Research on Black Women, Corporeal Aesthetics in 21st Century Paves Way for Black Futures

Amanda Smith (French and Italian) is a 2022–2023 HRI Campus Graduate Student Fellow. Smith’s research project, “21st Century Black Beauty Resistance: Collectivism, Individuality, and In/Visibility in Black French Women’s Body and Hair Representations,” examines representations of Black women’s bodies and hair in Francophone autobiographical, sociocultural, and literary texts written by 21st century Black women to uncover how they illuminate white supremacy’s borders and transcend them.

Learn more about HRI’s Campus Fellowship Program, which supports a cohort of faculty and graduate students through a year of dedicated research and writing in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment.

What is unique about your research on this topic?

My research supports the voices of Black women as they represent their corporeal aesthetics through writing. My current work focuses specifically on Black French women’s sociocultural, autobiographical, and literary texts in the 21st century. In texts like Afrofem by the Mwasi Collectif Afrofeministe and Blues pour Élise (Blues for Élise) by Léonora Miano, I analyze the ways that Black women are un/doing normative standards of beauty, dismantling negative in/visibilities of Black women, such as lack of protection against violence, hypersexualization in the white male imaginary, and hair discrimination to name a few, and offering up representations of Black beauty, Black joy, and Black life.

While I build on the important work born from the Afropessimist movement, my work’s focus on life and futurity is paramount. With a sustained attention to collectivism and individuality as critical aspects of these representations, I show that Black women-centered gazes are able to decenter the white male gaze/r via an emphasis on horizontality as a site for meaning-making as well as a celebration of differences within the collective. In so doing, Black women place themselves in the seat of power over their aesthetics and move beyond racist and sexist power dynamics, paving the way for possibilities of new Black futures.

What drives your interest in this research?

As a Black woman, I have a strong personal commitment to the liberation of Black people everywhere, and a keen interest in the power and success of my sisters. While our experiences are nuanced, we have so much in common. I believe that the key to global Black liberation is global Black collectivism, and it is in that spirit that my work seeks to elevate and publicize the works of other Black women, highlighting their agency, their beauty, and their power, chronicling a Black women-led movement toward a future beyond white supremacy.

How has the fellowship seminar impacted the way you approach your research?

Being in such an interdisciplinary community with brilliant colleagues has shown me that there are so many ways to attack the beast that is systemic and systematic oppression and that there is quite an army. It is both a call to arms and a sheer delight to learn what others are working on. The plurality of perspectives has opened my mind to so many new ways of thinking, being, and un/doing, and as a scholar-activist in the early stages of my career, this has been invaluable. Likewise, sharing my work in this space has been extremely beneficial. The feedback I’ve received from these gifted minds has both challenged and inspired me. I was able to dig deeper and I was affirmed in the pertinence and validity of my work, which is so important in an academic world that sometimes forces us to question our right to take up space.