Iman, Zariyah, and Racism’s Chokehold on Beauty and Ballet

My granddaughter Zariyah was a model for a Black History Month project titled “Because of Them, We Can.” Iconic African-Americans (the Obamas, Malcolm X, Alice Walker, Myrlie Evers, Langston Hughes, many more) are quoted, and a photo of a child appears with the quote. It’s a lovely series.

IMG_7599Iman (aka David Bowie’s wife) is an astonishingly beautiful, accomplished woman. Since I am a brassy gramma, I sent the photo of Z along with a brief message to Iman on Facebook. I got a classy message back: “I’m honored beyond belief! Thank you!” I am among her 40,000 FB fans, but she wrote to me directly.  Please–let me labor under that illusion.

Today, this was posted on Iman’s page:


We can chat about art and creative license in high fashion, about controversial ways to get attention, about the role of blackface in American history, about the scarcity of models of color on haute couture runways. It’s all tangled together.

The biggest challenge, at the end of the day and debate, is for me what it says to young girls of color about their beauty and its value to the world. Racism has beauty in a chokehold.

An example:

Lauren Anderson

Lauren Anderson was the first African-American to be named a principal in a major ballet company (Houston Ballet). That was in 1990, a mere 127 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. About 6 generations worth. What additional groundbreaking might we expect in our society in another 127 years, by 2140?

In the meantime, there are still very few black ballerinas, especially in major dance companies. Many continue told they are not “right” for classical ballet, but one wonders how clearly they are seen beyond the color of their skin.

I’d like to note and honor two other remarkable ballerinas. One is the recently deceased Maria Tallchief, considered America’s first prima ballerina and the first Native American to hold that title. The other is Michaela de Prince, a Sierrra Leone adoptee who was told as a child she couldn’t be in the Nutcracker because of her race; she’s now performing with the newly relaunched Dance Theater of Harlem.

To go full circle here, Iman Cosmetics is the 2013 Beauty Sponsor of the Dance Theater.

My granddaughter Zariyah is not yet fully aware of the power of racism in the United States today. She dances for the joy of it, and her long arms and legs are, to me, elegantly right for ballet.

IMG_7961I’m so grateful to those who’ve blazed incredible paths, at great cost, in the name of art and of what is beautiful and right.