These 1970s Pageants Celebrated Black Women’s Beauty

Raphael Albert was a successful British entrepreneur who did more than just promote beauty pageants: he photographed them. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he documented pageant life, his images a continuum of enthusiastic contestants strutting down runways in swimsuits, modeling the latest fashions and being crowned.

It might be easy to dismiss Mr. Albert’s photographs as relics from a sexist past. Except for one significant detail: his subjects were black. For these women, members of West London’s Afro-Caribbean communities, pageants nurtured racial pride and self-expression.

These exuberant photographs are the subject of “Raphael Albert: Miss Black and Beautiful,” an exhibition organized by Autograph ABP in London and, now, at Mac Birmingham. Curated by Renée Mussai, the exhibition offers insights into a consequential, but largely overlooked, aspect of black culture and political expression in Britain.

Mr. Albert was born and raised on the island of Grenada and moved to London in the early 1950s. After studying photography at the Ealing Technical College, he worked as a freelance photographer for black British newspapers, including West Indian World and Caribbean Times. In 1970, he began promoting beauty pageants, founding a series of popular contests, including Miss Black and Beautiful, Miss West Indies in Great Britain and Miss Grenada.

Mr. Albert’s work as a photographer extended beyond pageants. Throughout his career, he documented life in the West Indian communities of London, making portraits and photographing local families and social events. But his best-known images are of beauty competitions and studio portraits of aspiring black models (the latter also included in the exhibition).

These photographs meticulously document the rituals of pageantry as well as the style and sensibilities of women virtually erased from the British mainstream media: radiant beauty queens, replete with crowns and scepters, posing with their vanquished competitors; a glamorous woman modeling jewelry, a ring on every finger; a model, legs crossed and staring directly into the camera, sporting a bold plaid pantsuit; and a contestant lounging in a swimsuit and wearing huge platform shoes.

While much of what Mr. Albert photographed might also be found at conventional beauty pageants, his subjects faced cultural and social obstacles unknown to their white counterparts. Their performances in events, and before the camera, were inevitably in relationship to a mainstream culture that routinely ignored or disparaged them as it focused almost exclusively on the beauty and concerns of white women.

Feminists typically have criticized beauty contests for objectifying their subjects and perpetuating a submissive view of women. Just last week, the Miss America pageant announced that it will end its swimsuit competition: “We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance,” said its chairwoman, Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor and Miss America. Nevertheless, even mainstream pageants have sometimes been heralded by racial and religious minorities as markers of social progress.

As black women began participating in these competitions — in certain cases only after prohibitions against their inclusion were lifted, like with the Miss America pageant — they tested the presumption that beauty was synonymous with whiteness. With victories in the Miss World, Miss Universe and Miss America contests, Jennifer Hosten, Janelle Commissiong and Vanessa Williams, respectively, did more than shatter glass ceilings in the 1970s and 1980s. In the eyes of some, they served as icons of racial progress and role models for young women of color.

Nevertheless, these pageants featured token black contestants while largely continuing to perpetuate an idealized image of white beauty. “This fair image weighs most heavily on the brown shoulders of minority women who bear a special beauty burden,” wrote the psychologist Rita Freedman. “They too set out in search of it, only to discover that failure is built in for those whose lips smile too thickly, whose eyelids fold improperly, whose hair will not relax enough to toss in the wind, whose skin never glows in rosy shades.”

Thus, the dedicated black pageantry promoted and documented by Mr. Albert was fundamentally more empowering. If these contests focused on the women’s physical attributes — participants had to wear swimsuits and high heels — they nevertheless allowed contestants to define themselves outside of conventional notions of attractiveness and self-presentation. Commensurate with the international “Black is Beautiful” movement, which began in the United States in the 1960s, these pageants created “a distinct space where black women were able to both occupy and own the idea of ‘beauty’ for themselves, and without the need of conforming to Eurocentric ideals,” as Ms. Mussai noted in an interview with OkayAfrica in 2016.

In the end, Mr. Albert, who died in 2009 at the age of 74, documented a consequential moment when women of color, flexing their power, explored their individuality and beauty in the face of racist stereotypes and limitations. “Imbued with an exquisite, revolutionary sensuality and a certain joie de vivre,” observed Ms. Mussai about Mr. Albert’s photographs, they embodied “an aura of hedonistic confidence in a new generation of black women coming of age in Britain during the 1970s, fueled by complex cultural politics of identity, difference, and desire.”

Race Stories is a continuing exploration of the relationship between race and photographic depictions of race by Maurice Berger. He is a research professor and chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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