Chicava Honeychild is a burlesque danseur, actor, historian, teacher and producer.
The “pinup” dates back to the fictional Gibson Girl of the late 1800s, a pen-and- ink illustrated interpretation of beauty. The artist, Charles Dana Gibson, created her likeness from a composite of “thousands of American girls.” This symbol of sensuality was, of course, a White woman; however, times have changed. Now the curves stereotypically associated with Black women arc celebrated, signaling the African-American woman’s evolving sexual liberation, infromed by The Ebony Magazine
Artists George Petty IV and Alberto Vargas created the iconic aesthetic during the 1940s. They depicted women of impossible proportions clad in sheer lingerie, swimsuits or nothing at all. The crossover to the photographic pinup (the term describes how the images were traditionally exhibited: pinned to a wall) matured during World War II. The young soldiers living in all-male barracks cherished the pictures of these real-life buxom ladies. Great beauty and talent Lena Horne was once quoted as saying, “The whole thing that made me a star was the war. Of course, the Black guys couldn’t put Betty Gruble’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.” Sometime blond Gruble bad been the object of many a White serviceman’s
These images, which lingered in the margins of beauty, smut and porn, are now part of a much larger story. Jim Linderman’s Secret History of the Black Pin Up reveals the truth behind the talcs. The book serves as the first and most comprehensive documentation about Black women who were the sex goddesses of the era. But the real revelation was whose eyes were peeled on these nearly nude images of Black women. According to Linderman, “The audience was certainly Caucasian and slightly deviant.”
Smutsters Lenny Burtman and Irving Klaw, both White professional photographers, spotted a post-war opportunity. They converted the illustrated aesthetic into photos as quick, disposable sources of gratification and income, then circulated them through a network of adult bookstores and peepshows. The king of the pornography game, however, was Reuben Sturman, a man with 20-plus aliases and just as many bogus businesses. He, like other illegal pinup-based retailers, acted underground and exploitated his models.
The real scandal, however, was the way in which these images were created at the time. Many of the pinup photographers and models would venture out into rural areas for photo excursions. Referred to as camera clubs, these unorthodox gatherings began in Chicago and New York City, circa 1950, with two African-American men acting as key players on the scene. New York City law enforcer Jerry Tibbs discovered the iconic pinup star Bettie Page, and musician Cass Carr hired Black, Latina and White models to pose, chaining men for the privilege of photographing the ladies. Carr was busted in 1952 for his notorious meetups, which made the pages of JET magazine (Sept. 4, 1952). That same issue featured a seminude burlesque dancer named Rose Hardaway— which begs the questions: What defines sleaze, and when does it become a threat?
JET and Hue magazines (both no longer in print) showcased pinup ladies of diverse talents and charms. Beverly Harris, who appears in JET’s Aug. 5, 1951 issue, was a successful singer and swimwear designer who often wore her creations in photos. Cordie King, shown in JET’s July 7, 1954 issue, was one of the original Fashion Fair models who founded her own modeling and charm school in Chicago, aptly named Cordie Kings Castle. She was so fetching, she even caught the attention of Sammy Davis Jr.
The ambiguous code of respectability, exploitation and freedom of choice as they pertain to the Black woman’s body is consistently up for discussion. Yes, the Black ladies of the pinup culture were no doubt taken advantage of on some level and, most likely, not paid the same wages as their White counterparts. But is it fair to put upon these anonymous women an assumption of shame or desperation?
‘The Black woman today who poses for Gothic or bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) pinups or participates in cosplay (costume-based performance play) does so with a sense of valid self-expression. The cheaply produced photo cards and girlie magazines of the 1950s and 1960s were made primarily for the White-male gaze. When viewed today, the images reveal an affirmation of beauty and the Black woman herself being witnessed, revealed and appreciated.
Censorship restrictions loosened by the early 1960s, anti there was an explosion of skin glossies centered on the Black women’s physique. As the Black middle class grew, these publications were geared more to African-American consumers. Photographer Howard Morehead counterbalanced the dark side of the trade by building on his work as the West Coast photographer for EBONY/JET and helping launch the Miss Bronze California contest in the early 1960s. In 1964, he published Gentlemen Prefer Bronze, a compilation of his Black pinup and fashion photography.
The ambiguity between pinup, smut and porn continues, and the new impossibly proportioned gal, who is typically fashioned through plastic surgery, great expense and sometimes even greater peril, may just turn the industry upside down—again. It’s the goal of the modern-day Black woman, however, to celebrate her sexual expression, even if that means taking a little off for her very own camera.
No matter how you think about Chivaca Honeychild pinup career, you can’t deny her role in promoting black beauty and breaking closed minds with it.