Out of thought came the word

The Culture of Aesthetics: What Beauty Is Black?

With the proliferation of European beauty values everywhere from the hairdressing salon to Hollywood, dark skin and afro hair have been relegated to the margins throughout history. So what does it mean to be “black and beautiful” today? By Ben Arogundade. Sept. 20, 2018.

African American actress Halle Berry’s skin-tone is the envy of white sun-seekers who favour a more tanned complexion. She features on the cover of the paperback edition of ‘Black Beauty: A History & A Celebration’, by author Ben Arogundade.

WHAT IS BLACK BEAUTY, and who, aesthetically, is black? This is a complex question, now that black women choose to wear their hair either natural or blonde, chemically straightened or in an extended weave, and where different factions of ‘the community’ are still arguing about whether ‘mixed race’ means ‘black’ or represents a separate ethnic category of its own. Simultaneously, pale-skinned sun worshippers would kill to attain Halle Berry’s cappuccino-coloured complexion, while in India and parts of Africa skin-lightening creams still sell to those wishing to be more pale-faced.

Modern beauty has become a stylistic mash-up of endlessly interchangeable components, and so purist terms such as ‘black beauty’, ‘white beauty’ or Asian beauty’ suddenly don’t seem to fit modern definitions of the aesthetics of ethnicity. The 1960s slogan, ‘Black is Beautiful’ — a revisionist rallying call to embrace one’s ‘natural blackness’ — is now as out of place as a pair of plaid flares from that same era. Today, the beauty choices of stars such as Rihanna, Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj influence millions of young women and girls the world over, but they can hardly be called ‘black’ in the traditional sense.

How did we get here?

Recording artist Rihanna and actress Lupita Nyong’o present contrasting styles amongst today’s celebrities of colour. These and other related issues are discussed in Ben Arogundade’s 2000 book, ‘Black Beauty: A History And  A Celebration.


The deep history leading up to this moment is a complex narrative spanning over half a millennia. It is a journey illuminated by the struggles of peoples of colour with issues such as identity, discrimination, coercion and conformity, much of which still underpins beauty culture today. This story was documented in my book ‘Black Beauty: A History & A Celebration’, first published in 2000, with a second edition in 2003.

‘Black Beauty’ chronicles the way in which the aesthetics of people of African origin have fared throughout Western history and culture, from antiquity to the present. It analyses styles of make-up, hair, skin-tone and facial features, and the way that they have been both accepted and rejected within society. The narrative draws upon the galaxy of black and African American stars of film, fashion, music, television and sports. From Josephine Baker to Beyoncé, from traditional African hairstyles to colour contact lenses and blonde weaves, ‘Black Beauty’ has become the key text for all studies of this branch of beauty history.


Almost 20 years have now passed since the first edition of ‘Black Beauty’, and there have been many new developments within the hair and beauty landscape amongst peoples of colour. I am planning a revised narrative that continues the story from where it left off at the close of the last century, and incorporates the experiences of contemporary peoples of colour. Stay tuned for more.

Black Beauty: A History And A Celebration (Chrysalis Books)

The journey of black beauty within Western culture, from antiquity to the present. It analyses the aesthetics of make-up, hair, skin-tone and facial features amongst people of colour, and the way in which these motifs have fared within Eurocentric culture. The narrative draws upon a galaxy of black stars of film, fashion, music, television and sports.

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