In 2013 I got ambitious for Black History Month, and decided to kick off a month-long series on black beauty history. I titled it 28 Moments in Black Beauty History, intending there to be a new post every day. Things were going great at the beginning. I wrote informative, research-heavy posts about Josephine Baker and Grace Jones, the history of black makeup and…it may have petered out right around there. What happened? February happened. Life happened. I always wind up traveling in early February, and I always make promises to myself that are unrealistic. So there’s that, by way of apology.
I had a grand vision of rebooting the series, but instead I am taking a realistic approach with myself. This post is about those personal moments that helped to shape my sense of self. I’m taking a personal approach to Black History Month, and sharing the influences that have lasted with me all my life.
When I talk to my mother about her beauty influences, she mentions family members like Aunty Ruby, who she used to watch as she applied her makeup and perfume. She also mentions pop culture figures of her time, women like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. Those were the women she looked up to as examples of accessible glamour, as inspirations for her own beauty. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the inspiration I looked to. Also, who will be the inspirations of the future? In my mom’s era, she primarily looked to movie stars. Television didn’t come to Trinidad until 1962. My mom grew up in the pre-TV era. I grew up in the TV era, where images from foreign cultures were coming into our homes and shaping our perceptions of self.
When I look back on my life, these are the pop culture influences that made me celebrate of my identity and lasted with me forever. The things I remember seeing on television, and being inspired by. These are some of the televised moments and figures of black beauty history that impacted me and led towards me becoming Afrobella today.
- Diana Ross, Central Park 1983.
I was only 4 years old but I remember it like it was yesterday. Diana Ross, on stage in the rain, dazzling in sequins and raindrops. And that HAIR.
They aired it on TV in Trinidad when I was so little. I remember getting a towel and sashaying down the stairs, singing “I Want MUSCLES!” even though I was waaaaayyyy too young for that song. Diana was so regal and resplendent in that moment, it has lasted with me forever.
- Debbie Allen in FAME.
Looking back on our TV history – how amazing was FAME? Think of the diversity and the talent, gay and straight, so much variety in culture and ethnicity! And this was on TV from 1982 to 1987! FAME was where I first discovered Janet Jackson and where I fell in love with Leroy, AKA the late, great Gene Anthony Ray. On FAME, Debbie Allen was a BOSS. Her character, Lydia Grant, was known for making inspirational speeches and coaching a new generation of talent.
She was talking about dancing but she was also talking about life. “You want fame? Well fame COSTS. And right here is where you start paying. In SWEAT.” Who can ever forget?
I always loved and wanted big hair, and I remember seeing this video and wanting to look like Chaka. The beat was irresistible. For me, it was my introduction to Chaka and the beginning of a love affair with her music and style.
In this video her hair is big and has a texture to it that I remember being struck by, even at a very young age. Chaka’s vibrancy just jumped off the screen and grabbed me. She always told us that she’s every woman, and I wanted to grow up to be Chaka’s kind of woman. Bold, bright, beautiful and with a radiant kind of self confidence.
- Lisa Bonet as Denise Huxtable.
I don’t know many women who came of age in the eighties who weren’t inspired by The Cosby Show. There was a female role model for every age. Claire Huxtable was so beautiful, strong, eloquent and inspiring. I suppose at my age I should have been looking to Vanessa or Rudy for my corresponding inspiration. However to me and to many of my age, Denise Huxtable was the star of the show. Denise’s fashion sense was inimitable. Her hair was adorable, even in that era of excess. Her spirit was free – she helped create the prototype of the “carefree black girl.” She inspired me to be creative and self-expressive, inspiration that lasts to this day. Thank you for everything, Lisa Bonet.
- Diahann Carroll as Dominique Deveraux.
I was too young for Dynasty, but I still managed to make myself around whenever my parents watched it. Joan Collins was the definition of fierce as Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan. And her rival, Dominique Deveraux was a revelation to me as a kid. Diahann Carroll was “…the only African-American to play a major role in an 80s primetime soap,” according to PBS. She was a living legend then, but she was new to my young eyes and Diahann Carroll was a WOMAN. Full, complex, drop dead gorgeous, well to do, and able to hold her own next to the force of nature that was Alexis. In her, I saw a whole new vision of what someone like me could grow up to be.
- Josephine Baker’s Zou-Zou.
I’ve written about this a few times before, but seeing Josephine Baker in a gilded cage singing in her film Zou-Zou was truly one of those life changing moments for me. Seeing her performance opened my eyes to a legacy and history I had only read about but hadn’t seen or heard.
That one Josephine Baker clip gave me a context to the history of black beauty, and made me want to learn more.
- Naomi Campbell on House of Style.
Does anyone remember this? I was such a House of Style fiend back in the day! I loved Cindy Crawford’s insights on the world of fashion, and her unique access to her supermodel peers. Of all of the episodes of House of Style, this one stands out the most in my memory – Naomi Campbell showing off her fabulous closet in Milan, with her buddies Linda Evangelista and Kirsten McMenamy. It’s Naomi at her most playful and regular. After her friends leave, then she gets ready for bed and we get the privilege of seeing Naomi Campbell washing her face and revealing how she puts her face to bed at night, with her face liberally polka-dotted with “spot cream.”
I was going through a hellish puberty, complete with acne and awkwardness. Seeing the supermodel I most looked up to sharing her truth, was reassuring and inspiring. I’ve never forgotten it. Thank you, Naomi!
Those were the biggest moments I can look back to in terms of inspiring me as a girl growing into a woman, trying to figure out who I was and what beauty meant to me. What moments in black beauty history do you remember, that helped to inspire you?