MAXWELL:  Black, beautiful and bare

6/8/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In the June-July issue of Vibe, the magazine that celebrates urban music and cool people, rhythm-and-blues superstar Toni Braxton, 29, shows the world darn near every inch of her lusty, ebony birthday suit.

Probably not since Josephine Baker appeared on Paris stages during the 1930s and 1940s _ topless on a mirror, clad only a protective waist shield of rubber bananas _ has an African-American woman caused such an eruption in the souls of black folk.

Sure, we agonized briefly over Penthouse’s photos of a nude Vanessa Williams. But the collective shame was short-lived because the pictures were taken before she became the nation’s first black Miss America in 1983. She intended no outrage.

But can the same be said of Braxton, whom People magazine has dubbed one of the world’s 50 most beautiful people for two years running? From the moment that the latest Vibe hit the stands _ its cover sporting the nude diva covering herself only with a corner of a bed sheet and an almond-tinted arm _ black radio talk show hosts and publishers nationwide have received thousands of comments from listeners and writers.

While many people are angry, others are applauding. As with other to-dos among blacks, this one centers on cultural (racial) identity, the most divisive of intra-ethnic conflicts.

Indeed, to strip or not to strip is the question, demonstrating anew that, as the year 2000 approaches, we blacks cannot shake the group-think, or monolithism, that continues to trap us in finger-pointing and ostracism among ourselves.

The issue of black nudity dates back to the moment Africans were dragged from slave ships in the New World and herded _ naked and half-naked _ onto auction blocks; when our sexuality was codified by the white man as an essential part of the slave’s market value; when a “dark wench” and a “big, black buck” fetched prices far different from those of their fairer and less physically endowed sisters and brothers.

This controversy, then, is about the meaning of blackness and its relationship to erotica. By posing nude, Braxton, a preacher’s daughter, has joined a courageous group snubbing its nose at the taboo that black divas, along with others, must not emulate their white counterparts, such as Madonna, the nation’s self-described, post-modernist “slut.”

To do so, one camp argues, is to confirm _ as gangsta rappers do so effectively _ long-held stereotypes of blacks as debased, oversexed animals.

“A young black lady should not do anything or take any pictures that she would not want her grandchildren to see,” said Bobby Popler, a public school teacher and counselor in Fort Lauderdale. “Coming from a black woman’s perspective, I would like to know Toni Braxton’s purpose. So many young girls look up to her. She didn’t have to do it.”

Gail E. Wyatt, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, agrees. “The perception is that that is all we are: permissive, highly sexual people who are sensually out of control, but nothing could be further from the truth,” she told the New York Times. “The other side of the story has not been told: that we are a very moral people who are highly religious and have very strong values and rules about sexuality.”

As the New York Times points out, however, some black writers, artists and photographers see black erotica as a liberating force. They want to replace images of lust with ones of love and transform one-dimensional themes into ones of complexity and mystery.

Former Washington Post Sunday magazine writer Jill Nelson, whose book about black sexual politics will be published in August, represents the latter camp. “Black culture is realizing, hundreds of years late, that we are human first, that we have impulses and feelings and desires to examine and admire and touch and photograph and paint and write about the human body and human sexuality,” she told the New York Times.

A lucrative new industry, marketing slick coffee table books, scholarly texts, sexually explicit novels, exhibitions of photographs and paintings and a Web site, indicates that erotica is taking deep root in black America. And, thanks to Braxton’s titillating gambit, erotic seems to be gaining respectability.

But even as the new landscape enshrines nudity, the old demon of group-think remains, distracting us from more important areas of black life _ rearing and educating our children, attitudes toward violent crime and drugs, perspectives on taking responsibility for ourselves.

Braxton’s spread in Vibe truly is more than a skin show. It is, in fact, a metaphor for our mass schizophrenia: the conflict between our quest to be free and the enduring politicalization of thinking alike.

Wittingly or not, Toni Braxton, black America’s most ravishing diva, has initiated a debate that may yet help us discover that we are human before we are black, that we are individuals before we are a people.