From the South’s pageant queens to the importance of beauty parlors to African American communities, it is easy to see the ways beauty is enmeshed in southern culture. But as Blain Roberts shows in Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, the pursuit of beauty in the South was linked to the tumultuous racial divides of the region, where the Jim Crow-era cosmetics industry found its footing selling the idea of makeup that emphasized whiteness, and where, in the 1950s and 1960s, black-owned beauty shops served as crucial sites of resistance for civil rights activists. By showing how battles over beauty came to a head during the civil rights movement, Roberts sheds new light on the tactics southerners used to resist and achieve desegregation.
In the following excerpt (pp. 57-59), Roberts explores the importance of the customs and the conversations in black beauty shops in the Depression-era South.
During the Depression, black workers at the American Tobacco Company and Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company frequented a barbershop/beauty salon in the black business district of Durham, North Carolina. Years later, Julia Lucas, who ran the beauty salon part of the operation, recalled why the establishment was so popular. The grooming services were important, of course, but that was not all. “We didn’t have that many private places, other than churches, that we could discuss . . . anything that concerned black people’s advancement,” Lucas observed. Factory workers spoke their minds in the shop, she said, because “they felt secure.” They discussed unionization and criticized the city’s black leadership, which tended to oppose decisive action on controversial projects. After NAACP headquarters decided to fight for a salary raise for black teachers in North Carolina, for example, Durham NAACP officials proceeded slowly. Most of Lucas’s customers, however, wanted action: “They’d come in . . . and say ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it.’” Lucas understood well the function the beauty salon and the barbershop played in the lives of Durham’s working-class blacks. “A place,” she concluded, “does make a difference in how you express and when you feel free to express something that you know is controversial.”
Lucas captures the civic significance of the work that went on inside beauty shops, which beauticians and patrons alike termed “beauty culture,” or the grooming of hair. Rooted in assumptions and structural realities unique to black communities, this work, and the spaces where it occurred, occupied a conspicuous place in southern black neighborhoods and economies. As did white southern women’s encounter with beauty products, black women’s participation in the modern world of beauty afforded tools for constructing visions of self and community. For the first half of the twentieth century, white women turned to cosmetics to fashion an exclusionary, racialized femininity. Sometimes, black women found their own consumer choices conditioned by this same ideal. The conviction that “whiter” features were more attractive than “black” ones gave rise, for example, to commercially prepared hair straighteners and skin bleaches. The availability of these controversial products, as well as of cosmetics that elicited anxieties about female morality, meant that the pursuit of beauty was fraught with contention in the black community. The historical record reveals these tensions, exposing the emotional and especially physical cost black women bore as they pursued beauty with the aid of modern beauty products. But as Lucas’s memory indicates, black women also found themselves heirs to a beauty tradition with different ideological underpinnings and, at times, quite different uses. Black beauticians who plied their trade in the early- to mid-twentieth-century South helped their clients construct a femininity that blunted the harsher edges of Jim Crow. What was at stake for many black women was the respectability that well-groomed hair conferred, a status that was particularly significant for poorer black women, whose financial and occupational position made fighting negative stereotypes difficult. Through the expanding market of consumer goods and services, southern black women wrested a small degree of power from an antagonistic audience by presenting themselves in ways intended to demand respect. The beautifying process itself was also significant, providing overworked black women opportunities for relaxation and pampering.
In addition to the efficacy of their products and services, black beauticians also emphasized that their line of work was a valuable vehicle for the economic uplift of the race. Black women with little capital could enter the profession without going into debt, a fact that allowed scores of working-class black women to set themselves up as beauticians and thus free themselves from economic dependence on both black husbands and white employers. Perhaps most importantly, since they operated beyond the watchful gaze of white employers, black beauticians presided over important free spaces in black communities. Nurtured by this freedom—and, significantly, the content of beauty rituals themselves—a culture of beauty shop talk emerged in many African American beauty parlors. The practices and physical spaces of black beauty parlors, in short, reveal the political potential inherent in certain types of consumer behaviors.
On the whole, black southern women forged a more intimate—and more active—relationship with the burgeoning world of beauty than did white southern women. By comparison, most white southern women experienced a distant connection to the new marketplace of beauty, at least in the early years. They seemed to be relatively passive consumers of products and services that, while full of potent cultural meaning, nevertheless carried little of the same import. In one sense, this distinction was the result of a racially divided economy wherein black women, by necessity, had to work and were therefore more likely to be proprietors who offered beauty services. In another sense, this difference was a function of black women’s ongoing struggle to be recognized as attractive and the significance of such services to this effort. In still another sense, black women were more likely to find the beautifying process itself a salve for the psychological and physical wounds inflicted by Jim Crow, wounds white women did not endure.
Despite the possibilities inherent in black beauty culture, problems remained. Financial stability was not a guarantee, especially during the Depression. Purveyors of beauty products and services also had difficulty answering the challenges their work presented. To critics, a black woman who had her hair groomed, or pressed, in the lingo of the day, seemed to indicate a desire to be whiter, and the beautician who helped her was guilty of promoting discriminatory beauty ideals. Finally, by framing well-groomed women as the embodiment of racial progress and respectability, beauty culturists placed a heavy burden on black women. Because of black women’s sex as well as their race, in other words, the complexities of beauty were compounded. Ultimately, black beauty culture reveals especially well the ways in which the pursuit of beauty in the Jim Crow South could be at once restrictive and liberating.
From Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South by Blain Roberts. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.
- Julia Lucas, interview by Leslie Brown, transcript, 21 September 1995, Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South Records, Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (BTV).↩
- On class, the NAACP, and the teachers’ salary controversy in Durham, see Brown, Upbuilding Black Durham, 312–22.↩
- Julia Lucas, interview by Leslie Brown, transcript, 21 September 1995, BTV.↩
- For a discussion of studies that posit consumption as a political category, see Glickman, “Toward a History of Consumer Culture, Women, and Politics.” A number of scholars have turned their attention to the political possibilities of femininity for black women, as well as to the political importance of beauty parlors and beauty culture in African American communities. In addition to more fully exploring these two issues, I hope to go further, demonstrating that they were intricately connected. See Rooks, Hair Raising; Bundles, On Her Own Ground; Blackwelder, Styling Jim Crow; Walker, Style and Status; Davarian L. Baldwin, “From the Washtub to the World: Madam C. J. Walker and the ‘Re-creation’ of Race Womanhood, 1900–1935,” in Weinbaum et al., Modern Girl around the World.; Gill, “‘I Had My Own Business’”; and Gill, Beauty Shop Politics. For a study of the beauty parlor as female space in contemporary film, see Scanlon, “‘If My Husband Calls, I’m Not Here.’”↩