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In many ways, I cannot help but think about Charles Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C. and Frank Yerby’s Speak Now when reading Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom. Specifically, I think about the experiment that the Craigs conduct on Bita Plant in relation to Pierre Beaurepas’ unexplained “experiment” on Paul Marchand in Chesnutt’s novel. This is something important to consider, but it is not what I want to write about today. Instead, I want to focus on the ways that we can read McKay’s novel in relation to Yerby’s. Each novel firmly challenges preconceived notions of beauty centered on white aesthetics.
In “Malcolm’s Conk and Danto’s Colors; Or, Four Logical Petitions concerning Race, Beauty, and Aesthetics,” Paul C. Taylor discusses how these idealized form of beauty become internalized and reproduced in “the daily practices and inner lives of victims of racism.” Both Yerby and McKay address how the internalization of “racialized standards of beauty” affect individuals.
From the very beginning of Speak Now, Yerby calls upon readers to question how they define beauty, and he confronts readers by informing them that their construction of beauty revolves around a constructed standard based on whiteness that serves to keep others oppressed. When Black expatriate Harry Forbes buys White Kathy Nichols breakfast at a café because she is broke, we see that Yerby wants to obliterate wide-held perceptions centered on white standards of beauty.
As they eat, Harry thinks that Kathy may very well be “a very pretty girl”; however, his ideas of beauty shifted due to his marriage to Fleur, his Vietnamese wife who, before she died, appeared on the covers of Elle, Vogue, and other fashion magazines. Harry’s marriage to Fleur caused him to change his “concepts of beauty . . . so that [the] classic Nordic type seemed to him singularly uninteresting.” While he would have once seen Kathy as beautiful, his relationship with Fleur opened his eyes to the ways that he had internalized white standards of beauty. Later, as Harry waits outside for Kathy before heading to Ahmad’s, he begins to think about what she would look like without her makeup. He ponders that she would be “colorless” without lipstick and “awful” without makeup, and he even goes further positing that the cosmetic industry would not be as large as it is without the “social ascendancy of the Nordic type.”
Yerby continues his dissection of white standards of beauty through Ahmad and Zahibuine’s children, specifically Ouija, the woman that Kathy sees as a threat to her relationship with Harry. Ahmad is Arab and Zahibuine is “of mixed Arabic and Negro ancestry.” Seeing their children, Harry can see Kathy questioning her preconceived ideas on beauty and “the possibility that everything she’d thought, believed, accepted, been taught all her life was dead, damned wrong.” Kathy’s first sight of Ouija completely obliterates her preconceived images of beauty. She even tells Harry, “If you could guarantee me a daughter who’d look like that, so help me, I’d let you.” While this statement is problematic, it highlights how Kathy’s interactions with Harry and then Ahmad’s family work to deconstruct her views of white standards of beauty.
Even though McKay’s Banana Bottom appeared 36 years before Speak Now, it also tackles preconceived notions of beauty throughout. I do not have time to write about each example in the novel, so I will only choose a couple. The first example occurs at the Harvest Festival when beaus would send their belles lozenges and envelopes, essentially candy grams. Each of the lozenges contained a phrase like candy hearts. Some read, “I admire your blue eyes,” “I adore your cherry lips,” “May I touch your little ivory hand?” and “Will you give me a tress of your golden hair?” Each of these phrases forefront white standards of beauty. Immediately following the list of phrases, the narrator points out the juxtaposition between the phrases and the women who receive the lozenges.
The belles gathered in a giggling crowd to compare the lozenges and many an ebony hand trembled with pleasure holding its lozenge: “May I touch your little ivory hand?” Miss Chocolate Lips shrilled with unfeigned delight over: “I adore your cherry lips” and pretty Miss Browneyes was deliciously wide-eyed over, “I admire your blue eyes,” while Miss Tressie fingered her stubborn unruly kinklets, wondering if she might as she read: “Will you give me a tress of your golden hair?” (emphasis added)
In this paragraph, some of the belles blindly accept the standards of beauty placed before them, and they internalize it as something to strive towards. However, the Miss Tressie contemplates if she will ever be able to give her beau a tress of golden hair. She does not question the standards, but she has started to consider how those standards position her as inferior.
Near the end of the novel, Marse Arthur attempts to rape Bita. When she fights back, Arthur attacks her and tells her that for all her education she’s “nuttin’ more’n a nigger gal.” After Jubban saves her, Bita returns home to think. Arthur’s words cause Bita to think about the ways that white beauty and knowledge becomes privileged over other forms. She marvels “at the imbecilities of a sephulchre-white wold that has used every barrier imaginable to dam the flow of human feelings by suppressing and denying to another branch of humanity the highest gifts of nature, simply because its epidermis was coloured dark.”
The next two paragraphs begin with Arthur’s words, and Bita stands before a mirror, undressing. Standing before the looking glass, she looks at her breasts, hair, eyes, and the rest of body. As she does this, Bita sees “the infallible indicators of real human beauty.” She sees herself as “worthy” and “beautiful.” While her encounter with Arthur sparks these thoughts, Bita’s realization of her beauty is taking place throughout the course of the novel. It does not just appear out of nowhere. It occurs when she sees the gifts given to the children at church (books with white characters), the lozenges, and other moments when she sees the blending of European and African music.
Next post, I will continue this discussion of Banana Bottom by looking at Bita’s reflections of William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” and other instances of European art in the novel. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.