Fade to White: The Disappearance (and Reemergence) of Black Women in Popular Culture

Sean Posey I Women's Issues I Analysis I May 2nd, 2014

"Black women aren't ugly, they are invisible."

- Gabrielle Union, Being Mary Jane

Last year, The Atlantic published a series of online photo galleries looking back at life in the 1970s. Prominent among them was "America in the 1970s: Chicago's African American Community." The slide film and color negative scans reveal a wonderful snapshot of a bygone world. Perhaps most noticeable are the images portraying the centrality of black female beauty. One can't help but be drawn to the ebony eyes, the tall afros, and the dark black beauty on display in everything from the Isaac Hayes' Dancers to the radiant women on the parade floats at Bud Billiken Day. [1]

It's not just the clothing styles that faded away with time, however. The very diverse displays of black beauty that reigned during the days of "Black is Beautiful" were eventually eclipsed in popular culture. Black female beauty and black female talent-always contested and stereotyped in American society-faded to white in the past few decades. It remains to be seen whether the recent reemergence of black women in the popular imagination can reinvigorate robust and diverse depictions of African American females in the twenty-first century.

The End of Black Women in Hip-Hop?

In 1999, Lauryn Hill became the only woman ever to have been nominated in ten different Grammy categories. This in many ways represented a highpoint for black women in the world of hip-hop; however, even then black women were starting to disappear from the mainstream hip-hop/rap game. Eight years later black women (and usually only light-skinned women, at that) proved to be more visible as video vixens and "side pieces" than as performers. As Yvonne Bynoe wrote in 2007, "Women of the hip-hop generation have not become visible."[2]

Nicki Minaj is the only solo female rapper to reach platinum status in the last decade. The short-lived Grammy category "Best Female Rap Solo Performance," established in 2003, lasted only two years for want of popular artists.[3] And even the video vixens and the background women in videos have in many cases given way to non-black women or the phenomenon of the Pseudo White Barbie.

Fading in Film

When it was announced that Zoe Saldana would play Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic, outrage soon followed. Saldana looks nothing like the much darker Simone, and even worse, it appeared that extensive makeup would be used to get Saldana closer to the hue and facial features of Simone. Already that same year a much lighter actress had portrayed Harriet Tubman in the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The news seemed to echo author Kola Boof's comments about the ever-decreasing visibility of black women in music: "Black women must strive to become biracial or else." [4] Boof is referring to the increasingly challenging situation black women in the music world are facing, but her words seem to fit the world of film as well.

Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue in 2012-featured two black women…both of whom effectively disappeared from the cover; they appeared behind the fold when the issues arrived on newsstands. The 2011 cover fit the same pattern. In 2010 not a single black woman appeared among the "young starlets." [5]

In 2012, seventy-two years after Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for best supporting actress, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were nominated for roles as maids-as McDaniel had been. Spencer won. Davis lost to Glenn Close. Once again, many voices echoed the sentiment that black women could still only be recognized when they played "the help." And on the small screen, things appeared equally difficult. As of 2011, it had been thirty years since a black actress graced a major network television show.

The Invisible Women

The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published an article in 2010 that proved both stunning and deeply believable at the same time. In the study, white subjects viewed a series of photos of men and women, both white and black. These photographs were then shown to the subjects again after a period of time. The subjects had the hardest time remembering the faces of the black women, but not the black men. In the next study participants were asked to watch a conversation between a group made up of black women, black men, white women, and white men. They then were asked to match certain comments to the correct participant in the conversation. Once again, subjects could not correctly identify which of the two black women had made what comment. They also tended to attribute remarks made by the black women to others in the conversation. The researchers made it clear that they didn't think black women were invisible per se, but that "black women may experience a qualitatively different form of discrimination in which their non-prototypicality contributes to their not being recognized or correctly credited for their contributions…. They are treated as interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other, and in this sense are less 'visible' compared to other groups."[6]

Changing the Game

Despite the decreasing visibility of black women in the popular imagination in recent years, the tide is slowly beginning to change. In 2012, Kerry Washington became the first black woman to helm a major network show in decades. Nicole Beharie, who stars in the supernatural show Sleepy Hollow, joins her in a role decidedly outside of the narrow choices recently offered many black actresses. After much pressure, Saturday Night Live recently added Sasheer Zamata to the show, the first black woman to join the cast in years. After becoming the youngest Academy Award nominee in history in 2012, ten-year old Quvenzhané Wallis recently was chosen to play the lead role in a remake of the musical Annie.

Over five years after a dark-skinned woman became the nation's First Lady, actress Lupita Nyong'o is taking the world by storm as seemingly the first lady of film. The extraordinary amount of attention Nyong'o is receiving isn't just due to her acting chops. She's captured the attention of the world of beauty and fashion too. The fact that the country is so enthralled by the comeliness of a dark-skinned woman has drawn both praise and criticism. Undoubtedly though, Nyong'o's rise is forcing a conversation about race and colorism in regards to black women. The importance of this shouldn't be understated. However, it shouldn't be allowed to disguise how far popular culture, indeed American culture in general, has to go.

This is a conversation that must go a ways beyond the realm of popular culture. As many have pointed out, when we talk about race and African Americans in this country, we are talking about black men. When we talk women and gender inequality, we are talking about white women. "We forget those at the intersection," according to j.n. Salters.[7] Despite progress, according to a recent poll by Essence , black women see themselves depicted in the media in an inherently negative way.[8] And as Melissa Harris-Perry has shown, negative/stereotypical images also have the power to obscure African American women who don't conform to racial stereotypes: "The angry black woman myth renders sisters both invisible and mute."[9]

Black women, for all the challenges they face, are still succeeding. From 2009-2010, black women accounted for almost seventy percent of the degrees conferred to African Americans.[10] Black women are now the most likely of any racial, ethnic, or gender group to be enrolled in college, and they are the fastest growing segment of female business owners.[11]

Recently, Lupita Nyong'o delivered a powerful speech upon her acceptance of the Essence Magazine Hollywood Breakthrough Performance Award. Sharing an excerpt from the letter of a fan, she revealed that much like the young author writing to her, she had lived for years hoping that her black skin might someday magically lighten. It was only the example of Alek Wek that convinced Lupita to accept herself, as it was the example of Lupita that led her young fan to accept herself. Lupita and her unnamed fan almost succumbed to what Nyong'o calls "the seduction of inadequacy." [12]

One can't but help but listen to that speech and imagine the little lost Pecola Breedlove. Toni Morrison's raw and uncompromising The Bluest Eye is over four decades old and indeed fiction, but it still represents the very real agony of many black girls-like the young woman who wrote to Lupita.

These small examples of the renewed visibility of black women can surely help begin the process of healing. Still, this is a process that could easily be halted or reversed-as it was in the decades after the crest of the Black is Beautiful movement. We owe it to the Pecola Breedlove's of the world to forever cast off the cloak of invisibility and usher in a day where American culture will recognize that the darkest eye is as beautiful and worthy as the bluest.


[1] Alan Taylor, In Focus, The Atlantic, July 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/07/america-in-the-1970s-chicagos-african-american-community/100559/ (Accessed March 7, 2014).

[2] Yvonne Bynoe, "Hip-Hop's Still Invisible Women," Alternet, May 15, 2007. http://www.alternet.org/story/51933/hip-hop's_(still)_invisible_women (Accessed March 9, 2014).

[3] Erik Nielson, "Where did all the Female Rappers Go?," NPR, March 4, 2014.

[4] Kola Boof, "Rappers and Colorism: The Wale and Lil Wayne Article," Womanist Musings Blog, entry posted on June 28, 2011, http://www.womanist-musings.com/2011/06/rappers-and-colorism-wale-lil-wayne.html (Accessed March 9, 2014).

[5] Dodai Stewart, "Vanity Fair's Hollywood Issue Pushes Actresses of Color Aside (Again!)" Jezebel, January, 2012. http://jezebel.com/5880848/vanity-fairs-hollywood-issue-pushes-actresses-of-color-aside-again (Accessed March 9, 2104).

[6] A. K., Sesko and M. Biernat, (2010). Prototypes of race and gender: The invisibility of Black women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 356-360.

[7] j.n. salters, "Am I a Race Traitor? Trayvon Martin, Gender Talk, and Invisible Black Women," July 21, 2013. http://thefeministwire.com/2013/07/am-i-a-race-traitor-trayvon-martin-gender-talk-and-invisible-black-women/ (Accessed March 11, 2014).

[8] Dawnie Walton, "Essence's Images Study: Bonus Insights," October 7, 2013. http://www.essence.com/2013/10/07/essence-images-study-bonus-insights (Accessed March 12, 2014).

[9] Melissa V. Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 88.

[10] U.S. Bureau of the Census, School Enrollment, CPS-Detailed Tables, 2011. http://www.census.gov/hhes/school/data/cps/2011/tables.html(Accessed March 18, 2014).

[11] Farah Ahmad and Sarah Iverson, The State of Women of Color in the United States (Washington D.C.: Center for American Progress, 2013).

[12] Youtube,"Oscar Winner Lupita Nyongo's Speech on Black Beauty Essence Black Women in Hollywood" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCkfARH2eE (Accessed April 20, 2014).