“We have been conditioned to think anything African except its wild life and landscape is inferior”
Black women of antiquity were legendary for their beauty and power. During this time, the African woman with her typical African physiognomy was believed to be the standard of beauty in that part of the ancient world. Yet today with very few exceptions it is very rare to see a black woman who is reflected in the media as a more natural African appearance with pronounced African features as opposed to stylized European features (aquiline noses, thin lips and eyebrows). It is rare to see her portrayed as an ideal of beauty in magazines and other forms of media. It would seem that all over the world, beautiful African princesses are encouraged or better yet subtly pressured to follow the standards of lily white beauty. Whereas there is nothing wrong with Eurocentric beauty, there is something wrong with presenting it as the standard which all women must follow. There is something wrong with lording straight hair and lighter skin as the more acceptable ideal of beauty and therefore negating authentic African beauty. Unfortunately itâ€™s the African woman that is at the bottom of the heap when it comes to this.
Since slavery and colonization, the colour caste system within the entire African and Diaspora community has promoted a hierarchy that suggests the more European one’s features – the lighter one’s skin, the less ethnic one’s facial features and the straighter and longer one’s hair – the greater one’s social value. Therefore it is becoming increasingly important to pioneer the representation of Afrocentric beauty. It is important that African women challenge and transform this universal standard by making the choice to just be themselves without the European enhancements, without the contact lenses, the damaging chemicals in our hair, and the skin lighteners. The standard of beauty that abounds today is certainly not universal. How can it be when we have Native Amerindian, Chinese, Latina, Scandinavian, Indian and Afrocentric beauty which are as diverse as the stars in the universe? Even the universe itself does not embrace a universal standard of beauty. The stereotypical views of beauty which do not seem to include the African woman are man-made laws.
Freedom of choice and style is a great argument. So is the argument that variety is the spice of life. But not when itâ€™s to the detriment of many young black girlsâ€™ self-esteems. To be taught from infancy that looking anything but authentically, naturally African is the acceptable standard when one is born with inherent African features is WRONG. To be told that African hair has to be covered up, straightened and is just too nappy to be seen in public is WRONG. For skin lighteners to be big business in Africa is WRONG. We need to embrace ourselves as African women. We need to love ourselves as God (For those who believe in him) created us. We need to love our hair, hips, lips, buttocks, skin colour and noses. We need to value the African wombs we came from. No one else can do that for us. Our ancestry is thousands of years old; we have been black for thousands of years and now is not the time to be erased or disallowed.
What about our hair?
There is a commercial in Essence Magazine which shows a flustered-looking, very pretty, black woman with wild African hair. The commercial then shows her on the next page with bone-straight permed hair looking more relaxed, relieved and smiling. The ad blatantly says that she now looks better and more presentable. Itâ€™s sad that many of us believe the false adage that straight hair is better, or blonde hair is better than African hair. Once again many Africans have been bamboozled into thinking the Eurocentric way is better. It has permeated so deeply in our societies to the point where an African woman with chemically damaged hair, a perm, will look at a natural haired woman and ask her how she has the guts to walk around like that.
To quote a famous African writer Kola Boof in her book Diary of a Lost Girl,
|â€œBlack women come from Africa bloodâ€¦so most of them do not have long, naturally flowing hair like the women in movies, television, commercials and the women in the NBAâ€¦.Long flowing hair simply isnâ€™t a biological characteristic of authentic black women and of course there has NEVER been a single pre-colonial society in Africa, not even in Egypt or Ethiopia where long [flowing-added by writer] hair was the standard of beauty (at least not until 1900)â€¦â€|
Many Africans have been poisoned and brainwashed into thinking that the genetic beauty of a European woman is better than the genetic beauty of an African woman. There is no standard or colour which is better; there are only physical and physiognomic surface differences. These differences, in the Africans case being the kinky hair, wider noses, thicker lips, considerable buttocks and high levels of melanin in our pigmentation are what give us our different cultural identities.
Is light skin better?
One would never expect to see this phenomenon. As a matter of fact, a lot of blacks from the Diaspora are shocked when they go o Africa and witness this, because they consider Africa to be the source of blackness; the genesis of black pride and black beauty. But bleaching creams are big business in Africa. One would not think that colorism exists in Africa but it does, just like it does in the USA where light skinned Africans are considered more beautiful and better than darker Africans. In Uganda for example it is not unusual to hear people say â€œthose Nubians are so black!â€ with a derogatory expression as if being the colour of charcoal were a crime. Many women who are not born light-skinned will use artificial means to lighten their skins; even to the extent of using clothing bleach which does lighten their skin, but also has detrimental results, including burning and scarring their skin. To make matters worse there are numerous African men who encourage this practice and buy the products for their women. Such is the psychological damage to many African women that they think that their darkness is a stain.
If the purchasing power were higher in Africa, plastic surgery would probably be big business as well. What is ironic about this is while many African women are trying to remove themselves from their darkness by bleaching their skins, many Europeans and North Americans frequent tanning lounges to â€˜get some colour.â€™ They visit the Caribbean to darken their skins and show off their never-lasting tans with pride. More Europeans and North Americans are braiding their hair and dread locking it. White women are botoxing their lips to have the fuller look that most Africans have from birth; the Angelina Jolie lips. Even more remarkable are those who are having operations to increase the size of their buttocks. Yet African beauty is vilified and nullified throughout the media. From the few portrayals of Africa on western televisions, you would not know that some of the most beautiful women in the world are African.
One of the biggest injustices done to black people all over the world, including Africans is the lie that the standard of European beauty is far more superior than any other standard. As mentioned before, I have nothing wrong against Eurocentric beauty; there are many beautiful Eurocentric people. My problem is with it being propagated as the standard which everyone else should follow including Asians, Indians, Latinos and blacks. Itâ€™s very unreal to expect every single human to have long flowing hair, blonde or brunette hair and blue, green or light brown eyes. That negates the identity of all the other cultures.
Slavery and colonization did its damage to blacks all over the world, but it did not eradicate the last threads of African identity. That is being done by subtly forcing Africans to embrace Eurocentric culture as theirs at the expense of their own.
Cultures and traditions
Some of our cultures and traditions are still considered backward, primitive and savage. Young Africans are taught that the modern way is better; most times the modern way is a negation of the ancient way of doing things. The youth have bought into the Europeanized standard of peer pressure where old heritage, customs and traditions are considered old fashioned. It is not cool to kneel for your elders, it is not cool to respect elders, it is not cool to speak native dialects, it is not cool to wear African clothes-because European ones are better and more fashionable, it is not cool to wear African jewellery-because you will look old-fashioned and like a villager. So this slow eradication of cultural norms, as subtle as it is, is slowly making African culture extinct. Itâ€™s happening very slowly, but it is happening.
Whose history is it anyway?
It never occurred to me until I had moved to Canada how little we Africans really know about our history. It never occurred to me that a lot of the history that we learn in African schools, at least in Ugandan schools was written by non Africans, non black people. Despite the fact that I did history in my Aâ€™ levels (college in Canadian standards) I learnt the important contributions that people like Cheikh Anta Diop, Joseph B. Danquah, Phyllis Wheatly, W.E.B Dubois, Booker T Washington had made long after I had left university. I learnt it on my own. To quote The Ghanaian historian, Joseph B. Danquah, in his introduction to the book, United West Africa at the Bar of the Family of Nations, by Ladipo Solanke, published in 1927:
“By the time Alexander the Great was sweeping the civilized world with conquest after conquest from Chaeronia to Gaza, from Babylon to Cabul; by the time the first Aryan conquerors were learning the rudiments of war and government at the feet of the philosopher Aristotle; and by the time Athens was laying down the foundations of European civilization, the earliest and greatest Ethiopian culture had already flourished and dominated the civilized world for over four centuries and a half.
â€¦â€¦Thus, at the time when Ethiopia was leading the civilized world in culture and conquest, East was East, but West was not, and the first European (Grecian) Olympiad was yet to be held. Rome was nowhere to be seen on the map, and sixteen centuries were to pass before Charlemagne would rule in Europe and Egbert became first King of England. Even then, history was to drag on for another seven hundred weary years, before Roman Catholic Europe could see fit to end the Great Schism, soon to be followed by the disturbing news of the discovery of America and the fateful rebirth of the youngest of world civilizations.”
I was never taught that in my history classes. Nor did I learn about the greatness of the ancient Egyptian era and its links to the rest of Africa. I was not taught that the Greek writer Herodotus repeatedly referred to the Egyptians as being dark-skinned people with woolly hair. “They,” he says, “have the same tint of skin which approaches that of the Ethiopians.” I never learnt how many of our languages are linked to Egypt to the point where Egypt had kings called Shabaka and Shabataka and the present day Buganda king is called Sabataka Kabaka. I was not taught that Sudan has several pyramids.
I was not taught that there was historical, archaeological and anthropological evidence which supported the fact that all civilization came from Africa. In fact a lot of our history focused on Africans being discovered by Europeans, being colonized, and slavery, not to mention the preaching of the superiority of Europeans, which one would still read about in old school books. African people, whose civilizations were old before Europe was born, have been systematically erased out of the reverent interpretation of human history. Western historians, for the last five hundred years wrote or rewrote history glorifying the people of European extraction and distorted the history of the rest of the world. That is why you can still go to parts of Africa and see small children get excited over white people, or young girls who have the ignorant notion that marrying an older white man gives her a better value as a person socially, or people who think that all white people are wealthy.
African fashion or European fashion?
For a long time there were many Africans who would rather be caught dead than wearing clothes which were made in Africa or by African designers, with the exception of traditional wear. This dread of made-in-Africa clothes was manifested mostly among the youth, who would rather wear second hand clothes from Goodwill and had made-in-USA/Canada/China tags. These are the same youth who think speaking their dialect is an affront and African music is not worth listening to unless the musician has won accolades, awards and recognition from the west, for example Youssou Ndour.
Why? Simply because African have been taught that anything is great as long as itâ€™s not their culture. We have been conditioned to embrace other peopleâ€™s religions, ideologies, standards of beauty, architecture, music, fashion, cultures, and histories as our own or as of superior value than ours. We have been conditioned to think that anything African with the exception of our wild life and landscape is of inferior quality including the way we look physically. Those are all lies and itâ€™s time we Africans woke up and smelt the coffee. Being African is a very beautiful thing. All the other cultures in the world started in Africa and we should be proud of that.
Jane Musoke-Nteyafas, poet/author/artist and playwright, was born in Moscow, Russia and currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She is the daughter of retired diplomats. By the time she was 19, she spoke French, English, Spanish, Danish, Luganda, some Russian and had lived in Russia, Uganda, France, Denmark, Cuba and Canada. She won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named â€˜one of the new voices of Africaâ€™ after reciting one of her poems. In 2004 she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto’s Black storytellers and in February 2005 her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art, and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. She is a columnist for Bahiyah Woman Magazine and is also a fellow for the Crossing Borders-British Council Writers Programme www.nteyafas.com