My Black is Beautiful: The Politics of Reclaiming and Celebrating Black Beauty in the long 60’s (by Emily Carpenter)

Title: My Black is Beautiful: The Politics of Reclaiming and Celebrating Black Beauty in the long 60’s

Standards: Intended Grade Level: 11-12 Grade

Reading Standards

1. Key Ideas and Details:  Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing  them in simpler but still accurate terms.

2. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g.,quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Overview: This project will focus on the creation of a particular black aesthetic especially as articulated and put forth by the Black Panther Party. The examination of Kathleen Cleaver’s words, rank-and-file Black Panthers, and an article of the Black revolutionary woman will help students to critically evaluate the intersections of aesthetics, politics, and gender.

Framework: This lesson will ask students to critically analyze two primary sources, the first being a video and the second being an article. The students will be asked to verbally compare and contrast the information provided in the video and in the article. Students will also discuss their thoughts on how this creation of a black aesthetic was a response to negative media, and popular, disparaging images of “black features.” Next, students will choose an aspect of their own appearance and relate it their place in politics. Where do they see this aspect of their appearance? Why do they choose to present themselves in their particular way? Student will try to analyze how and if certain aspects of their appearance are connected to larger ideas or issues whether interpersonal or inter structural. Following this comparison the students will write a paragraph analyzing the relationship between identity politics and gender roles within the two sources provided. Students will discuss their writing explained thus far and then discuss the advantages and possible limits of aesthetics being a political focus within the Black Panther Party.

Essential Understanding: Students will understand that the creation and celebration of a particular black aesthetic– Afros, braids, embracing of brown skin–was not an isolated task and was directly related to not only the developing politics of the Black Panthers, but also a creation of what the role of a Black woman was to be.

Essential Questions:

  1. What  historical conditions were leaders in the Black Power Movement responding to, that lead to a focus on a celebration and cultivation of a particularly “black aesthetic”?
  2. How was wearing natural hair seen as a part of the political struggle? How did people react to this expression?
  3. How did the phrases “Black Power” and “My Black is Beautiful” become more than mere “T-Shirt Slogans”? How did both ideologies develop and compare to each other?
  4. How did Black Beauty come to be defined in different groups within the Black Power Movement? Did any major disagreements arise in relation to a celebration of the Black Aesthetic?’
  5. How did this re-articulation and reassertion of Black Beauty relate to Black male and female (and possibly other gender expressions?) sexuality?


Aesthetic (adj): 1. Concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty

2. Giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; of pleasing appearance

Kathleen Cleaver: Kathleen Cleaver was a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, and the first female member of the decision making body.

Self-Determination (noun): the process by which a person controls their own life

Mammy:a black woman, depicted as rotund, homely and matronly. The mammy is an archetype, portraying a domestic servant of African descent who is generally good-natured, often overweight, and loud. The stereotypical mammy is portrayed as servile or acting in, or protective of, the interests of whites

Sambo: “Sambo” refers to black men that were considered very happy, usually laughing, lazy, irresponsible, or carefree. This depiction of black people was displayed in films of the early 20th century.

Black liberation:  It is the affirmation of black humanity that emancipates black people from White racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people. It affirms the humanity of white people in that it says ‘No’ to the encroachment of white oppression (Definition formulated in 1969 by The National Committee of Black Church Men)

Introduction: Historically, in the United States there have been various stereotypes attached to Black peoples that have been used as mechanisms to subjugate, demean, and ridicule certain Black features. Certain archetypes such as the Sambo, or Mammy were used to project a certain idea on Black people. Various Black features and physical traits were painted as the opposite of beauty and desirable. In many Black magazines skin lightening creams and hair straighteners were advertised as tools to help Black women be closer to a popular, White standard of beauty. While these beauty standards affected Black people of all genders, the effect of this beauty standard had a particular effect of women. While white women were held up as the ultimate beauty standard, and the “objects” of Black men’s “animal desires”, Black women were painted as unwanted. This had an effect on how many Black people in the United States saw themselves.

A significant part of the burgeoning Black Power Movement was the development of a certain Black Aesthetic. As Kathleen Cleaver is recorded as saying that wearing natural hair was because of the beginning of a new consciousness, a new consciousness in which black people were becoming aware of their hair and features being beautiful. When people think of the Black Power Movement, images of afros and all black clothing, or headwraps and daishikis may arise, but what created the need or context for this ‘new’ or reclaimed aesthetic? This project will seek to not only discuss the “Black is Beautiful” Ideology but critically examine the context from which it was born.

Materials: The Black Revolutionary Woman, The Black Panther, September 28, 1968, 11.


Kathleen Cleaver and other Female Black Panther Affiliates Talk about celebrating black aesthetic.




1. Students will first be presented with needed background information mentioned earlier in this Lesson Plan.

2. Students will read The Black Revolutionary Woman article and annotate article with thoughts, questions, and reactions.

3. Students will then watch the entire Kathleen Cleaver youtube video clip. While clip is occurring, students will write down any thoughts or comments that come up.

4. Students will discuss their thoughts on how this creation of a black aesthetic was a response to negative media, and popular, disparaging images of “black features.” Students will particularly discuss language around women, femininity, and a woman’s role was wed with language of black aesthetics.

5. In order to help make the information personally relevant students will do a mini writing exercise. Each student will asked to write about a particular physical feature (hair style, clothing choice, etc). Some questions to guide this writing exercise are;

– What does this certain feature characteristic mean to you?

– Where have you seen people with these features/clothing choices/etc in media?

– How do people in your community react to this feature? people outside of your community?

– Do you see a relation between how you present yourself and your politics? If so, what is the relation? If not, why do you think this is that case?

6. In small groups, students will discuss the writing exercise above. Each small group can choose one person to share one key point from their discussion to the larger class.

7.  Students will return to discussing in the larger group. Students will discuss  the advantages and possible limits of aesthetics being a political focus within the Black Panther Party. Rooted in a historical analysis, Students will discuss the intersections of rhetoric of Black Beauty, and how women were to be received and their role in the Black Panther’s larger political project.

Additional Sources:

Blossom, Bonnie. “Black Beauty As Antebellum Slave Narrative.” University of Southern Florida: Scholar Commons. (2008): n. page. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.

Craig, Maxine. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty and the Politics of Race. London: Oxford Press, 2002. Web

Hooks, Bell. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. Macmillan, 1996. Web.

Ongiri, Amy. Spectacular Blackness: The Cultural Politics of the Black Power Movement and the Search for a Black Aesthetic. University of Virginia Press, 2009. Web.

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