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Cut the controversy: "Blackface" Beyonce is beautiful

This pigmentally-enhanced photo of Beyonce has some critics crying foul.
This pigmentally-enhanced photo of Beyonce has some critics crying foul.
L'Officiel magazine

The political-correctness police are wagging their tongues. This time their target is singer/ actress Beyoncé.

The diva has spurred an outcry for her appearance in the March edition of popular French fashion magazine L'Officiel.

On the occasion of its 90th birthday, the publication brought out the big guns, arranging an eye-catching shoot of the global superstar in an array of African-inspired designs.

Beyonce's exotic look is a tribute to the late Nigerian musician and composer Fela Kuti, the father of afrobeat music and a tireless human rights activist.

Kuti—who died of AIDS in 1997— is the subject of a Tony-nominated Broadway musical called "Fela!" which was produced by Beyonce's husband JAY-Z, along with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

The glossy L'Officiel photospread is a long way from Kuti's revoutionary efforts, but it does shimmer with Afro-centric pride and drama. Beyonce looks stunning, pulling off touches like a sky-high gold head wrap, ostrich-feather sleeves and animal prints like nobody's business.

A glitch in the sitch

One photo, however, is receiving decidedly mixed reviews: an image of Beyoncé in a chic leopard-skin jacket and head wrap, her face darkened by several shades. Along with the dark-brown makeup, she's also sporting some pretty cool turquoise and orange tribal smears under her eyes.

The extra pigment lends us a view of how Beyoncé might look as a dark-skinned black woman as opposed to a light-skinned one with a considerable amount of Creole blood. And. . .surprise. . .she looks beautiful.

Think Grace Jones, only infinitely prettier and infinitely more girly. Think the famous 19th century masterpiece "Portrait D'Une Negresse" by the neo-classical painter Marie-Guillemine Benoist. Think Beyoncé, only blacker.

To critics, however, the photo is uncomfortably reminiscent of the "blackface" entertainers who—first in the 19th century and later during the Vaudeville era—darkened their faces and exaggerated their lips via burnt cork or greasepaint.

Often accessorized with a woolly wig and tattered finery, they regaled audiences with a mixture of song, dance and a stereotype-drenched black stage persona. Even some African American entertainers who donned blackface, exaggerating or obscuring their race for white audiences.

Beyoncé's high-fashion moment is a far cry from minstrel grotesquery, but apparently it has hit a sore nerve, with critics asking a number of questions: Why didn't the makeup artist paint Beyonce's entire body? Why wasn't an African model used to celebrate the beauty of dark-skinned women everywhere? And more to the point, why did Beyonce and the folks at L'Officiel do it at all?

Among those crying foul are a blogger who mused on the potential poor taste of Beyoncés darkening:

"It's fun to play with fashion and makeup, and fashion has a history of provocation and pushing boundaries. But when you paint your face darker in order to look more "African," aren't you reducing an entire continent, full of different nations, tribes, cultures and histories, into one brown color?"

A blogger on the Womanist Musings site takes the critique even further:

"It is not new, edgy, or even avante garde. What it is, is supremely racist and yet another example of Whiteness attempting to define us‚with aid the of a Black person -- who was not racially savvy enough to understand or care, that they were nothing but a tool in the continuation of White supremacy and Western hegemony."

In defense of. . .

The magazine has defended its editorial decision with this statement:

"The designs are all reflective of the African influence on fashion this season. As for the artistic make-up, the inspiration came from several African rituals during which paint is used on the face. We find the images beautiful and inspiring."

I tend to agree. Think of all the other looks Beyoncé has donned for the sake of fashion and self-expression. Clearly, a woman who channels an alter-ego named Sasha Fierce before stepping on stage is a woman who enjoys slipping into someone else's skin.

Think of all the ways that women throughout history have played with pigment, from rice powder-coated Japanese geishas and French courtesans to runway models affecting kabuki contrast or heroin-chic palor to devotees of the Mystic Tan. Think of any of us with a makeup kit, for that matter.

Yes, Beyonce's darkening is significant and dramatic, which is the express aim of high fashion. It's also lovely, which is the aim of art. Why curtail the ways in which the "Dreamgirls" star can celebrate her genetic and cultural connection to the African diaspora?

She's black and she's beautiful. End of story.


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