Images from the past said to be still unsettling today NAACP chief says ads give blacks unsettling images of self-worth.

March 04, 1991|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others. . . . One ever feels his two-ness -- two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." -- W.E.B. DuBois, the Souls of Black Folks.

To illustrate the words of DuBois, Arthur Murphy runs his fingers through his straight, fine hair and asks a group of law students if they think he has "good hair."

The students, all black, exchange cautious looks, then agree he does. Their answer is expected by Murphy.

"It's exactly what I wanted and expected," he said recently. "The answer is so deeply rooted in a negative self-image."

To Murphy, the students' answer mirror negative self-images in blacks that were derived in part from old newspaper advertisements, like the "Kinky Before, Straight After" ads for a hair straightener in the 1930s and 1940s.

The ads, which ran in black newspapers nationwide, depicted blacks as unhappy and outcast until they used a hair-straightening pomade to make their hair look like that of whites.

Murphy said the same images are cartooned in "How Lulu Brown Won The Town" promos in which a dark-skinned woman cries after being teased by other blacks because of her complexion.

Only after she uses a skin-bleaching ointment does she become popular. The ad also claims that "when you've got color in your favor, you've got everything."

Murphy, the newly elected president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a descendant of the founders of the Afro-American Newspapers, feels the hair and skin ads gave blacks unsettling messages.

"What we're saying is that we don't like the way we look," Murphy said. "They're saying, and it's obvious, that it's better to be light-skinned than dark-skinned. Not to be happy the way you are."

Hundreds of ads, photographs, letters and articles that appeared decades ago in black publications, including the Baltimore Afro-American, will be exhibited at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Baltimore Convention Center. Admission is $25 a person.

Many of the artifacts, found in the offices of the Afro-American in 1986 and kept since at Bowie State University, have never been previously displayed in public.

Sponsored by the Afro-American Newspapers Archives and Research Center and the NAACP, the exhibit will focus largely on the skin-bleaching and hair-straightening ads that Murphy feels helped instill the low self-esteem in blacks decades ago that lingers today.

One ad says: "The French Knew How To Whiten Skin."

"How many French blacks are there?" Murphy asked.

Another ad shows a series of pictures of Lena Horne in which the entertainer is transformed from dark-skinned to a lighter hue. A caption for the product reads: "For whiter skin."

Still another ad talks of having long, luxurious hair instead of "unwanted short, nappy hair."

"This is the system of thinking that Grandma taught and a lot of blacks have not gotten over it," Murphy said, analyzing the ads. "But things have gotten worse since then. Now the messages are subliminal. Before they were obvious, now they aren't."

"The purpose of this [exhibit] is to confront people with blatant self-hate and perhaps tell why Johnny can't read or has a poor concept of self," Murphy said.

The low self-esteem of many young blacks is exhibited in their lack of desire to achieve in school, he said.

Today, the products that are depicted in the ads are still on the market and are still being bought. But the advertising techniques are more subtle. The products are now trumpeted as good for "appearance enhancement."

"The marketing has changed for many of the products," Murphy said. "Instead of it being called skin-bleaching ointments, they're simply called skin creams. But it's the same thing."

"An important concept of self is important to operate in this society," Murphy said. "If you think of yourself of as a jungle bunny, then that's what you'll be."

"People want to change the way they look because they think that having kinky hair or dark skin is undesirable," he said. "Everyone should be able to look in the mirror and say I'm beautiful."

Murphy admits the exhibit will probably anger a lot of blacks.

"This is a part of our culture that we can't get rid of," he said in defense of the exhibit. "I hope it angers a lot of people. If it does, it will make them do a lot of thought.

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