Are You Down? Appearance Shifts in Response to Whiteness

Photo from New York Times' T Style magazine Retrieved from

Photo from New York Times’ T Style magazine Retrieved from

Afro-modernism and the Black Arts Movement both emphasize ways in which whiteness should be dealt with. Fear of whiteness in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and John Oliver Killen’s The Cotillion dictates how female characters choose their appearance through negotiation and resistance.

In the two novels, whiteness has a one dimensional definition. In Quicksand, whiteness is the universal “man” who dictates how blacks should act and live. As a result, the women themselves are referenced as one and there is a loss of the individual.

Helga is unsure of her black identity throughout the novel because she is constantly forced to change her appearance to both work around whiteness and not stand out, and to unknowingly become synonymous with orientalism. The Cotillion was written also with the idea that whiteness was “the man”, however this novel was written to reflect a time in which people no longer worked around whiteness, but instead confronted it head on. This became a problem when this distaste for whiteness created a narrow view of blackness. Yoruba wants to appear that she is down for the cause and has to change her clothing and hairstyle as to not appear as “white” as the average black middle class.

Orientalism is the treatment of another culture as the other and often the depictions of the people of those cultures are shown as more exotic than they actually may be. The photo above was taken as a part of a photo shoot but it is an example of how people of another culture may be exaggerated. This is similar to Helga’s situation in Quicksand when her portrait is being painted by Axel Olsen.

For an imperceptible second he bent over her hand. After that he looked intently at her for what seemed to her an incredibly rude length of time from under his heavy drooping lids. At last, removing his stare of startled satisfaction, he wagged his leonine head approvingly. “Yes, you’re right. She’s amazing. Marvelous,”…But in spite of his expressed interest and even delight in her exotic appearance…he gave no sign of the more personal kind of concern, (52-57).

During afro-modernism, blacks were seen as having come from an uncivilized culture. Africa was seen as a single entity, not as a continent made up of multiple countries and cultures. Whiteness embraced an orientalism ideal which saw blacks and Africa as the other. Afro-modernism came at a time when blacks had to negotiate their identity with the world around them. In Quicksand Helga is constantly negotiating her appearance when confronted by whiteness. This is first described while she is teaching at the all black school in Naxos. “Helga Crane loved clothes, elaborate ones. Nevertheless, she had tried not to offend. But with small success…they felt that the colors were queer…and the trimmings—when Helga used them at all—seemed to them odd,” (16). In Naxos, it was essential that people learned how to dress and behave as to not draw attention to themselves. Outside of Naxos, students and teachers would be living around white people and the school was teaching them how to negotiate with that new environment and survive.

This novel also explores the idea that women did not have much of a role or a voice. To survive in the world, they were expected to negotiate and stay relatively silent. The poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson addresses this issue. In it, she describes the heart of a woman: “The heart of a woman falls back with the night, and enters some alien cage in its plight, and tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars while it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars.” Much like Helga, women during afro-modernism had to compromise their hopes and dreams, doing what is expected of them instead of what they want. There was little room to be an individual and stand out because standing out just reinforced the idea of the other.

Helga must work around whiteness when she chooses to leave America for Copenhagen, Denmark to live with her white European aunt and uncle.

What, the girl inquired, did one wear to tea in Copenhagen…bringing forth a severely plain blue crepe frock… “Too sober,” pronounced Fru Dahl. “Haven’t you something lively, something bright?” And, noting Helga’s puzzled glance at her own subdued costume, she explained laughingly: “Oh, I’m an old married lady, and a Dane. But you, you’re young. And you’re a foreigner, and different. You must have bright things to set off the color of your lovely brown skin. Striking things, exotic things. You must make an impression,” (Larsen 50).

It is clear that Helga’s aunt is trying to exploit the fact that Helga is different. On Helga’s part, she does not fight against this blatant orientalism but works around it by complying with how her aunt and uncle want her to appear. At first Helga enjoys this, but she soon realizes how the people around her are using her and she is powerless to change this fact.

Here is a clip from Key and Peele, a show on Comedy Central.

What is described in the clip is similar to what Helga goes through when she arrives in Denmark. In the video, Keegan and Jordan share their experiences in which they are often expected to perform when influenced by whiteness. They are subjected to stereotypes that have been created for whiteness. The idea of whiteness is that all blacks, with a disregard for background and experiences, are supposed to act, dress, and sound the same. This is suggested by the comedians when they describe how white people at parties expect them to dance and automatically liven up parties.  They are forced to change their appearance and actions because of what is expected of them. This is all a part of the negotiation process.

The Black Arts Movement also embraced Africa as a single entity but this movement was in response to afro-modernism. In response to orientalism, African Americans wanted to bring African culture to light, however, their idea of Africa was also very narrow and it misrepresented Africans. Part of this new ideal was to block out anything that could be seen as negotiating with whites. To be down for the cause meant that black people would need to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, and wear their hair in a natural way. Many saw the black middle class as an extension of whiteness. An example of this critique on the black middle class can be seen through the descriptions of Lady Daphne, Yoruba’s mother in The Cotillion.

She was Daphne Doreen Braithwaite Lovejoy. A tall aristocratic woman, who thought that, with a little luck and a slight assist from the Great-One-Up-On-High, she might have been the Queen of England. She surely almost looked the part, as she imagined queens should look. Perhaps a little duskier than ordinary Western queens, but then queens were never ordinary, (Killens 34).

Lady Daphne, one representation of the black middle class and whiteness, wants her daughter to participate in a cotillion, which is another symbol for whiteness. Killens also critiques the appearance of the black middle class, especially through hair. Before Yoruba’s transformation and her protest of cutting off her hair, she is not seen as being for the cause.

In Yoruba’s now world, Black was the “in thing” and the “end thing”…She had gone all the way with the Black thing, except that she had not cut off the long black stuff that crowned her head with shining glory and spilled down to her shoulders in sweet black cascades…Bourgeois? And she worked regularly for a living, which was known, by some, to be unhip, (66).

Yoruba’s hair is long and straight for most of the novel. It is the fear of whiteness and ostracism from the Black community and her obviously “down for the cause” boyfriend that leads her to chop off her hair and begin to dress in “African” garb. She actively fights against whiteness in this way, her appearance becoming a type of performance for the blackness of that time.

This avoidance of whiteness is described in another Key and Peele clip.

The clip highlights what was inferred by the quote from The Cotillion: it’s “unhip” to embrace whiteness. Keegan and Jordan describe how they often find themselves changing themselves in order to fit in with other black people. They fear the judgment that might be received if they were to seem “white”. This is another example of a performance of blackness to combat whiteness. Keegan and Jordan infer that the people they are hanging around may have a narrow definition for blackness, not approving of anything that may suggest whiteness. There is pressure to resist whiteness and shift one’s appearance to go along with that resistance.

In today’s world, there has been a resurfacing of this resistance and fascination with hair in the black community. This new movement towards natural hair is similar to how Ben Ali wanted to change Yoruba so she could escape from whiteness and middle class values. Here is a clip on reasons why someone should go natural. At about 7:25 into the video, the girls explain one of their reasons:

One piece of advice the girl in the middle gives is to “be you”, suggesting that as black women, we cannot be ourselves unless we change our appearance to break from whites. The video clip also mentions one reason to go natural is that African Americans should take “cultural ownership” of their hair. Yet another narrow view of blackness is expressed. Do those with chemically straightened hair have no culture because of the way they choose to wear their hair? Are they approaching an idea that should be avoided? It is also brought up how black women are pressured to have straight hair because that appearance is dictated by the people who are in control of the media. Although the women do not explicitly share who they are speaking of, it is inferred that they mean white Americans. In this videos, and many like them, black women are a single entity; there is no individual.

This resembles a black arts ideal and is similar to how Ben Ali addresses Yoruba and tries to get her to avoid the cotillion:

Hell naw, it wasn’t fear at all, he told himself. It was just that he saw the Grand Cotillion as some more sophisticated bourgeois shit to mess up the minds of youngbloods. He said, “Can’t you see what this Cotillion is all about? It makes no sense for Black people…They helping Whitey to cull off all the Black cream of the crop and churn them into little white toothless harmless bourgeois in black-face,” (Killens 139).

Ben Ali is the character that really fights for the Black Arts movement. He is the antithesis of whiteness, or in the case of this novel, the black middle class. He also is characterized by a double standard that no matter his appearance, he will always be Black, unlike Yoruba who must change herself. This is representative of how women are viewed during the Black Arts movement.

Negotiation during afro-modernism was essential for African Americans and they were constantly putting on a performance and changing their appearance, all in order to survive. Resistance became evident in the Black Arts Movement as a way to combat this past compliance with whiteness. As we move further into the post-soul aesthetic, it is important for us to remember and acknowledge the ideals of these times.

Quicksand provides insight on this negotiation, while The Cotillion emphasizes the importance of resistance against whiteness. Both novels share representations of what blacks, specifically women, went through with regards to their appearance.


Comedy Central “Black Guy at a Party.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 May. 2013.

Comedy Central. “White Sounding Black Guys.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 31 Jan. 2012. Web. 11 May. 2013.

Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion. New York: Trident Press, 1971. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. Blacksburg: Wilder, 2010. Print

Pretty Natural Divas “Reasons to Go Natural Part I.” Online video clip. YouTube, 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 May. 2013.

“The Heart of a Woman.” The Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 13 May. 2013.


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