Wednesday 30 August 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #6 - The Black Fetish

Fetish - the pathological displacement of erotic interest and satisfaction to an object or bodily part whose real or fantasised presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Throughout my investigation into the history of the black Pin Up, it's been difficult not to notice a trend; The notion of claiming black females to be hyper-sexual and primitive because of their anatomy, and those ideas sticking as they have been represented through discourse and the media over the ages. From Sarah Baartman of the 19th Century, the earliest example I could find of a black woman being on display, through to the Afro Pin Up's of the 1970's, a similar narrative keeps being told and it relates to the white male audience...

 'They'll dazzle you... they'll stir your senses... luscious beauties of every shade'

It's the preconceived ideas and ideals based on centuries of racial bias and white privilege that set the black woman firmly apart from the white male making her a complete mystery and totally un-relatable to him. Through the white male gaze she becomes feisty, angry, primitive, uneducated and overtly erotic, she becomes a fetish.

These projected notions robbed the black sitter of her identity, her voice, and her agency in order to make her the acceptable version of the black ideal. There is an argument that all women are typecast to some degree in this fashion, but it is fair to say that when discussing issues of gender roles that mostly in this case, black Pin Up's have a different story to tell from their white counterparts.

While all Pin Ups, dancers, performers and models from the vintage era had to fit a prescriptive formula of safe Western feminine ideals in order to be admired for their beauty and talent (to a large extent this is still true), the black Pin Up also had the added hurdle of her skin colour, meaning that a further set of notions and margins were then (and to a large extent still can be) pasted onto her image setting the real women, and what she truly represented into an abstract that mostly never got considered.

In my last post I mentioned a 1940's actress by the name of Acquanetta who actively denied her black heritage in order to get film roles which wouldn't stereotype her despite her colour. She instead chose to take on the persona of a mysterious 'exotic', that while still typecast to some degree, didn't have the same negative stigma attached to it from a Western point of view.

Even though white women from the vintage era still had to compete with male dominance over their image they had somewhat more freedom to speak out about their thoughts and needs in the real world. The way the black Pin Up was characterised to a white audience meant she was subdued and marginalised by jokey and lazy stereotypes that took away her power. This lack of control on how she was represented was justified by making her more marketable to a mainstream audience. Take the example of 1930's performer Jeni LeGon from my first post. Despite her incredible talent for dancing, she was soon cast as the goony savage shimmying in feathers and a grass skirt before only ever getting roles as housemaids.

Black model with an angry expression teamed with leopard print and an African mask.

 This isn't to say ALL black Pin Up's were treated the same and mildly went about their business bowing to social pressure. As we have seen from past posts there are many examples of black women who succeeded in pin up careers despite racial prejudice or even using racial fetishes to their own ends by playing to stereotype and taking back control of their images.

Josephine Baker is the ultimate example of this as we have previously discussed in other posts. Her ability to give the audience what they wanted,becoming a symbol for black fetish,while being the architect of her own destiny makes her a massively important figure in the history of the black Pin Up and an icon to other black performer throughout the years. 

The boundaries of fetishisation of the black Pin Up began to blur in the 1970's when Blaxploitaion, a sub genre to exploitation films, exploded onto the scene. Blaxploitation films were made primarily for a black audience but its appeal soon spread to other races and ethnicity. In this case black culture took back control of the monikers that had been used to control it, much like Josephine Baker had previoulsy. Afro hair, large hoop earrings and voluptuous bodies became a form of self identity and reclamation of race.

Afro model. See more @gemma_parker_artist

However the movement began to suffer from the strong messages it was projecting alongside it's image. For some, the movement only perpetuated the black stereotypes held by white people and rather than giving empowerment, held the black community back. In an essay about Blaxploitation films Joanne Allen comments,

'Most of the women in blaxploitation films were reduced down to insignificant prostitutes or curvaceous women who flaunted all they had. Even while the movies main characters were women, they were still objectified and reduced down to loose, sexual and insatiable "hot mamas"'

The subject of black fetishism is a very complex one, in fact the positive and negative effects of Blaxploitation films are still being discussed to this day and the everyday fetishisation of colour continues in popular culture. Both Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus have been accused of fetishising black hip hop culture through their performances using cultural appropriation in costume and dance choices. Can anyone unsee Miley 'twerking' at the 2013 MTV awards or Katy doing this in her video for This Is How We Do?...

Interestingly, it does seem acceptable for white women to take on black cultural styles like cornrows and baby hair in the mainstream, but when black women do it, popular culture is divided, see my post about this HERE

In everyday life, racial fetishisation continues on a smaller stage and this is in most part, because of the stereotypes perpetuated throughout history and the lack of respect black culture is given on a wider platform which leads to ignorance and false presumptions. A quick search on the internet will bring up hundreds of sites discussing incidents where black women have been approached by or even dated men with a racial fetish. That isn't to say a 'preference' for black women, but men who have actively seeked and singled out a person because of her race and then unaware used micro-aggressions which demeaned, alienated or marginalised the women they were with. For example, 'You're [insert positiive adjective] for a black girl, or 'You're not like other black people'. One account I read said, 'He kept touching my hair without my consent, was legitimately disappointed that I could not twerk, and called me “sassy” whenever I voiced an opinion that was different from his'. Presuming she was feisty and overtly sexual, does this sound familiar? 

Out of all the posts I've done about the history of the black Pin Up, this one has by far been the hardest to write and the longest to put down into words. While I have always been aware of race and the issues it can bring up, writing as a white female I have had to really learn and think as I type, putting my findings down so that I would understand them and so that they hit the right note. It has also made me question cultural appropriation, and when does taking inspiration from a culture become a negative thing? Does it depend on the tone, sensitivity or context and is it always wrong to do it no matter what race you are? Maybe these are things to discuss in another post.

I know that the subject of racial fetishisation goes WAY deeper than the things I've discussed, covering different races and all genders, but for this project I have tried to keep it focused on the vintage Pin Up and the things I have discovered along the way. I hope that although basic, this post still manages to convey some of the difficulties that arose during the era and how they weave into the historic and ongoing prejudices that black women still face today.

Here are some of the websites I have used in my research (the ones I can remember), which give a much fuller picture on the subject:

Friday 18 August 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #5 - lets get re-acquainted!

Yes, its been a while, and I am finally back with another installment to my blog series about the history of the black pin up!

A few weeks ago a work colleague who has been following my blog posts lent me a fantastic book titled 'Vintage Black Glamour' and I thought this would be a great way to ease back into the subject and refresh our minds a little about the whole world of hidden pin ups including, dancers, burlesque stars, actresses and performers who have been neglected or sidelined by the mainstream because of the colour of their skin. (If you haven't seen them already, take a look at my past posts to read more in depth about this subject).

Picking up this book for the first time I was immediately bowled over by the amount of beautiful photographs that fill it; page after page of stunning women with incredible stories. It confirmed my feelings that this rich history has been largely ignored and marginalised throughout the decades in favour of more widely acceptable and lucrative white mainstream glamour. However just one glance will affirm that there was a WHOLE lot of black talent out there making waves

Sara Lou Harris, one of the first black models to appear in national print advertisements, being photographed by twin brothers Morgan and Marvin Smith (late 1940's) 

The book is broken down into chapters covering black glamour in many different guises; Pin ups and Hollywood Starlets, Beauty and Fashion Entrepreneurs, Scandalous Glamour, Jazz Singers, Musicians, Writers, Movie Stars and Theatre and TV Pioneers to name but a few! Yet the thing that makes the book so much more than just a roll call of names and faces is that the author's aunt was a successful black performer who had inspired her to delve deeper into the lives of other black performers giving her a direct link to this little known or forgotten world.

Margaret Tynes was an international singer of jazz, opera and theatre who found professional acclaim for her portrayal of Salome in the early 60's and had a career spanning 50 years. Known to the author as the 'diva in the family' Tynes had a phenomenal success working with names like Duke Ellington and Harry Belafonte.

 Margaret Tynes (far left) with Duke Ellington and Joya Sherrill posing for TV special based on Ellington's suite, A Drum is a Woman

Taking Tynes lead, the rest of the book is 'a visual tribute to some of the glamorous, accomplished and often groundbreaking black women - both legendary and obscure- of the 20th Century'. Here is just a taster of the remarkable women and hidden pin ups filling these pages...

This stunning photo is of a woman named Selika Lazevski taken in 1891. It gives me all kinds of thrills; She is SO statuesque and poised, and the fact we are seeing an historic photo of a black woman in contemporary costume is unusual. The book had little to say about her, but upon doing a little research I found that Selika was a French horsewoman who performed high level dressage riding sidesaddle at circuses and hippodromes.

Known as 'Acquanetta' during her career and hailed as the 'Venezuelan Volcano' this actress's origins are full of mystery. Accounts differ with the white press stating that she was born as 'Burnu Acquanetta' meaning Burning Fire/Deep Water, of Native American descent from the Arapaho tribe, while the black press said that she actually born as 'Mildred Davenport' from Norristown Pennsylvania. It seems like a case of catering to different audiences with the most acceptable story and a shame that the actress couldn't embrace her true identity whichever that was. In possibly alluding to a more mysterious heritage Acquanetta was able to gain film roles that would have been denied to black actresses in the 1940's.

Barbara Ncnair was the first African Ameircan woman to host her own variety show on television from 1969 - 1971. She was a singer and actor who had starred on Broadway and had hit records, her career spanned 50 years. I found a great video of her singing a duet with Dean Martin on her show, both performed beautifully while Dean smoked a cigarette on stage, how times have changed.

'No one looked like her'. Donyale Luna was a model who was described as 'an extraordinary species' and was the first black model to appear on the cover of British Vogue in 1966. Luna also appeared in several Andy Warhol films during the 1960's and has remained as an icon of other worldly beauty within popular culture despite her early death at the age of 33


Finally just I love this photo of another of the authors aunts, this time Mildred Taylor pictured here on the left with her friend Queen Esther James during their modelling days in Newark New Jersey in the early 1950's. They both look gorgeous!

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in vintage glamour, black history or old Hollywood and the entertainment industry. There are so many stories of famous and little known black women and I found every one of them fascinating, like filling in little pieces in the jigsaw of my knowledge.