Monday, 24 February 2014

The -ism Series (9): Colourism

Freda Jospehine McDonald (1906-1975), also known as Josephine Baker, the "Black Pearl", "Bronze Venus" or "Creole Goddess" was the first African-American woman to star in a major film (Zouzou in 1934) and to become an internationally popular entertainer. In the 1920s, she became the most highly paid chorus girl, in 1931, she scored the most successful song (J'ai deux amours).
She was popular in France. In the US she was rejected. Time magazine called her a "Negro wench".  In New York, she was refused reservations at 36 hotels because of her skin colour. The Ku Klux Klan threatened her. In 1951, the famous situation occurred where Baker was refused service in the Stork Club in Manhattan and Grace Kelly rushed over to her and said she would never enter the club again. Baker gave up her US-American citizenship (via).

"To be beautiful, you must take plenty of fresh air and light, but not too much sunshine ... I use milk as well, as a lotion, it keeps me lighter." Josephine Baker (via Jules-Rosette, 2007)

In the US, lighter skin was more likely to be accepted whereas in Europe, darker skin represented (the European construct) of "true black spirit". Baker "dictated fashion and social life trends in Paris" (Sowinska, 2006). Her popularity in France boosted sales of "Bakerfix" hair gel and "Bakerskin" darkening lotion - Parisian women wanted to look like her. Baker herself, on the other hand, lightened her skin with lemon rubs (via) and publicly promoted her skin-lightening formula (Jules-Rosette, 2007).
During the slave days, African Americans had developed their own class systems based on skin tone. Dark-skinned individuals with kinky, "bad" hair were sent to the cotton fields while the light-skinned ones with wavy, "good" hair worked inside. In the early twentieth century, Madame C. J. Walker's beauty creams contained hydroquinone which bleached the skin. Blacks seemed to have finally internalised the beauty standards of white America (Singer, 2005).

Josephine Baker supported the Civil Rights Movement, worked with the civil rights organisation National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke at the March on Washington and refused to perform for segregated audiences no matter how much money she was offered (via). She actively fought for civil rights and was nevertheless not immune to the Bleaching Syndrome, an assimilation practice which is historically rooted in the African American creams and folk preparations to lighten the skin colour and by doing so removing "blackness" and turning "white". The origin, however, is the "imposition of Western somatic light skin ideals upon social environments" (Hall, 2010). Skin colour is more than the obvious. It is about a specific status in society, And changing skin colour is probably more about changing the very status in society than changing the obvious.

Hall, R. E. (2010) The Bleaching Syndrome in the Context of Somatic Norm Image Among Women of Color: A Qualitative Analysis of Skin Color. European Journal of Social Sciences, 17(2), 180.185
Jules-Rosette, B. (2007) Josephine Baker in art and life. The icon and the image.
Singer, A. J. (2005) Stepping Out in Cincinnati: Queen City Entertainment 1900-1960. Charleston et al.: Arcadia Publishing
Sowinska, A. (2006) Dialectics of the Banana Skirt: The Ambiguities of Josephine Baker's Self-Representation. Michigan Feminist Studies (via)
animated gif via, photo via and via and via


  1. I nearly forgot to comment. Excellent read. So interesting. Thanks!

  2. Wow, again! This is not a blog, this is a magazine.

  3. Thank you so much, Laura! Such a great read!

  4. Replies
    1. I'm running out of punctuation marks to reply properly ;-)
      Many thanks, Wim!

  5. Just discovered the animated GIF! Brilliant posting, Laura.

    1. Many, many thanks for your lovely feedback, Frans!