By Tam Fiofori
April 18, 2009
We, as Africans, were quite amused yet sympathetic to the fervour and
serious antics of the Black Power movement on the campuses of
American universities; as black student leaders openly proclaimed at
rallies on that their flat noses, thick lips, nappy kinky hair and
black skin, were all collectively beautiful!
These gestures were calculated protests signalling their desire to
break away from the strangulating oppressive racist philosophy still
very prominent in America from the mid-sixties to the early eighties,
that only white, white skin colour, white physical features and long
hair, were ever considered as beautiful.
The yardsticks for human beauty were exclusively based on white
values and physical characteristics.
What this brainwashing had done to the psyche of millions of Black
Americans or Negroes as they were once known and categorised, was
that it became a burning lifetime ambition of many Black Americans to
be white; look white, talk white and most importantly to feel white.
Being 'white' was the passport for upward social mobility in America, then.
America being the land of dreams and commerce, a whole range of
cosmetics and accessories was developed by white and black
corporations to satisfy this need by Black Americans to become white.
These cosmetics were primarily meant for straightening the hair and
bleaching or toning the skin. Some Black Americans, mostly with the
help of these cosmetic beauty-aids, ironically, now developed their
own standards for adjudging beauty. These standards included having
straight hair and high-yellow skin.
It is worth noting that the first flush of American cosmetics
companies that introduced their products and eventually set up
manufacturing bases in Nigeria were offering these products that were
drastically changing the definition of Black Beauty in America.
All manner of bleaching creams and 'bleaching bath'-therapy were also
introduced into Nigeria to satisfy the new craze of Nigerian women to
look white like their black sisters in America.
The Nigerian health authorities, to their credit then, waged war
against these skin-lightening creams and soaps, warning of their
danger and damage to skin as well as the possibility of skin cancer.
With the highly successful black entertainers and sportsmen marrying
white or near-white black women, these black role models helped
reinforce the newly-imposed characteristics of black beauty.
Michael Jackson didn't help much later with his nose surgeries and
skin lightening. That the first wave of black actors and actresses
mostly, who broke into mainstream American television and Hollywood
exploitation black movies were nearly white, was all part of the
scheme to create the cultural mindset that black and its hues were
still many shades less beautiful than white.
The godfather of Soul, James Brown, with his soul-stirring
proclamation that he was "black and proud" dramatically changed
perceptions. In what could be regarded as the lower classes leading
the elite, the force generated by Brown swept through the working
class of Black America and the militant student movement in dire
search for a true identity, to rubbish the old order that black could
not be beautiful in America!
Beauty and pride produced the clenched-fist "black power" salute as
the symbol of cultural liberation from white America. In many ways
Black America was now in tune with the lyrics of an old traditional
blues which bragged that, "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice."
Afro hairstyles with accompanying accessories like combs and
non-chemical creams and plaited hair came into fashion with Black
America. Black beauty was born!
As music and fashion have remained our cultural links with America,
especially Black America, Nigeria and the rest of Africa caught on to
the black-power-and-beauty bug.
Could it be a question of opposite poles attracting one another? Out
here in Nigeria the perceived preference for 'omo pupa/yellow sisis'
led to an upsurge of bleaching by Nigerian women. Fela's caustic dig
at this cultural trait, 'Yellow Fever' set our women thinking. The
influence of millions of hair dressing salons in Nigeria, has ensured
that our women have lost out to imported relaxers, long hair
attachments (animal and synthetic) and wigs in place of braiding and low-cuts.
The propagators of white-beauty characteristics had to hit back! The
idea of losing their cultural and financial grip on black people in
the entire Diaspora was too painful to take without fighting back.
The first theatre of this fightback was in America itself, where all
the inroads made by the black-beauty movement are being lost at an
The threat has come from what can be best described as a
half-breed/hybrid culture! Quite a few black superstars in sports in
America, Africa and the Diaspora plait their hair. But the stars and
musicians projected on television, billboards and other
advertisements are rarely ever black-skinned.
Half-breed/hybrid culture hit Nigeria with a bang on Nigerian network
television in the early eighties with the importation of television
series and serials from America on the premise that they featured
Black Americans, no matter their roles and cultural bent. Twenty
years on, it would seem that Nigeria has been consumed by
It has been interesting and slightly painful watching this concept
envelope and threaten our current cultural landscape. All the few
Nollywood movies I watch have as their leading stars light-skinned
actresses. Millions of adverts selling soaps, GSM services, cars,
household items, consumables and many other products use near-white
and light-skinned women and models. The children in these adverts are
of the same hue.
The message being sent out is that black people are not marketable! I
suppose it is a matter of choice; their free choice and money, for
the advertising agencies and their clients.
The Asians and Chinese now flood our markets with body and hair
products to make millions of our women near-white and worshippers of
'white-beauty.' How I wish there were statistics to jolt us on how
much foreign exchange we spend not to be black.
The case has been proven that FESTAC '77 was just a waste of huge
time and money.
It's really not about attacking personal freedoms and choices on
beauty and fashion trends and sense. It's about observing our cyclic
cultural turmoil in our search for identity. I hope we don't get to
the point where skin and hair transplants become the in-thing for our
so-called fashion trend-setters. Worse still, I pray that children
will not in future hate and curse their Nigerian parents for being born black?