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Fanny Kemble: Black Don't Crack

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The Georgia plantation mistress sketches the black aesthetic:


Do you know that little as grown negroes are admirable for their personal beauty (in my opinion, at least), the black babies of a year or two old are very pretty; they have for the most part beautiful eyes and eyelashes, the pearly perfect teeth, which they retain after their other juvenile graces have left them; their skins are all (I mean of blacks generally) infinitely finer and softer than the skins of white people. Perhaps you are not aware that among the white race the finest grained skins generally belong to persons of dark complexion. 

This, as a characteristic of the black race, I think might be accepted as some compensation for the coarse woolly hair. The nose and mouth, which are so peculiarly displeasing in their conformation in the face of a negro man or woman, being the features least developed in a baby's countenance, do not at first present the ugliness which they assume as they become more marked; and when the very unusual operation of washing has been performed, the blood shines through the fine texture of the skin, giving life and richness to the dingy colour, and displaying a species of beauty which I think scarcely any body who observed it would fail to acknowledge... 

At first the dark colour confounded all features to my eye, and I could hardly tell one face from another. Becoming, however, accustomed to the complexion, I now perceive all the variety among these black countenances that there is among our own race, and as much difference in features and in expression as among the same number of whites. There is another peculiarity which I have remarked among the women here--very considerable beauty in the make of the hands; their feet are very generally ill made, which must be a natural, and not an acquired defect, as they seldom injure their feet by wearing shoes. The figures of some of the women are handsome, and their carriage, from the absence of any confining or tightening clothing, and the habit they have of balancing great weights on their heads, erect and good.

We put a lot of weight on physical appearance in our society, but not like we used to. Physical appearance, at one point, was thought to directly, and irrefutably correspond with deeper characteristics. In the primary documents, you hear people complementing others for having a "intelligent face." This is meant in the most literal sense. 


Given that the West once believed most attributes were bone-deep--the nobility were damn near another species--I'm always amazed by how little actual anti-black racism you find in Europe, pre-trans-Atlantic slave trade. You certainly find disparaging thoughts and a vague proto-white supremacy. There's some stuff from Galen, for instance, and some other stuff from the Arabs. But you don't find the notion that black skin is somehow necessarily correlated with evil, deceit, cowardice or stupidity. (My old professor Allison Blakely hipped me to this. Also St. Clair Drake's Black Folk Here And There.) 

This fact, along with the fact that anti-black stereotypes are amazingly unoriginal and tend to find correspondence around the world, has always made me pretty optimistic about the future of race in this country. This thing was made. It can be unmade too.

With that said, I've always been a fan of the wooly hair...

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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