One of the most resounding articles on black femininity last year was Ta-nehisi Coates’ “Nina Simone’s Face.” The article brilliantly examined how western ideology disrupts the black quest for aesthetic complacency. Perhaps the most prevalent of Coates’ claims was the significance of the black female face. A face that bears hot tears of disappointment, sorrow and joy. A face that has witnessed the horror of America, yet somehow remains not just sane but hopeful. This face is a pillar of the black collective. It is our nest. It is our home.
Coates aligns his ideology to the significance of late singer Nina Simone’s face, a pivotal symbol to the black female collective — a demographic painted as ugly by oppressors who tirelessly dismember and emulate their beauty. However, the face central to this argument is that of Sofi Tucker.
Sofi Tucker was the grandmother of Shea Moisture founders Nyema Tubman and Richelieu Dennis. Tucker honed her craft as a beauty merchant in Sierra Leone. A widow, Tucker created and sold her products to support her four children. Her image is for Shea Moisture what the Statue of Liberty is for the not so United States, a silent, yet paradoxical promise and visual narrative. In the photo featured on the company website, Tucker is portrayed as bearing a perfectly melanated complexion and a closely cropped but full head of hair that frames her stunning African features. Her face bears the beauty and resiliency of black femininity, simultaneously possessing a pride that allows Tucker to hold hands with all female ancestors across the black collective. Ancestors that swallowed deferred dreams, performed brutal domestic tasks, endured undocumented abuse and legal oppression. Tucker’s face is supposedly the muse for Shea Moisture, one of the largest and most prominent black owned brands for hair and skin care—a muse carelessly disregarded in their most recent advertisement.
Shea Moisture’s most recent ad features four hair stories, three of whom are white and the last of which is racially ambiguous female who has big, loose curls not contingent with the hair texture of the average abducted African. Founded on the recipes of a woman who possessed physical attributes oppositional to the featured women in the ad, is not only insulting but an act of erasure.
To change the face of the company is to change the story. In this case, Shea Moisture declined to resurrect their grandmother and instead composed a four minute world where this sun-kissed black beauty does not exist.
Even prior to this advertisement, Shea Moisture expanded their base with racially ambiguous models, and endorsements by racially ambiguous Youtubers like Sunkissed Alba who consistently demonstrate product use and results. While an expansive base may symbolize the versatility of the product, this expansion should be secondary to representing and serving the company’s original base—if, of course company intentions were sincere. Regrettably, Shea Moisture’s recent advertisement may suggest that Shea Moisture only seeks to uplift the black female narrative as a means to get their foot in the door. The last few years have proven lucrative for the ethnic hair hair market, namely black female hair products. Even traditional exclusive companies like Dove have expanded their product line to include the textured mane. This appears positive, but it seems that this opened door proves a gateway for disingenuous motives.
This is of course nothing new. Black women watched as Carol’s Daughter went from a Brooklyn born beauty company to a hair mecca for “all” women, suggesting that black owned companies are on a journey to become the next Dove not Dudley.
To erase and replace the black female body suggests that even companies established in black female beauty, do not truly believe that black women are beautiful. This pattern does not suggest that companies like Carol’s Daughter and Shea Moisture are not marketing to black women, but that the white woman and racially ambiguous woman embody #hairgoals for the black femininity— a troublesome notion embedded into the black female psyche both directly and indirectly by the western world. Namely, the western world commonly dismembers the “beautiful” black woman into fractions, to validate her beauty. The African queen quickly becomes sullied by white, Indian and Spanish presence in her gene pool illustrating beauty as incongruous to blackness, and the racially ambiguous black as the closest an individual with African blood comes to conventional beauty.
Thus, while Shea Moisture has since issued an apology, sorry is simply not good enough. To think that this depiction would ever be okay is a disappointing yet predictable act by a company merely using the backs of black women as a bridge to what they perceive as “bigger and better things.”
The shame in Shea Moisture’s ad is that it undervalues the significance of narrating the always duplicated but never lauded black female narrative. But most poignantly, this advertisement imbues shame in its treatment of foremother Sofi Tucker and all the seemingly forgotten black beauties of the black collective buried in the quest for white acceptance. Namely, Tucker, a woman’s whose knack for natural beauty birthed Shea Moisture, would not even be cast in her own commercial…
So while some may look at the rise of black female business owners as proof of how far we have come, instances like these prove that cultural enlightenment must precede the black franchise.
For she who forsakes her ancestors, will surely forsake herself and her people.