Afro & Aura

When you google the search terms *african* *american* and  *cute* (with no quotes, of course) the first hits you get are associated with hairstyles. After that there are some hits for baby names.  This is a fascinating topic to me and I believe it begs a chapter in my dissertation. Among the biggest vlog topics on YouTube these days is that of one African American woman or another who has embarked on a “natural hair journey” or is otherwise describing some new miracle product that has finally knocked her kinky curls into place.

Hell, I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to picking up a few hair tips in my own quest for cuteness through watching YouTube.

Though I can’t help but notice that the YouTube natural hair community already has several of its own clichés like, “Hey Guys! It’s me and blah, blah, blah. My hair is blah, blah, blah. And it won’t ever blah, blah, blah no matter how much I try to blah, blah, blah. Bye Guys!” I even saw an upload titled  “My 27 Piece Weave Journey”! (For those of you who are black girl hair challenged, a 27 piece is a short weave like the one NeNe from the Real Housewives of Atlanta wears.) For realers. Very comical.

For me, this issue makes me think of Terry Eagleton‘s book, Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, especially in the section where he highlights the late 60s – early 70s Black Power slogan, “Black is Beautiful” and discusses how this term is immanently rhetorical because of the way it calls attention to the falsity of Western beauty standards. Therefore, this verifiably questionable discursive utterance is deployed for the purpose of diametrically opposing and dislodging the Kantian assumption about the exclusivity of whiteness as ideal beauty.

Of course the period immediately following the civil rights movement, also known as the Black Power era, was the heyday of the afro and, for me, relates very closely to Benjamin’s notion of the hazy, blurry fluffiness of aura as an halo effect.  But then the afro and the (black) people who used to wear them have mostly gone out of style. Now we are told that “gay is the new black.” Or “green (politics) is the new black” and recently, I even saw a t-shirt that read “broke is the new black.” (Hasn’t it always been?)

Cute is governed by the canons of style (and delivery — as in the case of product packaging). So the racial rhetoric of cuteness is thus problematized, as it constantly moves African Americans in and out of style. As it stands, an entire category of humanity occasionally becomes vogue and then passé… and then vogue and then passé and vogue and passé and so on.

In Film Form: Essays in Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein blonde hair is implicated as the gold standard of photography and cinema culture, quite literally.  The golden, yellow hair of the Hollywood starlet is a fundamental pathos of the halo lighting effect used to imply desirability and is employed in almost all Hollywood films. As far as film culture goes, what we have seen little of is afro as aura. Well at least not until this public plural space of YouTube where black women are illuminating their own identities in the digital sphere. Stay tuned.

February 13, 2011. African Americans, beauty, cute, fashion, film, gender, hair, style, YouTube.

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