When I was a little girl, I watched a lot of movies and TV. I was an unpopular nerd who had skipped a grade, and my social circle was often just me, the TV, the old-school cable box with the looooooooong cord and rows of channel buttons, and a VCR that was roughly the size of a Fiat.
I’m talking here about the years between approximately four and seven years old, when I experienced whatever media imagery was made available to me relatively indiscriminately. It wouldn’t be long before I developed stronger preferences and sought out particular programming, particularly with the hope of improved media representation of black women as time went on, but at that age I wasn’t making sociological observations about race, gender, and media just yet.
Representation matters. Suspension of disbelief is a thing too, and of course I would never suggest that I can only consume entertainment starring black women, but whitewashing and erasure leave lasting impressions, and as a little black girl it meant the world to me to see pretty black ladies on TV who weren’t cleaning someone else’s house.
Of course, the maids have value, too. The pimps and the hos on the stroll as well. But the media imagery of black women that made my eyes glaze over in an aspirational way were the portrayals that were outside of the accepted tropes. In the early 80’s, it was rare for me to see black women in media simply winning and shining and being beautiful. It was an utter delight, and I want to pay tribute to just a few, in no particular order:
1. Diahann Carroll on “Dynasty”
I wouldn’t find out until later that Diahann Carroll had already made history as the first black woman to lead a successful TV series in a non-stereotypical role as the titular character on Julia, which premiered in 1968. I wouldn’t find out until later that Ms. Carroll had already been a celebrated Broadway performer for decades, and amassed an impressive résumé before she strutted into my awareness on Dynasty as the formidable Ms. Dominique Deveraux.
As a young girl, I didn’t really understand much of what was happening on Dynasty, and I probably shouldn’t have been watching it, but my parents weren’t really paying close attention. There were ladies slapping each other and huge mansions, and in the midst of it all was this beautiful black woman. Her jewels sparkled like their jewels, her furs fluffed like their furs, and she had just as much cockamamie drama going on as the white ladies and I loved it.
2. Lena Horne in . . . everything she did
Lena. Horne. I remember seeing her picture on her album covers in my dad’s basement and thinking that she looked like an angel. I heard her voice and figured it only made sense that she sang like one too. The black-and-white graininess of the first movies I saw her in told me that they were very old. I didn’t know enough then to question the absence of more black women in the grainy black-and-white classics I was already beginning to love, but it meant something that Lena Horne was in what I called “old movies.”
Part of what makes Lena Horne such a legend, as I would come to find out, is that she used to check her privilege before the phrase even existed. As a black woman, Ms. Horne absolutely faced discrimination working on stage and in film during a time in our history when many of her movie appearances had to be filmed as stand-alone sequences so they could easily be cut from the films for showing in states where a black person couldn’t be shown on film at all. However, she was also a light-skinned black woman with a good grade of hair that is very comfortable and acceptable to the sort of people who use divisive expressions like “good grade of hair.”
She spoke openly about colorism and didn’t remain mum about racially fraught topics like “passing” and criticizing the system even as it praised her. When she passed away in 2010, I felt it in my gut, but of course at some point she had to join the rest of the angels.
3. Ja’net DuBois and Bern Nadette Stanis on “Good Times”
This is a doubleheader, because Good Times featured many black women who rocked my world. With all due respect to the wise matriarch Florida Evans, as played by Esther Rolle, it was Willona and Thelma who made my little eyes sparkle with aspiration.
As Willona Woods, Ja’net DuBois was simply the baddest chick on the block. Stunningly beautiful and so full of joy! Her joy really spoke to me. Good Times made history by making us laugh, but also by addressing serious topics at times, and showing unapologetic blackness. Willona had her Very Special Episodes as well, but more often than not, Ms. Woods was feeling good.
She was a single woman who eventually adopted a child, (shout-out to a young Janet Jackson as Penny), and she exuded confidence in a way that was wholly unfamiliar to me, but enticing. I feel like the stylists and costume designers on the show used Willona as an opportunity to show out, and she always looked like the fly ladies I saw in Harlem that might not have had lots of money but always looked fantastic. To see that on my TV feltv . . . right.
Bern Nadette Stanis as Thelma Evans was a natural beauty, and inspirational as well. By the time Good Times reruns hit my consciousness, I had already been in dance classes for a few years. Off screen, Ms. Stanis is a dancer as well, and the show incorporated scenes of Thelma dancing multiple times. I was already being ostracized for not being as skinny as the other girls, and I’ll never forget seeing Thelma on Good Times in a ballet leotard and tights. She had a butt! A lovely, toned, beautiful behind that, to be honest, I’m still emulating.
4. Jet Magazine’s Beauty of the Week
Sometimes an inspirational, representational beauty doesn’t need to be an actress or even a celebrity at all. As a little girl, I used to see Jet magazine at the beauty parlor, and occasionally one would make its way inside my home. I would excitedly flip past the articles about The Cosby Show or Mike Tyson to check out the Jet Beauty of the Week. I thought it was great that “any” woman (as in a non-famous woman), could be featured as a beauty, and with Jet being a weekly publication, there were so many of them!
The parameters of which black women in entertainment were deemed “beautiful” were so very narrow that seeing a new entry every week with more variety in skin tones, body types, and hairstyles than in mainstream media was a delight. I’m not sure I actually thought any of that at six or seven years old, but that’s the theory I’m going with.
In reality, the Jet BOW was almost always in a bikini and during one period of time the little biographical blurb even included their measurements, so it was far less about inspiration than it was a softer, gentler, soft-core centerfold. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I just don’t want to go too far with my revisionist soft-focus lens and forget that part of being the Jet BOW came down to T&A.
Also, looking at the Beauties now, the variety that I recall still fits rather neatly within the small box of mainstream beauty, but the variations still made a huge impression. As the years went on and the world became more scantily clad, so did the Jet beauties. But back in the day, they gave me hope. In being beautiful and black and in bikinis.
5. The Caribbean Ladies of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is my favorite Disney live-action film forever and ever amen. There’s actually a bunch of animation in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but it’s mostly live action, and partially preposterous, but completely my fave. In case you’re unfamiliar with this legendary film, it’s the sort-of dark story of orphaned children during the London Blitz who are taken in by a novice witch, played by the untouchable Angela Lansbury. It’s a musical that involves a flying bed and a plot to use witchcraft to defeat the Nazis and a love story and talking animals and LOOK YOU JUST HAVE TO SEE IT IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY, OKAY?!
The cast is whiter than freshly fallen snow, but there’s a huge musical number called “Portobello Road” about the famed flea market that turns into a parade of various character types and ethnic groups, and I remember being mesmerized when the Caribbean crew came on screen.
Seeing these women dance as their partners played the steel drums, even in just this brief musical appearance, was priceless. My parents are both from the West Indies, and I’m lucky enough to have made many trips there as a child, beginning when I was just a baby. My island culture calls to me constantly, and I saw so many different shades of beauty on the islands, shining in colorful sundresses and sarongs.
I loved it then as I love it now, but it was very much an “over there” thing. Like, sure, that’s how my cousins “back home” are, but to see calypso dancing and those gorgeous black women in this delightfully bizarre witchcraft movie that I’m watching in my gray living room all the way in New York? Heaven. I still get up and do the dance with them every time I watch it.
I’m sure I left out so many amazing black women who might have made an impression on someone else back in the day; this is a purely subjective list from my very early memories. There’s a specific effect to feeling empowered through representation at a really early age, and images can speak to us on a multitude of platforms and for many reasons.
These women spoke to me. Who spoke to you?