Abstract This article examines the ongoing prevalence of Black(er)face in contemporary visual culture and its connection to post-racial discourse. To explore contemporary Black(er)face performativity and its post-racial justifications, we employed a textual analysis of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter’s visual performance as “African Queen” in the French magazine L’Officiel Paris and online media responses. Findings examine how Beyoncé’s visual African Queen representation raises questions about the ways racial difference relies on the notion of “progressive” primitivism. Furthermore, online commentaries responded to these Black(er)face images by couching the discourse of art and fashion within a post-racial lens, also rooted in progressive primitivism. Introduction Incidents of Black celebrities re-appropriating and reproducing old racist tropes of Blackness on the national and global scale have increasingly brought much controversy to the online blogosphere. For example, the casting of actress Zoe Saldana to play pianist, singer, and activist Nina Simone in a biopic about the artist’s life garnered an immediate critical response from audiences. In paparazzi photos of Saldana on set, the actress appeared to have darker skin, a wider nose, fuller lips, and prosthetic teeth. Saldana’s performance of Nina Simone is one of the many contemporary examples in which Black American celebrities have participated in Blackface. This trend, however, has moved beyond the imaginings of Blackness within the United States, absorbing continental Africa. In 2011, French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris celebrated its 90th anniversary with an issue featuring music artist Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. The magazine’s photo shoot presented a darker-skinned Beyoncé dressed in “African”-inspired clothing. In responding to some critics, the magazine stated that Beyoncé’s choice to be featured as an “African Queen” paid tribute to the artist’s ancestral roots (Ignat, 2011). These contemporary popular cultural representations underscore the discourses of Blackface that exist within constructions of Blackness. Hence, we refer to these cultural moments as “Black(er)face.” These examples can be traced to nineteenth and twentieth century performances of Blackface minstrelsy, where lighter-skinned performers dressed in Blackface; thus, research examining the implications of contemporary forms of Black(er)face performativity and audience responses continues to be relevant. Critics and fans have immediately responded to such incidents, highlighting how these images recall earlier Blackface stage performances in which Black Americans were crudely mocked and further de-humanized. In responding to audiences, media producers have frequently relied on discourse that attempts to represent Black culture as “both an enduring symbol of unchanging purity … and a highly celebrated example of cutting-edge change” (Rose, 2005, vii). Using the case of Beyoncé’s African Queen, this article examines how Western imaginations of “Africanness” and Blackness also shape representations of Black popular culture. Beyoncé’s body of artistic work has inspired what Brooks calls a “particular kind of Black feminist surrogation, that … recycles palpable forms of Black female sociopolitical grief and loss as well as sprited dissent and dissonance” (Brooks, 2007, p. 180). Yet, as Cashmore (2010, p. 135) indicates, Beyoncé also serves as a “symbol of glamour and unrestrained consumption” that potentially eases the effects of racism. Thus, Beyoncé simultaneously has embodied both positions of resistance and co-optation. As cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall reminds us, “Black popular culture is a contradictory space, a site of strategic contestation” (Hall, 1993, p. 108). Embodying contradictory positionalities, Beyoncé has taken up the politics of resistance while also taking on a post-racial subjectivity that has left racism behind. As literature suggests, critical interventions into the discourse of post-racial subjectivity shed light onto the ongoing prevalence of old racist ideologies. Within the broader public imagination, popular culture has postioned Beyoncé in “proximity to Whiteness,” while her body carries a marker of Blackness (Celeste, 2015, p. 149). Her brand of post-racialism thus helps shape the national and global response to L’Officiel’s latest interpretation of Blackness and Africanness. Online dialogues between media makers, journalists, bloggers, and audiences highlight how post-racial discourse is employed as a tool for eschewing Black(er)face performances that further intensify the commodification of Blackness. The current study thus seeks to address how racial identity is woven into everyday cultural practices, where both visual representations and online audiences explore contemporary demarcations of race. Such explorations are critical for complicating our current understandings of racial construction in popular culture. L’Officiel Paris’ African Queen presents mass media audiences with a trans-Atlantic performance of Black(er)face, echoing a kind of minstrelsy couched as “progressive” primitivism (Vats, 2014). In its Black(er)face performativity, L’Officiel Paris’ visual images and online responses contentiously employ the discourse of post-raciality. This study thus highlights how Blackness is not excused from the “myth-making of post-race” (Durham, 2015, p. 2), illustrating moments in which “modern race play” extends to non-White identities. This study, therefore, asks: how did the visual Black(er)face representations of Beyoncé’s African Queen, and its online responses, reflect and/or challenge post-racial imaginations of Blackness? To explore how representations of Black(er)face are signified, we employed an analysis of Beyoncé in African-inspired makeup and clothing, as well as L’Officiel Paris’ post-racial justifications. A textual analysis of bloggers’ commentaries and online entertainment news (e.g., Huffington Post) also was conducted. Reflecting the current convergence of traditional news organizations with user-generated media platforms (Braun & Gillespie, 2011), this study employed a holistic approach to analyzing online public discourse. Online discourse reveals cultural critics’ and citizens’ opinions, views, and attitudes toward popular cultural representations. As Boyd (2013) suggests, the racialization of online discourse often reflects larger narratives about race in American society. Furthermore, race and racism “persist online in ways that are both new and unique to the Internet, alongside vestiges of centuries-old forms that reverberate both offline and on” (Daniels, 2012, p. 695). Exploring the dialogue between visual culture and online discourse, we indicate how contemporary racial constructions continue to raise implications about dominance and subjugation. As Tracey Ownen Patton (2008, p. 152) argues, Blackface performativity visually represents difference, which becomes a form of “visual racism.” The link between Black(er)face performativity and post-racial discourse is explored in two key ways: (a) how Beyoncé’s Black(er)face visual representation relies on racial difference and primitivism (defined by Western imaginations of continental Africa); and (b) how progressive primitivism is reinforced by online audiences and entertainment bloggers. Beyoncé’s African Queen demonstrates that contemporary forms of Black(er)face do not necessarily seek to soothe political anxieties among White audiences in ways that historical Blackface minstrelsy did in early cultural representations (Sampson, 2014; Spaulding, 2012). Instead, it represents another kind of anxiety, one that is obscured by a contemporary discourse of post-raciality. Such discourse seeks to erase race (and its colonial constructions) while inevitably relying on old forms of racialization that further intensify the global commodification of Blackness in the age of a neo-liberal post-racialism. Black(er)face performativity thus functions as a newer form of Blackface minstrelsy, a manifestation of post-racial subjects and their cultural work. As Cobb (2011, p. 418) suggests, race “remains not only what we can see most easily … but also what narratives of Black racial identity remain most prominent in our minds and our visual vocabularies.” Blackface, Black(er)face minstrelsy, and post-racialism Blackface minstrelsy served to represent a “plantation mythology” (Lott, 1993/2013) that relied on “grotesque imitations of Black plantation life in the South” (Sampson, 2014, p. 1). Mid–nineteenth century White minstrel performances featured White male comedians in Blackface makeup, baggy clothes, and floppy shoes to “achieve a comic effect” that contrasted themselves with the “straight” characters in the show (Sampson, 2014, p. vii). According to Spaulding (2012, p. 61), the plantation mythology of early minstrel shows “soothed and concealed anxieties over rapidly changing social, economic, and workplace conditions facing ‘White’ workers in the early 1800s.” Minstrels used this mythology to forge working-class Whiteness, where racist images of Blackness came to signify the emerging capitalist era. Just as earlier performances included a grotesque fascination with Black culture, today’s Blackface performances also render Blackness as spectacle (Patton, 2008). Some scholarship has argued that recent processes of globalization have altered contemporary Blackface as more complex than simple racist minstrelsy (Schmidt, 2014). But racial fixity continues to pervade contemporary conversations about race. “Fixed reality” functions as a “representation, regime of truth” (Bhabha, 1983, p. 22). In turn, stereotypes take on the form of fetishism, a “contradictory belief in its recognition of difference and disavowal of it” (Bhabha, 1983, p. 25). Historical forms of Blackface minstrelsy have thus reified a hegemonic Whiteness that appropriates Black culture while reinforcing racial difference (Bucholtz & Lopez, 2011, p. 681). This “neo-minstrelsy” became popular in Hollywood films during the 1990s and early 2000s, as hip-hop became more mainstream (Bucholtz & Lopez, 2011, p. 682). The ongoing relevance of minstrelsy thus underscores the ways in which Western associations of Blackness with “atavism, buffoonery, and priapic hypersexuality” remain powerful media discourses within contemporary popular culture (Russell, 2013, p. 194). In constructing the other, minstrelsy has incorporated White imaginations and obsessions with Black bodies, where Black bodies are both desired and derided (Bhabha, 1983). Blackface minstrelsy, however, was not exclusive to White entertainers. Black entertainers began playing roles in minstrel shows as early as the mid-1800s (Sampson, 2014). While Black entertainment did not become popular in the South prior to the Civil War, historical accounts illustrate that some Black performers gave musical concerts as far back as 1859 (Sampson, 2014). Many performers with lighter complexions “Blackened” their faces, advertising themselves as the “genuine minstrels” (Sampson, 2014, p. 2). Historians have traced the emergence of “Black-on-Black minstrelsy” to the popularity of Egbert Austin (“Bert”) Williams, who became an international pop star during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Chude-Sokei, 2006; Forbes, 2008). After gaining national and international prominence on stage, Williams starred in Darktown Jubilee, the first film to use a Black entertainer in Blackface. Chude-Sokei (2006, p. 5) suggests that a more complicated reading of Williams’ minstrelsy reveals how he “appropriated from Whites the very right to perform and symbolically possess ‘the Negro.’” In twenty-first century cultural expressions, Black artists continue to simultaneously exploit and reject stereotypical minstrel caricatures of Black culture (Taylor & Austen, 2012). Television shows like Chappelle’s Show, created and produced by comedian Dave Chappelle, not only exploited racial stereotypes but also explored racism with “minstrelsy’s echoes” (Taylor & Austen, 2012). While the minstrel tradition performed by White entertainers was “fundamentally racist,” Black minstrelsy “has alternately embraced, exploited, subverted, and turned stereotypes inside out” (Taylor & Austen, 2012, p. 3). Alongside the adoption of performing Black(er)face, some Black artists self-identify as post-racial, positioning themselves as colorblind subjects who “embody niche desirability because of [their] positioning as racially specific” (Joseph, 2009, p. 238). For some public commentators, Barack Obama’s presidency represented an era of post-raciality in the United States, or the “end of Black politics,” where five fallacies reigned: (a) an end of explicit laws upholding racial inequity; (b) a collapsing of Black politics into electoral politics; (c) an acknowledgement of those leaders whom White people believed represented the most legitimate voices; (d) Black political expression as a “distinct trend”; and (e) the collapsing of middle-class Black Americans’ interests with the broader Black population (Burnham, 2008, p. 44). As Burnham (2008, p. 46) indicates, post-racialists became “masterful shapeshifters, skilled at promulgating policies that protect White privilege, while insisting that race is the furthest thing from their minds and skilled at framing and controlling the national dialogue about race.” Thus, racist ideologies manifested through coded language. One form of racist expression emerged through visual racism, where imagery was deployed to invoke culturally-entrenched racial stereotypes. In constructing a post-racial era, contemporary popular culture renders racism a thing of the past while simultaneously drawing upon old forms of racism (Squires, 2014). Post-racial celebrations thus highlight the emergence of old forms of racism within contemporary depictions of Black bodies. Old forms of racism, in this case, conjure historical representations of Black women’s bodies as myth (Celeste, 2015). In nineteenth-century scientific arguments about race, gender, and human development, scientists espoused that the sexuality of people of color were different from White Europeans, with African women perceived primarily as erotic beings (Andreassen, 2012). The display of Saartjie Baartman, who was exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” in Europe from 1810 to 1815 and lauded as exotic and naturally oversexed, has been well documented. Baartman’s body “was not simply a question of anatomy and exotic fetishism; rather, it was interpreted as the embodiment of her race and gender” (Andreassen, 2012, p. 129). The literal and symbolic conquest of Bartman’s body, therefore, historicizes popular culture imaginations and depictions of Black women’s bodies (Celeste, 2015; Henderson, 2013). Historical myths of Black women’s bodies remain relevant in contemporary constructions of the post-racial/post-Black subject, where power and domination are erased through newer forms of visual racism. Much of the literature on post-raciality and Blackface minstrelsy, however, has focused on White imaginations of Blackness (Durham, 2015). Some research on post-racial discourse has explored how White individuals racially engage with avatars online and how contemporay nationalist groups’ negotiate with post-racial politics in the United States (Florini, 2014; Nishi, Matias, & Montoya, 2015). What emerges from many of these post-racial images and discourses are myths of the past, where difference is both celebrated and disavowed. Some of these celebrations are seen in music, dance, and “traditional” dress, as well as customs associated with a particular region or state (Keesing, 1989). Yet, often these images are regarded simply as artistic forms of expression that deny any ties to racism and, in turn, to structural modes of power. Alongside the myth of post-racial politics, there is a cultural industry that employs makeup and costuming to surpass the boundaries of race (Vats, 2014). But as Gubar (1997, p. 10) indicates, conceptions of Blackness manifest in queries of power and privilege, where the “extent that racechange engages issues of representation, it illuminates the power issues at stake in the representation of race.” In an analysis of Beyoncé as a post-identity celebrity, Celeste (2015, p. 138) argues that “structures of racism, sexism, and capitalism function and are invested in the reproduction of controlling images of Black women.” Specifically, the construction of Beyoncé as a brand “is a triumph for White, male, capitalist, and heterosexual dominance in that it reinscribes historically familiar tropes of Black womanhood” (Celeste, 2015, p. 138). Contemporary tropes of Blackness thus draw from old forms of racism and sexism even while reinforcing a post-racial ideology that attempts to erase racial hierarchies. Furthermore, Western imaginations of continental Africa become integrated into the representations of Blackness. The ritualized performances of singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker helped to underscore the role primitivism has played in the embodiment of Africa and its relation to Blackness. As Guterl (2014, p. 2) suggests, Baker “was a totem of primeval sex,” wearing a “banana skirt or a ring of palm fonds, she arched and shimmied and twisted and smiled all at once” on the “high-end stages of Paris.” In comparison, Beyoncé’s visual performance also is seen as “unfamiliar, ‘primitive,’ dreamlike, and taboo” (Guterl, 2014, p. 380). This primitivism is further celebrated as in style or chic, thus reducing racial identity into a fashionable accessory (Vats, 2014), where both continental Africa and Blackness are sold, bought and consumed. Methodology We first employed a textual analysis of Beyoncé’s African Queen photo images, L’Officiel’s subsequent justifications, and online media responses. As such, this article analyzes the dialogic interaction between the content and production of the images, as well as their reception. As Cobb (2011, p. 407) suggests, “postracial images/imageries/imaginaries confront viewers with visual concepts about Black life … and use these notions to make new meanings about the changing nation.” In a study about the representations of sexuality and race in twentieth-century Danish exhibitions, Andreassen (2012) illustrates how the other is constructed and, in turn, exhibited to audiences within a Western context. Research on the power of visual images and representation illustrates that icons do not present the world, but represent it (Pressley-Sanon, 2011, p. 7), serving as signs that “carry meaning and thus have to be interpreted” (Hall, 1997, p. 19). An analysis of postracial imagery thus focuses on both words and images about Blackness. In analyzing both postracial images and speeech, we focused on the “underlying ideological and cultural assumptions of the text” (Furisch, 2009, p. 240). For this study, the text included the images of Beyoncé and the words of media makers, online entertainment journalists, and bloggers. To analyze the discourse of online media, we employed an Internet-based search. According to Benfield and Szlemko (2006), electronic data can generate larger samples and representative data. The use of Internet-based data has increased by 312% since 1994–1999 (Benfield & Szlemko, 2006). Particularly for the field of journalism, Internet-based searches are necessary for understanding trends, popular conversations, and online discourse. Blogs can provide ways to communicate, share, and influence audiences outside of traditional print media. Furthermore, immediate updates of contemporary dialogues in real time by professionals, readers, and commentators allows for discourse to evolve and ultimately reinforce or combat dominant cultural and political representations. The findings from this study, therefore, showcase how Internet sources can help scholars understand the role that cultural representations play for online audiences. An analysis of a variety of digital media platforms provides a holistic understanding of how both media makers and audiences made meaning of Beyoncé’s Black(er)face performances. We collected news articles, columns, and blog posts using Google’s search engine. The search terms included “responses to Beyoncé in L’Officiel Paris magazine.” This Google search yielded about 325 posts. All data yielded from searches, however, were not analyzed due to Google’s expansive database. After sampling from the first 100 articles and blog commentaries based on relevance, a total of 83 articles—published between February 2011 (the month that L’Officiel Paris published the photographs) and April 2011—were collected and analyzed. Post-raciality, difference, and primitivism in Beyoncé’s Africa Beyoncé’s Black(er)face performance illustrates how media production, visual content, and online audiences negotiate post-racial constructions of Black(er)face performativity. This analysis offers a close examination of the interaction between the magazine’s Black(er)face images and its response to criticisms, as well as online reactions. L’Officiel’s Beyoncé as African Queen reifies Western imaginations of Blackness, where difference “makes a spectacle of itself often through ritualized performances” (Coffman, 1997, p. 380). Beyoncé’s visual representation of an African Queen thus raises questions about the ways racial difference is rooted within a colonial narrative that emphasizes old tropes of difference and primitivism, ritualized through makeup and costuming. Online commentaries, in turn, responded to these Black(er)face images by couching the discourse of art and fashion within a post-racial lens, also rooted in progressive primitivism. Black(er)face, racial difference, and primitivism In Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith, Cherise Smith (2011, p. 18) argues that the “body is the container of identifications, the screen on which identity is projected, the mechanism through which identity is acted out, and the object that experiences identity.” How L’Officiel Paris employed a language of chic to justify its deployment of Beyoncé’s body as an embodiment of continental Africa is explored in this section. Therefore, how Beyoncé’s body becomes a container for understanding Blackness and Africanness is closely examined. Owned by Paris-based Jalou Media Group, L’Officiel Paris is one of the media group’s ten magazines, which reach more than 80 countries. According to the magazine’s website, L’Officiel offers snapshots of “fashion, beauty, lifestyle and contemporary society” (L’Officiel Paris, n.d.). Beyoncé’s African Queen photo series was not the first time L’Officiel Paris, one of France’s oldest fashion magazines, came under fire for its portrayals. The magazine is known for its many problematic images of continental Africa. For instance, in 2016, the magazine published an issue titled “Gang of Africa” and featured several Black artists and models, including music artist Ciara and supermodel Iman. As Hall (1993, p. 105) indicates, “there’s nothing that global postmodernism loves better than a certain kind of difference: a touch of ethnicity, a taste of the exotic [and] ‘a bit of the other.’” While Hall (1993) situates European’s obsession with the other within global postmodernism, a similar question emerges within the visual discourse of Black(er)face: the relevance of primitivism and difference in obscuring the West’s obsession with Black women’s bodies. While much of the fashion industry celebrates the magazine’s recent declarations of “Black is beautiful,” it is key to examine how this discourse fits within a post-racialism that celebrates racial difference while consistently relying on old narratives re-affirming Blackness as primitive. The 1960s “Black is beautiful” cultural and political expression is re-invoked to “revive and redeploy mantras of racial emancipation” to offer an alternative to traditional Blackface minstrelsy (Vats, 2014, p. 113). In L’Officiel Paris’ photographs, viewers witness what the magazine perceives as a tribute to continental Africa, with Beyoncé “returning” to her “roots.” The magazine introduces its 90th birthday with this issue: To celebrate this anniversary, the festivities start with … Beyoncé on the cover. She agreed to pose for an incredible shoot, with the theme of African Queen.… Far from the glamourous Sasha Fierce, the beauty posed for the magazine with amazing fashion designers, but also in a dress created by her mother. (Ignat, 2011). In taking Beyoncé “back to her roots,” the release of L’Officiel Paris’ photo shoot positions the artist as a literal and symbolic embodiment of Blackness and Africanness. The magazine’s link between primitive beauty and authenticity thus paralyzes Africa; it is a nostalgic past that imagines continental Africa as a kind of paradise (Bell, 2017). Blue and orange paint appears on Beyoncé’s darkened face in one photograph. Here, her skin is darkened as well, with her lips, chin, and cheeks painted in pastel colors. She wears an animal-print jacket and a tribal-inspired wooden necklace. In many of these photographs, Beyoncé appears in a variety of “traditional” clothing, designed with brown and beige patterns and made of various cloths, including woven cotton, mud, and beads. Another photograph features Beyoncé’s darkened face with her hair styled in braids. This photograph also captures Beyoncé wearing a head wrap, which historically has roots on continental Africa as a symbol of communal and individual identity, and as a badge of enslavement in the Americas. Here, Beyoncé can be read almost as beyond history, where she is wrapped in a surreal imagining of continental Africa. She plays in what Bell (2017, p. 370) calls Africa’s “animal wilderness” and “luxury playground.” In linking Beyoncé’s roots to a visual demarcation of tribal Africa, the magazine deploys historical, ritualized performances that situate Blackness and continental Africa within the language of the primitive. Such Black(er)face images diverge from older forms of Blackface minstrelsy, where mockery of Blackness serves to soothe White anxiety over the changing economic conditions White Americans faced during the post–Civil War era. Here, modernist constructions of primitivism return “uncannily at the moment of its apparent eclipse” (Hall, 1993, p. 106). What audiences see in Beyoncé’s African Queen is a de-emphasis of “exaggerated, comedic racial performance in favor of purportedly realistic mimicry, a veritable situation of the original” (Vats, 2012, p. 113). Instead, what is emphasized is that color is fashionable (Vats, 2012, p. 113), thus illustrating a kind of progressive primitivism where the “extreme and bizarre” are emphasized. Indeed, Beyoncé’s photographs serve as extreme essentialist constructions of Africanness and Blackness. Historical images of exotic, wild, and primitive representations re-emerge within the Western context. Western discourse about continental Africa consistently highlights the region as the “Dark Continent,” pre-modern and uncivilized (Daya, 2014; Jarosz, 1992). Thus, it represents an authentic beauty while also conjuring images of despair (Bell, 2017). As L’Officiel Paris acknowledges, Beyoncé’s mother Tina Beyoncé, along with several other design houses, designed the clothing. The “tribal” clothing that appears in the magazine thus was literally and symbolically constructed in the West. These visual images serve as representations that emphasize what feminist scholar bell hooks (1992) calls the “imperialist nostalgia.” It recalls a historical past of colonialism, but in celebrating the other one can alleviate guilt and deny culpability while also eschewing historical ties. Difference and primitivism then are positioned in a “progressive” way, where obvious forms of Blackface are hidden within language about fashion and aesthetics (Vats, 2014). In justifying these Black(er)face representations of primitivism and difference, the magazine capitalizes on a post-racial discourse. L’Officiel Paris’ statement celebrates the continuum of primitivism through its signification of difference. The seduction of the other resides within the belief that the primitive is found in the bodies of dark others (hooks, 1992, p. 25). Bhabha (1983, p. 19) suggests that difference is “crucial if it is held that the body is always simultaneously inscribed in both the economy of pleasure and desire and the economy of discourse, domination and power.” Thus, desire and domination are both simultaneously inscribed upon Beyoncé’s body. When introducing the images, L’Officiel Paris states: “Miss Beyoncé poses with royal allure. A queen, a goddess, Beyoncé is a bombshell beauty with a divine voice” (Atlien, 2011). In insisting on the photo shoots’ artistic expression, L’Officiel Paris thanked the music artist for her contribution in “celebrating African influences in fashion” (Atlien, 2011). The photographs thus are situated within a discourse that seemingly celebrates progress within the fashion industry, where a non-White European cultural representation is associated with moving the industry forward. But a discourse of return remains. In positioning Beyoncé as a goddess and African Queen who exumes a “royal allure,” L’Officiel Paris re-inscribes the Western nostalgic desire for an authentic Africa (Bell, 2017). It suggests that the music artist returns to a nostalgic past of tribalism and primitivism, which serve as the defining traits of her African roots. Moreover, the magazine’s suggestion that Beyoncé’s skin is “voluntarily darkened” implies she exercised her agency in the photo shoot. Here, the language of agency illustrates that choosing to participate in racechange (Gubar, 1997) is distinguished from a colonial past in which domination is coerced. Such language is reflective of a post-racial understanding, where race and ethnicity are no longer social and political categories; instead, they are things to be chosen, commodified, and consumed. Post-raciality, art, and fashion In responding to the magazine’s photo shoot and release statement, many bloggers asked their readers to comment on whether the use of makeup to darken Beyoncé’s skin was a “means of artistic expression.” Online audiences underscored the ways artists have negotiated the relationship between art, fashion, and racial idenitification. In this section, we explore how audiences responded to a visual performance meant to mark not only Blackness but also its historical relationship to continental Africa. While some commented on the contentious way in which L’Officiel Paris employed Beyoncé’s body to caricature Blackness, many others employed a discourse of post-raciality that positioned art outside of traditional Blackface minstrelsy. As one blogger put it: “Inspiring or infuriating???? You decide…” (Marie, 2011). Echoing the magazine’s statement, the online community commented on the role of makeup as art. The positioning of this question itself implied a distinction between art and insult. For instance, one writer stated that the artist revealed a “flawless look, rocking in the inside editorial Victorian dresses, designer clothes, haute couture suits, [and] African-themed clothing pieces” (Ignat, 2011). Another writer from the Houston Press asked: “When is it OK to put the past behind us and just let artists be artists?” (Rodriguez, 2011). Others argued that the photo shoots both inspired and provoked, highlighting the images’ “artistic value” (Chen, 2011). One entertainment website asked “Noami vs. Beyonce: Who wore it better,” comparing Vogue’s 2011 front cover of Noami Campbell featuring African-themed clothing to L’Officiel Paris’ homage to Beyoncé’s African Queen (Noami vs. Beyonce, 2011). An EW.com writer claimed that “not every Blackened face is Blackface,” since there is a “fine line between artistry and mockery” (Wete, 2011). An MTV writer noted the problematic nature of confusing a “boundary-pushing, high-fashion editorial” with “mocking or diminishing Black people and their hues” (Blanco, 2011). These comments highlight the ways in which “authenticity and faithfulness to the ‘original’ race and culture operates as a carte blanche to engage in and publicize racechange in fashion” (Vats, 2014, p. 113). For many bloggers, racechange is thus justified through a post-racial discourse that emphasizes the value of art, even as such representations attempt to naturalize race. In linking art to an “original” idea of continental Africa, these commentators essentialized Africa. As one blogger commented: “[Beyoncé’s] intention was clearly to represent who she believes Africans are and what she believes Africans look like” (“Going Native”: Beyonce’s “Tribute” to Africa, 2011). It is important to note here that these images of Beyoncé in African-themed costuming is not necessarily new or unique; instead, L’Officiel Paris and the larger fashion industry have continued to conjure the West’s “wildest dreams” of continental Africa (Bell, 2017), often through Black celebrities (albeit not exclusively) in an attempt to essentialize Africanness while concealing historical pasts of colonial domination. Bloggers and tabloids highlighted the absence of mockery commonly found in traditional forms of Blackface to further distinguish between a progressive artistic cultural production and a traditional, racist representation. Beyoncé’s reputation also contrasted traditional Blackface racism: “she’s been the model for strong women and the forward movement of all races” (Wete, 2011). Such dialogue reflected a post-racial discourse that celebrates progressive racial politics (symbolized via racechange) through primitivism. Indeed, as a post-racial subject, Beyoncé represents “all” races (despite recent attempts to co-opt a Black power rhetoric). Yet, the images themselves contradict the post-racial implication that racial markers no longer exist. Capitalizing on a post-racial discourse, the fashion industry creates a “regime of truth” in which race is seemingly meaningless. What is denied, however, is that Beyoncé’s visual image of the African Queen marks Blackness in ways “associated with the emotions, the body, urban culture, the primitive, overt sexuality … [which] a remains a highly traded commodity” (Smith, 2011, p. 111). Many bloggers suggested that public criticisms of the magazine and Beyoncé were exaggerated, highlighting an effort to de-politicize a national conversation about racial politics and art (Sam, 2011). One blogger defined the debate among audiences within two arguments: “Critics quickly raised their eyebrows … in protest over what they deemed another instance of offensive Blackface for the sake of fashion, while fans of the shoot argued that the look had artistic value” (Chen, 2011). In another blog, one writer (Beyonce in L’Officiel Magazine, 2011) dismissed any notion that Beyoncé’s photos resembled Blackface, finding no offense in the photos. In describing the artist as a “queen, a goddess” with a “divine voice,” Mistress Maddie disassociated art from racism. Consequently, racism remained outside of art: “I don’t think it’s racist, because she was artistically painted” (Beyoncé Blackface for French, 2011). These comments focused on whether the images mirrored traditional Blackface, thus highlighting the role of art in erasing race and racism within the fasion industry. Further distinguishing the magazine’s artistic photo shoots from traditional Blackface, others commented that Beyoncé’s makeup lacked the conventional “exaggerated mouth and red lips” (Blanco, 2011). MTV.com quoted several popular culture experts who questioned whether Beyoncé in fact dressed in Blackface. Timmhotep Aku, Editor of TheBVX.com, noted that the “dark make-up on her face [which didn’t] appear on the rest of her body could be an abstract message about the diversity in phenotype in Africa” (Blanco, 2011). Such comments eschewed the role that racism has played in the fashion industry and the larger art world. What these commentaries suggest is that the ritualized performances of art and makeup render racism as acceptable. Some bloggers, however, criticized L’ Officiel Paris for using Beyoncé as a representation of continental Africa. Sociological Images blogger Lisa Wade (2011) argued that the magazine’s reference to the artist’s African roots was to “fetishize this thing-called-Africa that Americans recognize, but is a fiction in our imaginations.” Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart’s (2011) piece on the discourse of fashion and makeup acknowledged the fashion industry’s history of “provocation and pushing boundaries.” Stewart argued that Beyoncé’s darkened face as a symbol of Africanness reduced “an entire continent, full of different nations, tribes, cultures, and histories, into one brown color.” Steward added that messages from “fashionistas” imply that having dark skin is “bad” but “totally cool to pretend you have it.” Atlantic Post writer Charing Ball (2011) also indicted the fashion industry’s “obsession” with Blackface as an “accepted form of racism passed off as art.” One writer asked whether the French fashion editors were “basically treating her like they would a White model, i.e., a blank-palette object on which to place concepts.” As one Nigerian blogger noted: “It is not an uncommon trend for European and American magazines to ‘return’ to African roots or show their African solidarity with such misrepresentations that play on racial stereotypes” (Beyonce pays controversial tribute to Fela, 2011). These commentaries represented moments of resistance, where post-racial ideologies within the fashion industry were challenged. An analysis of these commentaries, however, reveals that much of the online discourse surrounding Beyoncé’s Black(er)face performance saw it as different from the traditional Blackface minstrelsy that mocks Blackness. Instead, the presence of a more progressive primitivism shapes a post-racial discourse in which artistic expression obscures old narratives of racism. In this case, post-racialism detaches racism from art. Online media thus mostly celebrated L’Officiel Paris’ images of Beyoncé’s African Queen. In doing so, audiences participated not only in the commodification of Beyoncé’s body but also in the co-optation of Africanness, both constructed by Western imaginations of Blackness. Raengo’s (2010, p. 163) analysis of Blackface demonstrates two stages in the commodification of Blackness in Blackface minstrelsy: “Blackness as an object and Blackness as aesthetics.” The marker of Blackness is “abstracted from living bodies and turned into material signifier” (i.e., “burnt cork” makeup). These two stages thus shed light on how audiences responded to Beyoncé’s African Queen, where Blackness as an object (signified through darkened skin and imaginary clothing) becomes a question of aesthetics (i.e., art). Initially explored in Love and Theft: The Racial Unconscious of Blackface Minstrelsy, Eric Lott’s (1992, p. 27) analysis of Blackface minstrelsy asserts that the mistrel show’s “obsession with Black (male) bodies” relied upon on a “kind of raw commodification.” In turn, this form of commodification “depended upon the dangerous imaginary proximity of ‘raced’ bodies” (Lott, 1992, p. 27). Yet, it is crucial to extend an analysis of Blackface to one that explores the literal and figurative painting of Blackness onto Black women’s bodies. As a global and post-racial artist, Beyoncé herself and her Black(er)face performance embody what Josephine Baker did in France in the 1920s: “primitivist exoticism that surrounded Blackness, Black culture and Black bodies” (Smith, 2011, p. 117). While Beyoncé’s Black(er)face visual performance similarly relies on the objectification and commodification of Blackness through a Western imagination of Africanness, this analysis also explores how racial demarcations of Blackness continue to circulate in post-racial visual culture. Conclusion At the time of this writing, the emergence of post-Trump politics has signaled a potential shift away from the post-racial era. Yet, post-modernism’s ongoing fetishism of racial difference will remain culturally significant, as popular culture attempts to further differentiate itself from the return to old forms of racism. In an essay entitled What is This “Black” in Black Popular Culture?, Stuart Hall (1993, p. 105) writes: “We must bear in mind post-modernism’s deep and ambivalent fascination with difference—sexual difference, cultural difference, racial difference, and above all, ethnic difference.” This study sought to examine one moment in Beyoncé’s repetorie of cultural symbols as part of a larger visual culture that remains fascinated with difference. Hence, how the manifestations of Black(er)face performativity (as an extension of Blackface minstrelsy) in contemporary popular culture directly tie to post-racial constructions is the central question here. Furthermore, locating this relationship within the dialogue between visual texts and audiences’ interpretations is critical for understanding contemporary racial formations of identity. Racial identity is reflected and constructed in our everyday media discourse, where “racial structures are built” and where “racism is confronted and broken down” (Omi & Winant, 2009, 125). Beyoncé’s Black(er)face images signify how the privitism of othered bodies (hooks, 1992) has shaped post-racial/post-Black representations of Blackness. The hyper-visibility of Blackness in popular culture ironically verifies the “de-materialized way in which it functions—as an agent of abstraction” (Raengo, 2010, p. 169). Consequently, Blackness seemingly moves on its own; it is detached from history. Blackness then operates as something you can choose, apply, and wear (Elam, 2005). The detachment of Blackness from Black bodies is precisely what manifests within online audiences’ responses to L’Officiel Paris’ visualization. In much of the online media discourse, commentators celebrated the artistic value of Beyoncé’s photo shoot. In doing so, they employed a post-racial discourse that disassociated race and racism from artistic expression. Positioning art in contrast to traditional Blackface, many critics avoided underlying racist ideologies associated with Blackface minstrelsy. The perceived absence of mockery commonly highlighted a progressive, artistic, cultural production. Consequently, critics saw Beyoncé’s depiction as a more acceptable form of Black(er)face, one that could be commodified through the notion of progressive primitivism. In analyzing these online media commentaries, we illustrate the dialogic interactions between contemporary cultural conversations around art, fashion, race, and what scholars have named visual racism. This cultural moment demonstrates how Black(er)face performativity, and its mediated reception, is couched within a post-racial discourse that simultaneously dismisses and fetishizes racial difference. The rise of post-racial Black subjects during the Obama era indicates a shift that has allowed for the further commodification of Blackness, where Blackness is “branded” (Raengo, 2010, p. 167). What the discourses of media makers and audiences suggest is that even within claims “that race may no longer matter … there is still a desire for the traditional and comforting racial categories” (Morgan, 2016, p. 5). An analysis of Beyoncé in Black(er)facce, however, not only reveals how racial identity and racism interact with one another, but also how popular culture influences contemporary understandings of race (Morgan, 2016) in what Hasinoff (2008, p. 326) calls a “new neoliberal rhetoric of race.” Within this neo-liberal post-racial discourse, difference is employed to commodify Blackness while maintaining its invisibility. Today’s post-racial discourse is crucial to unpack, as public understandings and media constructions of race and racism evolve. As educators and scholars continue to examine the ways in which race and racism shape our everyday lives, more scholarship will need to engage in complex conversations that address how all audiences participate in institutionalized forms of oppression. Future research should continue to highlight and unpack instances of Black(er)face in contemporary forms of media, social media, and other online media platforms. 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Communication, Culture & Critique – Oxford University Press
Published: May 15, 2018
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