The moment you feel seen is powerful. For many Black women, that feeling is few and far between. For the State of Black Beauty, we asked four writers to recall the instance in their life they felt SEEN in media. From Janet Jackson to Eartha Kitt, here are love letters to our Black Beauty icons who made us feel a little less invisible.
Ba-boom. The sunny winters of late ‘90s Orange County don’t deliver much in the way of Christmas spirit, but my mom’s best friend was trying anyway. She popped in a holiday-themed CD and the opening notes of Eartha Kitt’s original “Santa Baby” started to slink around the room. The song didn’t exactly elicit holiday cheer, but it sparked something else entirely.
Ba-boom. Kitt’s “Santa Baby” is a coded message dressed up in satin gift wrapping. The singer got top-40 radio and malls to pipe in a song about a Black woman soaking in her own sexuality while pining for all the convertibles, yachts, Tiffany’s jewelry, and other baubles of luxury rarely allotted to us. It was a lot to digest as an eight-year-old and, to be honest, I’m still working on unpacking the full ramifications of Kitt’s “Santa Baby.”
Independent search has been the bedrock of how I’ve crafted my Black identity and my definition of beauty as a Black woman. I’ve often felt alone in my existence, but I’ve always had my pick of exemplary role models. Josephine Baker dancing with the banana skirt sparked something: I like to dance, too, my young self-thought. Watching Diana Ross in “Mahogany” was the fuel that led me to work in fashion and beauty. In January, I witnessed Michelle Obama walk into the Capitol with such grace, class, and honor. She wasn’t seeking revenge for a presidency that was racist to her family and all people who look like us, because she is far above that. But if this were a movie, or if we were keeping score, Michelle would’ve won: one point for the grace, another for the curls.
Beauty and brilliance have always guided me, and Kitt is foundational to both. The first thing I learned about Kitt was “Santa Baby,” and the second thing was that she spoke out against the Vietnam War—and her career was punished for it. That inspired me: How can I follow in her path of speaking out against what’s wrong, even when it’s unpopular to do so or leads to negative consequences? Kitt’s other accomplishments allowed me to follow the path she trudged when there were no signposts. I’ve spent many Halloweens pulling on a latex Catwoman suit, the role she made famous and—more importantly—inherently Black. Her hair, the liner, the nails, the cheekbones, and her ability to define a space set the stage for other Catwomen like Halle Berry and Zoe Kravitz. The suit was tight but there’s a lot you can tuck inside it: Kitt taught me that being Black is beautiful. Being black is sexy.
In 1997, we got Brandy’s Cinderella, a moment for so many faces like mine to feel seen. The movie sent me down another rabbit hole—I was starving for this sort of representation—of all things Cinderella. My mom surprised me with tickets to the stage version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s version. Little did I know Kitt would be playing the role of the fairy godmother. At 73, she outsung, outdanced, and outperformed everyone on that stage. Her beauty and power in person were surreal. She moved so comfortably, the way only someone who is in control of who they are can. Suddenly, the show wasn’t about Cinderella, but the fairy godmother who could show you how to achieve your fantasies.
In shaping my identity and relationship with beauty, Kitt has always been there, even when I didn’t know it. Her strong sense of self, ability to push boundaries, and defining looks and attitude are always in the back of my mind. When I was planning my wedding, I looked to her portraits to encapsulate the poise and class. When I want to speak up, I try to imagine her words and the strength she carried. And when I want to feel hot, I dress up as Catwoman. Every moment seems to start on the same note…Ba-boom.
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