Saturday, November 24, 2012

Flo Jo Helped Change Jim Crow Beauty Standards

Flo Jo, winner of three gold medals in Olympics track and field, helped to bring down Jim Crow attitudes toward the beauty of black women.


Florence Flo Jo
Griffith-Joyner

Flo Jo may not have set out to use her glamorous style, natural beauty and sex appeal to combat Jim Crow, but her tactics worked.



In my research for a new book, I did not discover substantiation of an elaborate plan created and implemented by Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner to mount an all-out attack on long-held racist American beauty standards, just that she began to develop her unique way when she was still young and living at home with her mother. 

Flo Jo's style set her apart in the athletic world and the rest of the universe, as well. 


Her daring flash followed her into an athletic career and Olympic stardom in track and field, effectively bringing emphatic and immediate world attention to the allure of the black woman, which until her time, had been completely ignored the general public and mass media and, at best, given a back seat in the United States. The Olympic star used track and field events to launch her iconic image that would stage an assault on Jim Crow's regard for and treatment of African American women.

No female track and field star had ever come out of the blocks looking like Flo Jo. And do not think the world did not take notice of this  woman as stunning as any film actress in young black Hollywood or young white Hollywood for that matter. 


Flo Jo
Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner did something comparable to what Rosa Parks did in leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What I am saying is that Joyner's contribution to social justice and civil rights pushed equality forward on a different front. Her bold use of glamour in track and field to change the perception of black female beauty gained a certain justice that was as real, although not as significant many may argue, as the victory Rosa Parks won. 

Remember, Flo Jo came along 30 years after Rosa Parks led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56. In the 1980s, many laws had changed the legal footing on which discrimination had stood. The new racism, tainted with traces of the old, still lurked in employment opportunities, higher education, business ownership, political elections and beauty pageants.  


Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King Montgomery Bus Boycott Mugshot
Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King
Montgomery Bus Boycott Mugshot
Rosa Parks nor Florence Joyner could hide from media coverage and both were beautiful women. However, Rosa Parks became part of a strategic plan devised by the NAACP to organize a movement against Jim Crow laws in the Deep South. Older and of a different era than Flo Jo, Rosa Parks was chosen by the NAACP for her conservative appearance and dressed by those standards to avoid discrediting the Civil Rights Movement and leaders of the movement, namely, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Fashion Model,  Beauty Consultant & Fitness Expert
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
Fashion Model, 
Beauty Consultant & Fitness Expert
Joyner, having been born after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, had no direct experience with the blatant legal racism and oppression that occurred during the era of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther king. However, Jim Crow racism continued to exist in different forms and had to be met with different tools like education, voting and, yes, beauty. 

One reason for the television camera's romance with track and field star, Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner, was the fact that she was articulate and educated, and looked so good no matter what! Whether she was warming up, coming out of the block, running on the track or winning at the finish line in a stream of steam, Flo Jo looked glamorous. Every woman in the world--young, old, black, white and everything in between--wanted to look so good working so hard while making the job look so easy.

Florence Flo Jo Joyner, 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
1988 Olympics Gold
Seoul, South Korea

After Jim Crow met Flo Jo, everything about the beauty game changed.



Flo Jo splashed onto international television and changed Jim Crow traditions regarding the acknowledgement of and acceptance of black female beauty. 


After the meeting of Flo Jo and Jim Crow, beauty stereotypes began to crumble. She not only changed the way track and field females participated in their game, she changed the way American women of all colors looked at themselves in the mirror preparing to meet their world every day. 

Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner 1988 Summer Olympics Seoul, Korea
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
1988 Summer Olympics
Seoul, South Korea
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner knew the principles and psychology of beauty, which she applied.


That's it--the beauty of it all! I know that's how I felt when I saw Flo Jo on a television screen or a magazine cover during her moment at the finish line. She always looked as great finishing a race as she did when the race began. The controlled image she portrayed was part of her mystic, the brand she was developing that was intended to take her into a different career after her running days were over. 

Flo Jo helped change the stereotype of America beauty.


Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
So completely aware of herself, Flo Jo began preparing for her finish line face before she warmed up or lined up in the blocks. That brand building required self control over every aspect of her own being. She knew the cameras were on her and she was prepared to give them what they wanted at all times. The legacy of Flo Jo's beauty, equal to that of any beauty queen, goes deeper than a woman wanting to look her best, which caused many to judge her as vain. 

During Jim Crow, black women were not allowed to be considered beautiful outside their black communities, which was part of the negative racial conditioning, one more method to keep a people looking down on their own kind as no good enough to be deemed fully human. Being considered beautiful would have bestowed value upon black women. The reasoning being: if black women were considered beautiful, it placed them on equal footing with white women, which was against all Jim Crow principles of racial inequality. However, African Americans developed their own standards of beauty, albeit, multiracial women or women of lighter complexion being preferred as representing that standard of beauty, an infiltration of Jim Crow beauty standards in in the black community.

Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa First Black Miss America Contestant
Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa
First Black Miss America Contestant
1970
Vanessa Williams First Black Miss America 1984
Vanessa Williams
First Black Miss America
1984
American society, in general, reserved the title of beautiful for white women. This sentiment was expressed from the beginning of the Miss America competition in 1921 until 1970 when the first black woman, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa, was a contestant. It was 14 years later in 1984 that a black woman first reigned as Miss America. A sizable segment of the American population either objected or was confused and displeased by this development.


The Jim Crow American society still had a long way to go.



The same year, 1984, that Vanessa Williams won the Miss America crown and garnered media attention, Flo Jo entered the scene when she debuted in the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where she won a silver medal for the 200-meter run. There Joyner introduced glamour for the first time to track and field and captured the imagination of the world in a way that Miss America had not. Not only was Joyner beautiful enough in in her own right to be a beauty queen, she had physical gifts that would propel her to her title--fastest woman on earth--with beauty, brains and body to justify her claim. 

Flo Jo Elevated the Image of Black Women
Flo Jo Elevated the Image of Black Feminity

Flo Jo's legacy was like a knife in the heart of Jim Crow. 


Flo Jo worked as hard as any man on the docks. But she made her job look easy by maintaining her poise and extreme beauty at the same time that she was winning gold at the Olympics. Flo Jo learned to keep a flattering expression on her face because she knew newspaper, magazine and television cameras would capture her every nostril flare and eye twitch. She knew how to hold her face as indicated by her file photos.

Flo Jo’s speed at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, won her the title of the fastest female in the world and most glamorous woman in the history of track and field.

Florence Joyner on Cover of Sports Illustrated
Florence Joyner
Track & Field Olympic Star
Glamor Runner
Flo Jo's victories in the 1988 Olympics earned her the title Fastest Woman in the World and landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She had set a world record at the U.S. Olympics quarterfinals trials, caused a sensation in female athletics with records still unbroken, and won three gold medals at the 1988 Seoul, Korea, Olympics, all while creating that Flo Jo image.


Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner - 1988 Olympics, Seoul, South Korea--Fastest Woman in the World


Perfect makeup--glossy lips, alluring eyelashes, flowing hair and manicured fingernails put a glamorous face on track and field, rivaled only by beauty pageants and Hollywood movies. Florence Flo Jo Joyner became a star track and field athlete, television actor, fashion model, designer, makeup and fitness professional, and writer.




Mojave, California 1950s - Mojave Virtual Museum
Mojave, California 1950s - Mojave Virtual Museum
Born Delorez Florence Griffith on December 21, 1959, Flo Jo was the seventh of eleven children born to Florence and Robert Griffith in the small town of Mojave, California, in the southwestern region of the Mojave Desert, ninety miles north of Los Angeles. According to the 2010 Census, the town reported 4.238 residents, which in 1959, would have offered few opportunities for a budding national athlete or aspiring Olympian like Florence.

When she was four years old, her parents separated and her mother moved the family to the Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in the Los Angeles Watts area. However, spending time with her father, who had a job as an electrical technician in Mojave, young Florence began running when she was seven years old, chasing jackrabbits in the Mojave Desert. Her father had no idea he was beginning the training for an Olympic  star, let alone the fastest woman in the world.

Jordan Downs Public Housing Project Housing Authority City of Los Angeles
Jordan Downs Public Housing Project
Housing Authority City of Los Angeles
After summers in the Mojave Desert with her father, Flo Jo returned home to her family at Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts. Determined to get an education, Flo Jo graduated from Jordan High School in Los Angeles where she continued to run on the track and field team. 

Then Florance Joyner enrolled at California State University, Northridge, and continued running, but had to drop out of school and get a job in banking to help support her family. She re-enrolled in school when she found financial aid, changing colleges, transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to join her track coach, Bob Kersee. 

Flo Jo

In fact, Flo Jo was forced to drop out of school several times due to financial difficulties. In the meanwhile, she made money at a banking job and additional money on the side with jobs as hairstylist and manicurist, skills she would use later to reinvent herself as the glamorous Flo Jo. 

"[Florence Griffith Joyner] was someone who wanted to make a fashion statement, as well as do it while running so fast you could barely see the fashion," says Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune on ESPN Classic's Sports Century series. Going to school on financial aid and loans, Flo Jo continued her track training. In 1983, she won the NCAA 400 and then graduated from UCLA with her bachelor's degree in psychology. In 1987, Joyner married 1984 Olympic triple jump gold medalist, Al Joyner, brother of heptathlon Olympian, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. In 1990, their daughter, Mary Ruth, was born. 

Flo Jo did not take off her running shoes until she had won three gold medals in the Olympics and an assortment of silver medals and other running distinctions. Although her 1988 records still stand, Flo Jo was accused by other athletes of using performance-enhancement drugs in order to win gold medals. However, Flo Jo never failed a drug test.

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After her 1988 triple gold-medal Olympics, Joyner was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame, named by The Associated Press 1988 Female Athlete of the Year, won the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur star athlete and served as co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. There were other black female  Olympic medalists, like Wilma Rudolph, who dismantled Jim Crow in athletics and created the path for Florence Joyner to run without overt racism and to exude the beauty and confidence that gave her so much more than gold medals in the Olympics.

President Ronald Reagan
& Florence Griffith-Joyner
After an illustrious career, Flo Jo  retired and established a foundation for underprivileged children, remembering her own childhood in Watts. She also began her own clothing line of sports athletic uniforms, using sewing skills she learned from her seamstress mother. When she was a youngster, she designed and made her own wardrobes for school and made clothes for her dolls, so the new profession came natural to her.

We watched Joyner on television gracing the track like a fashion model on a runway or an film actress on the red carpet for her latest role in the movies. And as fate would have it, Flo Jo acted in several television shows

She began having seizures in 1996. Two years later, on September 21, 1998, at age 38, Flo Jo suffered an epileptic seizure in her sleep and died. That was just ten years after she became famous as the fastest woman in the world and captured the attention of television cameras around the world for her glamour on and off the track. Flo Jo's Olympic record still stands. She is still the fastest woman in the world.

Sunny Nash is a writer, producer, photographer and leading author on race relations in America. 

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Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. She writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

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Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

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