More Than the Banana Skirt

Nichelle Gainer, author of the fantastic Tumblr Vintage Black Glamour, had an in-depth interview with Collector’s Weekly that came out months ago, and none of you told me, but we’ll put that behind us for now. I make no secret of being fiercely interested in mainstream depictions of people of color, historical depictions of people of color, artistic, religious, political — my boyfriend knows to tell me if a show has any black people in it to get me to watch — but throw in some GOWNS? I’m all there.

Gainer, who’s releasing a coffee table book of her findings, initially started the project as research for a novel, but soon found herself enamored by ‘Negro beauty pageants’, and soon discovered that an aunt of hers was a major player in them. She knew that the resulting blog she wasn’t filling a void, particularly, but instead creating a space where famous African-Americans’ identities’ weren’t just pigeonholed into the handful of famous photos that are conjured up when one hears their name. She builds out our visualizations:

“For example, if people know about Josephine Baker, they think of her in the banana skirt. And every interview someone does with me, I run that banana skirt into the wall. There’s nothing wrong with it. I enjoy the banana skirt, and I also love Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. But there’s so much more to these women. And if you only have a stereotype of a person, you put them into a box. Whenever I post Eartha Kitt pictures, there’s always someone who will comment, “Marrrcus!” quoting from “Boomerang.” And haha, yes, that’s funny, but don’t limit her. It bothers me.”

The interview is a Swarovski-level gem (is that good?). Here’s an extra treat, in honor of Sunday’s ceremonies:

In those days, black women were not allowed to compete in Miss America, which was the biggest pageant in the U.S. at that time. It was written into Miss America’s bylaws, the infamous Rule No. 7: “Contestant must be in good health and of the white race.”


Eartha Kitt courtesy of the gods. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.