioned all one's life to think that white is more beautiful than black, as the Sunday Times reporter probably was, it is quite natural for one to adapt the image one sees to the culturally adjusted lens of one's own worldview.
What can Blacks do to reverse the present unfavourable situation, to turn the clock back, so to speak, to the time when Blacks, and the colour black, had a very good image worldwide? The first thing that needs to be done is to restore a positive connotation, or at least a neutral one, to the term "black" in people's minds. Since charity always begins at home, Blacks must do everything possible to remove the connection they automatically make between the colour black and death, funeral, and mourning, particularly since such an association is integral to a people's world view, as social scientists have discovered. For the majority of the world's peoples, including the Caribbean's three ancestral cultures (African, Indian, and Chinese), it is the colour white not black which is the colour of mourning. It is quite logical for a people to choose the colour that is least associated with them and their own culture to represent death and the negation of life, as Europeans have done. By that same token, it is most unnatural for those Black Diaspora communities who have done so to elect the colour most associated with themselves and their own culture to symbolize death. It is absolutely necessary for Black Diaspora populations to reverse the significance of those important symbols, which are so central to how we view ourselves and the world around us. It is not impossible to do so, as Martiniquans have recently shown. Anyone who saw the televised images of the funeral of Aimé Césaire, who died last April, would have noticed that virtually all of the several thousand Martiniquans who attended it wore white, not black. Martiniquans did not always wear white at funerals. Whether they did so specially for Aimé Césaire because he was, arguably, the world's foremost defender of the Black cause or whether it was a sudden prise de conscience, on their part, of the importance of reversing the two symbols, does not really matter. What does matter is that Martiniquans have shown that such a crucially important reversal can be accomplished within a relatively short period of time.
More "affirmative" action is also needed to restore a positive image to the colour black. For the past two centuries, black has been the colour of choice for men's formal wear on social occasions, in societies in the West and the North. It has also been the virtually mandatory colour for men who exercised official functions in those societies. Why did Europeans and other Northerners choose the colour black for such auspicious occasins? It is because black, more than any other colour, conveys an impression of dignity, distinction, seriousnes, and authority, whereas White would have given the impression of frivolity and levity – not at all the qualities Europeans would have wished to associate with official responsibility or high social status. In European fashion, the colour black, much more than any colour, is associated with style, elegance, and class. Black effortlessy outshines white in all those respects. Yves St. Laurent was perhaps the couturier who exploited the natural elegance of black the most. He used black in conjunction with white to create a really stunning effect with le smoking, the elegant pantsuit he brilliantly adapted for women from men's formal dinner wear. St. Laurent was also the couturier who made most use of Black female models.
Most astonishingly, none of those very positive qualities, which Northerners have have implicitly attributed to the colour black, have spilled over into other usages of the term black. It has certainly not occurred in respect of the connotations the word carry in European languages, which are exclusively negative. Another form of affirmative action which Black Diaspora communities could take to "rehabilitate" the colour black would be to apply those positive qualities to other areas of daily life. One such area could be interior design. Like most people, Blacks, tend overwhelmingly, to use white for table cloths and table nakpins. Black table cloths are much more elegant than white ones. Black could also be freely used for bedsheets, pillowcases, and towels. When a dining table is laid with a black table cloth that is then set with stainless steel or silver tableware, the contrasting effect is very striking. The deliberate contrast between the two colours, which dress designers in the North often try to effect with their own designs, could be extended to interior furnishings. In any such contrasting use of the two colours, black inevitably emerges as the dominant one, which is something that could give Blacks a subconscious psychological boost.
A more long term action, which would not be as easy to accomplish, is for black ccountries to demonstrate that they, too, are capable of providing the highest standards of democratic rule, high living standards, and the most appropriate form of economic development to their respective populations. No black country appears to have succeeded in that respect. For Black Diaspora communities, the general failure of Haiti to achieve even minimal standards in those respects, despite the numerous obstacles that have been placed in its path, has negatively affected the image of Blacks everywhere. Similarly with Africa, whose post-colonial leaders have perhaps done more to convince the world that Blacks are utterly incapable of ruling themselves than all the negative narratives European peoples have churned out over the past centuries. By their accomplishments in the past two decades alone, India and China have largely succeeded in invalidating the negative narratives European peoples have generated about them for centuries. Most Black majority diaspora countries have not performed particularly badly in providing the best political and economlc benefits to their populatiions, but they have not performed particularly well either. None has been able achieve the outstanding economic success of Singapore, which, despite certain reservations one might have on the democratic front, has consistently scored very high marks on UNDP's Human Development scale.
The image of the “melting-pot” was invented by the French immigrant, Michel-Guillaume de Crèvecoeur, a French aristocrat who emigrated to the Province of New York in 1759 where he took out citizenship, declared that the American is “neither an European nor the descendant of an European....Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” (Letters from an American Farmer, 1782). Possibly, the only exception to the phenomenal success of the American “melting-pot” ethos and its culturally-integrating power are the American Blacks (and the indigenous Indians) who came up against the reluctance of mainstream America to allow them to “melt” into American society. When, at the time of Independence, Crèvecoeur presented the American as a new man, one made up of a mixture of many peoples, he did not include Blacks and Indians in that composite mixture. Jefferson, himself, had concluded that Blacks were so different “in mind and body” that the two races could never successfully cohabit. (James Caesar, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought, 1998).
Where black Americans had looked forward, like the other ethnic groups in the country, to being part of the American dream, they were condemned instead to play the leading role in white America’s nightmare. As a result, the principal social and cultural boundaries of American society were not drawn, as in other multi-cultural societies, between groups of different ethnic origins or between social classes, but between White and Black. At the threshold of the 21st century, the White-Black divide remains the single most important division in American society, arguably making the United States a two-nation country.
The traditional exclusion of American Blacks who, ironically, have a stronger historical claim to be genuine Americans than all but the American Indian peoples and the original English settlers themselves, is an illustration of a particular phenomenon of human nature, namely that people seldom forgive those whom they have wronged, and the degree of their resentment and dislike of the latter is usually in direct proportion to the extent of the wrong inflicted on their hapless victims. Furthermore, the presence of those victims in their midst tends to increase the degree of resentment felt by the individuals or the group who had perpetrated those wrongs, for it acts as a mirror reflecting images of themselves which the latter find profoundly disturbing. The reverse is also true. It is the wronged victims who feel less resentment and who are more likely to forgive and forget. Thus, white racism in the United States and South Africa, anti-Aboriginee feeling in Australia, anti-semitism in Europe, anti-Algerian feeling in France, and anti-Amerindian feeling in Latin America, nourished and sustained by that curious quirk of human nature, are not only not likely to disappear but might even grow stronger.
Black Americans have faced a particularly difficult task in persuading White America to accept them fully as Americans. However, it is most surprising that Black Americans appear to have integrated, into their own world view, the White American racist concept that black blood is so polluting that a single drop of it would contaminate the rest of the blood of an individual, who would othewise have been considered White because there would be no other way to distinguish him from other Whites. The integration of such a racist view must, at some deep psychological level, be very damaging to Black Americans, albeit unconsciously.
There can be nothing more destructive of a people's identity, their self image, or their sense of self-worth than to be part of a society, minority- or majority-wise, which has adopted canons of beauty that do not do not reflect their own (physical) reality. That situation is further aggravated when that aesthetic ideal is unattainble by the majority of the people in the society. Such is the case with Black Diaspora communities in the Western world. In stark contrast, it seems that the lighter colour skin and the more European-type features of the offspring of mixed marriages in West African countries rendered them less physically attractive in the eyes of society. Despite some erosion of those indigenous canons over the last decade or two (e.g. the increasing practice among urban middle class women in the Francophone countries to lighten their skin), indigenous canons of beauty appear to be still generally valid all over Africa. The fact that the practice of skin lightening is a very recent one in West Africa (dating from around the middle or late 1990s) is no coincidence. It is one of the consquences of eroding African cultural confidence, sparked by the recurring economic crises in West Africa which began in the late 1970s-early 1980s and have continued ever since.
The quality of blackness is one that was deeply cherished in African cultures. The Akan people of Ghana, for example, never referred to themselves, as a people, by the term Akanman - the Akan nation or Akan state. When they wished to evoke their common cultural identity they used the term Akanfo - the Akan peoples. In its broader meaning, the only other use of the term Akanfo is in the sense of Akan consciousness of their identity as black people. In attaching the word oman as a suffix to the term ebili or bibir (black), the Akan formed the concept of ebidiman or ebidirman which designated all men and women who identified themselves or who were identified as ebidifio (black). Such a concept, when translated into political terms, resulted in a nation with no external or closed frontiers, no internal political boundaries, nor any feelings of “us” or “them” vis à vis other African peoples because all Africans were considered to belong to a single black “nation”. In the Akan conception, differences in culture could never be a cause of enmity between Blacks, and since black identity was regarded as a source of enrichment, it was considered more important for state formation than oman, taken in its narrow sense of “nation”. (George P. Hagan, in L’Affirmation de l’Identité Culturelle et la Formation de la Conscience Nationale dans L’Afrique Contemporaine, 1981). Thus, a common black identity provided the same sense of collective identity for the Akan people as Islam provided for Muslims, and national consciousness for Europeans.

Blacks in Diaspora communities face a very important hurdle in any attempt they might make to discard Western canons of beauty – the fact that all the icons in Christianity – The Son of God, the Mother of the Son of God, the Apostles, Gabriel and and all the other angels, are invariably portrayed with Caucasian features. At some level of the subconscious, that inescapable fact must surely be deeply disturbing to Black Christians and also inimical to their sense of self-worth, particularly those who are most devoted to their faith. The Christian religion teaches that God made man in his own image, but all Blacks can clearly see that the Holy family bears no physical resemblance to them - not in skin colour, not in hair texture, not in facial features – all of which are key Western beauty canons to which most blacks do not and cannot measure up. They Holy family simply does not have the same image as Blacks. That is a very personal problem with which each Black Christian will have to come to terms. In doing so, they might perhaps obtain some reassurance from the following verse in the Song of Songs (1.5) in the Old testament: "I am black but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem,..." However, the rub in that verse is the conjunction "but". We have all heard that particular qualification before. It is one designed to assuage the feelings of certain individuals from a despised group who are perceived, or who perceive themselves, as "being different from the others."


On the subject of standards of physical beauty, Margaret Meade made a very important point to James Baldwin. Recounting to him her first field trip to Samoa, which was also the very first one she had undertaken as an anthroplogist, Meade remarked: "Well, of course, the Polynesians are people everybody thinks are beautiful. If you look at them very closely, they are not really the most beautiful people in the world by any absolute standard. Yet everybody thinks they're beautiful. Chinese people think so, black people think so, everybody thinks so. I've now figured out why: that for maybe two or three thousand years they never saw any body but themselves, and they think they're beautiful and they are so impressed with themselves that everybody else thinks they're beautiful. If you think you're beautiful, you move like a beautiful person." (Rap on Race, pp.18—19).
That most enlightening comment is possibly the best argument one can make why it is so absolutely necessary for people, whether as individuals or as a community or population group, to possess self-confidence, as well as racial and cultural confidence, or to do everything in their power to acquire such confidence if they do not already possess it. If Black people are genuinely confident that they are beautiful, they will move and act like beautiful people, like the Polynesians do. Eventually, others would come to believe that they are beautiful, despite the fact that their beauty does not necessarily reflect European canons of beauty.
Black people in the Diasporas urgently need to rehabilitate the colour "black", to rescue it from the sinister, diabolical association with Hades, Hell, and the Underworld which popular European opinion, inspired by Dante's Inferno, shackled it at the time of the Renaissance. The word "black" must be dissociated from darkness, demons, death, and the devil with which it has so long been identified. Black peoples should not allow the colour, which their ancestral culture considered the essence of Black identity, to be defined by European peoples, their cultural fears, and their ancestral superstitions. Blacks must restore to the colour "black", its natural elegance, its innate distinction, its effortless style, its ineffable class, and its commanding authority. If the colour "black" is freed from the ominous, funereal, burdensome associations with which it has been saddled for so long, it will surely come to overshadow the colour "white" in every respect. It is more authoritative, more fashionable, more striking, more distinctive, more decorative, and more dramatic. The colour "white" may sometimes be overlooked but never the colour "black". It is a colour that always arrests one's attention. It never goes unnoticed. Black people should learn to make use of its many advantages to help rebuild the confidence that would enable them to deal with the world on their terms, not on those of others.
Assuming an African name or wearing a dashiki or an African robe are superficial but harmless ways for black people in the Diaspora to affirm or signal their black identity. However, such external cultural affirmation or signals would strike a very discordant note, and could easily be considered hypocritical, if the Blacks who adopt them continue to subscribe to canons of beauty which negate their black identity and demean them as black people, or if they continue to treat the colour black as the colour of death, mourning, and funerals - the very negation of light and life. When Blacks succeed in reversing the significance of such key cultural values, which exercise a subliminal but important influence on our worldview, only then would such external signs of black identity as African names or African clothes possess any real meaning.
The various African Diasporas in the Americas and the Caribbean need to form an image of themselve with which they can deal with the rest of the world on advantageous rather than disadvantageous terms, as is currently the case; an image fashioned by an aesthetic which valorizes rather than devalorizes them; an image that would reinforce confidence in themselves, not undermine it; an image which reflects their ancestral identity rather than one that denies or rejects it; an image that would constitute a cultural bulwark against the assimilation of values which dehumanize, diminish, or denigrate them; an image that would be a cultural mirror that accurately reflects their real qualities (and defects) rather than those created in the lurid imaginations of others. Finally, it should be an image which would send a message to the rest of the world that the African Diaspora has not only survived the ordeals to which it has been subjected for the past five centuries but that it has emerged all the stronger for it, ready to assume its rightful place in the modern world.
With respect to the Caribbean, Kafra Kambon, the Trinidadian Black activist, has the following very perceptive, pertinent observation: "If we examine the societies culturally, we find that despite the complex influences which have gone into shaping the Caribbean, the values and lifestyles are dominated by imitation of Europe. These realities are not just effects of cross cultural influences which are to be expected in the close international contacts of the modern world. Our cultural crisis goes much deeper. The Caribbean has not been able to form an image of itself by which it can deal with the rest of the world. The inner cultural consciousness is too underdeveloped for effective qualitative judgements to be made about what to accept and how or what to reject – too underdeveloped for authentic values to govern the way of life.
Cultural Mimicry
Cultural borrowing should be distinguished from cultural mimicry. The former is healthy, the latter is definitely not. The West and the North have borrowed much from the East and the South, but none of those borrowings were "extra-logical" - the term used by Orlando Paz to describe imitation which is unnatural, goes against good sense, or clashes with the society's basic values. Indeed, cultures normally reject foreign cultural practices or forms which they cannot integrate into their own value system. Unlike the South, the North has not borrowed from other cultures architectural forms or clothing habits, which are unsuited to their climate. The tropical South's borrowing of architectural designs, which were conceived to retain heat in buildings, and stockings, stiff collars, and ties designed to keep legs and necks warm is "extra-logical."
Black women who straighten their hair may claim that doing so makes it much easier to manage. That may well be true, but if they persuade themselvses that it is the principal rather than a subsidiary reason for so doing they would be indulging in pure self-delusion. Hair-straightening is cultural mimicry, not cultural borrowing. There was nothing to borrow because White women do not straighten their hair, they perm it instead to take out the straightness and to give it some form. Straight hair, which looks lank and dull on White women, is generally by considered quite unattractive. There are hair styles of African origin - certain simple types of braids for example - which are strikingly attractive and eye-catching, so attractive indeed that not a few White women have tried to reproduce them. However, as with any copy, the original is always better. The most attractive African, or African-derived, braid styles tend to give Black women who wear them an elegance which projects an authentic image of cultural identity. The self-confidence and self-reaffirmation which a Black woman with an attractive braid style exudes tends to enhance her attractiveness in an exotic way, often causing heads to turn with admiration in Northern societies. The realization that their beauty as Black women is recognized and appreciated by those who are usually the object of imitation, and who would not normally regard anything black as attractive or beautiful, would not only do a world of good for a Black woman's self-esteem but might also spark off the psychological process of self-reconstruction which is so essential for the genuine cultural emancipation of the Black people of the Diaspora.
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