Lost Herstories: Black Pin Up Models & Black Female Sexuality

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In recounting the stories of women in history, there’s a segment of women whose stories we don’t often get to hear about. We learn about women’s suffrage history, how Black women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth defiantly fought against slavery and for visibility, or about the strides Black actresses and noted models have made in the world of fashion and film; but the stories of Black adult models are virtually unknown… Particularly within the pin-up culture.

In response to those lack of stories–and determined to answer the question: ‘Why aren’t there any Black pin up girls?’–collector, historian and independent publisher, Jim Linderman, once wrote and self-published a book that highlighted the lives and experiences of Black pin up models.

He had amassed an impressive collection of vintage adult periodicals and pictures showing Black women in various stages of undress and poses, and included some rare finds in the paperback Secret History of the Black Pin Up, which is includes brief, but interesting, history with the visuals.

There is a whole generation of young women who idolize Bettie Page and such, but they have no idea how UN-glamorous it was for her and the others. I wanted to show some of that, as well as make some points about racism of course,” Linderman said, in an email exchange I had with him in 2011.

The book (which is no longer easy to come by) explains the good, bad and shady sides of how these Black only periodicals came into existence. And it’s  a tale that includes exploitation, bigotry, ethnic fetishization and paltry pay.

Though the pay for posing for pornographic magazines wasn’t much for women to begin with, Black women models received less than their white counterparts for appearing in spreads.

And, to note, Black women’s sexuality has always. and continues to, come under fire due to respectability politics, misogynoir, and racism; especially when juxtaposed against white womanhood… Particularly in this current cult of personality where physical attributes ascribed to Black women are only ever lauded when presented on non-Black bodies, and where white supremacist capitalist male patriarchy dictates beauty norms and media representation.

One of the first, if not THE first, slick magazine to display African-American women in the buff was Tan N’ Terrific. Great name but a crappy magazine with no date and the publication information limited to a tiny WWNC logo, top right. World Wide News Corp. Cleveland, Ohio… which means Reuben Sturman. Sturman was no artist, and he was certainly not motivated by a desire to help African-American models achieve equality.  He was motivated by filthy dollars,” Linderman noted in his book.

The book also offered insight about prolific Black photographer Howard Morehead, who opted for a more artistic, elegant and less gratuitous approach to photographing Black women. While it’s a quick read and not necessarily a comprehensive book, Secret History of the Black Pin Up featured compelling history and pictures about an era and industry that conveniently erased Black women; many of whom appeared nameless or under a made up moniker.

Dig deep enough into the mechanics and history of Black female sexuality and you’ll find a narrative riddled with the perpetuation of erroneous racial tropes… One that discourages Black women from claiming body autonomy and that shames sexual expression. Jim Linderman’s book was a good way to broach the topic and presented an interesting and honest study. And while the book may no longer be available, there is certainly other source material on the topic that’s also worth exploring, and that provides even more in-depth archival research. Books like feminist studies professor, Mireille Miller-Young’s book, A Taste for Brown Sugar; which comprehensively and ethnographically explores the lives and history of Black women in pornography.

While the exploration of Black women’s sexuality might be discomfiting for many, any person who values social justice, history, and intersectional feminism and equality will find value in these untold herstories. As they’re also relevant to discussions where gender and race intersect.


BlackRedTwists1Tiffani Jones is the creator and writer of Coffee Rhetoric, a personal blog about women, pop-culture, film and race. A contributor to both print and digital media platforms, she has offered commentary in The New York Times, on HuffPost Live, and on WNPR. Follow her on Twitter/@Coffey0072