Brown Beauty

Color, Sex, and Race from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II

368 pages

27 illustrations

September, 2018

ISBN: 9781479802081



Add to Cart Available: 8/31/2018

Also available in




Laila Haidarali lectures on African American and women’s history at the University of Essex. 

All books by Laila Haidarali

Examines how the media influenced ideas of race and beauty among African American women from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II.  

Between the Harlem Renaissance and the end of World War II, a complicated discourse emerged surrounding considerations of appearance of African American women and expressions of race, class, and status. Brown Beauty considers how the media created a beauty ideal for these women, emphasizing different representations and expressions of brown skin.

Haidarali contends that the idea of brown as a “respectable shade” was carefully constructed through print and visual media in the interwar era. Throughout this period, brownness of skin came to be idealized as the real, representational, and respectable complexion of African American middle class women. Shades of brown became channels that facilitated discussions of race, class, and gender in a way that would develop lasting cultural effects for an ever-modernizing world.

Building on an impressive range of visual and media sources—from newspapers, journals, magazines, and newsletters to commercial advertising—Haidarali locates a complex, and sometimes contradictory, set of cultural values at the core of representations of women, envisioned as “brown-skin.” She explores how brownness affected socially-mobile New Negro women in the urban environment during the interwar years, showing how the majority of messages on brownness were directed at an aspirant middle-class. By tracing brown’s changing meanings across this period, and showing how a visual language of brown grew into a dynamic racial shorthand used to denote modern African American womanhood, Brown Beauty demonstrates the myriad values and judgments, compromises and contradictions involved in the social evaluation of women. This book is an eye-opening account of the intense dynamics between racial identity and the influence mass media has on what, and who we consider beautiful. 


  • "Brown Beauty introduces us to the tension of identity and beauty through concepts of  advertising  during a crucial period of the 20th century.  It is well researched as it includes numerous accounts about black women rarely discussed such as the first black modeling agency in the 20th century.  An important read, the author impressively argues that the fusion of the two racialized standards of beauty toward the end of the Harlem Renaissance resulted in the evolution of the urban New Negro woman by the end of WWII."  

    —Deborah Willis, New York University, author of Posing Beauty

  • “Laila Haidarali has given us a path breaking study of the color question in New Negro womanhood. Her masterful interpretation of diverse sources will ensure that the category of  'brown beauty' will have to be reckoned with in any study of modern African American identity and culture. Haidarali’s ability to interpret and historicize literary and popular print culture will serve as a model for cultural and social historians of the black experience for years to come.” 

    —Victoria Wolcott, author of Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America