“Black is beautiful” (1968) was a catchphrase from the Black Power movement in America. It meant that even though American society teaches in a thousand ways that white is right and good and beautiful and that black is ugly and shameful and no-good, it was just so much brainwashing. “Black is beautiful” was an attempt to begin the unbrainwashing, to undo the internalized, black-on-black racism.
Malcolm X in Harlem in 1964:
We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy. We must launch a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people.
Stokely Carmichael in 1966:
We have to stop being ashamed of being black. A broad nose, a thick lip and nappy hair is us, and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not. We are not going to fry our hair anymore.
James Brown in 1968, reaching far more people through his songs:
Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud.
The song in fact was about equal rights and freedom, but that line is what stuck in people’s heads. The song came out just when “Black is beautiful” was on everyone’s lips and helped to push it to the forefront.
Back then part of the power of “Black is beautiful” – and of the James Brown song – was the word “black”. It was not yet the main term for blacks like it is in this post. Instead people said “Negro” or “coloured”.
“Black” was the opposite of white and proud of it. “Negro”, meanwhile, got a bad name as being used by those who thought blacks should try to be more like white people in order to fit in and be accepted – assimilation, integration. So much so that “Negro pride” seems laughable whereas “black pride” does not.
As to “beautiful”, the phrase came when the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement showed how White America was not always so good and right and beautiful as it imagined itself to be. Even some young whites began to question it, protesting the war, becoming hippies, etc.
Some things that “Black is beautiful” helped along, though most of these were already in motion by 1968:
- The term “black” instead of “Negro”
- Natural hairstyles become way more acceptable: Afros, dreadlocks, etc.
- Black ideas of female beauty become less openly white.
- Fake African names (Shaquanda, etc)
- African American Studies
- Black History Month
- Multiculturalism in America or, as the right puts it, cultural relativism
- Blacks all over the world take more pride in themselves and their background as well as other ethnic minorities, like American Indians.
- James Brown loses most of his white fans.
While it helped to increase black pride, internalized racism is still with us.
- internalized racism
- natural black beauty
- Malcolm X
- bell hooks: Loving Blackness as Political Resistance
- Senghor – came up with much the same idea with Aime Cesaire in Paris in the 1930s. They called it negritude.