Negrophilia: On Baker and Beyonce

BeyonceBeyonceFor the stereotype to be effective it has to be both fixed and fluid: to appear unchanging, but also to remain open to manipulation. Homi Bhaba considers this act of repetition conjoined with fixity to be a deliberate strategy used by the West when creating stereoptypes. He defines this process as ‘a form of identification that vacillates between what is known and something that must be anxiously repeated’.1 In the visual arts and visual media this process is evident. A fascinating aspect of the study of the primitive and exoticism is just how basic its imagery actually is . Within the realm of black culture its signifiers revolve around a few basic props, bulging eyes, bottoms and bandanas. A role call of popular black female entertainers from Josephine Baker, Dorothy Danedridge, Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones to Queen Latifah and Beyonce shows that the primitive is alive and well. They are all variations on the same theme.

Baker 1925Baker 1925Two images of Josephine Baker demonstrates this point vividly. In the first, taken within days of her arrival in Paris in 1925 while she was preparing for a performance of La Revue Negre, Baker strikes a typical pose and plays the ‘homegirl’ country bumpkin. Twisting her body into a stance that looks more animal than human, she crosses her eyes in stupified mock innocense and reinforces ideas of hig jinx and baffoonery, long since applied to black people. The second image shows and elegant Baker on the arm of her fiance and manager Count Pepito Abatino.The camera unflatteringly captures her looking pasty-faced and grinning. The harshness of the flash reveals the extent to which she has masked her blackness in order to apprear a fitting ‘countess’. Ironically, her fiance holds not Josephine but the doll of the same name, now bare-breasted but nevertheless wearing the same inane grin. Allusions to puppetry are all too obvious. Josephine and the CountJosephine and the CountMore difficult to discern in this picture, are the motives and scars entailed in such deracination. Many blacks in Paris bleached their skin, straightened and conked their hair, and tried to dress and speak like whites, in order to assimilate better. Their ability to imitate and deny themselves for the sake of assimilation was an important survival techinique, inherited from the experience of slavery. Baker, like so many blacks in Paris was a walking contradiction, representing the potency and exoticism of Africa with an awareness of what it took to be accepted by whites, having what Fanon has apply put it ‘black skin, white mask’. But perversely the same can be said for the today’s contemporary negrophiles, and it is not uncommon for young whites to adopt black culture and attitude as a way of passing within black culture. Currently teen culture is obsessing over Marshall Mathers, a Kanses born blond haired kid whose media image as a black influenced rapper owes more to Marcel Duchamp than Dr Dre and his gangster crew, whom he credits EminemEminemThe case of Eminem demonstrates a phenomenon consistent in the west’s modern visual history that white people are constantly re-inventing themselves in the image of their ‘others’ in a parasitic relationship that blacks just don’t get. The difference between the doubling acts of blacks and whites is that whites act out what they think is black based on stereotypes, while blacks ‘act out’ for material survival. Eminen now outsells even his fellow black rappers exploiting his exoticism with each new outrage. Mary J. BligeMary J. BligeIt would be interesting to suggest that black performers have been wise to this type of racial exploitation and that they might have found new ways to project their identities and affirm their blackness. Ironically, this has not been the case, a superficial survey of music video’s landscape shows that in the tradition of Michael Jackson, many black artist’s especially female black artists continue to modify their features in ways that make them look neither black nor white, but rather, exotic . From Li’l Kim to Mary J. Blige, the trend is towards refined facial features, now aided by plastic and laser surgery; to lighten the skin using more subtle and expensive peels and bleaching creams, and to colour hair in shades of blonde that two decade ago would have been reserved for whites only. An examination of the lineage of such images from Baker to Blige shows us that not much changes, technology has provided us with the ability to distort and enhance our features, but the mind-set remains the same.