Shackled by Vogue Italia's 'Slave Earrings'
How black women's oppression gets easily packaged and commodified
I didn’t get my ears pierced until later than most girls, my junior year of high school, but I quickly developed a preference for hoop earrings, the bigger the better. I’ve purchased vintage hoops at quirky little stores on the third floors of Washington, D.C. townhouses, at malls in Minnesota during downtime from covering the Republican National Convention in 2008; and even on especially trashy occasions, I’ve rocked giant, flimsy pairs from Target.
So it was particularly surreal to see the magazine Vogue Italia dubbing some of my favorite styles “slave earrings,” and telling readers "if the [Slave Earrings] bring to the mind the decorative traditions of the women of colour who were brought to the southern United States during the late 18th century, the latest interpretation is pure freedom."
Vogue Italia, which not long ago won the hearts of many when it featured an all-black edition in 2008, backed off and revised the copy quickly, blaming the messenger—or in this case, the translator. But that implausible mea culpa doesn’t erase the editorial’s original intentions: packaging and sanitizing the experiences of black women for consumption by white women.
The magazine’s apology failed to understand that it wasn’t merely the describing of bangles in slavery terms that was offensive. It was the idea that the experiences of women who were sold into bondage exist close enough on the spectrum to the experiences of wealthy consumers that those two wildly differing situations can be in conversation with each other.
It’s not worth arguing whether enslaved women had a sense of style, beauty and design. We do know, however, that clothing was a way that slave owners enforced their own norms, culture and values on the people they oppressed -- whether dressing enslaved women in men’s clothes as a form of punishment, requiring women to cover their hair, or controlling access to clothing by limiting distribution to a few times a year.
Figuring out a distinct way to tie your headwrap as one of the only ways available to you to signal your identity and individuality isn’t the same thing as spending hundreds of dollars on a single pair of earrings to capitalize on a single seasonal trend. Freedom from slavery and freedom to consume may be on a continuum together, but Vogue Italia’s copy erased the space between them.
A similar, though more nuanced and less egregious discomfort, has surrounded the release of “The Help.” The movie, which omits a number of incidents of racial violence that appear in the book and plays down a domestic violence subplot, presents a substantially sanitized vision of segregation in Jackson, Miss.
The simplified image of civil rights in Mississippi in the movie erases the history of black organizing in the state and the region, and it’s hard to believe that the characters could do some of the things they do without provoking violent reprisals. Critics who are more optimistic than I hope that the book and movie will encourage readers to seek out primary sources written by black women rather than white ones.
Stockett and Vogue Italia’s missteps are illustrations of an important and unfortunate truth. Black women may no longer be slaves in America, but their historical experiences are being sold off as commodities.