Here she is, Miss America. Talented. Youthful. Beautiful. Black. I do not dispute any of these, but I have to wonder, because there is already a Miss Black America, what does "black" mean now.
As a concept, not a color, black connotes characteristics of the Negro people. But the selection of Vanessa Williams as Miss America does not mean that nappy hair, full lips and dark skin are beautiful in America.
Instead, her light skin, her straight, auburn hair, and her jewel-like eyes and slender lips reinforce the traditional notion of American beauty while giving the appearance of a racial breakthrough.
"What you are seeing is a kind of partial move toward progress and a reduction in racism by accepting someone who is technically black, but who, on another level, meets all of the standards of a white Miss America," says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School. "Until you get a Miss America with Negro features, I don't think you can say color was irrelevant to her selection."
For her part, Vanessa Williams would prefer that race be a "nonissue." But that's not how the world works. Already, makers of hair straighteners and skin toners are making beelines to her door, seeking endorsements for products that will promise any black girl a shot at her kind of beauty.
Just get that kinky stuff out of her hair and she, too, can be beautiful.
This is no criticism of Williams or even the benignly sexist beauty pageant. Like Guion Bluford, the first black astronaut in space, her ascent to stardom raises questions about apparent changes in the attitudes of Americans--black and white.
For a pageant with a history of whiteness like the Miss America contest to suddenly award its top two honors to blacks is comparable to what Benjamin Hooks called the Jackie Robinson move. For as long as I can remember, the pageant has been a bastion of Miss Mississippi, in more ways than one.
And now, "just at the right time" comes a candidate with exotic beauty that America can adore. "Good for the nation," says Ronald Reagan. Maybe now Jesse Jackson will run.
But in some black communities where the struggle to assimilate and integrate into a white society has bordered on the pathological, Williams' victory serves only as a bittersweet confirmation that the lighter your skin, the better your chances of being accepted. And when it comes to looks, they are right.
White beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Television, movie and magazine images certainly shape the mind of the beholder. Of the men I asked whether they would prefer to date a woman who looks like Miss America (Miss New York) or Miss Maryland, who is also black but darker, the answers were invariably Miss America.
To some, this may seem like making a mountain out of a molehill, but I remember how black was beautiful 10 years ago and have since been struck with how abruptly the Afro was cut short.
"I think black style has moved closer to what blacks think whites will accept," says Poussaint. "It's a subcultural thing. Anyone looking to get ahead these days, and by that I mean your middle class blacks, adopts styles that do not intimidate. It reflects that blacks move with the times, and as times became more conservative they got in line and toned down."
It would be nice to sit back and just enjoy the Miss America Pageant for what it is. But unlike any other "black first," this one specifically touched on the sensitive matter of black beauty, which is crucial to self-respect.
Says Poussaint, "If you are always trying to adjust to others' standards of beauty, it represents a denial of self. When blacks use hair straighteners and bleaching cream, what they are really saying is they do not like themselves. It is an element of self-denigration."
It took a lot of energy to work with an Afro hairdo, morning, noon and night. But that was sustained by an intense, though fleeting, notion that black hair was good hair. Now that's being questioned again. And not just because of Miss America.
The makers of Ultra-Curl Curly Perm hair relaxers have been claiming for months that they can "match your hair with your attitude." Now, it's official.