The definition of beauty is elusive, subjective, and changes throughout one’s life. In fact, the concept of beauty, of witnessing it or of thinking someone is beautiful, is really an adult term used with adult sensibilities.
‘Cute’ was how we wanted to be described back in high school and my friend Jeanne Johnson was cute. Everyone thought so. She was bouncy and vibrant, always with a big smile and just the right, witty comment to perk up any conversation. A member of our then club, the Valianettes, she is now one of my Forever Friends. And in 1968 she was crowned homecoming queen at John Marshall High School, the first black homecoming queen at a white school in the city of Richmond.
We couldn’t contain ourselves as we cheered and jumped up and down in the bleachers. A black homecoming queen was something we had wanted since our sophomore year. In our junior year, with some degree of political astuteness, we had orchestrated a bloc voting campaign to make it happen. We focused on the one black candidate hoping the white kids would spread their votes over their five nominees, but they championed just one candidate, too.
In 1968 things were different. There was Jeanne at the biggest football game of the year being announced as THE homecoming queen. And it wasn’t just the black kids cheering for Jeanne. No bloc voting this time. No strategy. She had simply won. The white kids cheered, too.
Jeanne was popular school-wide, but it wasn’t just popularity being acknowledged that fall night. It was also a beauty contest. This was still the era in which girls and women were judged most heavily on how they looked. Back then beauty was defined by white criteria: fair skin, long, straight hair, curves but not too plump, were the standards of the day. There had been no black Miss America yet. No black girls were on the cover of Seventeen Magazine nor did we see many who looked like us on television.
That year Jeanne was recognized as THE girl, the all-round girl – smart, popular and pretty – to represent the school. Her selection as homecoming queen was a breakthrough. But it would still be many more years before dark brown-skinned girls were acknowledged for their beauty or before natural hair was seen as the magnificent crowning glory we recognize today. And the plus-sized beauties that seem plentiful in the black community are, even now, just beginning to get their due. Mocha-skinned, wavy-haired, curvy-in-the-right-places Jeanne was a visual bridge between what had been and what was to be.
Not only has our societal standard of beauty changed to be far more inclusive, so, too, have the rules that we use to define women. Just a few years after Jeanne was named Miss Justice, Helen Reddy released the song that would become the anthem of the women’s movement. Its powerful first line, “I am woman hear me roar in numbers too great to ignore and I know too much to go back and pretend” encapsulates how women were beginning to see themselves: strong, capable, aware of the past and positioned for the future.
Given that black women had been working for as long as anyone could remember, many saw the women’s movement as the white women’s movement. Perhaps. But no one can deny that doors opened for black women, too. Jeanne and all of the Valianettes are a product of both the civil rights and the women’s rights movements. Jeanne becoming homecoming queen foretold so much more to come.
May 2019 postscript — look what happened 50 years later