Black Is Beautiful…And Ugly
When you look at the sentence, “Black is beautiful and ugly,” the whole sentence can be hard to accept and affirm. With a glance, I understand why that phrase never became a slogan, a hashtag, or appeared in big print.
Ugly is ugly. It differs from imperfect or flawed. It’d be easier to claim the “and ugly” part of the complete sentence is obvious and implied. Who wants to proclaim and add the word “ugly” as an affirmation?
I’ll admit it’s true; Black is beautiful and ugly. Black has always been beautiful and ugly. Black will always be beautiful and ugly. Let Black be.
Black beauty does not come from superiority, and Black ugliness does not come from inferiority. Beautiful does not mean better than the rest, and ugly does not mean abnormal. Those two opposing thoughts do not point to pathology; they point to people being people.
At the end of his epic book, Stamped from the Beginning, which catalogs and explains the history of anti-Black ideas, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes those exact words, “Black is beautiful and ugly.”
Dr. Kendi uses those words to say what must be repeated — Black people are human. If some people are smart and hardworking, then some Black people are too. If some people are not, then some Black people aren’t either.
With those words, Dr. Kendi cites Langston Hughes who in 1926 wrote at the end of an essay for The Nation, “…we are beautiful. And ugly too.”
People who recognize and announce their commingled beauty and ugliness are not always suffering or sniveling with self-hate.
The “and ugly” is an unapologetic understanding that no longer needs to defend or delete what’s ugly or insist on the respectability of beauty alone. The “and ugly” does not need a model, a respectable representative, or extraordinariness.
“Denying the ugly is its own kind of violence”
With her essay, In the Name of Beauty, sociologist Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom elaborates on calling herself ugly.
She writes, “Sometimes when we are trapped in the race not to be complicit in our own oppression, self-definition masquerades as loving our black selves in white terms.”
According to Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, denying the ugly is “its own kind of violence.”
Racist people are also violent when they demean Blackness as only ugly, uglier, or the ugliest. Many historians have noted that an original idea of racists was to call some humans ugly with no beauty, and to call other humans beautiful with no ugliness. Both notions dehumanize people.
Racists isolate beauty and ugliness with superlatives. The hierarchies of ultimate beauty and utter ugliness, with everything else in between, are birthmarks of white racism that continue.
In her book, The History of White People, historian Dr. Nell Irvin Painter reminds readers that white concepts of beauty (and ugliness) soon became the measurements of racial classifications, divisions of labor, character, and even “science.” The word beautiful and the word ugly are more than physical descriptions.
Our history of racist relations tells us when you call a racial group the nadir of ugliness, they may rise to assert their beauty. Conversely, when a racial group considers themselves the apex of beauty, they may have a hard time reckoning with their ugliness.
“Humanity is neither beautiful nor ugly alone.”
If there’s only beauty or ugliness, then people can assume superiority or inferiority; they can also fetishize or shame other people or themselves.
Humanity is neither beautiful nor ugly alone. Humanity is complex and contradictory; it’s beautiful and ugly at the same time.
Today, even with the ordinary ugliness of humanity, there’s no moral, social, physical, cultural, or intellectual aspect of beauty — or ugliness — that creates and widens racial disparities on their own. Racial disparities come from racism and its rankness. If someone sees racial disparities any other way, then they are a racist who believes in separate and varying degrees of beauty and ugliness.
One act of racism is to separate and assign beauty and ugliness. One act of reconciliation is to put them back together again. That reconciliation is racial justice too.
Reconciling the beauty of Black humanity with its normal and human ugliness is not the same as relegating Black humanity to the worst ugliness.
Accuracy and actuality are the aims. The statement, “Black is beautiful and ugly,” is humanely accurate. Nevertheless, some may still question why it’s necessary to add “and ugly” to a beautiful statement.
Dr. Tessie McMillan Cottom has another answer — “naming is political.”
What’s problematic, racist, and hateful isn’t the accurate naming of Blackness. What’s problematic, racist, and hateful is the defaming of Blackness.
See it all and call it human.