Race and Beauty in the 20th Century South
by Blain Roberts
University of North Carolina Press
378 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“[This book] tells us how Jim Crow and civil rights were expressed in southern women’s bodies. Using female beauty as a lens, the book brings into focus an untold social and cultural history of southern women and of the South generally…
I argue that female beauty in the American South was, more so than in the rest of the country, deeply racialized…I also emphasize the complexity inherent in the pursuit of beauty… I approach beauty as an expansive category that encompasses ideals, practices, labor, and even spaces…
Underscoring almost every conversation about beauty in the region were worries about morality and sexuality… Pageants, Parlors & Pretty Women provides a fresh perspective on the anxieties that plagued southerners from the late 19th C. through the mid-20th C. Or, put another way, it reveals how the female body both informed and reflected the challenges of life during Jim Crow.”
– Excerpted from the Introduction (pages 6 -10)
America has a long, ugly legacy of promoting diametrically opposed images of black and white females. This can be traced all the way back to Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, an adulterer who had a white wife, but fathered a half-dozen children with Sally Hemmings, one of his hundreds of slaves.
Yet, in his only book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” the hypocritical third President of the U.S. frowned upon race-mixing while denouncing black women as unattractive on account of their hair texture and skin color. He actually went so far as to pronounce sisters so promiscuous that they would just as soon mate with an ape as a human.
Sadly, such racist notions continued to shape popular attitudes about African-American femininity after Emancipation, especially in the South with its strictly-enforced color line. In the wake of the Civil War, Caucasian women “were transformed into symbols of white supremacy and, eventually, massive resistance,” to integration and equal rights.
That is the proposition put forth by Blain Roberts in Pageants, Parlors & Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the 20th Century South. Roberts, a History Professor at California State University, Fresno, discusses at great length the role which beauty played in maintaining the racial divide.
For, the enduring plantation myth still propagated post slavery placing white women on pedestals as paragons of virtue in need of protection proved to be the ideal tool for justifying the persistence of white supremacy ad infinitum. And Jim Crow Era bigots found affirmation in the Miss America beauty pageant which would for many decades be not only lily-white but dominated by entrants from former Confederate States.
The opus also delineates the black female struggle to escape the stranglehold of their stereotype as “sexually licentious” and “innately depraved and dirty.” They fought back by turning to skin lighteners and straightening combs until finally being freed by the Sixties’ “Black is beautiful!” movement to embrace their natural hair and skin tones.
A far more sophisticated examination of black and white pulchritude than Gone with the Wind’s long unquestioned suggestion that it’s as simple as Mammy vs. Scarlett O’Hara.
To order a copy of Pageants, Parlors & Pretty Women, visit: http://www.amazon.com/exec/