Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I’LL RACE YOU: Let’s Talk About Black Baby

Naomi Sims made fashion history. She was the first black model to appear on the cover of a mainstream women's magazine, Ladies' Home Journal in 1968. Then the cover of Life in 1969. The announcement of her death this morning, at the premature age of 61, was undoubtedly sad.

But I’m not one for morose musings, and I’m certainly not one to call a pig a cow. Before you immediately assume that I’m heartless and completely void of emotion, allow me to elaborate…

Often, when people die, we (family, friends, media, etc.) tend to romanticize their time on earth. We make them out to be better people than they were; embellish their accomplishments; inflate their level of influence; ignore their faults; forgive their sins; the list goes on. And, while I can jump on the bandwagon and commend Sims for her infiltration of the mass media and the magnanimous power she wielded over the "Black is Beautiful" movement in the 1960’s, what I’d really like to contest here is how far we as a society have come in our recognition and acceptance of multicultural beauty.

Sims certainly laid down the red carpet for future superstars – Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Beverly Johnson, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Alek Wek, Liya Kebede, Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn – to sky-rocket to stardom in her wake. And last July, when Italian Vogue unveiled its black-only models issue (I bought all four covers), they demonstrated just how many successful black women have penetrated the world of international modeling. The folks in Italy also demonstrated a need that persists 40 years after Sims’ LHJ cover hit newsstands. If she was so influential, why were the publishers of Italian Vogue inclined to assemble this special issue in the first place?

Apparently, the world is still full of racist jerks.

That’s not to say this is anyone’s fault – I’m just pointing out a flaw in the system here. Sims worked hard to establish herself as a woman who cared about her legacy. In addition to pushing forward in her career despite early set-backs, she was adamant about maintaining her integrity even when it meant declining certain opportunity. She turned down the title role for the film Cleopatra Jones in 1973 after deeming the script’s portrayal of blacks as racist. And, after just five years in the business, she abandoned modeling altogether to make wigs specifically for black women. (Although I could point to the fact that these wigs were blatant attempts to mimic “white” beauty – the goal was to create a more realistic texture for straightened black hair; apparently a very desirable enterprise, because in just another five years, the manufacturer, Metropa Company, had $5 million in annual sales.)

Sims soon expanded into beauty salons, cosmetics and fragrances, and wrote several books, including All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman; How to Be a Top Model; and All About Success for the Black Woman. She also wrote an advice column for teenage girls in Right On! magazine.

Jenice Armstrong of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote: “What Sims did back then for the collective self-esteem of black girls and women is incalculable. Women, particularly those with darker complexions, took pride in seeing someone who resembled them posing on magazine covers.”

I am unfortunately one of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed sheep that women of color often refer to when citing their distaste for the beauty status quo. And so, I cannot personally identify with Sims the way Armstrong does, but I’m a fan of her work nonetheless and I worship the ground that many contemporary black models walk on – Alek Wek: I would have your babies if you’d let me. My only hope is that someday magazines will be so thoroughly saturated with black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and white models – and all combinations thereof – that we’ll no longer need to dedicate entire issues to just one ethnicity, and we won’t feel obligated to herald the accomplishments of women who may or may not have spearheaded the development of social consciousness.

Photo credit: Life Magazine, October 17, 1969. Courtesy of Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images.