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Black History

Black Beauties: Network Looks Back at How Blacks Used Beauty to Forge Power



by TRN Staff

Beauty Pageants have been around for more than a century.  The Miss America Pageant grew from a little beachside competition into an industry that defined the essence of a woman and her beauty.  For years, that meant Blacks and women of color were not allowed to compete–beauty was defined by Whites and the competition was for White women only!

Blacks were allowed to attend the event dating back to 1923 when according to “slaves” were brought onstage for a musical number.  It would take another 50 years before a Black woman would be allowed to go onstage as contestant.  In 1970, an Iowa woman named Cheryl Brown  was the first Black woman to represent her home state in the competition.  It would be another decade and a half before a Black woman would win the crown, but the victory was short lived.  In 1984, Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to win the title. She was stripped of the title halfway through her reign amidst a scandal that she posed nude years earlier for publications.

While Miss America was slow to create an environment that acknowledged Black women were beautiful, the cultural movement of the 60’s didn’t wait for history to change but changed history by creating their own Black beauty pageants.  Most Black women didn’t fit the mold of the White created European definition of beauty of light skin, straight hair, slim noses and lips.

A London, England exhibit honors the history of the Afro-Caribbean models title “Miss Black and Beautiful”.  The BBC produced film shows clips and photos of the women who dared believed that their dark skin and Afros were testaments of their beauty. While beauty pageants have been criticized by some as sexists and exploitative, the Black women who part in these contests used the competition as political statement.

Here’s a clip of that exhibit which includes an interview with exhibit curator Renee Mussai.

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