Beyonce Knowles' appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair has me thinking divine thoughts, and not just because she looks heaven-sent. The singer-actress is gorgeous, certainly, but it's the tempest surrounding her skin tones that brings Scripture to mind. Radar magazine has accused Vanity Fair's editors of lightening Beyonce's complexion to improve newsstand sales, a charge that Vanity Fair has furiously denied.
Conventional wisdom in fashion and lifestyle magazine publishing has long held that dark faces on covers discourage "mainstream" purchasers, which may explain why Beyonce is the first black woman to adorn a Vanity Fair cover all by herself since Tina Turner did so all the way back in 1993. Vanity Fair is not unique in its timidity. When Halle Berry appeared on the December 2002 cover of Cosmopolitan, she became only the fifth black woman so honored by that magazine, and the first since Naomi Campbell in 1990. While once every decade seems to be the average among upscale glossies, newsmagazines have far better percentages. Oprah Winfrey recently appeared on the cover of Newsweek, for example, an occasion that mostly passed without comment. What's more, we can probably assume that her complexion was not tampered with. Newsweek's rival, Time, already proved the danger of such manipulation when it infamously darkened a portrait of O.J. Simpson in 1994.
Whether Vanity Fair bleached Beyonce will probably never be determined, and is ultimately unimportant. What's intriguing about the whole controversy, though, is its aggravation of age-old concerns involving dark skin and "American" standards of beauty. Some observers have noted with sadness the transformations some entertainers of color -- Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, to name three -- have gone through, becoming paler as they pursued fame and fortune. To some of the more jaded critics whose spirited dialogue has lit up black-themed blogs and online discussions in recent days, the golden-tressed Beyonce is somehow complicit in an embarrassing tradition that insists that blackness and beauty are simply incompatible.
Which brings me back to the Bible, particularly a passage in the "Song of Solomon": "I am black, but comely (O ye daughters of Jerusalem) as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me."
Some black believers tend to stumble at that problematic conjunction following "black" and prefer instead to recite the line as "black and comely." I've even run into more than one barbershop philosopher who insists that the "but" is either a mistake or more evidence of a white conspiracy against black beauty. My wife's New King James edition translates it like so: "I am dark, but lovely." The African American Jubilee Edition King James Version on my shelf has it as "I am black, but comely."
That "but" gives me pause, too, and not just in the "Song of Solomon." When, for instance, Stevie Wonder praises his hero's lovely sibling in his classic "Living for the City." "His sister's black," he sings, "but she is sho 'nuff pretty." Once again, blackness is suggested as something that must be overcome if one is to be recognized as truly beautiful.
That disturbing notion derives, of course, from a larger, more insidious one, which posits blackness as something that must be overcome if one is to be acknowledged as fully human. Common definitions for blackness listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, some dating back to the 1500s, include such unfortunate terms as "foul," "dirty," "wicked" and "horrible." They do not include a synonym for beautiful.
British traveler George Best, writing in 1578, provided a general idea of his peers' views of people with black skin. He speculated that Africans' dark color "proceedeth of some natural infection of the first inhabitants of that country, and so all the whole progeny of them descended, are still polluted with the same blot of infection." Attitudes such as Best's continued to resonate through the centuries and across the Atlantic. In historian Winthrop Jordan's words, "Blackness had become so thoroughly entangled with the basest status in American society that at least by the beginning of the eighteenth century it was almost indecipherably coded into American language and literature."
And into magazines -- and everyday life -- as well. No ifs, ands or "buts."