The Black Pin-up Girl
History of the Pin-Up Girl Phenomenon
World WarII not only brought on world conflagration, but on the lighter side, it also gave us a juicy jolt of sexy pin-up queens with legs that seemed long enough to reach the top of the Empire State building. Pin-ups are the epitome of sensuality and sexuality, with form and substance in abundance. Luscious bodies that defy imagination on all levels. Voluptuous, firm, full, fantastic forms of female flesh that tantalized the American male to fantasize about a wonderland of pin-up girl heaven.
The pin-up of the 1940s and ’50s fulfilled erotic fantasies faster than Superman’s speeding bullet. Her photograph belonged on a pedestal, for she was truly a goddess of the 20th Century. She was the ideal of womanhood. Her persona, and legs, were plastered everywhere from wall calendars to the noses of fighter-planes and tanks. She was atomic before there was an atomic bomb. She had breasts the size and shape of rockets before there were rockets blasting-off into space. She did battle on her terms, and it was the age of the Pin-up Princess. She was ready to conquer the world of the male libido.
Perhaps the most ‘exposed’ pin-up girl was Betty Grable of the WWII era, and later in the no-nonsense nuclear age of the ’50s, along came another buxom blonde by the name of Marilyn Monroe. Shocker! News flash! Bulletin! However, the reality is that all was not Grable on the pin-up front. The classic image in the nostalgia archives are pin-up shots of white women with long legs, but there is much more to it than that.
The Other Side of the Pin-Up Coin
Bear in mind that during WWII, the Allies were fighting to promote and protect democracy around the world, where all men were created equal and had equal rights. This hypocrisy existed at the very same time as black U.S. civilians were subject to segregation not only in the “land of the free,” but in the armed forces overseas as well. Segregation involved not only drinking-fountain use, lunch-counter seats, and “back of the bus” seating in the deep South. Even the black pin-up girls were victims of segregation in the outdated system.
The black GI had his own set of black female pin ups to worship on the walls of the barracks during midnight runs to the latrine, just as his white counterparts had their Betty Grables. Black females were, and still are objects of great beauty, not only in the artistic sexual arena of pin-ups, but also in television, movies and as music rock stars in the years following the 1940’s and well into the 21st Century. Black is beautiful, but it took mainstream America a long time to accept that fact. Beauty has no racial barriers.
These delicious black pin-up girls found new homes after the war ended as they settled onto the walls of barbershops, auto repair shops and other retail establishments where the Black male congregated to talk and socialize. One of the women who blazed the pin-up trail for black females was Dorothy Dandridge. She was stunningly beautiful with so much elegance and grace added to her mixture of sensuality and sexuality, it seemed to reach out from her photo and grab the male of any race by the balls. If Dandridge were a scientific toy, she would be an Erector Erection Set for boys of all ages without regard to race, creed or color.
Dorothy Dandridge was born in 1922 and unfortunately for all of us, died in her 40s in 1965, but not before she made her mark on the stage as well as on the silver screen in Hollywood. Not only did she have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but she was also the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was a singer, more of a chanteuse actually, at the Cotton Club as well as at the fantastic Apollo Theater during its wild heydays in Harlem. Her talent and beauty combined with a knock-out punch on stage and on screen where she became the queen of wet dreams. HBO produced a film in 1999 that depicted the life of this pin-up maven as portrayed by the incomparable talent and beauty of none other than Halle Berry. Talk about beauty upon beauty.
Black Pin-Up Girls and Civil Rights
As the 1950s moved along, other black goddesses became fan-favorites as pin-ups and entertainers. One legendary example of many is the highly intoxicating looks of Lena Horne. During one famous encounter in the liberal ’60s, comedian Lenny Bruce, known for his caustic wit and keen insight, was at a party in NYC with a guest list that included a veritable who’s who of liberal citizens. One of the white gentlemen speaking to Lenny about race relations said, as told in the Lenny Bruce autobiography, “I think all colored people should have the same rights as we do, but I would never date a colored woman.” To which Lenny replied, “Fine…you date Kate Smith…I’ll take Lena Horne.”
Damn straight. I’ll take Lena Horne any day. This vivacious vixen was born in 1917 and yes, she was a beauty. She was the definition of class. She was a dancer, singer, actress, but more importantly she used her beauty to propel herself into the spotlight in order to be an effective activist in the Civil Rights Movement. To get to that fork in the road, she had to start as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club at the age of 16, but she eventually becme a solo act that mesmerized audiences with the glare of her beauty and the magic of her voice. Her picture appeared in pin-ups as one of the classiest women with all of her poses tasteful, and not demeaning as some of society viewed pin-up photography at that time.
Hollywood beckoned to her, and like so many others in the late ’40s and ’50s she was accused of being a Communist due to her leftist leanings and activism. She was in good company as women like Lauren Bacall and Eleanor Roosevelt were also accused of Communisty sympathies. In the United States during those days, if you were active in civil rights and human rights and the plight of the poor, you were obviously not an American. What? Yep, that’s how it was. Land of the free? Hardly, at least not in the mid-20th century.
In 1963, Horne a took place in the March on Washington. She was also working on the theatrical stage as she had been banned from Hollywood along with many other alleged Communists. She still sold records by the millions, and took the new medium of television by storm. She retired in 1980, but returned for a series of one-woman shows and other projects into the 1990s, and finally disappeared from the public eye in 2000. She died in 2010.
Before the internet, magazines were repositories of photographic flesh. One of them, Playboy Magazine, was the first to break the ‘color barrier’ by featuring an African American playmate centerfold. She became the Jackie Robinson of pin-ups and scored a home run her first time out. Her name is Jennifer Jackson, and she is an exotic exhibition of femininity. Imagine the surprise of American Playboy readers when they opened that issue of March 1965, and instead of a buxom blonde with Nordic breasts, they found a bronze goddess of unquestionable beauty nestled in the center-fold. Jennifer Jackson has not only broken the ‘color barrier’, but also the sound barrier of physical attraction. She was a rocket-fueled engine that blasted the doors wide open for other women of color to be immortalized in the Playboy Hall of Flesh and Fame.
Other women of color appeared over the years but in 1990, it happened. Renee Tenison was named Playmate of the Year! In the ‘girlie mags’ that is as good as a rock-and-roller on the cover of Rolling Stone, or a Nobel Prize Winner becoming Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
Dorothy Dandridge may have been the spark that lit the fuse, but there is a gentlemen we must mention in regards to the proliferation of beautiful black women as models and pin-ups. His name is John H. Johnson, the publisher emeritus of JET and Ebony magazines. Ebony first hit the newsstands in 1945. It was well laid out, artistic and its primary focus was to show the positive aspects of African-Americans in all walks of life or as they said, “From Hollywood to Harlem.” JET magazine was first published in 1951 and was more of a social weapon for the Black community to foster civil rights. JET went into the forefront of the battle with courage and a mission, and Black pin-up girls leading the charge!
The JET pin-up girls were called “featured girls.” They were not posed in a state of blatant nudity, but dressed sexy, tasteful and elegant with a respectful presentation. No tawdry Hustler-type photos or poses. They represented all walks of life from celebrities, singers, chorus girls with long legs for high kicks and just plain pretty black women from the inner-cities. They posed in swimsuits, and were referred to as JET Cover Girls, not Playboy Bunnies or Hustler Chicks. By 1964, they began publishing JET‘s Beauty of the Month calendar. Forget Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Edition, Jet had the fuel-injected edge and proved without a doubt that Black is Beautiful.
Today the Black Pin-up is everywhere sharing the pages of men’s magazines with their white, Asian and Native American sisters. The color line of demarcation has been erased and we have all stepped through the looking glass. Lucky for us, waiting on the other side is a world of pin-up queens of all colors. So, take it from me, you can have Kate Smith, and like Lenny Bruce, I’ll take Lena Horne, or Halle Berry, or Beyonce, or Dorothy Dandridge, or Jennifer Jackson, or Queen Latifa, and the list goes on…