It is not often we have the unique opportunity to reflect on the rich legacy of Black beauty and grooming in the United States. Brands like MV Soaps stand on the shoulders of greats, namely Black women, who forged the path for us with novel products curated for Black bodies. From Anthony Overton to Robyn Fenty (Rihanna), we observe awe-inspiring courage to innovate personal care solutions that have pushed boundaries.
After reading this blog, I hope that you will feel even more informed about our rich history and be inspired by how this legacy continues.
Historical review of Black beauty in America
As it has always been for our people in America, accessibility to even the most essential services has been a recurring challenge. So much of the market has catered to White Americans. Throughout history, we have been unable to rely on mainstream companies to acknowledge African American consumers and the unique needs of our skin and hair. For example, talcum (baby) powder, invented by Johnson & Johnson in 1893, was formulated to soothe skin and provide a white tint.
Like any challenge to meet consumer needs, this generated an immense opportunity for the most notable black entrepreneurs, like Madam C.J. Walker. Walker marketed her products as especially appropriate for Black women. However, capitalizing on this market opportunity was not for the faint of heart. Since there were so few products marketed to Black people, these illustrious individuals often needed to couple their business prowess with activism to advocate for and educate their communities.
One of the most visible educators and activists in Black beauty history was Marjorie Joyner. Joyner, who once worked for Madam C.J. Walker, collaborated with Mary McLeod Bethune to found the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association that enabled thousands in the Beauty culture profession. She also wrote the first cosmetology laws in the state of Illinois.
Each of our ‘Black beauty greats’ moved the needle for the community through their outstanding products, advocacy, and efforts to educate the community on the importance of personal care. Each was a counterbalance to the status quo creating a more equitable beauty culture within the United States.
The infographic below is not comprehensive. However, it highlights some of the most monumental moments in Black beauty care history.
The value of brands curated for Blackness
The pioneers in the infographic above also understood the need to counter-narratives about Blackness by affirming the beauty of Blackness.
John and Eunice Johnson, founders of the Johnson Publishing Company and Fashion Fair Cosmetics, understood the importance of producing products and media that ultimately celebrated Black beauty. Media products such as Ebony and Jet magazines played an invaluable role in shifting the narratives about Black people and culture while also delivering quality goods the market demanded.
Lack of marketing to African American consumers, particularly Black men, has resulted in rampant disinformation about caring for our skin and hair. For example, I grew up believing sunscreen was exclusively for white people. I was told that Black people could not develop skin cancer at a young age, so we did not need to worry about the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Few brands associate beauty and personal care with Black men. Naturally, we endeavor to change this dynamic.
Sustaining the legacy
Unapologetically Black brands like Fenty Beauty are evidence of the permanence of this enduring legacy. There is much work that needs to be done to ensure Black consumers have a wide array of options to resolve their unique personal care needs, however, we have a sure foundation as a result of the unwavering dedication of our ancestors.
To commemorate our history, I have written (attempted) the eintou below. For those that are unaware of this writing form, eintou is a distinctively African-American form of poetry. Eintous are meant to share wisdom, knowledge, and insights that challenge the way we see the world.
An eintou by Akin Walker