Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blain Roberts's "Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women"

Blain Roberts received her Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently associate professor history at California State University, Fresno. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Southern History and Southern Cultures. She has written op-eds for the New York Times and the History News Network. Her new book, Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South is a Publishers Weekly Notable African-American Title.

Roberts applied the “Page 99 Test” to Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book highlights one of things I hoped to accomplish in writing a history of female beauty in the Jim Crow and civil rights South: that our assumptions about the pursuit of beauty sometimes obscure a more complex story.

On page 99, readers will find writer bell hooks describing a cherished memory of growing up in Kentucky during the 1950s and ‘60s—having her hair done. As she and her five sisters sat in the kitchen while their mother washed and straightened their hair, she recalls, they enjoyed “[s]mells of burning grease and hair, mingled with the scent of our freshly washed bodies, with collard greens on the stove, with fried fish.”

To hooks, straightening hair was a positive childhood ritual, something she remembers fondly, in vivid, sensory terms. She associates it with other acts of nurturing, like cooking food. Straightening hair wasn’t about wanting to be white, she insists, but about black women’s culture and intimacy. She even says it was “empowering.”

The Black Is Beautiful movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, however, was rooted in the belief that straightening hair and lightening skin indicated a desire to be white or, at the very least, represented a concession to white beauty standards. Its proponents encouraged black women to embrace their curly hair and dark complexions. This shift in understanding—indeed, in seeing—was significant, freeing black women from norms and rituals, like straightening, that could breed feelings of inferiority and self-hatred.

Still, there is ample evidence that hair straightening was not all bad, and that in the South, it provided solace to women doing daily battle against the injustices of Jim Crow. Hair straightening fostered a sense of camaraderie and connection among black southern women. As they mingled in kitchens or in commercial beauty salons, women relaxed, chatted, and vented. Historian and southerner Willi Coleman remembers that her mother, a domestic, used the straightening sessions in her house to talk about her triumphs over “folks that were lower than dirt” and white men who saw her as sexually available. Coleman, for her part, took away from those moments “life sustaining messages which had seeped into my pores as I sat on the floor.”

Page 99 shows that the tactile and olfactory dimensions of the beautifying process, combined with what I call “shop talk,” formed the basis of a black female culture that had distinct benefits. As I argue later in the book, it could also lead to political activism.
Learn more about Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue