CAUTION AND CELEBRATION: A Reflection on the 1969 LIFE MAGAZINE feature of BLACK MODELS

"Black is Busting Out All Over" is what the title read and underneath it was a beautiful array of beautiful black people -some men, some women, some light, some dark, some with hair bone straight and others rocking afros.  To the far right of the group was a GORGEOUS sister with an afro so big you couldn't even see her ears.

This was 45 years ago and an article in Life Magazine began with these words:

When ad agencies and fashion houses began hiring black models a few years ago under pressure from the civil rights movement most of the models were not really all that black. Cautious businessmen sought out the most Caucasian looking black models they could find. Today they want blackness —Afro hair, discernably Negroid features, truly black skin.
— Vol. 67 No. 16 LIFE Magazine | October 17, 1969

It is here that we pause to celebrate an article like this being featured in LIFE Magazine AND as the creator of a project that is about celebrating blackness and its many manifestations (indeed its global presence, its multiple shades and hues), reading this with a particular type of sensitivity and caution.

I am more keenly aware than ever how statements like "not really all that black" play out in society writ large and the particular divisions it has caused in the black community in particular.  I am also keenly aware of the reality that this sentiment of 'authentic blackness' has caused an even more rigid polemic based on the TRUE historical glorifying of light skin (as evidenced by the writers reference to the preference of "Caucasian looking models by cautious businessmen").

Though the entire article doesn't necessarily carry on this tone, I'm struck by the stark dichotomy the introduction creates.  "Today they want blackness" and the litany of characteristics that the writer suggests connote black really stand out to me.  The phrases "afro hair" or "Negroid features" which I've actually never heard anyone black say, make me wonder about how the author would identify.

It also makes me wonder about Lupita in this whole scenario.  Again 45 years later, what are the wonderful wonderful wonderful implications of her face and presence on well...everything.  Also what does it mean to, as I would like to say, Leap Forward Back Down Memory Lane with an article like this?  Is her blackness being fetishized by voyeurs?

What are your thoughts?  What are the ways in which you celebrate and exercise caution with these types of approaches to "blackness"?  What are the realities this article presents?  What challenges does it present?  What are the difference between 45 years ago and now?  How would you write this article today?

Carlton Mackey
Creator of 50 Shades of Black

Posted on August 14, 2014 and filed under africa, art, Identity, race.