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REVIEW: Embracing Black and Beautiful

REVIEWER: O’Yemi Afolabi
PAGES: 154
‘Say it loud, I’m Black and proud’, ‘Young, gifted and black’, were among the songs that rocked the 60s and 70s. Black awareness waxed strong in the 60s and the ripples were felt in the 70s and beyond.
Those were the years of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X – the years blacks in the Diaspora (especially in the US) were clamouring for civil rights. By 1968 ‘Black is Beautiful’ was the mantra among both black men and women or anyone having a drop of black blood in him/her. In New York City, London, Paris and other cosmopolitan cities, it was fashionable to be black and every black woman wanted to be a ‘Soul Sister’ à la Angela Davis - big Afro hairstyle. It is this awareness that gave Black and Beautiful its title.
The writer speaks to black sisters (and also brothers) all over the world about the dignity and elevation of the black race. The topics covered by the writer, ranging from which foods to eat to get a beautiful black skin and how to look after one’s body, are relevant today and tomorrow.
The writer starts off with a poem of Leopold Sedar Senghor, the Poet-President of Senegal. Senghor was known for the beautiful lines in praise of the African woman. Senghor’s poems are mostly on Negritude – that which makes the black man black, be it music, culture or tradition - that which speaks to the inner man of the black man.
Senghor was married to a white French woman while Ayo Vaughan-Richards was married to a white English man. That much they had in common. Could it be marrying out of their race that made them appreciate their ‘Negritude’? That’s a story for another day.
Ayo Vaughan-Richards was a nurse by profession. In fact she was the first principal (1982 - ) of the Lagos State School of Nursing located on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi. It was during her days there that she was inspired to write the book ‘when students and colleagues came to’ her with their problems which mainly concerned beauty and fashion. She was also, at that time, a Director of Johnson Products Nig. Ltd, which then was ‘leading manufacturers of cosmetics and hair products for Blacks’. To her credit, only once in the book did she propose a product of this company as a beauty product.
Writer says that ‘Real beauty radiates from within you’.  Then she goes on to say that ’Beauty of the external body is ephemeral, whilst beauty of the soul is eternal’. She counsels her sisters to try as much as possible to avoid stress. She advises them to be: Strong; Self-disciplined; Self-confident; Ready to accept responsibility.
‘Diet’ she says, ‘is the lynch pin of our health and beauty’ and ‘good health depends upon our eating the right kinds, right amount and right combination of food’. She believes a good diet will do more for your looks than the most expensive cosmetics. The writer counsels black women to take responsibility for their health and not be used as the dustbin or indeed guinea-pig for an uncaring pharmaceutical company.
She suggests homeopathic alternative to those prone to side-effects from habitual use of chemical anti-malaria tablets. She gives tips on how to correct our eating habits. She also talks about consumption of vitamins. She describes the vitamins one by one and warns, ‘… there’s no point in consuming quantities of vitamins if your diet is well-balanced.’
From the writer we learn that exercise became acceptable and even fashionable among Nigerian women between 1976 and 1986. She says that regular exercise improves the capacity of your lungs, will sharpen your intellect, give you confidence and help to protect you from stress and fatigue. She says exercise is fun and suggests exercises like walking, jogging, yoga, swimming and dancing.  But she still maintains that exercise alone would not make a woman slimmer. It should be combined with nutritious diet. Sketches of exercises (by one of the writer’s daughters, Pinky) are on pages 38 – 41.
She comes to Posture and says ‘a woman with poise is a woman with good posture’. She then goes on to show how that poise could be achieved from walking and feeling ten feet tall, sitting pretty and tips on facial exercise to give a woman a good facial expression.
Writer believes that black women are blessed with beautiful skin and that if they have not had a life of ‘unremitting suffering or starvation’, they still look gorgeous at 50. This brings to mind that classic quotation of the famous black model, Naomi Campbell ‘Black don’t crack’. Writer says that rapidly accelerated ageing in a black woman could be as a result of illness, bad diet and pollution. She says that our skin is a mirror of our health and well-being. 
Throughout this long chapter in which she even deals with Harmattan and its effects on the black skin, not one mention was made of shea-butter used by the African woman (especially during this season) for skin-dryness. 
Neither does she mention the use of lime as cleanser by some black women. In her Daily Beauty Routine she also omits some products such as: Coconut oil, Palm kernel oil, Shea butter, Cam-wood and Black soap, known to feature among products used by black women for the body or the hair. Could this omission be attributed to her position as the Director of Johnson and Johnson Nig. Ltd, makers of cosmetic and pharmaceutical products? Writer believes that the hair, like the skin, is the good indicator of one’s state of mind and says also that the head is the seat of spiritual power in most African societies. She advises the black woman to consume foods rich in vitamins and supplements. Only in this chapter does writer mention local plants, oil and fats ‘as a base for pomades’.
She gives some tips on how to mask the grey hair. It is also in this chapter (7) that the reader can feel the writer as coquettish, social, a little bit mischevious (especially with the masking of grey hair and adding ‘a splash of gold or bronze’ to look stunning with an evening dress or traditional cloth). Her advice ‘never henna your hair if you use any of the other colouring agents or if you have grey hair’ will not be accepted by some black women e.g. Somali and Ethiopian. It’s the same ‘orange-red’ colour termed ugly by writer that henna users want instead of grey.
Writer regularly says, ‘In some traditional African societies’ without giving either location or name. This is frustrating to the reader who wants point of reference. Black & Beautiful is a politically-correct book. Hair relaxers were - and are still being - used by both black men and women to have straight hair like whites. Writer doesn’t say this. Is it because of her mixed marriage? Having said that, I’ll like to end with the writer’s advice that, ‘we should never allow long exposure to other cultures to completely change our attitudes to our own’.

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