Is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade a tradition in your family? It is in mine. As a child, on Thanksgiving morning, we’d drive across town to visit my maternal grandmother. After being greeted by her big hug and the wonderful smells of dinner cooking, I’d be drawn to the TV. The parade would be on. I’d plop down with my cousins watching the balloons and all the magic of the parade.
This year’s Thanksgiving wasn’t a lot different. Now, it’s me in the kitchen making my one obligatory dish, apple-sausage stuffing. The parade is usually on mostly for background noise and nostalgia, but this year something caught my eye. I stopped to really watch. There were two brown-skinned women in the lineup for the Rockettes. They weren’t so light skinned that I barely noticed them as people of color. These were brown-skinned women who stood out in the mostly white precision line. I called my best friend, my Black best friend. She had noticed them too.
Founded in 1925, it’s not surprising that the Rockettes was an all-white dance troupe. Segregation was the law and the custom. What is a bit surprising, and disturbing, is the organization’s depth of commitment to being all-white and the length of time that it remained so. At one point, the founder, Russell Markert, forbade the dancers from even getting a tan because “they might look like a colored girl.” Violet Holmes, a former director and choreographer said when asked about integrating the troupe, “Blacks would distract from ‘the look of precision,’ the Rockettes’ trademark.”
The first woman of color, Jennifer Jones, wasn’t added to the troupe until 1987 for a special Super Bowl performance. 1987. This was after the pinnacle of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, after Beverly Johnson became the first Black model to be on the cover of a fashion magazine, Vogue, in 1974 and after a Black woman, Vanessa Williams, had been named Miss America in 1984, and, most importantly, after the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited employment discrimination. This dance group remained committed to being all-white for as long as possible. So, even when the Rockettes finally integrated, it was not surprising that the lighter skinned candidates had a greater chance of acceptance, regardless of the dancing skills of browner girls, because the lighter ones would blend in with the look the organization was seeking and the Rockettes could check the “integrated” box.
So, in 2022, is it heartwarming or saddening that I found a moment of joy in seeing two brown-skinned girls proudly on the Rockettes’ line in front of Macy’s this Thanksgiving Day?
There are so many components in defining American culture. The Rockettes and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade are a part of Americana. When my cousins and I were watching the parade decades ago, we didn’t see many, if anyone, who looked like us. Subliminally, that lack of Black people sent us messages about where we could/should be and what we could do. Representation matters in every aspect of American life and not just to children, to adults, too. While two brown-skinned girls dancing on the Rockettes’ line is not a deeply meaningful testament to the lessening of racism in America, it is another building block in creating a more racially just country … and it made me smile.