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Queen of the Virgins

Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean

M. Cynthia Oliver
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Queen of the Virgins
    Book Description:

    Beauty pageants are wildly popular in the U.S. Virgin Islands, outnumbering any other single performance event and capturing the attention of the local people from toddlers to seniors. Local beauty contests provide women opportunities to demonstrate talent, style, the values of black womanhood, and the territory's social mores.

    Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbeanis a comprehensive look at the centuries-old tradition of these expressions in the Virgin Islands. M. Cynthia Oliver maps the trajectory of pageantry from its colonial precursors at tea meetings, dance dramas, and street festival parades to its current incarnation as the beauty pageant or "queen show." For the author, pageantry becomes a lens through which to view the region's understanding of gender, race, sexuality, class, and colonial power.

    Focusing on the queen show, Oliver reveals its twin roots in slave celebrations that parodied white colonial behavior and created creole royal rituals and celebrations heavily influenced by Africanist aesthetics. Using the U.S. Virgin Islands as an intriguing case study, Oliver shows how the pageant continues to reflect, reinforce, and challenge Caribbean cultural values concerning femininity.Queen of the Virginsexamines the journey of the black woman from degraded body to vaunted queen and how this progression is marked by social unrest, growing middle-class sensibilities, and contemporary sexual and gender politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-348-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Situating the Virgin Islands—A Caribbean Nation, a U.S. Colony
    (pp. 3-18)

    On March 21, 1999, Sherece Smith, a twenty-five-year-old customer service representative for the Water and Power Authority of St. John, was crowned “The Essence of the Caribbean,” Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999. In a full sweep, Smith took not only that title but also the numerous awards that can go along with it or serve as consolation prizes for the contestants not fortunate enough to win—Miss Photogenic, Miss Congeniality, Best Evening Wear, Miss Intellect, and Best Promotional Presentation. As each of these awards was announced, the tension in the auditorium mounted. A cheering section from St. John became more...


    • Chapter One “FAN ME”: Imperial versus Caribbean Femininities, 1493–1940
      (pp. 21-35)

      The figure of queen in Virgin Island history and mythology evolved early on in the islands’ relationship with European empires. The fashioning of Caribbean governments and social systems designed to re-create small Europes throughout the Caribbean territories left little space for this image in New World ideology. In the European imaginary, any association between royalty and womanhood was in no way connected with black female subjects. The development of European settlements in the region and the subsequent creation of systems that sought to define, control, and manage groups of Africans forced into labor and subservience disallowed the notion of blacks...

    • Chapter 2 THE NEW QUEEN: Pageantry and Policy, 1930–1950
      (pp. 36-53)

      Queens in Caribbean black slave communities who were valued because of their assumptions of power, their honed craft, and overall smarts seemed little concerned with white notions of beauty and appearance. Even slave women’s mimetic performances of the white planter class engaged less notions of beauty and more the accoutrements of class status. European adherence to metropolitan fashions of the day denoted an up-to-the-minute style consciousness important to and affordable by only the most affluent. European-valued appearances held sway in the travelogues of visitors, themselves exemplars of the leisure set. Descriptions from rebels to revelers may have mentioned the women’s...

    • Chapter 3 PROGRESS MAKES A MODEL QUEEN: The Birth of Tourism, 1950–1960s
      (pp. 54-64)

      In May 1947, theSt. Croix Avisreported on events at the organizational meeting for St. Thomas’s new tourist board. With “the complete cooperation of the public,” the article announced, “a development program of considerable proportions can be instituted.”¹ Civic leaders had begun their effort to convince the entire Virgin Islands population that tourism would solve the territory’s economic ills, initiating the persistent and persisting theme that all Virgin Islanders needed to participate in the island’s “uplift” to ensure collective prosperity.

      The Virgin Islands government, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of the Interior, developed a strategic economic plan that...


    • Chapter 4 THE MAIN EVENT: Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999, “The Essence of the Caribbean”
      (pp. 67-81)

      The Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999 Pageant, titled “The Essence of the Caribbean,” took place in the grand ballroom of the exclusive Wyndham Sugar Bay resort on the east end of St. Thomas. Guests arrived at a small guardhouse, parked their cars, and were shuttled to the main building, designed to evoke a grand colonial feeling with large fans circling near the high ceilings and sloping staircases trimmed in rich mahogany. The audience members eagerly made their way to the pageant doors, scheduled to open at 2:30 in the afternoon. The pageant, run by the Lions Club of St. Thomas,...

      (pp. 82-100)

      With the new shape of queen in the territory, the emphasis suddenly shifted to representation, and young women were expected to stand for “not just the festival but … our community.”¹ Yet to stand for is not the same as to be, so representing the women in the community required the construction of a fiction—consistently and coincidentally the job of tourism—to identify and create cultural “appetizers,” that gesture toward something distinct/Caribbean/woman/different that could be easily identified, consumed, and understood. The promotional presentations and introductory speeches by the contestants in the 1999 Miss U.S. Virgin Islands pageant demonstrate the...


    • Chapter 6 THE BIG BUSINESS OF QUEENSHIP: A Competitive Edge?
      (pp. 103-128)

      The day after the Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999 contest, the islands were abuzz about the new queen. Sherece Sharmaine Smith was the first St. Johnian to win the crown since Elsa Hall in 1981. The airwaves were flooded with commentary on pageants’ validity and usefulness; on the expenses to parents, businesses, and contestants; on the images pageants portray and whether the U.S. Virgin Islands contestants can really compete in global pageants.

      St. Thomas’s popular WSTA radio show,Ideas and Issues, a “roundtable for discussion on subject matters of concern to our community,” featured perhaps the most in-depth conversation on...

    • Chapter 7 AUDIENCE, APPETITES, AND DRAMA: The Mystery of Pageantry
      (pp. 129-147)

      Marise James was born and reared on St. Croix, the daughter of local celebrity Randall “Doc” James. After receiving her primary and secondary education at Catholic schools on the island—St. Mary’s Elementary and St. Joseph’s High School—she traveled to the United States and attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She initially intended to follow her father into the field of medicine but instead earned a bachelor of arts degree in zoology and then returned to St. Croix in 1979 to teach physical science, first at Elena Christian Junior High, then at Central High School and night school....

  8. CONCLUSION: Re-Situating the Caribbean with Womanhood Front and Center
    (pp. 148-151)

    According to Cynthia Enloe, “There are at least two sorts of feminized beauty … the revealed and the hidden.”¹ I have identified a multiplicity of feminized beauties—that is, behaviors and characteristics associated with the participation of women of the U.S. Virgin Islands in beauty contests. These identifications do not confine black womanhood to a circumscribed area or set of individuals but indicate the breadth of Virgin Islands women’s experience and the performance of deeply rooted historical connections. That women of the region can perform the roles of the raw and the polished, the commercial and the traditional, the upper...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 152-162)
    (pp. 163-171)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 172-182)
  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 183-190)