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Why I Saw Aunt Jemima on the Runway

Beauty Scars Can Be Skin Deep


A model walks the runway at the Karen Walker Spring 2012 fashion show

A model on the runway of the Karen Walker Spring 2012 Fashion Show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

Neilson Barnard/Stringer/Getty Images Entertainment

I was looking at images of the Karen Walker Spring 2012 Fashion Show from NY Fashion Week when a particular photo caught my eye. Suddenly I had visions of Aunt Jemima from an old pancake mix box and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind and I thought: There is no way I’m using that shot. If I had that kind of reaction, I believed, I probably wouldn’t be the only one.

I continued looking at more runway shots from the line and chose a photo of the same model wearing a cute blue cap.

I finished writing my story; a sneak peak at next spring and summer makeup, but my mind kept wandering back to that image. What’s ironic is while I was surfing for photos, a black bandana was covering my dreadlocks, and, according to an article I read, it was tied at the nape of the neck in a Eurocentric manner, at that. (African head wraps are tied up like a crown.) So how could I be disturbed by that innocent shot?

It’s from years of conditioning. Being taught, consciously or subconsciously to believe something as minute as skin tone, hair texture or, yes, a simple scarf, represents something shameful or low in social status.

I’m not the only one who has fallen victim to this conditioning. Back in the early 90s one of the black consciousness rappers, whose rhymes were meant to school African-Americans and others about black history and culture, and political, educational and social activism, had come under fire for acting counter to a popular message he was espousing at the time. He had a few choice words for the “bandana wearing” female writers who dared to question his actions. He was obviously calling the women the female counterpart to Uncle Tom – Aunt Jemima. When I was told about this I mumbled something about head wraps originating in Africa, but although I seemed to know more about this than he did, I now realize I didn’t know enough.

The African head wrap (gele) was more than just fabric wrapped around the head on bad hair days. It was used as a cultural and decorative accessory, use in rituals and rites, or to denote marital or social status. On a new and hostile continent, it developed mixed and conflicting meaning.

Initially kerchiefs and bandanas were used to cover the hair to protect it from dirt and grime from working in the fields and to absorb perspiration. During slavery times whites enacted codes that legally required black women to cover their heads with cloth. But the manner in which these scarves were tied (especially in New Orleans where the elaborate tignon was born) was actually a way to retain African identity and was a link to the motherland as well as a “helmet of courage” writes Helen Bradley Griebel in The African American Woman’s Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols. The scarf had a symbolic function: “In this case, some African American women played with the white ‘code’ and, by flaunting the head wrap, converted it into an anti-style uniquely their own.” It wasn’t a badge of degradation or a symbol of shame, but an “emblem of self-determination and empowerment.”

But a certain version of the head wrap worn by a character from a minstrel show further fueled a negative image. A minstrel show character and a song “Old Aunt Jemima” was the inspiration for a successful marketing campaign for a pancake and syrup brand. The products depicted a black woman wearing a do-rag that had become associated with the “mammy” or house servant caricature. This image would be changed and the head wrap removed several years later when it was deemed offensive.

I would later go back and search for the photo of the Karen Walker show model, and when I found it, I wondered if I was looking at the right photo. Was this the photo that bothered me? While I still wasn’t impressed with the head wrap (or the ensemble), I no longer linked it with a caricature.

I had initially reacted much like a keloid, a raised scar that develops on the skin after a cut or other skin trauma. It takes a while for a keloid to fade away. But if you do your research and find out what can help it along on it’s path to healing, you can find a balm of healthy ingredients. When it’s gone, you may remember that it was once there, but now you have the knowledge to try to prevent another one from forming.

So that’s what I’m doing. Healing my mind, getting rid of past scars with knowledge. Knowledge is power.

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