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Friday, October 9, 2015


Between the lines of the Ida B Wells biography "Sword Among Lions", the self-creation of the black elite in Chicago can be seen fairly easily. I'm guessing that Margo Jefferson's parents would have been teens or young adults during the time of Ida B. Wells and the Black Women's Club Movement. 

 Class is touched on from time to time in the biography about Ida B Wells.  However, Ida B's  "respectability politics" falls away more and more as she gets older...while it does not fall away for others.

Yet class, respectability politics, and colorism is not dealt with a directly as it seems "Negroland" will. 
Again, colorism is touched on in "Sword Among Lions,"  but not in a significant enough way for me to expect to find the  pictures I found at the center of the book.

 I was shocked to see that most of movers and shakers of the black women's club movement (Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, Josephine Bruce) were all pretty close to Margo's shade. And preference for whiteness wasn't just about skin shade in the late 1800 and early 1900s (just like now).  The black women, unlike black men, were so white-featured that black and white photographs made it extremely difficult to tell which women were white and which were black.

And the author's tendency to not mention the race, in some spots, made it difficult to figure out who was firmly for the progression of the black race and...

1) who was a well-intentioned white ally OR
2) a self-serving white ally OR
3) a black respectability politician gone rogue.

But it was quite interesting, once I'd seen the pictures, to understand how a black woman possessing white beauty aesthetics could translate to marrying well which could then translate to power within the Black Women's Club Movement and Black Women's Suffrage.  And according to Margo's interview below, this pattern continued for decades.

On the beauty standards Jefferson held herself to as a child.
I'm measuring my shade of brown. I'm measuring the width of my nose. I'm measuring the size of my lips. I'm doing the usual things that girl do — what shape are my eyes, are they big, are my features well-proportioned ... and I have an exact series of grades for hair as well as shades of skin. And [these standards] extended beyond my world — they really hovered over and imposed themselves on all Negros, black people, African-Americans. It was ruthless, it was mean-spirited, it was bigoted.

We were brain-washed into one standard, not just beauty, but acceptability. There is a terrible kind of anthropological "othering" and disdain in those kinds of judgments.
I don't think it's just a strange coincidence that I just finished reading a fictional book about a boy, barely a teenager, becoming a Nazi in WWII Germany. It seems God arranged that I just read about how the Nazi's measured every aspect of a soldier's body to confirm the biological "reality" of race and also racial supremacy. They measured arms, legs, and penises and also foreheads, nose length, and nose angle. 

That sounds so crazy, doesn't it? 

Actually taking a ruler to body parts makes the Nazi's sound like they were insanely evil.
  But when I was a young kid in school I heard white people say they could tell "Jews" by their "hook noses."  I never could see it. And I looked. I looked hard. I couldn't really tell the difference between Jewish and Italian noses (the other big white ethnic group where I grew up).  

But we all have the ability to do the similar measurements with our eyes and not acknowledge that we're doing it.

We also have the ability to treat people differently according to class while not "seeing" that we are doing so.

I'm going to read this book and see what else is passing right under my nose without me noticing. 

A link to her book is here:

Listen to her interview here