Looking for Mr. White

Dee Depass

Last fall Tara, a writer in Detroit, decided to try something new: dating a White guy. The attraction? "He was Jon Stewart-ish, had a sense of humor, was liberal and smart," explains the 39-year-old. More important, he seemed like a viable option. "The older you get, the more open you become to the possibility of love," says Tara. "I would like love to come in a certain form or color. But at the same time I realize that the population of eligible Black men is getting smaller. So I'm open."

And apparently so are many other sisters. We polled more than a thousand of you. Nearly half of those surveyed on essence.com (45 percent) say you've been involved in an interracial relationship. And for those of you who haven't, it's clearly not for lack of opportunities: Seventy percent of you say you've been asked out by a White guy. "One of my friends decided that Something New, that Sanaa Lathan movie in which her character falls for a White guy, was her signal to start pursuing White men and accepting their offers," says Aisha, 20, a junior at the University of Minnesota. "Now, instead of looking for an IBM-Ideal Black Man-she says she's looking for an IWM."

Cream in Your Coffee?

Your mom may prefer you to bring home a man who looks like your dad. But these days if you don't, she'll probably just smile and ask him his name (instead of calling him one). Interracial couples are far more common than they were a few decades ago; in fact, they've increased fourfold since the sixties. The U.S. census revealed that there were 116,000 marriages between Black women and White men and about 279,000 marriages between Black men and White women in 2002. Numbers for unmarried couples are hard to come by, but sociologists agree there's been a dramatic increase since 1980.

"I have White friends who date Black women, Black friends who date White women, Asian and Latino. You name it," says Aaron, 31, a brother from Eagan, Minnesota. "It's always been a multicultural experience between Blacks and Whites. It's what I grew up with."

In fact, a whopping 81 percent of readers say they aren't fazed at all when they see a Black woman with a White man. Flip the script, though, and it's a different story. Fifty-three percent of you disapprove when you see a Black man with a White woman. "Sisters looked like they wanted to beat me down," says Richard, 47, a financial marketing specialist in Pasadena, California. "When I'm with a sister, I'm ignored. But the second I get a White woman on my arm, I get ‘the look.' " Successful brothers like Richard who make the choice to "cross over" may draw additional ire because of the perceived notion among some sisters that Black men who have "made it" tend to prefer non-Black mates. High-profile couples could also influence sisters' feelings here. Yeah, we're cool with Halle switching from marrying Black men to dating Gabriel Aubry, a White model. But Kobe, Tiger, Terrence and Taye? Hmmm.

The last paragraph bugs me. It makes it seem as if black women are bitter about black men who date interracial, while black men don't care if we do. And I don't think that entirely true. Yes, there are some black women who do not like to see black men with white women, but there are also black men who don't like seeing a beautiful black sister on the arm of a white man. I am a black women who is in a relationship with a white man. I get quite a few disapproving looks/stares, and nasty comments from black men whenever I am out with my man.

Italian Vogue Black Issue

The lone cover line on the July issue of Italian Vogue, "A Black Issue," is a double entendre and an apt one. It refers to the cascade of names that appear under it – a roll call of 18 black models from fashion moments then and now – as well as the situation that inspired the magazine's direttore responsabile, Franca Sozzani, to dedicate the lion's share of its editorial to those models and all things black and au courant.

The "situation" is the lack of black models on the runway, and by extension, in fashion editorials and advertising. It became a cause célèbre in fashion circles after Bethann Hardison, a prominent African-American model of the '70s-turned-talent manager (she discovered black male model Tyson Beckford and guided him to a barrier-breaking contract with Ralph Lauren) invited a group of Manhattanites to a symposium, Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color, in fall 2007, with more to follow.

In 2004 I resigned my post as editor-in-chief of Flare and moved to Manhattan to be the launch editor of a fashion magazine Suede, shuttered two years later. Suede's spin was hip hop-meets-haute couture. The magazine was targeted at African-American women, who, consumer research shows, typically spend a much larger percentage of their income on fashion and beauty than other women, although this is not equitably reflected in mainstream media or advertising.

At one of the first events I attended, the opening of Jay-Z's 40/40 Club, I bumped into Iman, who spoke insistently about why Suede was not just a magazine, but a much-needed venue for women of colour to be represented in non-stereotypical ways in fashion as well as a vehicle for black models to work and get the type of editorial coverage that leads to lucrative commercial contracts. Yes, stars like Liya Kebede and Naomi Campbell get those opportunities, but not quite as often as their caucasian counterparts. Young black models just do not get a chance.

Glib excuses, such as "Russians are in," were beginning to wear thin, and, to put it mildly, Hardison was mad as hell.

The result has been a flurry of press addressing the issue in WWD, the New York Times and notably, American Vogue's July issue. They give it eight pages in a 162-page issue, quite a bit of real estate.

But with Italian Vogue dedicating at least 90 per cent of its editorial in a 346-page issue – which sold out instantly in Toronto when it hit the stands last week – they make the most emphatic statement yet. The fact that the all-black issue is the July edition, where editors tend to place minorities because sales are not expected to be high anyway, is a point only a cynic would make. Especially since Italian Vogue is not known for its mass-market appeal.

And, in this case, the medium is the message. Italian Vogue is the ne plus ultra of fashion publications, its influence on fashion insiders outsized compared to its relatively tiny circulation. Unlike North American fashion magazines that dabble in edginess but are about relatable, albeit heightened, reality, Italian Vogue adopts forward, hardcore views, often fraught with innuendo, either sexual or political or both. Like the couture, its pages are a laboratory for the world's best fashion photographers, stylists and makeup artists to fantasize and create memorable, provocative pictures with the most beautiful clothes and models as raw materials.

This editorial, overlay of blackness and the cultural signifiers they choose to reference makes for interesting viewing.

The upfront section crackles, with pieces on Michelle Obama; Spike Lee's new drama, The Miracle At Santa Anna; a photography exhibition The Black List, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders; Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday; and a feature on the leading lifestyle magazines for African Americans, Ebony and Essence, a gracious nod to those in the trenches.

The shoots are typical Italian Vogue, which are not typical at all. The first editorial, "You Have A Go-See," (Italian Vogue often uses English for headlines, though the stories are written in Italian) features eight new models, all black, with the layout designed to resemble a comp card, with stats such as height, weight and shoe size. It's a charming riposte to the claim by many casting directors that there are just no new black models to hire. Then the shoots start treading in deeper waters.

The beauty section, which amusingly features stories "Hair So Frizzy" and "Tan Boosters" – when in Rome, I guess – is kicked off by a powerful '80s shoot that evokes Grace Jones and her signature look. The theme is colour blocking, and the liberal application of black makeup over the model's face, fully or in geometric abstractions, evokes blackface. It makes for a dramatic effect but brought to mind discussions raging among American talking heads about who is and who is not allowed to use the n-word. If a black model is in blackface, are the connotations skewered and diffused or are they perpetuated?

The magazine's fashion, well-photographed, mostly by Steven Meisel, is kicked off by "Modern Luxe," which showcases the models named on the cover, as well as a degree of diversity within its black models. Ages vary – from models in their 50s (Iman) and 60s (Alva Chin) to teenagers such as Chanel Iman – and, perhaps more important, so do skin tones.

Of course, Naomi appears in a 16-page extravaganza, "there is only one Naomi," looking surprisingly serene, followed by a model-as-mogul piece on Tyra Banks. I couldn't help but think of their notorious rivalry of the '90s, egged on not just by personality clashes but by many a casting's director's refrain, "I already have a black girl."

Also noteworthy is Toronto's Yasmin Warsame at her scorching best in a 12-page shoot on elegance, "How To Dazzle," which references hits by the late Yves Saint Laurent (who famously preferred models of colour), from Le Smoking to Russian folkloric.

The pictorial on divas – Tina, Aretha, Latifah, et al. – felt obligatory (as in, no news here), but I wish I could have read the pieces on the original black models, Carol LaBrie, Donyale Luna and Pat Cleveland. Ditto a piece on the always insightful Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post fashion critic who happens to be African American. One can only hope she recalled the morsel handed to her by Stefano Pilati, current designer of YSL, who said he did not like using black models because, in his view, their bodily proportions do not work for the cut of his clothes. Interestingly, Naomi Campbell appears in his fall 2008 campaign. Perhaps she beat him with a cellphone.
As far as I'm concerned the most subversive layout, far more so than the issue itself, is "Champagne Furs," starring Toccara Jones. Some may remember her as the plus-size model eliminated during the third cycle of America's Next Top Model. Top Model winners (all regular model size, except for the most recent, who is plus-size) have been chosen based on their high-fashion potential; and they are still traversing fashion's base camps, while Jones, the also-ran who is as plus- size as ever, has ascended this Everest of fashion.

From Italian Vogue's perspective, they may have killed two birds with one stone, as Denzel Washington quipped the night he and Halle Berry both won leading actor Oscars. But Vogue has done more: It has made a perverse statement – if entire issues of fashion magazines can be all white in this multicultural world, why can't they be all black?

Fair is fair, right? But this all-black issue, like the New Yorker Obama cover cartoon, may yet emphasize what was not intended: Otherness, which comes with images that are so stylized, as these are, can turn the people in them into objects and a type into a fetish.

Will there be any black models in the next issue, or the one after that, or in any of the fashion magazines in the future? After all, no one wants to be a fad. In the meantime, Italian Vogue has made a point and it is well taken.

ACV (Apple Cider Vinegar) Rinse

For a couple of years now I have had problems with an itchy and flaky scalp. My head always seemed to be itchy even though I had just washed it. Around July or so I heard about ACV rinses, but I never actually tried it until August. I am so glad I tried this ACV rinse. My hair feels softer, my head barely itches and no more flakes. Below is a video explaining how to mix an ACV rinse.

Black Womanhood in Art

Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center

Right: DOUBLE FUSE: Wangechi Mutu’s playful razzmatazz makes reference to the past but lives in the present.

“Black Womanhood,” the exhibit at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center, must have seemed like a sharp idea when it was being put together. It examines the ways in which “contemporary artists are challenging historic and often stereotypical images that present black women as the alluringly beautiful Other, the erotic fantasy, or the super-maternal mammy.” By now this is familiar, if still urgent, stuff; what makes this outing special is that it gathers more than 100 objects — traditional African art, Western colonial photos and postcards, and contemporary art — that connect today’s dissectors with the origins of the ugly stereotypes they’re working to take apart.

Barbara Thompson, who organized the show for Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in New Hampshire, does a good job of mapping the territory. But it’s an uneven show with a dour vision that leaves a mediciny taste in your mouth — and, I think, offers signs of a generation gap among curators.

The art of African women was traditionally pottery, beadwork, basketry, textiles, and the decoration of their own bodies (tattoos, scarification, hairstyles, body paint). But Westerners collected primarily African sculpture, masks, and costumes — which tended to be made by and for African men. The women’s portrayal of themselves was more abstracted, less obvious than their men’s literal, if stylized, depictions of women. The show presents women-made pots with bumps and patterns that make reference to women’s physiques and body scarification. The women’s pieces emerge directly from their work and their rituals — like a leather skirt beaded by an adolescent girl in her seclusion as she made the traditional passage into womanhood.

The most charged part of the show surveys early-20th-century Western photos and postcards of African women. Western attitudes are apparent in images that treated the women as curious ethnographic specimens and pin-ups — either untamed, sexually available African primitives or Oriental harem girls. Photographers tailored their shots to different audiences by photographing the same models elaborately garbed or in various states of undress. A postcard of a young topless Temne woman lounging on a rug was published around 1910 as “Timnie Girl, Sierra Leone.” When it was republished in the 1920s, the caption read, “Just you and me. Sierra Leone.” These postcards could be the foundation of an electrifying stand-alone exhibit.

Right: HOT-EN-TOT: More of the contemporary work should have Renée Cox’s crackle and swagger.

But “Black Womanhood” — primarily work by black women, with some contributions by men and whites — deflates as it moves to the art of today. Sokari Douglas Camp’s 1995 sculpture Gelede from Top to Toe is an African woman turned into an armored tank of steel and chicken wire with wooden breasts that jut out like battering rams. In Renée Cox’s giant 2001 photo self-portrait Baby Back, she imitates Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1814 painting La grande odalisque by reclining, with nothing hiding her brown skin except for red heels, on a gold chaise longue. Cox asks how race colors our notions of beauty, and she teases black-white, male-female hierarchies. Ingres’s naked white lady is an imagined harem girl holding a fan; Cox has a whip.

More of the contemporary work should have Cox’s crackle and swagger. It should sadden, celebrate, anger. You’d think Kara Walker’s bawdy, violent versions of ante-bellum paper-cut silhouettes would be just what this show needs, but the 1997 pop-up book that’s here is too tiny to convey the fierce beauty of her best work.

The then-and-now focus favors artists whose work is built on looking back — but many artists seem hemmed in by their historical references. And the theme pigeonholes art that is more expansive, like María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s 1994 self-portrait When I Am Not Here/Estoy Allá. The photo shows her naked body from her chin to her belly, everything painted with blue waves. Slung over her shoulders and hanging over her breasts are a pair of baby bottles. Milk seems to drip from the bottles and her breasts into a simple wooden boat that she cradles. A black Cuban native who lives in Brookline with her white husband and their son, Campos-Pons often makes reference to the African diaspora and traditional African art. But her explorations of motherhood, race, and much else have their own rich mysterious symbols, and they’re planted in the present by her sculptural and symbolic use of hair extensions and beads.

These are highlights among contemporary works that are mostly dull, didactic, and rote — like a 1990-’91 photo from Carla Williams’s How To Read Character series that pairs a diagram of the parts of a cow with a photo of the nude artist. It’s art focused more on being good for you than on engaging you. “Global Feminisms,” a survey of recent international feminist art that was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and appeared at the Davis last fall, was similarly full of dour art. This eat-your-broccoli didacticism seems at least a decade behind the times.

In “Black Womanhood,” that’s partly because much of the newish work is at least 10 years old. But it also seems to represent a generation gap among curators who haven’t picked up on the changes in this area of art over the past decade or so. These curators know black and feminist art of ’80s and ’90s, which often took the form of pared-down didactic critiques. What they’ve missed is emerging women artists and artists of color who while continuing to berate the straight white guys who’ve kept their people down also create exuberant visions of what the future can hold. And they’ve embraced lavish beauty — often for its own sake. Among younger black artists, this trend tends to show up as vivid psychedelic colors, glitter, and patterns and fabrics that make reference to traditional African art as well as ’60s and ’70s Afro soul. These artists remain engaged with the past, but in terms of the themes and styles of their childhoods, when the transformations of the civil-rights movement, feminism, and post-colonialism began to be felt.

The single example of all that here is Wangechi Mutu’s 2003 collage and ink drawing Double Fuse. It depicts weird futuristic glam twins with hands made of motorcycle parts and glittering skin-tight outfits with blond hair as epaulets. The patterns recall African art, but the goofy, cheeky, playful razzamatazz is more about beauty than a comment on the past.

Where are Chris Olifi, Mickalene Thomas, Lorna Williams, Laylah Ali, Saya Woolfalk, Yinka Shonibare, El Anatsui, and the Chicago artist Nick Cave? The show would benefit from flashbacks to Betye Saar’s acid 1972 assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which gave the icon a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. Or cartoonist Robert Crumb’s notorious ’60s caricature Angelfood McSpade, which was inspired by racist comics of the 1920s and ’30s.

And though it doesn’t fit the show’s then-and-now focus, I wish “Black Womanhood” had a place for pseudonymous Chicago artist Lo (see www.livingoprah.com), who is spending this year following, as closely as she can, the advice Oprah Winfrey gives on her television show and her Web site and in her magazines. If that doesn’t tell us something deep about black womanhood today, what does?

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