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Feature: ‘Sexy Salomes,’ Starlets & Civil Rights Leaders: Black Vintage Glamour


Gloria Davy and Reri Grist in Vintage Black Glamour

Gloria Davy and Reri Grist in Vintage Black Glamour

 

‘Sexy Salomes,’ Starlets and Civil Rights Leaders: Black Vintage Glamour

 

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Toronto, Canada

 

She was the “the sexiest Salome since red-haired Ljuba Welitch.”

Margaret Tynes, a soprano.  A diva and grande dame.  And a Black woman.

And it was this discovery of a diva in the family that set writer Nichelle Gainer – and Tynes’ niece – on the path to rediscovering 20th century vintage photography of glamorous Black American women.

 

Gainer – who is herself named after Nichelle Nichols, one of the first Black women to play a role other than the stereotyped black maid or nanny – is the curator of the acclaimed Vintage Black Glamour, an art book based on a blog by the same name first published in Fall 2014.  Response to the first edition of the book was so overwhelming, particularly after being named to Oprah.com’s top ten books to buy and keep in 2014, that it has already entered its second print edition.

 

Vintage Black Glamour comes as a particularly troubling, hopeful and deeply pivotal moment in American history.  A moment when the bodies of Black women and men – hands held in the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ stance – have served as cannon fodder on the smoldering streets of Ferguson, Missouri; at a time where there is greater outrage expressed at Black Americans sporting t-shirts emblazoned with Eric Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” than to the brutality of the murder by the man at the hands of the New York City police; where Vogue, that paragon of mainstream American culture, can callously provoke a well-deserved uproar by  declaring this the ‘era of the big booty;’ where Kim Kardashian’s pursuit to ‘break the Internet’ is rooted in a deeply racialized photograph of Carolina Beaumont, to say nothing of the degradation of Saartjie Baartman at the hands of history.

 

Gainer’s Vintage Black Glamour brings historical content to these current events, showing us smoldering sirens like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne, and the starlets who were ‘nipping at their heels.

 

But Gainer also includes women like Maya Angelou, before she “became black America’s grandmother” a “young, lithe, vibrant calypso dancer who performed in nightclubs;” Coretta Scott King, the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, so often portrayed as the “passive first lady of the civil rights movement,” who is  reaffirmed as her husband’s equal partner and force of nature in her own right, a mother tenderly holding her child, and grieving widow standing in for the febrile hopes of a nation; and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of the acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun and who also inspired Nina Simone to write her song To Be Young, Gifted and Black, both a brilliant writer and bookish glamazon.

 

L-R: Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou

L-R: Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou

 

Coretta Scott King for Ebony

Coretta Scott King for Ebony

 

Coretta Scott King along with her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ghana Independence Ceremony

Coretta Scott King along with her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ghana Independence Ceremony

 

Vintage Black Glamour shows the full breadth of these women, and by so doing, becomes an intensely compelling, deeply feminist and powerfully subversive record of Black American women’s history during the 20th century.  The book is both an affirmation of Black women’s historical role as leaders, divas, rebels, survivors, mothers and trailblazers, and a revolt against the way in which the mainstream too often portrays them.

 

“A black woman in a glamorous context 40, 50 or 60 years ago was making a statement on many different levels,” Ms. Gainer told The New York Times.  “Wearing beautiful clothes and presenting yourself in an elegant manner was not only about personal taste and style, it was often a way to stand up for yourself and other black people and asserting our humanity and dignity to some who were accustomed to seeing black people in narrow ways.”

 

As poet Audre Lorde put it so succinctly in A Burst of Light, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

 

As Black History Month draws to a close, Ramp1885 sits down with Nichelle Gainer to discuss how she hopes Vintage Black Glamour shows us that Black women’s history is “steeped in triumph, discovery, tenacity, incredible beauty and remarkable achievement.”

 

Margaret Tynes

Margaret Tynes

 

How did the idea for the blog (and of course, the book!) come about?  Tell us about the moment when you realized you had something important and meaningful in your hands?

I was inspired by two of my aunts – that’s why I had them open and close the book. My opera singer aunt Margaret Tynes is in the Introduction to the book, “A Diva in the Family,” and my aunt Mildred Taylor, my grandmother’s sister, closes the book with one of her 1950s modeling photos from her days of local modeling in Newark, New Jersey. I knew I had something special when I was able to connect the dots between women like both of my aunts and see how it resonated with people.

 

Mildred Taylor (left) and Queen Esther James (right)

Mildred Taylor (left) and Queen Esther James (right)

 

What has been the reaction from the public, the media, the zeitgeist so far?

The reaction has been phenomenal. I’m very grateful. As readers started receiving their books, they’ve tweeted, Facebooked and Instagrammed photos of themselves with the book and it is truly exciting.

 

Who are your favourite grand dames of glamour?  What is it about them that gets you?

I can’t say I have one favorite because I respect and appreciate so many of them for different things. I could barely get them all in the book! I appreciate so many of them for different reasons and it’s the reason my book focuses on so many different people and their stories.

 

L-R: Donyale Luna and Beverly Johnson

L-R: Donyale Luna and Beverly Johnson

 

Who do you see as rising icons in the Black American community?  And what photographs do you think best illustrate these icons?

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell who will stand the test of time. It really depends on what is going on in the world in the future and many other unpredictable factors. The things we appreciate today may not be a big deal fifty years from now.

 

Vintage Black Glamour comes out at a particularly critical moment in American history, from the upheavals in Ferguson to Nikki Minaj’s album cover art.  Have these discussions changed the tone or the ideas that you wanted to put forward in Vintage Black Glamour?  Or, do you think Vintage Black Glamour can bring a new dimension to these discussions?

I hope that Vintage Black Glamour can bring a new dimension – especially historical context – to our modern discussions. People are often amazed to learn about the “new” information in Vintage Black Glamour because it was not taught in schools and was completely absent from textbooks that shaped generations. I firmly believe that knowing the fullness of this history can give you a wider perspective for every aspect of your life. It can not only bring new dimensions to discussions – it can shape generations in terms of thought, culture and policy. It’s not to be taken lightly.

 

Lena Horne

Lena Horne

 

Blackness, beauty, and sexuality have held a particularly troubling place in mainstream American pop culture – one that is steeped in a history of slavery and oppression.  How do you think Vintage Black Glamour dismantles the mythology that has risen around black women?

I hope the images and stories in Vintage Black Glamour encourages people to really look at people – not just the surface – but their entire being. I want people to recognize that our history – and mainstream American pop culture – is not only “steeped in a history of slavery and oppression.” It is also steeped in triumph, discovery, tenacity, incredible beauty and remarkable achievement.

 

Photography courtesy of Vintage Black Glamour 

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