New Books | Beneath the Surface

This section of Lynn M Thomas’ history of skin lighteners considers Steve Biko’s role in raising consciousness and pushing the ‘Black is Beautiful’ campaign in South Africa.

This is an excerpt from Lynn M Thomas’ Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners (Wits University Press, 2020). Published with permission. 

Black Consciousness and biomedical opposition

At a marketing conference held in Durban in 1969, one presenter, Mr A Tiley, expressed an abiding optimism in South Africa’s skin lightener trade. Tiley explained that another business consultant, a recent immigrant – likely from the United States – had offered a “misguided” prediction: political independence elsewhere in Africa and the US Black Power movement with its affirmation “Black Is Beautiful” signaled the trade’s long-term demise. Tiley insisted that South Africa’s market was too strong and too distant from those political movements to feel their effect. Mockingly, he asked whether Stokely Carmichael (by then, Miriam Makeba’s husband) and Rap Brown, another Black Power activist, could really change “purchasing patterns in the Republic of South Africa?” Tiley answered his own question by arguing that skin lighteners carried a “sex[ual]” rather than “political connotation”. Tiley was right that desires to look attractive and sexy spurred skin lightener sales. What he missed was how those desires had long been shaped by cultural and political ties that crisscrossed the Atlantic, and by racial and gender inequities. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, as resistance to apartheid grew, Tiley’s question would appear more naïve than the newcomer’s prediction.

The same year that Tiley and other businessmen attended the marketing conference in Durban, students at the nonwhite medical school across town founded the South African Student Organisation (Saso), the all-black group from which Black Consciousness thought emerged. Steve Biko (the leader of the group) and his fellow students were influenced by the work of Black Power activists like Carmichael and Brown as well as African nationalism, Marxism, liberation theology, Négritude and the writings of Frantz Fanon. Black Consciousness activists combined and reworked these transnational influences to craft a political ideology that addressed the exigencies of life under apartheid by imagining new ways of thinking and being. Those exigencies included a barrage of images and messages that equated power and beauty with lightness and whiteness. Activists embraced “Black Is Beautiful” and condemned skin lighteners, as they sought to transform an older politics of racial respectability into one of racial self-respect. 

Related article:

During the 1980s, Black Consciousness thinking intersected with growing medical concerns about hydroquinone to affect skin lightener manufacturing and marketing. This chapter examines how and why political and health critiques that had previously remained distinct became intertwined. Broad and powerful alliances forged at the height of the anti-apartheid movement enabled grassroots consumer and women’s groups to join forces with biomedical professionals and turn opposition to skin lighteners into an issue with widespread appeal. These alliances fundamentally altered industry and regulatory discussions of skin lighteners in South Africa and internationally. Their effects on everyday practices, by contrast, have remained more elusive. 

Black Consciousness 

In early 1970s South Africa, “Black Is Beautiful” circulated through popular media and was often taken as a direct retort to the pervasive presence of skin lighteners. For example, in 1971, Bona, the government-subsidised alternative to Drum, reported that Ginyindlovu Sigcau, the wife of the paramount chief of the Eastern Transkei, endorsed the motto. The pro-government press initially interpreted Black Power sensibilities as supportive rather than subversive of apartheid’s principle of separate development. Asked whether she endorsed the motto, Sigcau stated, “I think anybody is very proud of his colour.  . . .  I think Black is really beautiful.” She also expressed her preference for cosmetics that do not “destroy [her] colour or complexion”. That same year, two social scientists noted that while “Black Is Beautiful” was heard in South Africa, its impact was negligible. Michael G Whisson and William Weil, in a study of domestic workers, described how most people, regardless of skin color, believed that “light skins are better than dark skins”. This belief, they explained, had “given rise to a large cosmetics industry aimed at making skins lighter, with advertisements emphasising that light-brown girls are considered more beautiful and light-brown men more competent and likely to succeed in life”. Black Power ideas had yet to alter South African thinking. 

Saso activists set about to change that. The organisation initially assumed the state’s racial categories, defining itself as a nonwhite student organisation. But in 1970, Saso members rejected the term, amending their constitution to replace “nonwhite” with “black”. “Nonwhite,” they argued, denied “self respect to the majority of South Africa’s people”. By using “black” to reference all disenfranchised by apartheid, Saso activists, like antiracist activists in Britain, expanded the concept of blackness rooted in African ancestry and espoused by many African nationalists and US Black Power activists. By defining those classified as “Coloured” and “Indian” as well as “African” as black, Saso sought to forge an intellectual and political community rooted in apartheid’s racial exclusions. In the early 1970s, a number of liberal publications and organisations, including Drum, Rand Daily Mail and the South African Institute for Race Relations, followed suit, replacing “nonwhite” with “black”. Other, more conservative media, did not alter their terminology, sometimes citing Indian and Coloured discomfort. 

Saso activists insisted that blackness was as much a way of thinking and feeling as a way of looking. Whereas previous African nationalists often presumed the masses, by virtue of their experiences, already understood the injustices of colonialism and just needed to be mobilised. Saso activists, living through the political quiescence that followed the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the state’s repression of anti-apartheid organisations, called for consciousness raising. Being conscious meant rejecting feelings of impotence and inferiority and believing in black strength and self-worth. It also meant not collaborating with the ruling regime. In a paper for a Saso training course, Biko wrote that “being black is a reflection of a mental attitude” and explained that it was still possible for a dark-skinned person to be “nonwhite”: “Any man who calls a white man ‘Baas’, any man who serves in the police force or Security Branch is ipso facto a nonwhite. Black people – real black people – are those who can manage to hold their heads high in defiance rather than willingly surrender their souls to the white man.” 

This definition of blackness that emphasised psychical and affective dimensions, in addition to bodily features, owed much to Fanon. Saso activists encountered Fanon’s ideas both by reading works like The Wretched of the Earth (1961; English translation, 1963) and especially Black Skin, White Masks (1952; English translation, 1967), and by hearing them refracted through the words of US Black Power activists. A black psychiatrist from Martinique who trained in France, worked in Algeria, and was influenced by the Négritude movement and existential philosophy, Fanon theorised colonialism as a system of oppression that entailed psychological as well as economic and political domination. Racism functioned, according to Fanon, by coopting blacks through their internalisation or, in his reworking of psychoanalytic terminology, “epidermalisation” of white culture including beauty standards. Black Skin, White Masks explored the position of the evolué, the “black man” who, despite his mastery of the French language and schooling system, was denied recognition within white society. Through discrimination and objectifying – if desiring – looks, the evolué ’s “white mask” was shattered, leaving him black and “emasculated”. Fanon, as Stuart Hall has explained, recast psychoanalysis’s Oedipus complex from a familial to societal drama, positioning white colonisers as the father and black colonial subjects as the son. In so doing, he argued that pervasive racism was the product of not only laws and personal interactions but also media ranging from nursery rhymes and school books to movies and advertisements. 

As South African evolués, Saso activists identified with Fanon’s writings and borrowed heavily from them. Yet as Mark Sanders and Dan Magaziner have argued, they did not apply his ideas wholesale but rather translated them to fit political conditions in South Africa. Within Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon evoked apartheid South Africa to illustrate the co-existence of structural racism and modern industrialisation in sub-Saharan Africa. When Saso activists read Black Skin, White Masks, 15 or more years after it was published in the original French, the apartheid government remained one of the world’s most formidable regimes of state-sponsored racism. By the early 1970s, it showed few signs of weakness and had a proven track record of banning, imprisoning and exiling political opponents. Operating within these constrained circumstances, Saso activists directed their energies to consciousness raising rather than confronting government authorities. In contrast to Black Power activists in the United States and the revolutionaries called forth by Fanon in his later work, Saso activists’ early intellectual and political project was less concerned with making political demands in the present than, in the words of Magaziner, ascertaining “how one should live in service of the future”. 

Fanon’s analysis of the psychological damage wrought by racism lent support to interpretations of skin lightening both as an expression of self-hatred and as the product of inferiority complexes and colonial mentalities. The very title Black Skin, White Masks points to a misalignment between appearances and projections. It also seems an apt description of the two-tone look of those who used skin lighteners only on their faces, leaving the rest of their bodies a few shades darker. Writing from Algeria in the early 1950s, Fanon did not discuss skin lighteners per se. He did, however, mention scientific investigations under way to develop medicines that could remove pigmentation: “For several years certain laboratories have been trying to produce a serum for ‘denegrification’; with all the earnestness in the world, laboratories have sterilised their test tubes, checked their scales, and embarked on researches that might make it possible for the miserable Negro to whiten himself and thus to throw off the burden of that corporeal malediction.” Students and activists, who read these words in the late 1960s and early 1970s, may have felt he was describing the experiments that gave rise to the products that they saw all around them. Some skin lightener ads … had even included test tube-wielding scientists in white lab coats. For those who embraced Fanon’s writings, black people’s use of skin lighteners appeared as a concrete manifestation of the “epidermalisation” of white beauty standards. 

Related article:

Not all southern Africans who encountered such psychological arguments were persuaded by them. In 1970, Abel Muzorewa, a Methodist bishop who had recently returned from studying in the United States, raised the topic with his parishioners in Harare (Salisbury). Muzorewa would go on to become a prominent political figure in Zimbabwe: he served as prime minister for a few months during the 1979 political transition and, in the 1990s, launched a campaign to unseat President Robert Mugabe. More than 20 years earlier, Muzorewa urged his parishioners to shake their “inferiority complex” and to stop using skin lighteners. His own wife, meanwhile, confided to a local journalist that she still used them, explaining they were simply cosmetics and part of “being modern”: “If we don’t do this, then we are bound to look like men, and this is bad.” For Mrs Muzorewa, skin lightening was a gendered, not racialised, practice that helped to distinguish sophisticated feminine appearances from masculine ones. 

In South Africa, Saso activists sided with her husband’s interpretation. The earliest Black Consciousness condemnation of skin lighteners in print dates to 1972. That year, James Matthews, a prominent writer from a working-class and mainly Coloured neighbourhood in Cape Town, published a poem denouncing “my sister” whose face is “smeared with astra cream / skin paled for white man’s society” as a “schemer and a scene-stealer”; for her, “‘black is beautiful’ has become as artificial as the wig she wears.” In contrast to this cosmetics-using, wig-wearing figure, Matthews described his naturally beautiful and regal woman: “her blackness a beacon among the insipid / faces around her / proudly she walks, a sensuous, black lily / swaying in the wind / This daughter of Sheba.” A couple of years later, Matthews once again evoked skin lighteners as evidence of blacks’ self-destructive emulation of whites: 

white syphilisation
taints blacks
makes them
carbon copies . . .
the women
faces smeared
skin bleached
hair straightened

wake up
black fools!

Such poetry cast lightening as a female bodily practice that along with wearing wigs and straightening hair demonstrated a misplaced desire to appear white. By interpreting these practices through the racial binary of white and black, Matthews implicitly rejected, as a kind of false consciousness, alternative explanations of skin lightening centred on eliminating blemishes, removing tanned skin, looking modern or cultivating a brown complexion. 

Related article:

Steve Biko too viewed black beauty as meriting political attention. At a conference of religious and political leaders in 1971, Biko pointed to soul music and specifically James Brown’s song “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud” as illustrating the emergence of a “modern black culture”, defined by “defiance, self-assertion and group pride and solidarity”. Whereas some East African nationalists saw soul music, like bell-bottom trousers, miniskirts and skin lighteners themselves, as an affront to African respectability and banned it, Biko viewed Brown’s lyrics and rhythms as beckoning a way forward. Black Consciousness aesthetic sensibilities aligned more closely with those of US Black Power activists than African nationalists to the north. Apartheid officials increasingly recogniSed this alignment as a political threat. In 1975, the government banned T-shirts emblazoned with “Black Is Beautiful” and featuring a strong stoic woman with a large Afro hairstyle. Biko offered his most extensive recorded comments on black beauty in 1976, the year before he was murdered in police custody. Testifying at a trial for a group of Black Consciousness activists charged with terrorism, he explained their use of the term “black”. The popular association of “whiteness” with positive things like “angels . . . God, beauty” produced a “feeling of self-censure within the black man”. This comment prompted the state’s advocate, David Soggot, to ask Biko whether the phrase “‘black is beautiful’ . . . fit in with the Black Consciousness approach”. Biko responded “yes”. “Now in African life especially it also has certain connotations . . . on the way women prepare themselves for viewing by society, in other words the way they dream, the way they make up and so on, which tends to be a negation of their true state and in a sense a running away from their colour; they use lightening creams, they use straightening devices for their hair and so on. They sort of believe I think that their natural state which is a black state is not synonymous with beauty and beauty can only be approximated by them if the skin is made as light as possible and the lips are made as red as possible, and their nails are made as pink as possible and so on. So in a sense the term ‘black is beautiful’ challenges exactly the belief which makes someone negate himself.”

Despite concluding his explication with the male pronoun, Biko, like Matthews, grouped skin lightening with a range of female bodily practices, including hair straightening and wearing lipstick and nail polish. Black Consciousness use of the phrase “Black Is Beautiful”, he explained, specifically sought to counter these practices that expressed African women’s psychological rejection of their natural appearances.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.