When did black become beautiful? For me, 1968

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.

jean on steps
Jeanne Johnson wearing Miss Justice homecoming banner

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.

 

History Denied

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey

I was an adult before I knew my great-grandfather, Henry D. Smith, my paternal grandmother’s father, had served one term in the Virginia General Assembly. No one actually told me. By chance, after my dad’s death, I came across a booklet at my aunt’s home called Negro Office Holders in Virginia, 1865-1895 by Luther Porter Jackson. When I asked my aunt why she had it, she simply said that her mother’s father was in the book.

“What?” I asked in bewilderment. “Why has no one ever told me about this?”

“There was nothing to say,” she responded to my astonishment and said nothing else about it even though I probed.

Negro Office Holders

From the book’s summary of his life, I learned he had been born into slavery in 1834. Through hard work as a farmer and distiller, according to the very brief paragraph on him, he amassed sufficient wealth to, at one time, own over 900 acres of land, including the Merry Oaks Estate, once possessed by the family that owned him as a slave. In 1879, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. End of story. But that couldn’t be the end. How did he accomplish this? Did he help others in the black community with his position and wealth? I tried to get my aunt to tell me more. Finally, she did but only a tidbit. “Your grandmother [Mary ‘Mamie’ Smith Lucas] was one of his last children, born to his third and final wife, Ella Wyatt Smith, just a few years before his death in 1901.”

“That’s it?” I persisted.

“Yes,” snapped my aunt, clearly angry. “He lost his land, cheated by the white man like we always have been. That’s it.” And that was all she would ever say about this chapter of my family’s history.

I knew that the history of black people generally had been denied to us—all of us—black people and non-black people alike. When I was a student, it was only through supplemental education that I learned about Marcus Garvey, or Langston Hughes or Charles Drew. I imagine the white community learned even less. Nothing was taught about the history of countries in Africa, but everything about the history of England. Regardless of this larger frame of history denied, what I didn’t know was that my own family also denied me my personal history.

As I have reflected on that, I think they may have been ashamed my ancestor was able to rise from slavery—to accomplish what anyone would be proud of—but wasn’t able to hold on to what he had attained. His legacy tarnished by downfall at the hands of the white community. We were bamboozled, as filmmaker Spike Lee says. A century after his death my aunt was still angry, and I suspect sad, about the trajectory of his life.

Wealth comes in many forms and often the most valuable inherited treasure is not material. It’s knowing the history—the stories—of those who came before us. The sum and substance of the people and their stories that ultimately led to our own existence. We are poorer when it is denied us. I don’t have the fullness of my great-grandfather’s story. I, too, am sad that his story did not end with the glory he probably envisioned. Nonetheless, I choose to release the familial anger and celebrate him. The late 1800s, not a generation after the end of slavery, my great-grandfather was a landowner, a business owner, and a state legislator. My heart is full of love and pride.

 

Choosing a College was a Black or White Decision

When it was time to start thinking about colleges, my parents took me on the typical college tour trip. We didn’t go too far from my hometown of Richmond. We visited Hampton University, Virginia State, Fisk in Nashville and North Carolina Central — all members of the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) network.

Predominantly white schools were also in the mix, having only recently become a significant option for black students. Some rose to the top from stories told by recent high school grads who came back to share their experience. I learned of others from my high school quarterback boyfriend who was aggressively recruited by many white schools across the country. When it came time to make that important decision, I chose the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, also the boyfriend’s choice.

It is interesting to note the reaction that that decision elicited then and now. While my parents were not enamored of the boyfriend, they were of my college choice. At the time, not only my parents, but my parents’ friends, and every adult with whom I shared the decision was proud. Virginians knew that William and Mary liked to refer to itself as the Ivy League of the South. It was, and is, a small, state school with a well-regarded reputation for academic excellence. Being accepted into William and Mary was prestigious for a white student. Acceptance was regarded as even more extraordinary for a black student. At that time, there were just a handful of black students on campus. The first was accepted in 1967, only two years before my freshman class.

When people learn that I graduated from William and Mary, the reaction is characteristically divided by race. White people, particularly white Virginians, nod their heads positively. Usually, this fact elevates me in their hierarchy of intellectual excellence. Many black people, on the other hand, shake their heads questioningly. Why did I forego an education grounded in the richness of black culture at an HBCU to attend predominately white William and Mary? They sometimes ask outright: “Did you get a scholarship?” And when I answer, “No,” they either ask me, “Then why did you go there?” or they silently wonder.

The answer has many layers, but at its core, you must consider the times.

My grades were excellent. While not in the top 10 of my high school graduating class, I was in the top 15, a member of the National Honor Society and active in everything from student government to the school yearbook. It was never actually said to me, but I had been groomed to be one of the first. I knew that I was expected to walk through doors as they opened for blacks. Attending William and Mary was one such door. It was seen as a stepping stone, especially in Virginia, to other career opportunities that would not have been possible just a few short years previously. I sincerely felt it was my responsibility to accept when William and Mary accepted me.

Now, in hindsight,the adult me has regretted this decision. College choices back then truly were black or white. I can think of no school, at the time, which was well integrated. While I received an excellent education, I do not have rich memories of campus camaraderie or of Greek life in the sisterhood of a sorority.

W and M homecoming. Flat Hat
Tamara Lucas Copeland was “Tammy” Lucas at W&M

Even though the student body voted me onto the homecoming court three out of my four years (the first black homecoming princess at W&M), I’ve only returned to homecoming twice.  And while I made a few good friends and have no recollection of racism while there, overall when I think back on college, there is just an emptiness, an experience devoid of the oh-so-important social fabric of college life.

I know that my life’s trajectory would have been different – quite different – had I made another choice. Better? I’ll never know.

School Segregation: Not All Negative

School Segregation: Not All Negative

The first day of school is always exciting. I’m sure that mine was no different when I walked into Albert V. Norrell Elementary School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had struck down separate-but-equal schooling, my education started in an all-black school environment. I suspect that I didn’t notice. All the people in my world were black. We were all Negroes—in my family, in my neighborhood, at my church, and now at my school. Nothing new.

Norrell school photo
The author in front of her classmates at A.V. Norrell Elementary School.

At the time, nationally and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, people argued whether separate school systems were inherently unequal and whether black students were disadvantaged by this practice. In many ways, the evidence was clear. We received hand-me-down books from the white schools, our science labs, if we had them, had outdated equipment, and the school facilities themselves had only marginal upkeep.

But there was one significant difference. In that all-black environment, everyone was fully dedicated to the success of every student. From the janitorial crew, the cafeteria team, and the faculty to Mrs. Ethel Overby, our principal (the first black woman ever named to be a principal in the Richmond school system), they were all willing to do whatever it took to nurture our desire to learn and to afford us every possible learning opportunity. This reality was a powerful counterbalance to the deficits in the system.

I don’t believe that black students experience that degree of total commitment to their success anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teachers and administrators don’t want to see their students succeed. I believe that most do. But put simply, I also think that unconscious bias looms large in the education system. Far too many have bought into  ideas—preconceptions—about the pathology of black families, about the inability of black boys to focus, about the myth of laziness, and the list goes on. You know the stereotypes as well as I do.

I remember being surrounded by a cocoon of love and support. I can still remember the pride felt as I stood at school assemblies for the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because everyone told me that I would be successful and everyone’s actions were intended to help me open the doors to success and to walk through them.

The older I get and reflect on the current state of affairs, the better I understand my father’s comment that integration was the best thing that happened to black people and the worst.

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For more information on unconscious/implicit bias, watch this.

Forever Friends

One day I got a call from a longtime friend. Madeline, a civilian employee of the US Department of the Army, was seeking a high-level security clearance and had noted me as a reference.

“The form asked how long I had known the person listed as a reference. When I wrote 50+ years, I startled myself,” she told me in her typical dryly humorous way.

We chuckled. How could that be?

It seemed like just yesterday we attended high school homecoming games cracking up at halftime as alumni from various years would be invited onto the football field: 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, even 75. We would laugh out loud and comment in that sarcastic, all-knowing-teenager way, “50 years! Can they still walk?”

Now it is our turn; almost 50 years since we graduated from high school. Sadly, Madeline won’t be walking out on the field for that 50th high school celebration. Dr. Madeline B. Swann, chemist, passed away on July 12, 2017.

You never think of your friends dying. Eight of us had been an unbroken circle since middle school. We were first the Junior Valianettes, then the Valianettes and then in our adulthood, the name that stuck was Divas. We had missed some years in between as we went off separately to college and established careers and families, but we came back together as we reached our forties. We always got together in Washington, DC to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day and went to see the latest black-themed movies. Dreamgirls, This is It, and The Help stand out. We constantly talked about the challenges facing black people in America and bemoaned the ones we faced growing up in racially-segregated Richmond, Virginia.

When I told the group that I was writing a manuscript to try and capture our decades-long friendship—with the overlay of race in America—they were all supportive. But Madeline truly was one of my biggest cheerleaders. She loved the concept and the name I gave my book-to-be, Daughters of the Dream.

madeline-cross-stitch.jpg

Her last gift to each of us was a framed group picture with a cross stitch of each name on that individual’s gift and the inscription: Daughters of the Dream. Today I am even more committed than ever to finishing my book, and I know that Madeline is near, still cheering me on.