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Breaking America’s Glass Color Barrier

vanessaIn reflecting upon the historic nature of the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president, I’m reminded of another moment in our recent  history when the country’s color barrier was shattered.  In 1984, beautiful, talented, intelligent, and yes, articulate, Vanessa Williams tore down the walls of one of the strongest bastions of white entitlement at that time, the Miss America pageant.  Until that point, women of color were pretty much excluded from competition, even when token contestants were allowed entree to it’s rarefied atmosphere, there was scant expectation of them attaining victory.  However, Williams, standing head and shoulders above the field, simply could not be denied.  While we now take fully integrated competition in the fading glory of the event for granted, at the time, Williams’ victory seemed every bit as momentous as Obama’s.

As America’s Constitutional preclusion of blacks as citizens prevented African Americans from from holding elected office, for many years before the crowning of a black woman, the Miss America pageant was also institutionally racist.  Though the envelope had been steadily pushed, women who were not examples of pure, lily-white virtue faced an often insurmountable hurdle.  Even in the case of some white women, like Bess Meyerson, Miss America 1945, being Jewish almost cost her the crown.  From PBS:

The pageant’s long history of excluding women of color dates from its beginnings. At some point in the 1930s, it was formalized in the notorious rule number seven of the Miss America rule book. Instituted under the directorship of Lenora Slaughter, rule number seven stated that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” As late as 1940, all contestants were required to list, on their formal biological data sheet, how far back they could trace their ancestry. In the pageant’s continual crusade for respectability, ancestral connections to the Revolutionary War or perhaps the Mayflower would have been seen as a plus.

It is no surprise that the nation’s first black Miss America was fair-skinned, deemed not quite black enough by some blacks and far too black by some whites.  “Light, bright, and damn near white,” was the sentiment of some African Americans, displeased that the coronation of such a light skinned black woman did nothing to validate the acceptance of the natural beauty of darker complexioned women with thicker lips and wider, blunter noses.

Almost immediately, the public would become divided over this history-making event. On one hand, black people would celebrate it as a defining moment for their race, while radical whites would protest it and even go as far as to threaten Williams’ life. Still, there was another group of African-Americans who would criticize Williams because her skin was too light, her hair was too straight, her eyes were the wrong color and her upbringing was too privileged. In short, they felt that Williams was not black enough, and therefore not a true representation of their race.

“Nigger” was the expression most often used against her in the hate mail she received during her reign from those whites furious that the integrity of an American institution had been compromised.  From Wikipedia:

Williams began competing in beauty pageants in the early 1980s. Williams won Miss New York in 1983, and went to the Miss America national pageant in Atlantic City. She was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983 making her the first-ever African American Miss America. Prior to the final night of competition, Williams won both the Preliminary Talent and Swimsuit Competitions from earlier in the week. Williams’ reign as Miss America was not without its challenges and controversies. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and angry racist hate mail.

While there are some obvious similarities in the stories of Williams and Obama, the most striking being that their middle class blackness was questioned and assailed for it’s “Huxtable-esque” in-authenticity

Vanessa grew up in a cozy community named Millwood (pop. 2,500), about 40 miles northeast of New York City. For years the Williamses were the only black family in town, but Vanessa never felt different. Her parents, Milton and Helen, taught music to high school students in neighboring exurbs and were cultivated, prosperous. “We had a real nice raised ranch house, great clothes, new bikes, good foreign cars, a pool in the yard—I missed a lot of the black urban experience.”

…there are also major differences between the two.  Unlike the empty suit clad Naked Emperor, there was never any question as to Williams’ qualifications.  She actually had to answer the questions, sing the song, and wear the swimsuit.  She also fulfilled her duties as Miss America admirably, always honoring the blacks and women who came before her for their sacrifice.   Until the “scandalously sexy” photos of her surfaced, causing those predisposed to object to her holding the crown to wax apoplectic about her “unworthiness,” giving them an excuse to hide their racism behind the fake outrage attendant to the convenient adaptation of outdated, Victorian mores, Williams served exemplarily.  The hypocrisy of a culture celebratory of the judgment of scantily-clad women on superficial criteria condemning a woman for exploiting those same qualities on her own terms ws never acknowledged.  Secondly, contrary to the Astroturf tools of David Axelrod in the media and blogosphere, fond of manufacturing false racial controversy on Obama’s behalf, hardly anyone objected to Obama’s candidacy simply on the basis of his race.  In fact, in the grand scheme of things, his exploitation of his bi-racial background afforded him a huge advantage.

There is no question that Vanessa Williams’ shoulders are among those upon whose Barack Obama stands, she who actually faced bigotry in all of it’s ugly forms before and after society’s misogyny joined hands with its racism, forcing her to resign in shame, only to emerge victorious, provided a template Obama could do worse than follow.  At the same time, struggling in a society whose standards of feminine comport are external and arbitrary, Williams also has as much, or more, kinship to other modern women as disparate as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

With the ongoing specter of BlagObama-gate hanging over his head, the possibility of career-ending scandal derailing the Obama presidency is worthy of contemplation.  If this blows up, or other skeletons in his closet were to emerge, enabling political opponents to exploit the country’s residual racism to their advantage, it is not at all clear that he possesses the character, dignity, grace and strength necessary to persevere and overcome.

Like Vanessa Williams.

Or Hillary.