The lady is sitting down in front of her dresser. She slides off her ring, unclips her bracelet. She takes a deep breath, fiercely holding her own gaze in the mirror. She slowly grips the back of her head, and proceeds to take off her chestnut, bob shaped wig, revealing her natural, thick curls underneath. She then carefully peels off her false eyelashes, one at a time. She grabs a cloth and wipes her face, one strong swipe after another. Finally, she is clean. Raw and vulnerable. Fully exposed yet remarkably strong. She completes her routine by tenderly massaging her neck with lotion before addressing her husband.
This lady is you, and I, going through our daily evening routine. So ordinary most of us mindlessly complete each task with robotic familiarity. Taking off our ‘faces’, without much thought. All the muck, grime, foundation, eyeliner and lipstick that represent our daily accomplishments simply wash away, leaving us with a bare, fresh, unadorned reflection. The site of which may instill pride, or maybe disappointment, exhaustion, liberation, fear, revelation and, always, truth.
But in this instance, on this one evening the lady is not you or I. Her name is Voila Davis. She’s an actress, a stunning, talented, strong, Oscar nominated, beautiful and black (African American) woman. The evening in question was a scene from her latest television show, ‘How to Get Away with Murder’, currently offering some very shocking, and many very silly, moments of primetime television for American audiences. That the show goes out of it’s way to shock and exploit is worth noting, but largely irrelevant for the sake of this discussion.
Because even the most progressive, ultra liberal folk who barely bat eyelashes at some exceptionally explicit scenes, were left deeply moved watching this actress, playing the ruthless criminal lawyer Annalise Keating, completely strip down, without actually stripping down. Completely reveal herself, not her stage, camera-ready self, but her real unfiltered self. And doing so with such strength and resolution, as if by removing the layers of armor, necessary to camouflage out there in the world, her inner light was finally able to shine. At which point she confronts her (white) husband on his infidelity, with a very, shall we say, memorable, selection of words.
There’s another aspect that, unintentionally, served to add a whole other layer of emotion, especially to those of us black women watching the show. A month ago an article released by the New York Times caused a minor uproar on this side of the globe. The author of the article, in an attempt to describe, actually I’m not entirely sure what, stated: As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. (Shonda) Rhimes (the executive producer of the show, and one of the most powerful women in television) chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. (Kerry) Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series “Extant.”
There is no doubt that being a black woman in America is an extremely complex matter and that I would be naïve to offer any sort of intelligent counterpoint to the wealth of opinion, academia and discussion that already exists. I also think that in this age of Venus & Serena Williams, Oprah’s global domination, Michelle Obama, the slow acceptance of interracial marriage, and of course our very own, most beautiful woman, Lupita, being a black woman in America is getting better. We are even finally beginning to accept our natural, kinky, beauty, as represented by the ‘natural hair movement’ sweeping the coasts. In fact seeing all these gorgeous women embracing their natural hair inspired me to do the same. After over fifteen years I’m finally re-discovering what my hair actually looks and feels like. It.is.scary. And fun!
But, there are still so many limitations, false expectations and perverse misconceptions about us black women. We’re angry. We’re primal. Overtly sexual. We’re obsessed with wigs, weaves and fake fingernails. We snap our fingers and yell ‘GGGGUUURRRRRLLLL, Oh NAW HE DIDN’T!!!’. We’re baby mamas, mistresses, street workers and overweight administrative assistants.
We’re lucky if we have a high school diploma. We’re out to steal your money, bear your children, and silently endure the slaps and punches that we believe we deserve. And if we’re not any of those things we’ve been whitewashed to believe that we must whitewash ourselves, disguise our blackness, depending on how ‘black’ we happen to be. Because if we are, unfortunately, darker, then we’re certainly not ‘classically beautiful’.
I’ve read enough commentary and watched enough documentaries, including ‘Dark Girls’ – which explores the roots of classism, racism and the lack of self-esteem dark-skinned women face throughout the world; comedian Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’ – which offers an amusing glimpse into the nine billion dollar black hair industry; and ‘A Girl Like Me’ a recreation of the famous Clark doll experiments performed in the late 1930s which found that majority of children choose the white dolls over the black, associating white with being ‘pretty’ or ‘good’ and black with ‘ugly or ‘bad’.
Yet it’s been the years of living and working in America that has allowed me to recognize my own ‘black’ identity issues and uncover how my understanding of blackness has, and continuous to evolve. Because when watching Viola Davis reveal her beauty and truth I couldn’t help but feel extreme pride. On the other hand I’m pretty self-conscious whenever I step out with my short ‘fro’, wondering whether it looks too kinky, too disheveled or even too natural. Though on the other hand I barely wear foundation and concealer anymore, preferring to let my natural skin color, blemishes and all, shine through. Mascara on the other hand, I will carry to my grave.
I get scared of judgement and on occasion do encounter prejudice. I enjoy defying expectations but do feel disappointment to have them placed on me. I love being a strong black woman. But I’m also hyper-aware of being a strong, black, woman. I treat my skin with pride, but my skin colour with ambivalence. I’m grateful for what I stand for, but don’t always enjoy having to stand for something.
So when I witness a woman standing up for us all, removing the layers we’re too scared to shed, courageously carrying the heavy burden of being raw and vulnerable for all of us black women, well I can’t help but stand up, clap my hands and yell ‘Oh NAW YOU DIDN’T! You GOOOO GGUURRLLL!’
Published in November 2014