Feb 24, 2020

Professor’s book offers new viewpoint on civil rights era

Beauty has always been a product of culture, but what happens when two very different, ethnically feuding cultures collide?

This phenomenon is explored by Dr. Blain Roberts, a history professor at Fresno State, in her new book “Pageants, Parlor, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South.”

Studying beauty pageants in the American South during the civil rights movement, Roberts investigates how ideas of beauty played a role in America’s racial divide.

Roberts began revising the book, which was originally her doctoral dissertation, when she started teaching at Fresno State seven years ago. Today, she will hold a reception at 4 p.m. in The Vintage Room, unveiling her work to the university.

The book, which was named one of the 15 notable African-American titles for 2014 by Publishers Weekly in December, offers a new perspective on the civil rights movement.

“It’s a way to talk about the history of the segregated south and the civil rights south in a new way,” Roberts said. “”What I do is use female beauty as a lens to talk about segregation, and the downfall of segregation during the civil rights movement.”

Although white ideals of beauty were often oppressive to black women, Roberts points out that it could also be a liberating force.

“These were places that black women could go to and feel a sense of escape,” she said. “They could relax, be pampered, because these women worked very difficult jobs.”

Also, to be a black beauty pagent operator meant that one was an independent businesswoman, a rare achievement in the Jim Crow South.

Eventually, beauty parlors would even become community centers, where people came together to campaign for equal rights, Roberts said.

“One of the things that happens in these beauty parlors is that, over time, these become one of the places where these women are talking about the civil rights movements,” she said. “They are actively engaging in the civil rights movement from the spaces of those beauty parlors.”

Though Roberts said that America’s concepts of beauty have changed by and large, there are still circumstances in which the “manifestations of the old way of thinking” peek through.

She used the example of the 2013 Miss America Pageant. For the first time, an Indian-American won the competition, and many racially fueled comments were made on social media.

“A lot of people conflated the white ideal of beauty with being American,” Roberts said.

Overall, she doesn’t think that beauty pageants have contributed positively to women — at least not anymore.

“Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, for a young woman to enter a beauty pageant could potentially be a very bold step, and a challenge to male power,” Roberts said. “I don’t think it’s that way anymore, but there were these moments when it was like that.”

During her reception and book signing today, Roberts will give a brief speech and participate in a Q-and-A with the audience. Refreshments will be available, as well as her book, which will sell for a discounted price of $25.

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