“The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” is a 2016 Saturday Night Live skit that can be seen as a contemporary replication of the “black is beautiful” concept born in the late 1960s as described by Maxine Leeds Craig in her book, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. The skit is a comedic take on the response of the white community to Beyoncé’s studio and visual album, Lemonade, that was released earlier the same year. This fits into conversations Leeds Craig was having regarding respectability politics. Beyoncé has been a pop culture icon specifically because she knew how to play the hegemonic power game, allowing her to maintain a mainstream popularity with white people that largely left her race unaddressed. Mirroring Leeds Craig’s argument around color and African American women, Beyoncé’s lighter skin and “good” hair also shift her closer to the white, Western ideal model of beauty. As shown in the SNL skit, Lemonade was so shocking to the white community because, as the title suggests, it was proof that Beyoncé had suddenly turned Black. With a narrative theme that often focused on the notion of “black is beautiful” and reveling in the power of African American womanhood and culture; white people were confronted with the acknowledgment that yes, Beyoncé is Black, and the white community was terrified by how unapologetically Black Beyoncé had become. By combining imagery of African American culture, Black Lives Matter, Sissy Bounce culture, Black Feminism, poetry, and other references to Black experiences in America, Beyoncé chose her moment to engage in disrespectability politics and to make a social statement with her music.

More info: Beyoncé as Conjure Woman: Reclaiming the Magic of Black Lives (That) Matter

 

“Cookin with Aunt Ethel” is a scene from George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play, The Colored Museum. Wolfe also made the filmic version which I have hyperlinked. In this scene, Aunt Ethel is a stand-in for the mammy figure Leeds Criag mentions in Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. The play describes Aunt Ethel as a “down-home woman with a bandana on her head […] she stands behind a big black pot and wears a reassuring grin” that is hosting a cooking show (Wolfe 7). With 20th century R&B music playing in the background of her kitchen, Aunt Ethel sing-explains elements of Black people’s experience over the course of American history. Interestingly, Aunt Ethel is a mammy archetype that references hair and respectability politics in her song, fulfilling her stereotype of the maternal, helpful Black woman (and the Magical Negro trope) while also subverting it through her discourse on the problematic history of slavery and the Black experience in a style of music born from that same pain.

“The Hairpiece” is another scene from George C. Wolfe’s play, The Colored Museum (1986). I chose to include this scene because it specifically comments on the relationship African American women have with their hair. The scene features a bald African American woman standing in front of her vanity with two wig stands on either side, one an Afro named Janine and the other a long, flowing wig named LaWanda. As the woman goes about her makeup routine, the two wigs discuss the woman and begin to debate which one of them will be worn out by the woman who is planning on meeting her boyfriend in order to break up with him. The wig stands discuss many of the topics from Leed Craig’s book, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. The wig stands say they only exist because the woman changed her hair to match the political beliefs of her boyfriend and comment on the woman’s good looks and decent job. These examples serve as evidence of policing the woman and engaging in respectability politics.

LaWanda and Janine also exist as stereotypes of Black women through their style of hairpiece. LaWanda, with her long straight hair tells the woman that she will allow her to be dramatic and toss her hair like she will be tossing her boyfriend out of her life. Janine, the afro, is strong and has attitude, reassuring the woman that “the kink of my head is like the kink of your heart and neither is about to be hot-pressed into surrender” (Wolfe 22). LaWanda’s long hair becomes the embodiment of the sassy or angry Black woman while Janice’s afro makes her the embodiment of late 1960’s “black is beautiful” concept. With both wigs shouting their opinions at the woman, the scene can be interpreted as a critique of stereotypes associated with Black women that are somehow symbolically associated to certain hairstyles.

The last item I wanted to bring up was something that I have noticed is common in Midwestern and Southern white homes. Drawing from Leeds Craig’s definition of the mammy figure as a “fat, dark-skinned woman wearing a head scarf” in Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, the mammy and pappy salt and pepper shakers are a racist artifact that is often excused as a kitschy collectible. These salt and pepper shakers are racially caricaturized images of working-class Black women and men. These shakers feature a man and a woman, imparting that racist stereotyping was applied to older Black men as well (most likely the Uncle Tom figure). After doing some research, I found that many of these shakers are still available online, which is absolutely disgusting. These salt and pepper shakers operate as nefariously subtle reminders of the submissive position of Black people in society and America’s racist history. These salt and pepper shakers aren’t kitschy; they’re racist.

More Info: Confronting My Racist Object

References:

Leeds Craig, Maxine. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. Oxford University Press, 2012. Kindle edition.

Wolfe, George C. The Colored Museum. New York: Grove, 1988. Print


Meghan Morris is a graduate student at Old Dominion University’s Institute for the Humanities. She has a Bachelor’s of Arts with a concentration in English Literature and Women’s Studies from Old Dominion University. She is a novice scholar interested in topics related to gender, sex and sexuality, media and pop culture, and American Studies. She enjoys coffee and (good) memes.