Blackness and Femininity: Black Women and The Development of Individual Identity

Four black women from the show "Girlfriends" illustrate the broad spectrum of black femininity. Image via Reel Sistas.

Four black women from the show Girlfriends illustrate the broad spectrum of black femininity. Image via Reel Sistas.

Black femininity has long been defined for (or denied completely to) black women, a group that has been forced low on the social hierarchy, and not by black women. Throughout history, black women continue to be held to a higher standard when it comes to proving their femininity and their blackness. The combination of racism and sexism within the white patriarchy results in a struggle for identity within many black women.

The above image showcases the four main female characters in the show Girlfriends, each of whom shows their identity through their outward appearance. The women vary in skin color, though some appear darker on the show than they do in images. Their hair differs as well – two of the women wear their hair straight, possibly relaxed, and two of the women wear their hair naturally. From right to left, the first woman wears purple and blue, with her shirt in a more feminine style; the second woman wears a black and less revealing top; the third woman wears a revealing but still masculine denim shirt; the fourth woman wears a bikini top. Sex appeal seems most obvious on the fourth woman, but none of the women appear to be objectified completely or subjected completely to either the jezebel or mammy stereotype in such exaggerated ways as black women tend to be.

Before we move forward, it is worth understanding the black aesthetic, or blackness as an expressive object. Clothing, hair, and accessories will be viewed through this scope throughout this post, and so outward appearance will be recognized as signifying identity.

Included in this group of women struggling for identity within white patriarchy are some of the women that the women that we studied in ENG 359: Helga from Larsen’s Quicksand, Yoruba from Killen’s The Cotillion, and Birdie from Senna’s Caucasia. Each of these women resides in a different period: Afro-Modernism, Black Arts Movement, and Post-Soul, respectively.

It is important to note that blackness is not to blame for narrow definitions of blackness; rather, narrow definitions of blackness exist in response to whiteness, as whiteness created a context where black people in the United States were forced to redefine blackness and thus their own identities after being torn from their home countries (example: Africa) and forced into slavery and a culture that sought to strip them of their identities completely.

If these understandings of blackness are limited to stereotype, it is because whiteness shaped the way that information about Africa and other countries were presented. The histories and cultures of these places were viewed through a lens of whiteness that impacted the way that black people who sought to learn about these countries were able to learn about them.

As a result of this lack of identity, some facets of blackness responded by presenting a definition of blackness that was very limited. Afro-Modernism pushed for new negritude, or a new definition of what it means to be black. This was a time of the black middle class, and importance of respectability. Some black people were critiqued during this period by other black people for assimilating: In Quicksand, we see Helga critique Anne, a symbol of the black middle class. “[Anne] hated white people with a deep and burning hatred… but she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living” (Larsen, 37).

In Quicksand, Helga struggles with her identity because she lives during a time and in a setting where the focus is on women, and black women in particular, being “respectable.” What does it mean to be a respectable black woman? For Helga, it means not being vain – clothes are meant to be plain, and she is meant to dress conservatively. Her entire aesthetic is meant to be conservative, from her furniture to the way she accessorizes her body. This conservative form of dress is, for some, in fact a reclamation of respectability for black women, who had long since been denied femininity.

Helga, however, just feels limited. “It was as if she were shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her race, closed up with that something in the racial character which had always been, to her, inexplicable, alien” (Larsen, 41). To Helga, reclaiming respectability does not feel like a reclamation, but stifling instead. Throughout the novel she struggles with her identity because of this stifling environment – she is not given the space to define herself.

Larsen’s response to the limited definitions of blackness in Afro-Modernism was to show that a range of blackness exists: “For the hundredth time [Helga] marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair; straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair, wooly hair” (Larsen, 44).

This attempt to broaden definitions of blackness did not exist during the Black Arts Movement, which narrowed the definition further. This movement resulted in a lot of the black power and nationalist thought still in existence today. The Cotillion by Killens illustrates narrow definitions of blackness. “Yoruba had been to Black happenings where the brothers and the sisters of the darkest complexions did violent putdowns on those unfortunates of the lighter hues, all in the spirit of Black unity… but in the social sphere in which Yoruba circulated, it was the blacker the berries the rarer and more exquisite the wine” (Killens, 66).

Yoruba notes, “Everything was topsy-turvy compared with what it used to be,” with white being preferred and black being a “drag” (Killens, 66). This shows how narrow the definition of blackness was – you had to look a certain way to be perceived of as black. Yoruba embodies black femininity, and shows how narrow definitions of blackness impact black women specifically. We see this most in how Yoruba is presented to readers, and in the discussion of her hair.

In order to understand the significance of Yoruba and her hair, it is important to understand how politicized black hair (and, specifically, black female hair) is and has been in this country. Historically, black hair was viewed as lesser in comparison to white and other hair. White people diminishing the status of black hair was a part of diminishing black identity. By making black people hate their hair, whites were able to further impact black identity. A combination of racism and sexism is the cause of hair being especially significant in the identities of black women: long, straight, and stereotypically “white” hair is seen as good hair, and as feminine hair.

Angela Davis, Assata Shakur (a.k.a. JoAnne Chesimard), and Elaine Brown, three of the few women recognized as major influences during the Black Arts Movement.

Angela Davis, Assata Shakur (a.k.a. JoAnne Chesimard), and Elaine Brown, three of the few women recognized as major influences during the Black Arts Movement.

The Black Arts Movement responded to this hatred of black hair and blackness in general by revolting against the idea that black hair is lesser and promoting it instead. However, the Black Arts Movement did so in a way that was limiting – natural black hair was not just promoted, but was a requirement of being “really” black. To be “down for the cause,” one had to prove their blackness and their dedication to blackness.

As we see in The Cotillion, black women are held to a higher standard than black males when it comes to proving blackness. Lumumba, Yoruba’s male counterpart, remains black even when he cuts his hair. “He had not betrayed the cuase. The cause was not hair or beard or dashiki. And after all, he was the same person afterward. What else was important?” (Killens, 159)

However, Yoruba’s hair seems to be the main symbol of her commitment to blackness and to femininity, showcasing visible sexism in the Black Arts Movement and proving that already narrow definitions of blackness tighten further when black women are involved. “This Afro-natural was a new thing for Yoruba. She waged a running battle with it for many many months and Sundays. Young, black, shiny velvet cascades of curly stuff spilling down beneath her shoulders… [she] was surely endowed with a good grade of bad hair, as the saying goes” (Killens, 206). Yoruba is encouraged to cut off her own hair in order to gain credibility, despite the distress it causes her. As we see in the image to the right, to be “down for the cause,” black women were meant to embrace their natural hair rather than straighten it as was common in the time of Afro-Modernism.

Even after the Black Arts Movement, blackness remained somewhat limited for women. In Caucasia, we see a discussion of blackness during the Post-Soul period, a time when the definition of blackness was being broadened. Through Birdie, we get a simplistic look at what it mean to be black as a young, female teenager. Birdie says, “I did feel different – more conscious of my body as a toy, and all of the ways I could use it to disappear into the world around me” (Senna, 65). The first phrase here is the most significant – Birdie recognizes her body as a toy, and object, an aesthetic. Women and girls are objectified in general as a result of sexism, but the intersection here with race means that Birdie recognizes that her body defines not only whether or not she will be recognized as a female, but as a black female. Her identity hinges on the way that she looks.

In Caucasia, we also get a look at what happens to black women who do not follow the path laid out for them: “A few weeks after [Birdie’s grandmother’s] birth, when her hair began to kink up and her skin turned a rich nut-brown, they wanted to send her back… at night, her adoptive mother would put a clothespin on Nana’s nose and bleaching cream on her skin, and the poor child couldn’t sleep. Her hair was straightened so many times, with such chemical force, that by the time she was twelve, it began to fall out in great chunks” (Senna, 101). Here, we see a black woman being harmed by white patriarchal standards.

Helga, Yoruba, and Birdie exist in different time periods, in different contexts, and in different walks of life. Still, each struggles with feelings of powerlessness and confusion when it comes to their identity as black women.

women on beach

Four black women stand on a beach, smiling and feminine in their attire and overall appearances. Image via The Black Republic (Tumblr).

So what does black femininity look like? In a white, patriarchal culture that has worked so hard to dichotomize black women to either mammies or jezebels, black women have had the power to chose their own identities taken from them.

“One day, the Black woman’s portrayal will be as multifaceted as a diamond. Just as the diamond is formed over time, in the midst of pressure and struggle; so shall the black woman’s image be. Then the black woman can view herself more fully. She can finally see a reflection of her concentrated beauty which is often diluted by racism and sexism.” – Shanique Jones

Black femininity is continuously under attack. From Michelle Obama to the average black woman, majority culture is critical in a way that it is not toward other groups. Black women who seek to define their own femininity and their own identities in general face criticism, but may gain a sense of power and identity as a result. In the image to the right, we see black women standing confidently: shoulders back, backs straight, smiles bright. In popular culture, images like this are rare. This image, too, is vintage.

A world where black women regain their right to an identity, to their own definition of femininity (or lack of it), and are not subjected to the dichotomy of mammy versus jezebel is a world in which women are granted power and lifted from their current place on the social hierarchy.

Jones, Shanique. “‘Still I Rise !’: The African-American Woman, and Her Struggle with the Jezebel and Mammy Stereotypes.” Yahoo! Voices. 2007. []

Killens, John. The Cotillion. St.Paul: Coffeehouse Press, 2002. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. VA: Wilder Publications, 2010. Print.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. NY: Penguin Group, 1998. Print.

Taylor, Paul. The Black Aesthetic. 2010. PDF. []

Image Source:
Image 1: Reel Sistas. “Cinema in Noir – Kickstarter Campaigns for Black TV Adaptations and the Responsibility of Portraying Racism in Film”

Image 2: Perkins, Margo V. “Autobiography as Activism.” []

Image 3: The Black Republic. “Vintage #5.” []

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.