Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics

Temitope Ajileye

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Anonymous

“I don’t know where to begin […] because nothing has been written here. Once the first book comes, then we’ll know where to begin”. Barbara Smith

There is some irony in how I came across Black is Beautiful, a masterpiece created by African American scholar Paul C. Taylor. I was looking for Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and, while waiting for the bookshop staff to locate it (their attempts would eventually prove unsuccessful despite their certainty that ‘Russell has to be in the shop’), my eyes wandered and settled on Taylor’s book. How lucky I was!

        The opening quote, taken from Barbara Smith’s Toward a Black Feminist Criticism, immediately presents us with the urgency that the book tackles and tries to solve. There is much art by, about, and with black people, but not enough thought to connect them together, help us think more productively about black expressive culture, which would allow us to contextualise and understand our reactions to black art. There is a strong feeling that much can be said about this art and an even stronger desire for these intentions to be finally clearly stated.

        Black is Beautiful starts, therefore, with the assumption that Black Art matters, and it does because prior to the (qualified) successes of the black freedom-struggles, black expressive culture allowed black people to ‘escape, to some degree, more than aspirants to success in business or politics could, the yoke of white supremacist exclusion, and to achieve at a level commensurate to their talents’ (Taylor vii). Black artists were-and still are today to some extent-defenders of black people’s humanity, as they showed everyone, oppressed and oppressors alike, ‘the true potential of unfettered black strivings’ (Taylor viii). Black art matters also because it is resistance: from the stars that enslaved Africans in the transatlantic trade cut into their hair with broken bottles, to the blues that blossomed alongside cotton on Southern plantations, to the Hip hop culture that flourished in impoverished 1970’s Bronx. Resistance is not just part of the enterprise we call “black aesthetics”, it is the heart of it: ‘Insisting on agency, beauty, and meaning in face of oppression, despair and death is obviously central to a tradition, if it is that, that counts people like Toni Morrison, Aaron Douglas, and Zora Neale Hurston among its participants’ (Taylor 2).

        After these observations, Taylor asks himself whether the fact that Michael Jordan and Oprah have now become global idols and successful business people, that Halle Berry and Denzel Washington have won Oscars and Toni Morrison a Nobel prize, or that Mandela has been president of South Africa, signifies the end of the vindictive role of black cultural workers and the end of racism. More than that, how do we make sense of “black practices” after the collapse of classical racialism and in a way that does not ignore the many distinctive ways of being black? How do we deal with the fact that black bodies are, at the same time, invisible and hyper-visible, desired and despised?

        Taylor argues that this ambivalence, which we might now call the Get-Out nexus, and many others can benefit from a philosophical introspection. And, as Jordan Peele said at the end of an interview on The Late Show, ‘[Get Out] was my favourite movie I had never seen’ (The Late Show, Nov 15 2017), so Taylor calls this book a retroactive self-provisioning.  It is an attempt to build a bridge between two discursive communities, philosophy and black aesthetics: he felt that philosophy, whose language he spoke, had walled itself off from the community he wanted to be in conversation with.

        Taylor builds six such bridges, each carrying a theme at the junction of blackness, aesthetics, and philosophy, each a witness to the fact that a “Philosophy of Black Aesthetics” matter. The topics analysed can be so summarized:

  1. The relationship between visibility, invisibility, and recognition.
  2. The burdens and limits of ethico-political criticism.
  3. The seductions of authenticity and complications of mobility.
  4. The complexities of somatic aesthetics in anti-black contexts.
  5. The meaning of black music for the body and soul.
  6. The dialectic of aversion and attraction in contexts of interracial exchange.

Black is Beautiful is a dense read, worthy of our time and full of references that are satisfying to trace. The composition of the inquiry itself is that of an assembly because black aesthetics, according to Taylor, also come out of an assembly, not a birth:

The method of assembly makes it easier to credit the complexities of historically emergent phenomena . . . . Assembly is the mode of inquiry that allows us to see and account for the coherence of [a] configuration without glossing over the respects in which it remains, in a sense, incoherent. (Taylor 3)

The interface between race and aesthetics is a complicated one. The discussion is bound not to be straightforward but, thanks to Black is Beautiful, we now know where to begin.

Works Cited

Taylor, Paul C. Black is Beautiful, A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics. Wiley Blackwell, 2016.

“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, episode 451, CBS, 15 November 2017.

About the author

Temitope Ajileye was born in southern Nigeria. He moved to Italy at the age of 7, where he spent most of his life before moving to Oxford in 2014. He holds a bachelor in mathematics from the University of Pavia and an MSc in Mathematics and Foundations of Computer Science from the University of Oxford. Temitope is now a Ph.D candidate in the department of computer science, the main focus of his research is computational logic and its applications to information systems. When he is not doing science, he likes spending his time writing essays, towards which he is now investing energies that were previously spent in online discussions, and short stories, a recent passion of his.

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