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African American Pin-Up Girls: Did They Ever Exist?

Pin-Up Girls Through the Ages

Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, even Jane Fonda, all are noteworthy pin-up girls from the 50's and 60's. However, a glance through those names and others reveals that other than nationality differences, there are virtually no women of color, specifically, African American women, save Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge, who appear on the list of famous and renowned pin-up girls. Did African American pin-up girls ever exist and if so, who were they and why have their names languished in such obscurity? Was the African-American female form not prized for its worth as highly as the Caucasian female form, or because of racism, forbidden publicly, but enjoyed privately?

A Little History

From the time that Africans began being taken from their land into slavery, there has been a fascination with the black female form, generally from the white males who were the slave owners. Thomas Jefferson himself is widely known for his mistress, Sally Hemings, with whom he purportedly fathered at least one child, genetically linked to him through DNA testing. The history of that fascination is cloaked in secrecy, cloaked because it was not accepted, a dirty little secret that was so common that mulatto children were not the exception among slave owners, but the rule. In particular, black females were fascinating to white slave owners, because of their pronounced features, rounded buttocks and larger lips, which were so different from the European American women of the day. With fascination sometimes comes abuse and one of the saddest cases was that of Sartje Baartman, taken from Africa to England and placed in a freak show, because of her purportedly extremely large buttocks. For four years, Sartje was put on public display before dying, allegedly of syphilis from prostitution. Even after her death, Sartje's brain, skeleton and genitals were put on display at a museum in Paris, a disgusting example of how women of African descent were viewed in even "polite" society.

Dorothy Dandridge

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The Black Female Gains Respect

Josephine Baker, another famed African-American female, became the toast of Parisian society, as a burlesque dancer during the 1920s, a time when it seemed all bets were off as to decency after the tightly-reined Victorian period. Baker's list of admirers included the famed writer, Ernest Hemingway. Although not well-documented in the white history of burlesque, women of color were a part of the burlesque world, although rarely appearing as widely distributed pin-ups, as white women were during the same time period. Black females began showing up as a less exaggerated and more accepted objects of beauty in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the entrance of the stunningly beautiful Dorothy Dandridge on the scene. Too talented to be pegged as merely a pin-up, Dandridge was still well-known as a favorite among black GI's for her beautiful poses and sultry looks. Actresses like Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt, the sexy Cat Woman in the old Batman series, also were favorites.

Eartha Kitt

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Civil Rights & The Black Pin-Up

The 1950s saw the advent of the magazine, "Tan N' Terrific", which featured women of color and was considered quite racy pictography for the time, although still exploitive. However, the biggest boon to the African-American pin-up world was the advent of the African-American based magazine, Jet, in 1951. Jet began by featuring an African-American woman in pin-up style in each issue tagged as "Beauty of the Week." Perusal of vintage copies of Jet and Ebony, which began publishing in 1945, show beautiful pictures of African-American women in pin-up pose with one goal in mind, to prove that women of color were beautiful, not sleazy, respectable, not vulgar. Truly, these magazines were setting out to prove that the 60's slogan, "Black Is Beautiful", was not just lip service. Although he was progressive in many respects, it took Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame until 1965 for an African-American woman, Jennifer Jackson, to appear as Playmate of The Month and 37 years of publication for the magazine to finally choose an African-American as Playmate of the Year, Renee Tennison in 1990. It's interesting to note that many of the 1940-1960s pin-ups were still rated by the standards of beauty of Caucasian males, not of African-American males, without pronounced features of any kinds, other than somewhat fuller lips than their white sisters. Even with acceptance, a double standard existed and an invisible yardstick remained.

First African-American Playboy Playmate

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Black Pin-Up Today

Still not widely recognized, pin-ups of African American women of talent and great beauty are not common unless one goes searching. The gorgeous and talented Halle Berry is often depicted in pin-up pose, although still possessing a more traditional Caucasian female appearance, but singers like Beyonce, Rhianna, Lauryn Hill, and others have elevated the aspects of the African-American form to an everyday standard of beauty that has grown in acceptance and is embraced by both cultures. Curvaciousness is not seen as excess in the case of poor Sartje Baartman, but as something to be appreciated and admired.

The search for African-American pin-ups is not as simple or straightforward as a search for popular Caucasian pin-ups, but that does not mean they didn't exist. They were certainly there, albeit sometimes hidden from the mainstream, and it is a history to be alternatively reviled and revered. Flickr has an interesting collection posted by a user entitled, "Black History As Seen Through Magazines," which is a huge assortment of photographs, including African-American pin-ups through the years. Many African-American models today are taking an interest in pin-up photography, due to the recent interest in retro and vintage clothing and styles, and are trying to create pin-up looks of the past. Certainly, changes in our culture's perception of beauty have come, although slowly and not without pain, and standards of beauty have thankfully changed as well.

Comments

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on August 10, 2016:

Thanks, resab!

resab on August 05, 2016:

This was very informational! The more i read about history, the more empowered i feel! Great story! Keep up the good work!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on August 18, 2014:

Thanks, QuietWarrior. I'd love to do a companion piece to it sometime, but had a hard time making it past the "censors" photographically on this one, so that may take some thought!

The-Quietwarrior on August 18, 2014:

Very interesting article. Enjoyed reading it. Very informative and a lot of "food for thought"

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on August 15, 2014:

Couldn't send you a message, Mia. You could just include the link in your article. I'm very flattered!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on August 15, 2014:

Sending you a message, Mia.

Mia on August 06, 2014:

Hi...I was hoping to cite you in a paper I am writing...is it too much to ask what your last name is for the sake of citation? If not, is there some identifiable way to cite this so that it leads back to you and this article?

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on July 28, 2012:

Tinigenie, art deco is a favorite of mine as well. It seems when you research different time periods, it's difficult, if not impossible to find out the part African Americans played. In my work as a wedding planner, I'm happy to see many bride's celebrating times that were rich in history for African Americans. I have one who is doing a Harlem Renaissance theme wedding next year and I'm so happy to be involved with it!

I remember when Vanessa Williams was crowned and the controversy it caused among some groups. I remember watching and crying, thinking how far we had come as a country that we could appreciate all kinds of beauty.

tinigenie from New Jersey on July 28, 2012:

Thank you for this hub. I am an artist and a writer, who is starting to find myself in my art, and you intrigue me. Its very weird how people think along the same lines. Apparently, you like myself, think that there is an absence in the African American presence in pin-up art. I am going to do you one better, there is even less of an African American presence in the art deco era. ( which happens to be one of my favorite periods in history). It is one of my favorites because I know of the role African Americans played in that era, personally. In addition, I would like to stress how accurate you were in saying that Black beauty falls under the White perspective a lot of times. I would like to add to that by saying that the women that you speak of came from a time preceding plastic surgery and were natural beauties. Yet, they are also the women that kicked those doors down for Blacks and let the world know that we are not monolithic. Its is interesting how the Black beauty was not deemed worthy until Vanessa Williams won Miss America. Another hub , another topic. Thank you so much!!!!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on July 12, 2012:

Quiet Writer, there is so little out there on this subject, I would love to read more. I agree, regardless of our ethnicity, Sartje's story should make us all a little sick and sad. Thank you for your comments.

The-Quietwarrior on July 11, 2012:

I liked this. I remember reading a similar article a few months ago. Many mixed emotions about this. Regardless, Sartje Baartman was a prime example of pure blatant exploitation. Makes you both angry...and sad. good work...

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on May 02, 2012:

Tova, thanks for your comments. You have made my day, my week, and possibly my year! I found this topic to be worthwhile for more than just the surface reasons. It was educational for me as well.

Tova on May 02, 2012:

I found your article because I am planning to take some pin-up photos and I wanted to do some " homework". What started out as a journey for pics that I could draw inspiration from lead to a lesson in history. I have something to share with my girls and all the women in my family. Thank you for giving me a lesson in my history.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on March 09, 2012:

Well, hi, Denise! Long time no see! Yes, I'll admit it was an off-topic to write about, but I couldn't help wondering and felt others probably wondered, too. What I found while doing my research made me alternately fascinated, sad, and disgusted. It also made me appreciative of African-American women who in general are very unappreciated, I think. Thanks for reading, Denise!

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on March 08, 2012:

What an intriguing subject! It always amazes me how my mind will click on a subject in a totally different perspective, such as yours did in this fine example of curiosity. Well done, Patti, fascinating and well researched.

What a tragic story of Sartje, and how disgusting that her body parts were dishonored by being placed on display. That is pathetic.

I wrote a Catwoman hub awhile ago and Eartha Kit was included. She was one of the favorites in the poll I included. I love her voice and her coquettish manners.

Voted UP & UIA

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on February 13, 2012:

Thank you, Research Analyst. I felt like I barely touched on the topic, there's just so much more that needed to be said.

Research Analyst on February 12, 2012:

I really appreciate the work you put into this hub covering the topic of African American pin-ups. Nicely presented.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 25, 2012:

Bill, I'm a huge Eartha Kitt fan as well. She was one of the sexiest women ever, black or white. And as far as Catwomen go, there is no comparison. although not attractive in a traditional sense, her sensuality made her stunning. And hey, she was born in my home state, another reason to love her!

Bill Russo from Cape Cod on January 25, 2012:

I first fell in love with Eartha Kitt in a darkened Massachusetts movie theater in 1954 when she appeared in the film "New Faces".

She sang "Santa Baby" and "Ces't Si Bon" and something new and strange happened to my eleven year old body. She was my first crush.

To this day, the sight and sound of the woman still electrifies me. I never thought of her as black or white. It's the same with true friends. If you have a buddy with a different ethnic background, after a time neither of you notices the differences.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 16, 2012:

I think it would be interesting to hear it from your perspective...

imatellmuva from Somewhere in Baltimore on January 16, 2012:

...maybe.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 16, 2012:

Thank you, Ima! I had hoped you would stop by and read! Sartje's story is just horrible and unfortunately, I think that exploitation was the norm for quite awhile and not just in this country like a lot of people think.

There is a great deal more to her story, so maybe one of us ought to tell it...? :)

imatellmuva from Somewhere in Baltimore on January 16, 2012:

Well! You are certainly more than a DIYweddingplanner...and applause,applause!!!

I never heard of Sartje Baartman, and stopped reading your article to read more into the atrocity of her life. You have certainly captured the essence of a black woman, or at least partially so, which is more than sufficient for this hub.

I read the rest of your hub...of course, and am delighted with it...coming from the full lips of an african american woman.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 11, 2012:

Thank you, Tink. I don't normally approve a comment with a link in it, but this is truly awesome and has some fabulous pictures of black pin-ups, some of whom I came across in my research, others I had never seen. Thanks for letting me know!

Tink on January 11, 2012:

Actually there are tons of modern black pinups and a huge collection of vintage black pinups over on pinuplifestyle and facebook. This page is dedicated to this very topic: TokenBlackGirls.com - https://www.facebook.com/TokenBlackGirls

So for everyone looking for these ladies - they are living on that facebook page, go check it out, especially their vintage black pinup folders which has tons of old pictures.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 10, 2012:

Anil and Honey, thanks you for those kind words and stopping by to read!

Anil from Kerala on January 10, 2012:

My dear writer,congratulation, this is a Good Article.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 08, 2012:

Jonny, thanks for your very kind comments. I found through my research for this hub that most of the first involvement in appreciation of African-American women was exploitation, no surprise there. When the Civil Rights movement came along, pin-up photography was seen by some to "bring down" the race and that's understandable. But I also think it had to with years of being made to feel that they weren't pretty, their skin too dark, their hair too coarse to ever be considered beautiful that kept then away from doing pin-up as well.

jonnycuddleberry on January 08, 2012:

I had no idea what a pin up was before reading this hub. Now I have more of an idea. Great historical records, and good hub. The point about the woman that was put on a freak show display was very movin and saddening. You made your point that African American women have come a long way in the pin up, industry as their features are being more widely accepted today.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 07, 2012:

Thanks, Stephanie, I found more interest in this topic out there than I imagined...I guess I wasn't the only one wondering.

Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on January 07, 2012:

What an interesting topic to cover. I really like your hub!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 06, 2012:

Chaplin, I almost mentioned Strom, but he and Floyd Spence helped my mom finally get her much-deserved retirement on medical disability, so I couldn't rag on Strom too badly. I'll leave SC bashing to the comedians!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 06, 2012:

There are a number of articles about Sartje out there, Arusho, and they all are heartbreaking. She seems to warrant and deserve a hub of her own.

arusho from University Place, Wa. on January 06, 2012:

Awesome hub, I would like to hear more about this and especially Sartje. Keep investigating!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 06, 2012:

Sorry trying to comment via I-phone! What you do find if you go searching is that many beautiful and talented African-American got their start on the streets of Harlem and at the Cotton Club. Just because they escaped the interest of the White American mainstream doesn't discount their worth.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 06, 2012:

Cara, I really got a little depressed researching this article, because as with a lot of African-American history, it seemed to have gone under the radar of white culture, when you Google "black pin- up girls", you really come up with very little. Howver

Sarah Johnson from Charleston, South Carolina on January 06, 2012:

This is the best article I have read on Hub Pages! Very well-written, awesome topic, beautiful pictures. Perfect.

Made me think of old Strom who apparently followed in Jefferson's footsteps - I am from SC, too.

Danette Watt from Illinois on January 06, 2012:

As it's been mentioned, this is a topic I hadn't considered before, which probably is a reflection of our white-centric thinking. Well-written and well-researched. Thanks to Cara for sharing it which is how I found this.

cardelean from Michigan on January 06, 2012:

Wow, like WOL, never a topic that I had ever thought of. I took an African American History class in college and I learned soooo much. It was truly one of the best classes that I have ever taken and it has provided me with a perspective of the world and African American culture that I would never have otherwise learned about or understood.

This was an awesome hub. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 06, 2012:

Ok, but you know I know nothing about ethics!

Tess45 from South Carolina on January 06, 2012:

No, no you did a great job. Excellent research. Do you want to write my Ethics Case Study?

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 06, 2012:

I was out of my element, you are the pin-up queen!

Tess45 from South Carolina on January 06, 2012:

Great job, B! So proud of you!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 06, 2012:

WOL, I had found myself wondering about it, because a friend of mine is a big pin-up fan and honestly, you never see them. I just couldn't believe there were never any black pin-ups. Not a well-documented history to be sure, but still a history. So hey, now you have some interesting new cocktail party conversation to wow your friends with, WOL!

writeronline on January 05, 2012:

"African American Pin-Up Girls: Did They Ever Exist?"

Of all the questions I've asked myself, that's never been one of them.

But I couldn't help but read on.

Now, thanks to your engaging writing, (plus a couple of fairly engaging pics), I feel like I have an encyclopaedic knowledge. Can't wait for the next quiet spell in the conversation...

The things you learn on HubPages.

Love your work, DIY :)