Dorothy Dandridge

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“If you have a part of white America in your soul, and a part of black America in your spirit, and they are pulling against each other, your values, if any clear ones exist to begin with, can get lost or unsettled. Add to that, if you take a girl like me, intended by our environment to be a housemaid, then make a star out of her, don’t look for simplicity of personality– look for complexity.” 

~ Dorothy Dandridge

Introduction

An example of a famous black entertainer whose career was ultimately shaped by colorism and ended by racism was world famous actress, singer, and popular sex symbol of the 1950s, Dorothy Dandridge.

The Positive Impact of Colorism on Dandridge’s Social Perception

Dandridge possessed features that Margo Jefferson and many others at the time viewed as ideal in African American women and tried to imitate– a very light, beige complexion, glossy hair, and somewhat small, cupid’s bow lips. Her lighter skin made her more acceptable to facets of the black community and the white community, and as a result, she had a somewhat greater breadth of film roles available to portray and a greater deal of influence in fighting for integration than her darker counterparts.

For example, she was able to become a world famous singer after starting out at night clubs. In addition to her talent, her perceived beauty within the beauty standards of the time contributed to her success. The quote below describes her feelings about her first big perfromance at the Macambo Hollywood Club.

“I had no material and no confidence, and to top it off, I was shy. But the people just seemed to like to look at me.”

~ Dorothy Dandridge, on her performance at the Macambo

Because paler skin was considered more beautiful at the time, this is an example of how colorism may have worked in her favor. She was able to get a spot performing by her own means, while other talented singers, like famous jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald for example, were deemed not visually appealing enough and had to rely on support from celebrities like Marilyn Monroe to get their foot in the door. Once Dandridge gained in popularity, she was also able to help integrate many previous white-only clubs, including the world-famous Waldorf-Astoria in New York. She only performed if a table would be sat aside up front for NAACP members, and she broke attendance records.

In some of her most popular films, such as Carmen Jones (1954) and Island in the Sun (1957), she often played a bombshell or femme fatale role, and she was idolized for her beauty. Additionally, she played the role of a schoolteacher who reached out to a troubled student in Bright Road (1953), which is notable because of the humanity of the role–rather than being portrayed in a negative, demeaning, or subservient light, her character was portrayed simply as a benevolent human being. It was not representative of all her roles, but it definitely diversified the perception of black women in media. While her acting role types certainly were not limitless, even from a brief summary of her roles and singing venues, it is evident that many more options were available to her than women of darker complexions. Nonetheless, she was still not free from the confines of neither racism nor stereotypes in her personal life or her many film roles.

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