Black was the New White
Complicating 17th Century Discourse of Black Female Beauty and Bravery
How did two of the most famous 17th century English authors portray two of the most persecuted groups of people at the time? Turns out, pretty well actually…
To understand the construction of black ladies in 18th century canonical text, we need not look any further than Shakespeare and Behn: two early 17th century writers that used their poetry and prose to start an early conversation surrounding black-hood and woman-hood within this changing context of England- a country becoming engrossed in the institutions of industrialization and colonization- institutions that, not by coincidence, became symbolically signified by the opposite, the white male.
These authors used this homogenized racial and gendered climate as a springboard to undermine the set of prevailing notions behind the nature of Others in the colonial setting- primarily, women and Negroes, who, as Kim Hall asserts, were marginalized to the point of invisibility by this hegemony. This wasn’t true of all literature though… Writing his “Dark Lady sonnets” toward the end of his career and life, William Shakespeare grapples with a rather unforeseen view of black beauty through humanizing and naturalizing diction and colored imagery.
Ms. Aphra Behn, on the other-hand, expresses a radical take on- not beauty- but black morality, as she subverts societal conceptions of sin, ultimately celebrating the heroism capable behind black characters in her short story, The Adventure of the Black Lady.
Using rather untraditional literary forms- the Elizabethan sonnet and the novel- these two great authors forge rather untraditional, and actually quite surprising, characterizations of black ladies given traditional discourse. Each of them emphasizes this contradictory notion against black and female invisibility by situating the black lady, the representative amalgamation of the invisible, at the forefront of their works, not simply in the obvious, titular sense, but in a thoroughly substantive and symbolic sense as well.
Shakespeare draws us into the 17th century context with his opening lines of Sonnet 127. In the “old age,” Shakespeare says, “black was not counted fair,” (1). He refers to the old age to reference only but a few years prior to the publishing date of the poem, under Elizabethan reign. With the death of Elizabeth in 1603, England commemorated a queen and a ruler, but also an image. Henceforth, beauty seemed to be perceptibly defined by her pale and powdered face. So this prefacing phrase is more significant than it may appear, as Shakespeare is attempting to drastically distance himself from a still popular and pervasive viewpoint, and attempting to disrupt the frame of mind of 17th century readers. He goes even further in these opening lines though, indicating this dual-harm hedged against the black façade by using the word fair to denote “pleasantness and attractiveness” as well as “properness and reasonableness” (OED A.1.4 & 3).
So in this way, Shakespeare means to illicit a sense of unfairness behind this perception of black, un-fairness. He doesn’t stop there though, and in lines 4–8, Shakespeare actively promotes a superiority of black beauty by attacking this Elizabethan image that he attempted to distance himself from in line 1. He discredits the notion of this beauty as a shameful attempt to “put on Nature’s power” with “Art’s false borrowed face” (5 & 6). He’s referencing cosmetics here, and introducing larger complications of white beauty in that such standards assumes God’s role- Nature’s power- in “creation” of appearance (as he again references in line 12), as well as highlighting the ephemerality of such an appearance, being that it is only but borrowed, a mere illusion that can, and likely is, unrepresentative of the woman masked behind it. After forging this argument against the “profane,” “disgraceful” beauty, the speaker distances himself further, claiming “Therefore my mistresses’ eyes are raven black,” to achieve two ends: to actively equate the natural imagery of an animal with his notion of beauty and to suggest, again, that this naturalness exists as black (8 & 9).
While Sonnet 127 more seriously clarified distinctions of Shakespeare’s frustration with current feminine norms, he uses Sonnet 130- the second in his series of Black Lady poems, as a lighter springboard to satirize these ideals of beauty, using colored imagery to dismiss, rather than attack, these conventional conceptions. From lines 2–8, Shakespeare launches his continued criticism of female use of cosmetics through a rhythmic, parallel structure.
His argument against this conception of beauty is marked by particular invocations of natural imagery, like “coral,” “snow,” “roses,” so as to magnify the natural differences that should exist between nature and the human form (2, 3 & 5). Shakespeare is particularly fixated on color operating as the primary category of difference, and advances this notion of color when he references his mistress- his own ideal of beauty- with “breasts dun” (3) and a head of “black wires” (4). Such undisguised features of human appearance are highly suggestive of black physical characteristics and to this end, Shakespeare is privileging the beauty of pure blackness over manipulated whiteness.
But he expands beyond beauty’s established quality of superficiality, as he emphasizes- and through this, humanizes- other characteristics of imperfection and the black human form. To concede that his lover’s breath reeks and that her voice is unpleasant, the speaker is validating an allure in the ordinary, offering up a rather radical standard of beauty and attraction (8 &10). To compound this idea of beauty in the unexceptional, Shakespeare takes a clean stab at the classical propensity of poets to describe humans as divine or angelic by stating that his mistress, “when she walks, she treads on the ground” (12). This argument is quite cavalier in that it presents a satirically critical view of traditional female beauty to expressly deprecate, not only the women who subscribe to these standards, but the men who confirm them through their foolish attempts at romanticism. Rather, Shakespeare conflates true beauty with an antithetical figure- a figure of blackness.
Through just its title, The Adventure of the Black Lady, Behn immediately subverts 17th century assumptions on the nature and capabilities of women. The novel, which Behn experiments with as a newer form of British literature, has since become marked by epic adventure, and a common motif of a character’s journey and subsequent transformation. In the style’s earlier forms, as evidenced by Homer for instance, the adventure novel featured a male at its nucleus- the gender once thought of as more physically mobile, and therefore spiritually so as well, able to endure the hazards and stimulation common to the motif. Constrained to a very limited path toward marriage and a very confining role within the domestic sphere though, white women were not often seen as adventurers in this colonial context. Behn writes of white women in this story, but classifies them as black to suggest their immoral, vice-ridden nature, and through doing this, proves even more transgressive in her claims.
The characterization of Bellamora- a frenzied, unmarried, pregnant woman when first introduced to the reader- should be viewed as the primary exemplification of this classical point of view of blackness. However, Bellamora, the black-haired, beautiful-Moor, as she can be understood to quite literally represent, is quite willing to forgo the unpleasant horrors of her past life, marked by a rape that has left her pregnant, to start a life anew her aunt. This is a rather strange and subversive quality of blackness that Behn is presenting here. She initially paints a quite typical form of irresponsibility, victimization, and ill-fate associated with black identity and fiber, but also presents a narrative of independence and hopefulness that was not representative of such a character at that time. Behn continues to radically break from this typical trajectory as she further complicates this notion of black ability and mobility- ultimately positioning Bellamora as legitimately triumphant (and just as black) by the story’s culmination. She does this partially by enlisting the help of other black ladies, notably the good, discrete, ancient gentlewoman, as she is described, who is “forced”- through the blackness or depravity of her conditions perhaps- to “let lodgings for the best part of her livelihood” (22).
This landlady welcomes in the frenzied, confused Bellamora, it seems in order to use her to defy the hegemonic establishment of the parish (referred to as the “Overseers of the Poor”) and to fortify the strength of her character in the process. She, the landlady, urges Bellamora to “consent to her own happiness,” and to that end, urges her to go forth and marry the father of her child. (22). On the surface, such a suggestion seems like a weak form of capitulation, but herein lies the ingenuity of Behn’s argument. Such a decision would surely render a happier future for her child, which- according to the charitable, Christian doctrine- is a selfless, morally-upright stance to assume. Moreover, this decision, while reflecting weakness and blackness through submission, represents a higher, misunderstood righteousness. Bellamora, in actuality, exits the novel as blacker than whence she came, simultaneously embodying the classical decency of whiteness and traditional deception of blackness, emerging on top of the parish system that set to keep her down. Behn then leaves the reader with an example of naturalizing imagery, as she equates Bellamora’s to the “black cat,” a symbolic figure that evades and mystifies the fools of the system, preying upon the mice, or men, that are clueless to her true power (27).
Whether in reference to Shakespeare or Behn, these author’s white conceptions of blackness generate a particularly reversed dichotomy of white and black beauty and morality in stark contrast to the traditional 17th century canon. This gestures towards a disruption in the common, colonial narrative of civility and barbarism, a binary class of distinctions which- until works like these gave way- were primarily fixed to a rigid color paradigm. Nevertheless, following Hall’s proposition to read what isn’t there in these texts, an argument certainly arises to suggest that this fluidity of gender and race present in both of these texts were utilized for a particular end or purpose: to promote and celebrate each author’s own vocation.
In line 3 of Sonnet 127, Shakespeare proposes “now is black beauty’s successive heir,” implying that with his poetry, with this words alone, he has the power to shift the perceptive, British eye to view black as beautiful. We know this to be the case because there was no writer on the 17th century scene in England as popular and far-reaching as Shakespeare who focused their material on black subject matter in this way. His claim is all the while ambitious, and as there is no real barometer to measure his success in this regard, the reader is just left with a sense of his own inflated ego. But this sense of self-celebration was seen even more explicitly in Sonnet 130, where Shakespeare elevates his own voice and his own poetic form over the traditional Petrarchan scheme, which featured these conventional ideas of beauty as marked by this “false compare,” as Shakespeare claims. And in this context, when compensation and money seemed to dominate why writers wrote, there is a strong case to make for seeing Shakespeare as personally motivated in these late pieces, using black ladies a mere device to bolster his own dying reputation- the word ‘dying’ being used here, of course, quite literally.
Behn, however, distinguishes herself from the trap of an impersonal narrative by using the black identity of Bellamora to very clearly express her own sociological concern of female immorality. The two ladies, the writer and the subject of the writer, unite as one under a clear allegory. Just as Bellamora escapes the tumbling fate set out in front of her by Madame Brightly, Behn defies womanly convention by rising above the future set by women before her, soaring to great heights, with just the use of her pen. The stigmatization that both encounter is representative of a larger, political hegemony that was determined to keep women to a linear, downward-sloping path. Behn writes the story of Bellamora and the heroic black ladies in many ways to liberate herself from this predestined path, projecting her larger set of political concerns unto the characters and thereby, her audience.
Even though Shakespeare’s more personal motivations pale in progressive comparison to Behn’s political approach, it is quite clear that all these works of literature stand on equally effective ground in communicating this very transgressive principle that forms of black beauty and bravery should be privileged somehow over white.