In 2014, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o won an Academy Award for her role as an enslaved woman in the white savior narrative Twelve Years a Slave. Nyong’o “victory” produced diverse reactions, but one praxis resulting from her win proved ubiquitous. Specifically, I reference how referencing Nyong’o’s beauty became a popular praxis after she acquired the Academy Award. The word acquire is a deliberate choice. Conspicuously Nyong’o acquired the award, but what followed suggested that she had been acquired. Specifically, her body became a means for whites to discount their anxiety around unadulterated black female aesthetics with an insincere proclamation of her beauty. Her body became the trophy that America wore to depict an advancement that the nation had never even attempted.
Proclamations of Nyong’o’s beauty posited American vanity as exuding equality. This proclamation, however, embodied a praxis that is just another example of whites implementing authorial control. Thus, Lupita as beautiful if and when the white world says so betrays vanity as inevitably in vain for the black woman.
This performance mirrored the Black-is-beautiful moment in the 1970s that, like Nyong’o’s moment, followed a period of peril. The Black-is-beautiful era followed the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, decades pained red in the black youth transitioned into ancestors by the wrath of white supremacy.
Nyong’o’s victory and praise occurred on the heels of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the aquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman. Thus, the praise for a black woman’s beauty worked to obscure the betrayed dehumanization and detest cast onto what comes out of her womb.
For those that actually believed that black was beautiful, the decade popularized what they always felt in their heart. For others, the decade proved a means to perform a superficial pride that dissipated once the moment passed. Similarly, proclaiming Nyong’o’s beauty, for some, betrayed sentiments for black women as a collective. For others, it was a means to say what they did not feel, to mask pervasive envy and discomfort around black female appearance.
The Black-is-beautiful moment catapulted Jack Hill, a white producer and writer, into relevance with blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown starring Pam Grier. The films, which featured black characters with afros employing timely rhetoric, seemed to personify an appreciation for black culture in gifted visibility. These films echo the presupposed affect of both Breonna Taylor as Covergirl and Lupita Nyong’o as an American beauty.
Since her murder, Breonna Taylor has been on the cover of Oprah’s O Magazine, and most recently, Breonna Taylor graced the cover of Vanity Fair. Taylor’s placement on the cover of these magazines, like the proclamations of Nyong’o’s beauty, embodies a performative praxis that aims to veil the violent ideology that continues to permeate the systemic and social infrastructure that informs the western world.
These features also prove hurtful because those who typically frequent the covers of these magazines live a life unburdened by the threat of death that hovered over Breonna Taylor and other’s like her throughout a lifetime. If the world had seen Taylor before they could never see her, if she mattered when they could look her in her eye, the readers of these magazines would not have encountered Taylor on the news or as a Covergirl. Rather, she would have been a person they pretended not to see on the street, precluded their children from befriending, or a person who motivated their move to all-white neighbors on the outskirts of the city.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that these platforms had or have an obligation to Taylor or to black people as a whole. Nevertheless, it is not up to these magazines curated for the white female readers to decide that Taylor matters now. It is not up to the white media to employ a slain black woman’s body as a means to make white female readers feel content in their whiteness while turning her corpse into capital for the same system that enabled her murder.
Moreover, Taylor’s face on these magazines adds salt to a wound festered by what a white supremacist world seems to think they can oscillate with optics. The optics won’t bring Taylor back, nor will it place her killers where they belong.
There is a certain invisibility that accompanies the optics that the western world employs to see themselves through an overtly black image. These optics constitute erasure, where the white media employs black images to mutilate the truth and alleviate white accountability. Moreover, these seemingly complimentary features, once again, place the black woman into a service role, where her body must act as a means to vindicate white women from the murderous actions of their men. There, of course, would be no white femininity without the callous pride of white supremacy implemented by white men. In fact, there would be no Vanity Fair if it were not for white male violence, and it would be remiss to ignore that white femininity personifies a violence all on its own. Particularly, the white woman bears the vanity of the white race, and this vanity is not only always violent, but it is never fair.