A Figment of Pigment
By Kevon G. Foderingham
Throughout the African Diaspora, we have been socialised into thinking that European standards of beauty are de rigueur. Only recently have Africans and other races begun to embrace qualities about themselves that may have been shun before. We are finally on the road to accepting that flat noses, “chinkee eyes,” big butts, huge lips, kinky hair, broad noses and darker skin are just as beautiful as that of our Anglo cousins.
The phrase “Black is Beautiful” was coined by John Sweat Rock in 1858 during a speech. Black is beautiful later morphed into a cultural movement that began in the United States of America in the 1960s. It then spread to most of the Diaspora, championed through the writings of the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko in South Africa.
This philosophy aimed to dispel the perception in western cultures that black people's natural features such as skin color, facial features and hair were inherently ugly. The movement also encouraged men and women to stop straightening their hair (remember the afro craze) and attempting to lighten or bleach their skin.
The predominant idea in American culture, perpetuated by the media, was (and arguably still is) that black features are less attractive or desirable than white features. The idea that blackness was ugly was highly damaging to the psyche of African Americans and as a result the Diaspora, thus spawning internalized racism. For example darker skinned people wanting to marry someone of a lighter complexion so that children would be fairer of skin and possess “good hair.”
Even now the movement has not fully taken hold. We still see skin bleaching taking place in certain parts of the Caribbean and Africa and a few years ago Essence Magazine’s market research team found that African Americans spend 25 percent more of their disposable income on personal care products than the general population. Natural hair styles are still considered "somewhat rebellious" or "unkempt" in parts of the United States. Things are definitely changing in Trinidad & Tobago and the Caribbean as natural hair styles are increasingly popular but where are the “rastaman” bank tellers though? But I digress...
In 1995, Alek Wek, a Sudanese model from the Dinka ethnic group in the Sudan, set the catwalk on fire. I later learnt that in1991 she and some family members fled to Britain to escape the civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south of the Sudan. She later moved to the United States.
For those who have seen Alek, you know she is the short haired, dark chocolate skinned beauty who has graced the runway for years.
Wek was discovered at an outdoor market in London in 1995 in Crystal Palace, south London, by a Models 1 scout. She first received attention when she appeared in the music video for "Golden Eye" by Tina Turner, in 1995 and from there entered the world of fashion as one of its top models. She was signed to Ford Models in 1996 and was also seen in the "Got 'Til It's Gone" music video by Janet Jackson that year. She was named "Model of the Year" in 1997 by MTV.
Amongst other things, she has done advertisements for Issey Miyake, Moschino, Victoria's Secret and make-up company Clinique as well as walked the runway for high-profile fashion designers John Galliano, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ermanno Scervino. In 2002 she made her acting debut in The Four Feathers as Sudanese princess Aquol. (ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alek_Wek)
You are probably asking yourself what Alek Wek has to do with this feature. In fact she inspired this piece. I was one of those victims of internalized racism who when I saw Ms. Wek derided her look as being too ethnic. I vividly remember saying that she was not pretty and that her skin was way too dark.
Sometimes it takes a simple random encounter to help change one’s perception. Other times, it takes a revolution or visionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. to spur an entire generation into action. My wakeup call was as a result of the former as my perception soon changed when one day I was honoured enough to see Ms. Wek in person.
One early afternoon I was walking through an alley in London just off Oxford Circus, which housed many restaurants and cafes whose patrons spill onto the streets during the summer. On the sidewalk of one such cafe sat this statuesque, exotic, beauty who possessed almost charcoal coloured skin which was smooth like butter. And like butter I melted. I stood there frozen for minutes staring at this image dressed in a crisp white shirt, flowing skirt and headscarf. I ate my words and was reserved to the fact that Alek was beautiful and thus black definitely was as well.
The Caribbean has not been left out as Pulse supermodel, Jamaican, Jaunel McKenzie is arguably the Caribbean's current most successful fashion star. The 13-time Vogue Magazine model appeared in an eight page editorial haute couture spread with R&B superstar John Legend for Essence magazine's December 2008 issue. Other Caribbean superstars include Jamaicans, Nell Robinson, Oraine Barrett, Nadine Willis, Carla Campbell, Hector Lincoln, Romae Gordon, Gaye McDonald, Jeneil Williams and Sunna Gottshalk, as well as Tenille Stoute and Alex King of Barbados.
It is heartening to see that the standard of beauty has changed or is indeed changing. This article is not solely about celebrating people of African descent, but all the many beautiful races that make up the world. Black is beautiful indeed but diversity is even more so.
Trinidad & Tobago has been blessed with ethnic diversity that has created a beautiful melting pot, rich with stunning women and men. The accompanying photo gallery, Beauties of the Diaspora seeks to showcase just a taste.
Model: Pearl Joseph
Photographer: Angelo Marcelle
Clothing: Romero Bryan
MUA: Arlene Villarule
Location: Alicia's House
Alek Wek covers Deutsh Magazine
Alek Wek covers Essence Magazine
Alek Wek covers Elle Magazine
Pearl Joseph shot by Angelo Marcelle
The phrase “Black is Beautiful” was coined by John Sweat Rock in 1858 during a speech. Black is beautiful later morphed into a cultural movement that began in the United States of America in the 1960s...
Beauties of the Diaspora (click for gallery)