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Betty Lou Blackwell and the October 1959 Tan

When the black press is young — and your mom is the model

The cover still retains much of its Technicolor glory, even if it is showing some of the imperfections of age. That decades-old Tan magazine — its orange-red background with yellow and white lettering — featuring my mother, Elizabeth “Betty Lou” Blackwell, has traveled with me from house to house. It’s been posted on Facebook, and it has sat in my office.

And wherever it goes, it commands notice, reverence and a special kind of knowing — tinged with color-consciousness. The image is part of a sweet revisionist nostalgia black people reserve for the times we’ve deployed our prettiest overlays for some of our most roiling and paradoxical undercurrents. The year was 1959 after all, and momma — who hailed from Centralia, which wasn’t a Southern town but Southern Illinois, and was close enough to be real funny-acting when it came to race — was in Chicago. She was 18, staying with relatives, and had no success job hunting that sweltering summer before college until she wandered into the offices of Johnson Publishing Co. She asked to be a typist. They made her a model instead, barely even putting lipstick on her or powdering her nose before they started taking photos on the spot.

“I had on my very best dress, a little beige shirtwaist at that time, and I had my little heels and stockings,” Momma recalled. “I was so disheveled, I had perspiration stains under my arms.” But they were more interested in her Lena Horne looks. “This guy came down and escorted me upstairs and just had me sit for a few portraits.” One of the pictures from that day became a Jet magazine cover that summer. “If you look closely at that picture,” Momma said, “you can probably still see the sweat.”

A publication that stood in the gap between personal voice, sexual agency and respectability politics that has at times fueled a kind of public schizophrenia.

By that time, the former Tan Confessions, launched in 1950, had already been shortened to Tan. It was renamed Black Stars in 1971 and was discontinued a decade later. It was part of a series of pulp, color-struck “Negro” publications of the era — including Hue, Sepia, and Bronze Thrills — that promised lurid stories of black female sexual exploits. There were headlines such as “Are Chorus Girls Immoral” and “Will Hollywood let Negroes Make Love?” In Tan’s case, these came with features on homemaking, beauty, child care and health. It was part of an old, often contradictory cultural navigation. A publication that stood in the gap between personal voice, sexual agency and respectability politics that has at times fueled a kind of public schizophrenia — think Bill Cosby.

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Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company

But at their core, these magazines were also part of a near century-old history of publications that helped shape and reveal the lives of black women connected by the transitions and urbanization of the Great Migration. As Noliwe M. Rooks writes in 2004’s Ladies’ Pages, African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture That Made Them, these magazines “allowed African-American women to find work as journalists, printers, writers and editors; to define personal as well as group identities; to create a sense of unity by establishing a communications network among women in different regions; to present and comment about world and local events from an African-American female perspective; and to highlight achievement often overlooked and ignored by the dominant or African-American male press.” Of course my mother didn’t know anything about the long history, or complex cultural navigations she was signing up for when she signed a modeling contract that day. She was just happy to have a job.

All these years later, the line alongside the cover photo — “Teen-Age Hellcat! Too Wild to Tame!” — still has the power to embarrass and unnerve her. She’s retired now, after spending decades as a teacher and administrator with the Chicago Public Schools, and lives in Johnston County, North Carolina. If I hadn’t insisted on keeping the cover alive, she would have long ago let it be forgotten.

“Nobody liked it,” my mom said. Not her boyfriend (who would become her husband and my father), not her mother, not the people in the small town where she was from. After her brother, my uncle, died 13 years ago, I discovered he had held on to the only surviving copy. Since then, I’ve been caught up in the celebrity and novelty of having it and I only just fully realized that the “hellcat” story was a middle-class scandal. Mom was merely the cover model. The story, and the identity of the true “hellcat,” has long been lost to history, but mom suffered from the judgment and the small-mindedness of so many people, including the ones who loved her most, who sought to control her. My mother’s mother — who, ironically, wrote her own true romance kinds of stories under a pen name — fretted mightily in ’59 that instead of going to college, mom might fall in with a “loose morals,” “show business” kind of crowd.

“It still rankles me a little bit because people associated that with me,” mom said. “My picture was there, like I was saying that. They’re thinking it was about me and I didn’t know anything about it. I was very, very embarrassed.”

Free from the judgment of the times (and the relative tameness of hellcat, which is a damned sight classier, and more intriguing than today’s ho’ or thot) I framed the picture, because I think it’s beautiful, I think my mom is exquisite, and I’m proud to be her daughter. I guess my uncle had at least some sense of that, which is why he kept it all those years.

These days, people marvel at the Tan cover. But it pains me that Momma never enjoyed any sense of celebration around it. I can only hope that my life, which features so much more agency, freedom and reward, serves as something of a proxy for all the shine that should have come her way. Like most of the women on the pages of these long-forgotten magazines, Mom raised her family, worked her career and made her way despite the smallness and fearfulness of her times.

Her black life was filled with its share of wounds and contradictions, and often those show up in in our cultural offerings, including beautiful Technicolor magazine covers that obscure the deeper stories.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.