Skin Bleach And Civilization: The Racial Formation of Blackness in 1920s Harlem

Unlike previous scholarship on skin-bleaching advertisements conducted by scholars such as Lawrence Levine and Kathy Peiss, this paper finds those advertisements reflected a definite and widespread preference for light skin among African Americans in 1920's Harlem. Newspaper records and historical archives demonstrate that tangible if permeable boundaries existed between "black," "brown," "light brown," and "yellow" "Negroes" in 1920's Harlem. Skin bleaching was far more than merely cosmetic: it was a profoundly micro-political form of self-masking and identity shifting mediated by the new mass market. The advertisements not only appealed to the desire to be beautiful but also to the desire to find a mate, get a better job, and associate oneself with the future, modernity, and progress. Skin bleaching was one practice in a universe of speech and speech-acts that constituted an African American version of the discourse of civilization. At one extreme, skin-bleaching represented part of a "Great White Hope" that lightskinned "New Negroes" might actually be able to escape their "Negro" past and become a new near-white "intermediate" race, as anthropologist Melville Herskovits pronounced them in 1927. Uncritical reconstructions of a unitary "black" subject position in 1920's Harlem obscures the deep divides and antagonisms based on class and color that striated Harlem society. Recognizing these truths suggests that multiple "Negro" racial identities were constructed through quotidian actions both pedestrian and potent. Keywords: skin bleach, discourse of civilization, racial formation, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey.

© Itabari Zulu Jun 2011. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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