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BW@H Pillar #1: Beauty


Black woman with gold necklace and green dress.

 

For something to be a pillar it must offer support, dependability, and strength. You can lean on a pillar and it will hold you up. You can lean on a pillar and it will give you a sense of presence and actuality. A pillar is grounded and can ground you when you return to be with it.


During the BW@H Project we are journeying to make meaning of and life-affirming practices that deepen our connection to home. As we go, beauty, joy, ritual, and rest will be pillars for us to lean on. What do they mean? Why are these pillars?


As our journey begins, I’ll share what each can mean in a weekly blog post. Let’s go!


 

In America where misogynoir is rampant and the Crown Act is still not federal legislation (while numerous states have passed it), many Black women face an uphill battle in accepting and/or expressing their natural physical beauty. Patricia Hill Collins’ seminal book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, states that “African-American women experience the pain of never being able to live up to prevailing standards of beauty - standards used by White men, White women, Black men, and, most painfully, one another.”


Laws prohibiting us from showing our hair to the hyper-sexualization of our girls' bodies complicates notions of beauty - internal and external - for too many of us. Disabused of acceptance, our bodies are too often sites of trauma inflicted by others as well as by the anti-Blackness we must fend off that arises from within. And yet, we persist. We persist in claiming and exclaiming our beauty. Expressing it through our myriad hairstyles, fierce make up game, and trendsetting fashions. Black women are standard bearers of beauty that are often copycatted and culturally appropriated.


And, can I say that Black women also know how to decorate the hell out of a room?! I said it, we do. Our creative expression pours out of us onto our bodies and into our homes. We know beauty, we curate beauty, and we are beautiful.


The beauty that Black women engage in at home isn't only about what is consumed (i.e., shopping trips to Home Goods and Target), but is also about what we design, create, and produce. A 2021 Forbes article highlights the absence of Black women as home design personalities, particularly on major platforms like HGTV. Yet, we know that Black women have been making all kinds of things to beautify their homes and that they are also extraordinarily entrepreneurial about it.


My grandmother passed on to me a white blanket that her Aunt Jane had made for her. It beautifies my guestroom queen-sized bed during those not too cold and not yet warm nights hovering between winter and spring. My mother had a friend who made refrigerator magnets of dressed up Black women out of beans, y’all! And who can forget the knitted or crocheted dolls with long dresses that covered up the toilet paper roll in Granny’s bathroom?


colorful quilt

Black women design - whether independently as side hustles from the heart or as professionals. We make candles, furniture, upcycle vintage items, bake celebratory cakes, cooperatively sew quilts, and more. Black women are leaders in industry by creating spaces for us and by us. For example, when designer Malene Barnett didn’t find sufficient support and representation in traditionally mainstream, and white-dominant design spaces, she made one for Black people - the Black Artists & Designers Guild.


So in the face of all this contention about Black women and beauty, why should we lean on it? Why is it important to make meaning of and cultivate beauty as a life-affirming practice at home?


The answer is simple. Beauty benefits us.


Beauty arises from within us these things called aesthetic emotions. Menninghaus, et al. describe aesthetic emotions as ones that give us physiological reactions, including goose bumps, and they make us express ourselves through laughter or words of praise. Aesthetic emotions give us feelings of pleasure but also displeasure while subjectively leaning towards a positivity bias. They motivate us to extend or have repeat exposure to something. Objects in our homes, our bodies, structures in our lived environment that intentionally invoke beauty (i.e. architectural design), walking out the hair salon looking fine, and more connote beauty and give us feel good aesthetic emotions.


As we are repeatedly exposed to things, we develop our own individual aesthetic sensibilities. Humans can find beauty in a diverse array of things! And, we benefit from doing so. According to Psychology Today, exposure to beauty and the aesthetic emotions they solicit can help improve memory, lower stress levels, and increase our social connections.


In her book Feeling at Home: Defining Who You Are and How You Want to Live, philosopher of contemporary living and author - Alexandra Stoddard - wrote that “[t]he beauty in our midst sustains us as well as inspires us. If we believe the beauty we feel inside us can be expressed outwardly, we will be free to have our surroundings be an expression of our true selves.”


Where I grew up in Brooklyn, NY during the 1980s and 1990s, beauty wasn’t assumed or expected in my neighborhood. Those colored dots of green, red, and blue weren’t glass in the soil next to the trees planted on the sidewalk in front of my building. Those were the plastic tops of crack vials, often surrounded by shards of broken glass and dog poop.


I understood beauty to be divvied up privately in the home. The commonness of gray concrete sidewalks, brown high rise buildings, and overly lit hallways, was interrupted behind the door of an apartment. There, you could meet a world of beauty that was hard earned, curated, and well-maintained, often by a Black woman.


So, there was no jumping on furniture or throwing the decorative pillows to have a pillow fight. You respected the valuables of others because they were more often than not hard-earned no matter where they were purchased. Most Black women I grew up around kept the living room neat and clean because it was meant to display something about your socio-economic striving and what you were able to achieve. Plastic on couches was meant to preserve furniture pieces that were significant investments. Children were not trusted to treat these spaces well, so we weren’t allowed in them.


My Uncle Ted and Aunt Estelle had mint green carpet in their living room. In the walkway that led to the staircase going upstairs, a plastic runner covered the carpet. If you turned left, you headed up the stairs. If you turned right - and if you were one of the four cousins running through the house during the holidays you’d better not dare unless grown ups were in there congregating during a party or something - you would step on the mint green carpet. Evidence of that regretful step existed in the blemished disruption of a footprint you left. You see, Uncle Ted meticulously vacuumed the carpet so that it had designs in it. He made a mosaic of connecting triangles in that carpet and it was beautiful to behold.


While I really understood beauty to be an internal private condition that some Black people could have, I understood its relevance and importance. A clean, orderly home whether decorated with pretty things or not was an expression of pride. If it had pretty things to look at, somebody there appreciated beauty and wanted it for themselves, despite what systems of oppression deemed appropriate for us. For marginalized and gender oppressed bodies, curating and practicing beauty at home is an act of resistance that blesses, calms, and empowers us, if we want it to.


Beauty can include creativity expressed in vignettes of objects on bookshelves or the display of framed photos of beloved family members atop a piano. Experiences of beauty might be connected to meals and playlists, as well as ways that we encourage wellness through caring for our bodies. At home, we can experience beauty through all of our senses by what we curate and practice. Through a window, gaze at the bend and silhouette of a winter’s tree disrobed from its spring and summer dressing of leaves. What do we do at home to uplift the aesthetic emotions that make us laugh, stare longer at ourselves in the mirror with delight, cry from the pulls of emotion that we encounter in our relationships? All of this is available to us through the pillar of Beauty.


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